James Norbury was the BBC’s first knitting expert, appearing on different television shows in the 1950’s and 60’s. He was a rockstar knitter, maybe the first rockstar knitter. Check him out.
Can you hear me chuckling? Good.
But James Norbury really was a knitting superstar. We knitters today owe him because he put knitting out there on TV for the first time. This was post-WWII, an age of prosperity and innovations. The first synthetic yarns were hitting the market. Husbands and fathers were back with their families. People were at home watching TV. During the war knitting was a necessity and a patriotic duty but afterwards it was a hobby. James Norbury was the leading authority for English-speaking knitting hobbyists for two decades.
And now he is almost forgotten. Why? Well, James, excuse me, Mr. Norbury, was really freaking opinionated and painfully serious. For Mr. Norbury there was one correct way to knit, his way. There was one correct tension (aka gauge), his tension. There was one correct way to store your work-in-progress in a clean cloth and how to use that cloth to spread our your lap while you knitted so as not to rough up your wool. And he wrote whole chapters lecturing readers as to how to wash and care for their knitted things.
I’m still chuckling, btw. Because Mr. Norbury might have been a didactic goober but he was also a very talented designer, an enthusiastic knitting historian, and good showman. Here is what Richard Rutt has to say about James Norbury in his book A History of Hand Knitting:
Colorful, gifted, self-centered, for all his faults Norbury was a notable designer and the only person of his day who tried to learn about the history of knitting. Because he lacked training as a historian he made many mistakes but he did open up the subject as a whole.
For Rutt this is the equivalent of fantastic praise. (Rutt was an opinionated and didactic goober himself.)
Here are some nuggets I’ve culled from a few of Mr. Norbury’s books:
- a good knitter always works as close to the points as possible
- the tension of double knitting (he means DK weight yarn) with Size 8 (that would be US size 6) is five and half stitches per inch
- knitting from charts is very simple
- to knit in the round one uses four needles (He is saying you use double pointed needles. He didn’t like those corded circulars AT ALL.)
- for baby wear, botany wool (we would call that merino) is a good choice
- master the basic stitches before your start any design (Btw, he thought the Cable Cast On was the best for beginners.)
- if your hands are rough, pour sugar into your palm and then rub the grains all over your hands. (Actually that one sounds intriguing and I may give it a try.)
- consider making shawls
In the course of his career he wrote 11 books. Today most are out of print.
- Traditional Knitting Patterns: from Scandinavia, the British Isles, France, Italy and Other European Countries
- The Family Knitting Book
- Odhams Encyclopedia of Knitting
- The world of Victoriana: illustrating the progress of furniture and the decorative arts in Britain and America from 1837 to 1901
- The Penguin Knitting Book
- Knit with Norbury
- The Knitter’s Craft
- Counted-thread embroidery on linens and canvas
- Knitting is an adventure
- Crochet book
- Let’s Learn to Sew
And as I mentioned above he was a regular on BBC television. He has his own show, Knitting, and he appeared in segments on other shows. Form what I can tell, none of those survived. I can’t find any copies for sale, for download, there are no clips of youtube… nada. James on TV has disappeared, which is a real shame. In particular I’d love to see episode 1409 of Woman’s Hour from November 1950 which had this segment:
‘The Purl Cow Jumped over the Plain Moon’: teaching children to knit, by James Norbury
If you get a chance to pick up a used copy of Norbury’s books, take it. He maybe all but forgotten today but this colorful character is part of our collective knitting past. He was certainly a geek of the highest order and frankly I don’t agree with many of his opinions but and grown man who has Purl Cows jumping over Plain (knit) Moons for the entertainment of children can’t be all bad.
And I’m still chuckling.
"There is no failure. Only feedback." - Robert Allen
29 Comments on "The Notable James Norbury"
Wow, this is total news to me! I’ll keep an eye out for his books 🙂
I hope you find some and I hope you them as entertaining as I do. His dissertations might not have weathered the decades well but his designs have. And the man knew how to turn a sentence.
The idea of a clean cloth spread over your lap while knitting is a good one, yet I noticed that in the picture, he doesn’t have one there. Is that the photographer’s fault? We can learn a lot even from people who don’t know much. Enjoyable to read about this man. Thanks.
I noticed that myself, lol.
Interesting! I have never heard of him. It was fun to look him up on the internet and watch this episode of “To Tell the Truth”
I watched that too. Do you think he deliberately flubbed the knit/purl question to throw off the audience?
The sugar in the hands thing really works but it’s better still if you add a drizzle of olive oil in with the sugar. Rub it in vigourously (you can tell by the ‘u’s that I’m English) all over til your hands are pink then wash with warm water and soap. Believe me, your hands will never before have felt so soft and smooth, they won’t even snag on silk! My Granny taught me this. Maybe she listened to Mr. Norbury…
Yep – I had the same thought! It can also work with salt. I have an apricot scrub for my face that is also the same concept and it leaves both my face and my hands with a silken texture.
Okay. I’m trying that tonight before bed. My hands are worth some love and attention.
I’m a big fan of sugar in the hand then adding some olive oil scrub! I garden, unusually forgetting my gloves when pulling weeds, so when it’s time to spin, silk especially, I’d better have smooth hands and fingernails or else! Not quite so bad with knitting but the scrub does wonders.
Norbury and Zimmermann were indeed contemporaries, although she outlasted him by two decades. They were such polar opposites in their approach to knitting.
I wonder if they ever met…