Maria's Knitting School


Maria Heyde, her hard life and her knitting school  

Maria Heyde was a missionary of the Moravian Church (Hernhutter Bruderschaft) who ran a knitting school in the Himalayas. She was one of the first to open a school like that for girls and young women. She worked in Tibet for 44 years, her husband Wilhelm for 49 years. Maria kept a diary that gives an insight in her extraordinary live.

By Thelma Egberts

Maria and Wilhelm Heyde lived and worked in Lahul-region, nearby Ladakh. This region is now known als Himachal Pradesh. Their mission post was in the village Kyelang, on the route to Leh. Wilhelm Heyde arrived there in 1854, as one of the first missionaries. Together with other missionaries (Jäschke and Pagell) he planned to travel from India to China, to start a mission post there. When they weren’t allowed to cross the border, they decided to stay in the Himalaya.

In 1859 Maria, a 22 year old teacher, arrived in Kyelang to marry Wilhelm. The two had never met before. Like Wilhelm she was a Hernhutter (Moravian) and she was asked by the governing council of her church to marry and help Wilhelm. This kind of match making was not uncommon at all.

The romantic believe is that it was love at first sight between Maria and Wilhelm. Together they devoted their lives to the Himalayas. They stayed there for more then half of their lives, until 1898. Missionaries were not often warmheartedly welcomed, but Wilhem and Maria must have been loved, as they were called ‘papa’ and ‘mama’ Heyde. 

Introducing knitting  
In wintertime, Maria was occupied with her knitting school. Whether her knitting school was the first in the Himalaya’s or in this region is not clear. At least it was not she who started it. In the Keylang Annuals of 1861/1862 it is stated that the wifes of Jäschke and Pagell started the school. Since January 1865 Maria was involved with it (at least, that’s the first time she mentions in her diary that she is running the school). But before that, in 1862, Maria already taught Lahuli boys how to knit.

With the knitting school the Moravian missionaries introduced knitting to the Lahuli and Ladaki people. They learned it the German style (continental). It must have been a great success, as the socks they made have become part of the traditional Lahuli costume!

Lateron other knitting schools were started in the Himalayas. The Moravians raised schools in Poo (Kinnaur) and Leh. Also missionaries from other churches started knitting schools. One example is St. Rita's. At least until 1938 there must have been one ore more knitting schools in the region.  

Extra income
The missionaries also raised normal schools and hospitals in the Himalayas, in order to bring education and health care to the Tibetans. For the Moravians this was also a good way to spread (Protestant) religion. Just because of that religious nature (Buddhist and Muslim) parents were often reluctant to send their children to these schools.

Knitting schools were a different story. They were quite popular, because they provided the knitters an extra income. The young women and girls (and a few boys) came there to knit socks, which were sold to tourists. This way they had an extra income and occupation during the harsh winter months. Every winter between four- and five hundred pairs of socks were knitted and sold.

Knitting schools were held from the beginning of January till the end of April. Every week day afternoon, from 1 till about 4 p.m. There was no school building, the knitting took place in the Mission house. Young women, girls and boys could go there whenever they liked. Sometimes there were only 5 knitters, on other afternoons almost thirty. Heavy snowfall sometimes prevented knitters to come, but also the traditional festivities of the Himalayan people were good excuse not to knit, as Maria writes in her diary.

In the beginning, all knitters came from Kyelang. In later years also girls and women from other villages (Kardang and Bieling) attended. Because of the demand for socks from the knitting schools, also in Poo (Kinnaur) and Leh schools were opened by Moravian missionairies.

At first, Himalayan girls and women could only learn how to knit in the knitting schools. They were not allowed to take their knitting home. Lateron they got permission to take their projects home and also needles, yarn and patters. The missionaries resisted this at first, because when locals didn't come to their schools, they lost an opportunity to spread their religion.
From ‘crafty’ perspective home knitting was a good thing, because now knitting is spread under all Himalayan people, weather the are Christian, Muslim, Hindu of Buddhist.

***Funny story: Knitting schools were sometimes ‘sabotaged’ by girls who stole their knitting materials.  The weight of the yarn got checked and the girls put little stones in the balls so they could steal some yarn without anyone noticing! (this is not from Maria’s diary – it may have happened in any knitting school) ***

A hard life
Maria did not have an easy life. She often complained in her diary how tired, ill, or depressed she felt. It was hard for her to combine taking care of her own family (baking bread, sewing clothes) with her job as knitting school teacher. After knitting school was over, she had a lot of extra work to make the socks ready for sale, like correcting mistakes, weaving in ends and washing them.
Besides this, when her husband was away on trips, she took over his tasks like printing, checking the weather station and nursing the ill. You must also realize that she was often pregnant. From her diaries 10 pregnancies have been counted, which resulted in 7 surviving children – and of them only 3 lived long enough to be send to Germany for education. The children were often ill, probably due to the harsh situation in the himalaya’s. This line in Isabella Birds book 'Among the Tibetans' says it all: “Close by the mission house, in a green spot under shady trees, is God’s Acre, where many children of the mission families sleep, and a few adults.”)

Wool from Rupshu nomads 
Maria kept a thorough sock-administration. In a book she noted very punctual how much yarn each knitter used, how many socks were knit and how many socks were sold. In the first years she had to ask knitters to slow down, when there was not enough demand for socks. Or when there was not enough yarn, like in the winter of 1867. Later on the school contracted Rupshu nomads for the deliverance of raw wool.  The wool had to be dyed and spun. This was also an activity that enhanced the economic situation of the locals. (Also knitting schools sometimes had contracts to deliver certain amounts of socks. Like the school in Poo knitted 100 pairs per month, by contract with the lokal Radjah).


Mistery Socks
Unfortunately Maria doesn’t tell much about the kind of socks that were knitted or the stitch patterns that were used. (At least not in her diaries of 1862 – 1870, which are published on line). One time she tells a bit about the colors that were used. When she writes about giving some yarn for socks to a nun (?) in a monastery, she says she gives her red, brown and grey yarn. She gave her three chatang of each color, enough for 6 pairs of socks. Also she sometimes relates to the winding and dyeing of the yarn and notes that the sheep have been shaved.


At least it's clear that they were knitted in a German style and stitch pattern. They had a German (Saxon) heel. Today, the people of the Himalaya still knit. They still sell German socks on the local markets, especially in Leh.  It’s the special heel that makes them differ from socks that are offered by Muslim handlers from Kashmir. The knitters seem to have forgotten their German off spring as the are offered as authentic Himalayan socks.


Maria as a knitter
Also Maria's own knitting skills remain a mistery. When and where did she learn to knit? She was born in Surinam, as daughter of Moravian missionaries, and was send to Europe when she was 7. She got her education in the Moravian institution of Kleinwelka in Germany. It's documented she was taught there to sew, draw and play the piano, so it seems logic she also learned to knit. At the age of 16 she was trained to become a teacher in the Moravian girls school of  Gnadenfrei in the region of Silesia (then Germany, now Poland). It's also documented she was not very interested in 'handarbeiten' (crafts), but more in languages (esp. French) and drawing.

Read more about Maria and Wilhelm Heyde:

- If you know German, you can read her diaries from 1862 – 1870 here: Edited by Frank Seeliger.

- Or read the romantized story of her marriage and live: “Hochzeit in Tibet” by Ruth Schiel, Berlin, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1986

- You can also get a glimps of the lives of the Heydes, when your read the book “Among the Tibetans” by Victorian woman traveller Isabella Bird. The book is published online, and in chapter 3 you can read how she described the life and works of Wilhelm Heyde.

- More about Himalayan knitting schools and Moravian mission in general can be read in this ticle: „Die Kanonen des Feindes gleichsam auf ihn selber richten.“ Interkulturelle Auseinandersetzungen der Herrnhuter Brüderunität im Westhimalaja (written by von Stephanie Römer und Franz Xaver Erhard (Berlin): (dead link:

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