The Robe of Glory

That is a very distinctive title!  It isn’t something likely to have been made up.  There is a book called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory, a highly mystical and allegorical story from ancient Gnostic writings.  But the one I am referring to concerns knitting in the Northern Isles!

There are, however, connections.  There is the same mystery, and some of the same symbolism.

But what is the knitted Robe of Glory?  Now it is a pram blanket given to the firstborn in some Orkney families.  In the 1980s a pattern for a Robe of Glory was published in one of the UK women’s magazines.  The blurb said that it was from the Shetland Isles, but Shetlanders hadn’t come across it.  My friend Karen Wood, whose family are from Stronsay, was given a Robe of exactly the same pattern – but years before the article came out.

The mystery deepened when I came across a reference to a Robe of Glory in a booklet – Shire Album 31 – Fisherman Knitting by Michael Harvey and Rae Compton. published in 1978.  This contains the following paragraph in a section on Fishermen’s coloured garments:

‘It was common practice in Fair Isle for a grandmother to knit her grandson his first Fair Isle sweater to be worn when he reached adolescence.  This was referred to as a Robe of Glory.’

Now, no one on the Fair Isle has heard of this!  Rae Compton was an excellent historian, and would not have made this up!  She goes on to describe the pattern segments, and they are the exactly the same as those used in the Orkney blanket.

I have been asking Orcadians and Shetlanders whether they have come across the Robe of Glory, either as a sweater or a blanket, for the past 15 years.  No Shetlander has heard of it.  (Well, a few remembered the pattern in the magazine but said that was the first they had heard of it!)  However, in Orkney it often rings bells.  There is definitely a Stronsay connection, and probably a Westray connection, but this leaves as many questions as it answers.  Unfortunately Rae Compton died a few years ago, so finding out from her is not a possibility.

I continue to ask every knitter or old Orcadian I meet about the Robe!  All I get is that infuriating phrase ‘It rings a bell!!’  One day something definite will come up.  I hope…!!

Meanwhile I have made Robe of Glory blankets for each of Karen’s grandchildren.  I have used the same patterns as her original Robe, but in colours to match the prams.  I have also put the baby’s initials and date of birth on the back:

The latest for Quin, who was born premature and who had a shaky start to life.  But he is now out of hospital and doing well.  His blanket will be going out to Canada with Karen and Marcus when they go to visit next month.

October 2014 – edited to add that the pattern for the DK version of the cover is now available for $6.  Click the button to buy.

49 thoughts on “The Robe of Glory

  1. My Mum knitted this when she was expecting my sister in 1982 – the blanket is now with my sister as she is expecting her first baby next year.

    Mum remembers the pattern came from a magazine but not which one. The water, grass, anchor, crown etc. had some symbolism, but again I’m not sure what. I’d love to find out more!

    1. I actually knit this for my son….who is now 30!……and I am going to knit it for a friend’s grandson who is due on Christmas Day….It is “A Blessing for a Baby”….The Robe of Glory … I was given to understand that it came from the Shetland Isles and the symbols were as follows….The grass of “Home”, The Water of “Life”, The Crown of “Glory”, the Anchor of “Hope” and The Star of David……And anyone who makes this gift should, somewhere, place a small mistake, because nobody is ever quite perfect! Lovely sentiment…

  2. I am The List Writer’s mother and I know the pattern came from a copy of The Good Housekeeping magazine but I can no longer find it. I saw the blanket on Saturday, now with my expectant younger daughter. It is still warm and soft and I can hardly believe I knit it nearly 30 years ago!
    The only symbols I can remember are the water of life, the anchor of hope and the crown of glory. I would really love to have a copy of the pattern again.

      1. April 2013, having moved to Orkney at the back end of last year as a new to weaving, old to basic knitting lover of traditional crafts I was delighted when someone on our island gave me your blog and this date for the ‘robe of glory’ as the only traditional Orkney pattern. I will be awaiting you book wit baited breath if it isn’t already in print.. of to look in to that.

      2. Orkney has many traditional patterns – it is just that no one has looked before…. The book is still in the process – I am getting there, but I keep finding new stuff!

        Liz

  3. I have the vaguest memory of seeing something like this when I was a child. The knitter was older than my grandmother (who would then have been in her late 70’s). My father says he thinks she came from Orkney – but he is not absolutely certain. He remembers her because she made him (and his brother) pullovers with similar patterns. He thinks they were made from re-knitted yarn. This would have been in the late 1920’s. The blanket was used as a pram cover by this woman, one of her children, who then gave it to my grandmother, who passed it on to my mother. My aunt then used it and passed on to one of the cousins.
    I cannot really remember a lot about it apart from the fact that the colours were rather garish and it had a pattern of crowns and stars.
    Not sure that really helps you much – just a bit more “it rings a bell”!

  4. Given the current belief that stranded color knitting was adopted from Baltic sources, perhaps there is a Baltic source for the patterns as well. I know that various middle-European countries have historically documented symbolic meanings for their designs. A shape rather like a letter A with a circle on top is, if I recall correctly, a symbol for an anthropomorphic Sun god.

  5. I wonder if Rae Compton heard about it from Orkadians who had originally come from Fair Isle, thus the seemingly mistaken link to Shetland. No way to know now I guess. Lovely blankets, Liz.

    1. That is my guess – but as you say, only a guess. She was friends with Henrietta Munro who has Orkney relatives (not sure if she was Orcadian herself – she lived in Caithness at the end of her life) so this is a definte possibility. In the two main waves of emigration from Fair Isle in the Nineteenth Century people came from Fair Isle to Orkney – mainly to North Ronaldsay and Stronsay – so we again have the Stronsay connection…

      Glad you like the blankets!

      Liz

  6. The pattern was in Good Housekeeping in 1981 ( not 1982 ) early in the year I think because my sister in law knitted it that year for my daughter who is 30 today! The pattern was in the magazine I think but the yarn was in a kit you sent off for or maybe the whole thing was a kit. My sister in law no longer knits and sadly has lost the pattern. I have the original blanket done in the colours designed by the magazine. It has survived two daughters and 20plus years of being packed away and will be brought out for a grandchild next year. I have no idea what the yarn was but I always hand washed it in Ecover and it looks fine!

    1. Happy birthday to her! The pattern was definitely IN the mag (as opposed to being just sent away for – I know that much. A lot of companies did the thing of a yarn kit (and some like J&S still do).

      It is nice to know that it will be brought out again!

      Liz

  7. I went to the British Library today, and found the original pram blanket pattern. It was printed in Good Housekeeping in May 1981. There is not much information given in the magazine: just that it is a traditional Shetland Isle pattern based on a ‘robe of glory traditionally made for a boy when he reaches manhood’. The patterns on the blanket represent the water of life, the anchor of hope, the guiding star and the crown of glory.

    1. Thanks for that Jean. If Norbury is involved we can probably discount the story completely! He was well known for not letting fact get in the way of a good story. Even when he was alive there were debates on whtehr his imput to knitting was overall good or bad. His TV work in particular got a lot of people knitting, but his ‘historical’ stuff was well known to be fanciful in places…!

      Trouble is that we can’t know what he wrote was based on fact and what was fancy…

      But that 1930s date is interesting…

      Liz

  8. I am in the middle of knitting the blanket as I have done many times before as I have a copy of the original pattern from the 1980’s .Didn’t realise it was from Good Housekeeping.Am very interested to read the comments about the origins of the Robe of Glory as I couldn’t find any connection to Shetland.

    1. Sorry for the delay, Anne. Interesting that you haven’t found any Shetland connections, either. This continues to be infuriating! It is just out of reach – people have an idea they have heard about it, but can’t pin it down….

      Liz

    2. Dear Anne, my mother knitted this blanket in 1981 for my first born, sadly she died 3 years later so I was unable to find out where the pattern came from so am very excited to have found this link. My 3 children have all used it and I have now passed it on to my first grandchild born here in New Zealand in 2013 where I now live. I would love to recreate the blanket my mother knitted for my next grandchild and wondered if I could, like Suzy, buy a photocopy as I don’t think the British library is an option living here in NZ.
      Looking forward to your reply, Sally

  9. My sister-in-law knitted this blanket for the birth of our first child in June 1981 and it was used for all 6 of our children and their dolls. In 2002 I passed it on so our oldest when her son was born and apart from the wool fading naturally and a tiny stain made by a vitamin supplement drop spilt on it back in ’81it looked as good as the day it was knitted.

  10. I contacted Good Housekeeping and got this reply today.

    Thank you for writing to Good Housekeeping; it’s so important for us to hear from our readers. The large volume of emails we receive often makes it difficult to reply as quickly as we would like, so we’re so sorry for the delay.

    Unfortunately, the pattern and directions were not printed in their entirety the May 1981 issue, so we do not have copies of the pattern for the Fair Isle pram blanket in our archives at the editorial offices and therefore will not likely reprint it. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you.

    Many thanks again for your note!

    Sincerely,
    The Editors

    We love hearing from our readers, and now we want to put YOU in the magazine. Have you made a GH craft or cooked up a recipe from the mag lately? Send a photo of you and your project to GHLetters@goodhousekeeping.com and you could see it in a future issue!

    I let them know there was a copy of the magazine at the British Library and suggested with the increased interest in knitting they may consider republishing the pattern. A bit cheeky I know but worth a try.

  11. An interesting comment about the pattern “not printed in its entirety” for If you look at the copy of the May 1981 issue in The British Library the pattern is there in full glory!
    Full pattern instructions, colour picture and charts!( though there is a British Library Logo over the page) Perfectly readable and knitable from.
    I also would love to see this republished as it is a timeless pattern and great fun to knit though I think the yarn amounts need updating; you need more of the background shade than stated, 3 extra balls I reckon.

  12. It was indeed May 1981 I knitted it over the months for my firstborn Dec 1981 unfortunately it was lost about 1990 pattern too. The first born is expecting in November and I would dearly love to try and knit it for her the original colours were blues rose pinks and sea green it was patons 4ply on size 10 needles .Please can anyone let me know where i can buy the pattern as I don’t think the British Museum is an option.

  13. Have you looked this up on Ravelry Suzy? If so you can see my original and my newly knitted up blanket there as well as other comments. In Good Housekeeping in May 1981 the pattern was titled “Blessing for a Baby” and the yarn suggested was Sirdar Countrystyle 4ply in Cream,Blue Haze, Eucalyptus, Wild Rose and Camel. A Google search shows that another knit blogger has re-engineered the pattern for a knitting machine, and that Bristol libraries have all the copies of Good Housekeeping from 1.1.1977 to date! If you live in Bristol that may be good, if not I wonder if you can get inter library loans?

    1. Hi, I was able to get to the British library in July and get a copy of the pattern have not started knitting blanket yet and am thinking will do it in double knitting to speed things up.it is indeed under the banner of ” Blessing for a baby”.

  14. Have just seen a blanket knitted from a magazine pattern using the colours suggested, as in comment from Judith. This blanket is almost 30 years old. The charts in my copy of the pattern are a little difficult to read and will need some attention. Jean October 2013

  15. I’m really enjoying all of this! My aunt knitted this blanket in what I presume are the recommended colours for my twin sister and I as babies in 1981, I’ve begun using the original for my son born last June and he loves it! Really hope someone does manage to re-publish the pattern, I get so many lovely remarks at baby groups!

  16. I knit two of these blankets back then from the magazine pattern. I am sure I wouldn’t have thrown it out but can’t find it anywhere. Now my niece is expecting and I would desperately love to find the pattern. Does anyone have it yet? Would love to do it again.

      1. Thanks Elizabeth. I did take a look at your pattern and it is very similar. I didn’t do mine on circular needles and the one from the magazine had a knitted scalloped edge which I really liked. As well, the pattern went from edge to edge. I might just end up going for yours though because my magazine clipping seems to have disappeared. Thanks for getting back to me so fast, I appreciate it. Warm regards ~ Joyce

        Joyce Bantock ………………………… joycebantock@gmail.com

      2. I have just finished knitting the third of these for a friend’s grandchildren. I suddenly spotted a discrepancy between the Good Housekeeping pattern and the picture. In the picture the parts at the top of the Crown graduate upwards, so that in the final row there are only 11 stitches between the middle stem of the crown and the blob between them. To have 23 stitches would seem a very long distnace between stitches. In the pattern the top of the crown goes straight across, but Good Housekeeping definitely doesn’t finish off each stem in the right way. The top of the crown looks much better curved in this way. What do others think?

  17. I have just come across this article, whilst browsing.
    My daughter is 32 next Saturday and my late Mum offered to knit the Good Housekeeping version for her. I had seen the pattern, bought the magazine and yarn – as outlined in the pattern. The cover is safely wrapped, but I shall take a photo over the next few days & also locate the pattern. Mum had returned it to me for safe keeping! I have often looked, to see if it was ever produced again……

  18. I would like to clear the confusion here :
    The “Blessings for a baby” crib cover pattern published by Good Housekeeping magazine in May 1981 was a severely-simplified design based on my Robe of Glory sweater design – you can see my name Jean Hay Penny at the top of the article.
    The Robe of Glory sweater is a 1979 design for my knitwear company Gooden Gansey in Devon, England. It includes all of the motifs mentioned in James Norbury’s reference to a Robe of Glory in Odham’s Encyclopedia of Knitting, plus further motifs which make a more complete story and a far more complex pattern.
    Some years later my Robe of Glory design was much plagiarised after HRH Charles, Prince of Wales frequently wore a personalised Robe of Glory sweater, which I made to commemorate his marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, for his appearance on the Jackanory TV programme, and for many later photo-calls.

    1. This is very interesting – thank you. But it doesn’t totally clear up the confusion!

      Rae Compton, an excellent and thorough historian as well as knitter, talks about a Ribe of Glory sweater in the Fair Isle going back much earlier than that. In addition, there is an Orkney tradition also going back further. Interestingly, the tradition seems to be on Stronsay, North Ronaldsay and maybe Westray, and it was to Stonsay and North Ron that waves of Fir Isle folk came wherever there were troubles on the Fair Isle…

      I would love to see a photo of your design.

  19. Thank you to Gooden Gansey for the extra information. Seeing that HRH sweater did remind me I had seen it before and you can see the influences in the Good Housekeeping pattern. I did add the 1981 pattern to the Ravelry database http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/robe-of-glory and I noted your name there.
    It would be great if you would link up your name as the designer to claim your lovely work. The pink blanket on the pattern page is one of my new ones but if you scroll through the projects you will see an original 1981 blanket as well as a lovely variety of other Robes of Glory knitted by clever Ravellers. I and others love this pattern you created so many , many thanks from me and other Knitters.

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