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The Prohibition Shawl

"October; The month when knitting really starts coming into its own again."
- Elizabeth Zimmerman, A Knitter's Almanac  

I missed The Civil War. Back when the nine-part documentary that launched Ken Burns' career premiered in 1990, my evenings were dedicated to baths and bedtime stories. Last summer, years after the national discussions of his groundbreaking series had died down, my husband Rody and I checked them out of our local library.

I have always wanted to experience "history as seen through the eyes of Ken Burns" and be a part of the conversation his work generates when it first airs. Finally, I got my chance. On Sunday evening, Oct 2, 2011, with the first stitches of a shawl already cast on my needles, I joined Rody and an estimated 3.9 million viewers to watch Prohibition, the latest film exploration from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.

Prohibition was a dark period in my family's history. When my great-uncle was gunned down by the mob, my grieving grandfather, who was involved with him in bootlegging, got out of the business, packed up his family, and left town. Perhaps Prohibition would help me understand the gangster side of my grandfather who I remember lovingly as a gentle man.

For much of Episode One: A Nation of Drunkards, and the entire section on Carrie Nation, I fiddled with unexpected knitting problems. The pattern was surprisingly distracting and the lace-weight wool clumsy on my needles. On my Monday morning walk, I reviewed possible knitting options for episode two that evening. A shawl still ranked as my top choice. Huddling forth, I remembered the Jane Eyre shawl my friend, illustrator Claudia McGehee, had posted on her blog a few months ago. A throwback to a quieter time, the thick wool shawl with a warm homespun appeal appeared to be a sideways version of the very simplest of shawls, a pattern I had long ago memorized. One I might even be able to knit blindfolded.

Prohibition Shawl
(front)Digging in my stash I found the perfect wool, Lion Brand Alpine Wool in Barley. After swatching a few rows on oversized needles, size 13, I got the drape I wanted. My knitting was ready for the next installment.

I didn't miss a minute of A Nation of Scofflaws. It turns out that the ubiquitous lawlessness unique to Prohibition led many immigrants, like my grandfather and my great uncle, to uncover the lucrative and dangerous opportunities bootlegging offered. The uproar of such complicated times made me grateful for the uncomplicated knitting I had chosen.

Now nearing the end of the series, the shawl was more than two thirds done. Almost Shaker-like in plainness, it recalled the only knitters in the series, an austere group of early prohibitionists in Hillsboro, Ohio.

On Tuesday, just before the last episode, A Nation of Hypocrites, began, I grabbed a skein of Lion Brand's new Luxe Fur yarn. If all went as planned, I'd gussy up my plain Jane with a Roaring Twenties' addition.

Al Capone still ruled Chicago and beyond when I cast off the last stitch. As America's cities unraveled, I knit a furry I-cord a little longer than the length of the shawl and wove it in and out of the yarn over border. Then the nation finally repealed Prohibition. Letting my hands be still in the soft knitted warmth of finished shawl, I imagined my grandfather's relief at the end of this painful period. 

The Prohibition Shawl Recipe

 Prohibition Shawl (back)

The Prohibition Shawl is a non-alcoholic pleasure. Let it provide easy knitting while you explore your family history or enjoy a silly comedy. Enjoy it with a cup of cider.

2 balls 822-224 Alpine Wool: Barley (or the equivalent of any bulky weight yarn like Lion Brand Homespun)
1 ball 928-124 Luxe Fur: Camel
Circular needle size 13 16" (40cm) long
1 set double-pointed needles, size 7

Approximately 8 stitches and 2.5 garter ridges = 4 inches  

Increase Side of Shawl
With 16" (40cm) long circular needle size 13 needles and Alpine Wool, CO 3 stitches.
Row 1: K2, yo, knit to end.
Row 2: Knit.
Repeat these two rows for 32 garter ridges or until piece measures approx. 23 inches.  

Back of Shawl

Row 1:K1, K2tog, yo, k to end
Row 2: Knit
Repeat these two rows for 8 inches or until entire piece measures approx. 31 inches.  

Decrease Side of Shawl

Row 1: K1, k2tog, yo, k2tog, k to end
Row 2: Knit
Repeat these two rows for 32 garter ridges or until piece measures approx. 54 inches.  

Furry Tail
With two size 7 dpns needles and Lion Brand Luxe Fur, CO 3 stitches.
Row 1: Knit
Row 2: Do not turn work; slide sts to other side of needle and knit across.
Repeat these two rows until piece measures approx. 56 inches or desired length.  


Starting at the bottom end of the shawl weave the furry tail in and out of the yarn overs on border edge. Leave about one inch hanging on either side.
Weave in ends.  

Authored by

Michelle Edwards is the author/illustrator of A KNITTER'S HOME COMPANION and many award-winning children's books including CHICKEN MAN and STINKY STERN FOREVER. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys talking about books in schools throughout the US and beyond. Her newest book, Room for the Baby, will be available from Random House in Fall 2012. Visit Michelle Edwards at her website or on Facebook.
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