Thursday, 28 June 2018

A Ramble Around UK Knitting Needles

Over the last century or so knitting needles have evolved through several phases. Once the technology for pulling wire had been developed, knitting needles could be made of steel or other metals, instead of wooden and bone needles which previous generations had used.

The steel knitting pins prevalent in the 19th century were made of pulled wire. As a result, the standard sizes of British needles were the same as those used to measure the thickness of strands of wire. Steel wire came to be measured in thousandths of an inch by its diameter, and this developed into the measuring system for knitting needles used in the UK, but there were many different wire gauge standards in use within the UK, and individual manufacturers produced their own needle gauges. It is thought that some of the old UK needle numbers were maybe based on the numbers of the increasingly fine dies that the wire had to be drawn through, and thinner needles thus had a larger number. As a conversion guide, old UK size 14 is now equivalent to modern 2 mm needles (US 0).

Wire was coiled for delivery to shops and manufacturers, and many people made their own needles out of this wire, cut into lengths and sharpened at home. Sometimes this wire retained its curve, and stories of bent knitting needles are plentiful.

An old Cornish photograph of two young Polperro girls, Mary Jane Langmaid and Elizabeth Jolliff knitting knit-frocks (ganseys) shows their ‘soft’ metal needles to be very crooked, obviously bent and straightened many times and those blunted points must have made knitting quite difficult.

Photo to be seen on

There are stories of knitters being unable to buy manufactured knitting needles in times of isolation, hardship and war, and using ingenious sources to meet their need. Umbrella wire and bicycle spokes have been mentioned and no doubt local engineers and wood turners would have been pleased to produce needles too. Early knitting ‘recipes’ did not quote needle sizes either, so each project would have required careful sample knitting to arrive at a satisfactory finished item.

In the 1970s the UK began to go metric. Metric sizes were introduced into knitting needle manufacture. These did not give an exact conversion, meaning in theory old needles used for new knitting pattern leaflets would not always give the expected results, and vice versa. But generally the differences in old and new sizing is negated by the bigger difference in our personal knitting tensions and very few people will notice the difference! At the same time, the UK’s familiar one-ounce and two-ounce skeins of wool yarns were dropped and we had to get used to 25 g and 50 g balls (which meant small children were no longer required to hold the skeins out with weary arms while Mother wound wool into balls.)

In my personal collection, many inherited and many more gleaned from jumble sales and Ebay mixed lots, I have old needles made from Bakelite and ceisin (made from milk!), bone, steel, wood and various plastics. Early steel needles frequently went rusty and need polishing before use. I also recall coloured metal needles which stained the wool.

These older needles had blunter points than many available today, and tapered points replaced the old rounded tips during the 1960s to 1970s as knitters preferred the newer styles. I usually knit with a knitting belt and find the old rounded tip-sides actually work easier with the belt because the belt demands less movement at the needle tips meaning that the newer tapered points result in tighter stitches because the stitches are formed at the tips. Perhaps one of the reasons why the old blunt tips fell from favour is that very few people now use a knitting belt or a knitting stick.

Many modern knitters like to use circular needles. Such needles were first manufactured over a hundred years ago, but these had twisted stranded wire joined by soldering to the metal points and sometimes these snagged at the join, spoiling the knitting, and so they really never became popular. Once better manufacturing systems overcame this problem, circular needles have become very common. However I have a set of modern Chinese knitting needles and its circular needles are manufactured with old-fashioned stranded wires.

 From 1867

I have three instruction books of the late 19th century giving knitting instructions for infants’ clothing in thin merino yarn using old UK sizes 17 and 18 needles (approx. 1.5 mm). Those were the days when wealthy families employed nannies, nursery maids and governesses to run the nursery, and there was time for them to knit beautiful fine baby clothes to ‘show off’ the family’s leisure and wealth. Our local Museum has an infant’s bonnet knitted with hundreds of stitches per round, and the tiniest elaborate designs – it must have been knitted on needles around Size 24, where even the strongest knitting needles are bendy.Babies wore bootees, so these socks would have fitted a toddler. .

Regular knitting stores rarely sell knitting needles thinner than 2 mm. if you wish to knit a 19th century toddler's sock, a Sanquhar glove, miniature dolls house clothing, or fine lace, you need needles thinner than 2 mm. I have been able to source double-pointed needles in old UK sizes 15 (approx. 1.85 mm, US 00) and 16 (approx. 1.75 mm, US 000) and have made these available on my online store BygoneYarnyStuff on Etsy, along with the more common sizes. If they prove popular I hope to import more. Find those 1.5 mm and 1.25 mm needles here. I also have a few fine circular needles and dpns of 1.25 mm – on my website

Another knitting needle ‘find’ is very long 14 inch (31 cm) dpns which are almost essential for Guernsey (gansey) knitting with their 300 to 400 stitches. These also work nicely for shawls and other projects with many stitches. I have these available on Etsy on my BygoneYarnyStuff shop.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

What were they knitting as they sang?

One hundred and fifty years ago, the professional hand-knitters of the Yorkshire Dales were reputed to gather in each other's homes in the  winter evenings to knit together, chatting and sharing news, but they also sang very simple songs, some of which were almost child-like, to give their knitting some rhythm and to keep up their prodigious speed and productivity, and amusement too no doubt. 'Bell-wether' is one such song. A bell-wether is a neutered male 'leader' sheep which wore a bell to enable the shepherd to locate his flock. Sheep dislike being solitary, they will follow their leader. The song goes thus:

"Bell-wether o' Barking, cries Baa, baa,
How many sheep have we lost to-day?
Nineteen we have lost, one have we fun,
Run Rockie, run Rockie, run, run, run.

"Bell-wether o' Barking, cries Baa, baa,
How many sheep have we lost to-day?
Eighteen we have lost, two have we fun,
Run Rockie, run Rockie, run, run, run."  etc

Note that 'fun' is 'found', Rocky is the sheep-dog and Barking is a hill or a village. There is a youtube video of three Yorkshire ladies talking to a local audience about The "Terrible" Knitters of Dent in Yorkshire, and they sing this song.

I read in 'The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales' by Marie Hartley and Jane Ingleby, first published in 1951, that each line of the verse is a needle-full of knitting, and each verse is a full round, then by the time you eventually arrive at 'None we have lost ..." you have completed twenty rounds. If this is so then we are looking at 8 beats a line, so 32 stitches a round. No mass-produced commercial knitted product would have so few stitches. And English knitters always used 4 needles in a set; 5-needle sets have only been available in the UK since we started buying on-line from international manufacturers and stores.

To knit on four needles, you distribute your stitches across three needles, meaning two of the song's lines would need to 'join up' to cover one needle.

It would also seem probable that if the knitters were all knitting the same number of stitches per needle, they were all working on the same contract for the same garment. Gathering together no doubt helped to relieve the tedium of knitting so many identical garments.

There is another rhyme reported in the Hartley & Ingleby book. This is attributed to Cumberland, now part of Cumbria:

Bulls at bay,
Kings at fey,
Over the hills and far away.

You may observe that this rhyme has a rhythm of four or 16 beats, depending on whether you count a line of the verse as a 'needle' or whether you feel the whole verse is a 'needle'. Again, the same figure of 16 pops up. Sixteen stitches on two needles and 32 on the third gives a circumference of 64 stitches and this is a real possiblity for a stocking-type garment, which were knitted in their countless thousands at that time. The songs could be sung two stitches to each beat; the knitters were very fast! Knee-length and full-length stockings were basic knitting, but these were usually knitted to a finer gauge than 64 stitches a round, and recipes of over 100 years ago suggest that finer needles were routinely used and around 80 to 140 stitches cast on. Such small stitches might not really lend themselves to a communal evening squashed together in a tiny front parlour in the firelight. Fine knit over-the-knee length stockings of the day also narrowed as they approached the heel, meaning that the number of stitches would vary depending on your progress. This would not fit the idea of the whole roomful of knitters singing and working to the same regular rhythm.

I went off to search for a likely garment of 32 or 64-stitch rounds in the 19th Century. The same 'Yorkshire' book mentions bump-knitting with very coarse locally produced wool spun and plied in the grease knitted into enormous stockings with thick needles.  The stockings, when completed, measured a yard (nearly a metre) long and the feet were 13 inches (33 cm) long. Hartley & Ingleby relate that children would wonder who or what could possibly wear such huge stockings, and would suggest it had to be elephants! Wondering where these enormous stockings ended up I discovered that these were scoured (washed and shrunk) in local mills, then dried on stocking-boards to give them extra thickness as well as a regular size and shape. These felted stockings would have been very sturdy and long lasting.Who wore these thousands of enormous stockings?

My husband's father, born in 1901, was a Newlyn master fisherman and in the days before modern waterproof clothing, he wore seaboot stockings under his oilskins (literally canvas coats brushed with water-repellant oil). These stockings were pulled over trousers and socks and enabled the wearer to pull his long leather or rubber seaboots on neatly while adding a layer of warmth. There is a photo on the back cover of Michael Pearson's superb book 'Traditional Knitting' of a fisherman wearing long seaboot stockings inside his thigh boots. (Incidentally, his basket contains hooks ready fastened to a 'long line', but safely stowed until required).

This book is a really good read. Mr Pearson gathered knitting stories, patterns and techniques from many fishing villages and towns.

This looked a real possibility for the 64 stitch garment. To knit this stocking you could utilise three needles with 16, 16 and 32 stitches on, and the 4th needle to knit in rounds.

My next task was to find instructions for knitting them. I went to that excellent historical knitting library held by the University of Southampton and found a little book published for the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen in the late 1800s . It gives instructions for knitting seaboot stockings (as well as many other sea-men's clothes). The yarn is described as 'carpet yarn' elsewhere so you can imagine how thick it was. There are 65 stitches in this version, but remove the 'seam stitich' and you have the magic 64 stitches which is knit straight for several inches before 'narrowing' for the ankle.The purled seam stitch was introduced purely to enable amateur knitters to space decreasings (intakes) by counting the purl-bumps in the 'seam'. I have on my computer at least two other contemporaneous books containing almost identical instructions.

This lovely little book was in the collection of His Grace the Bishop of Leicester, the late Richard Rutt, and donated to Southampton University. Anyone with an interest in 19th century knitting manuals may like to browse his historical knitting book collection (available free online). No 9 needles are today's 3.75 mm needles.

When the UK moved over to metric knitting needle sizes sixty years ago, some of the old sizes which were based on fractions of an inch did not translate exactly, so we discovered that our new needles were not quite the same as the old. If you should try knitting from an old UK pattern, bear in mind that your tension square may not quite match.

I have made a swatch from this seaboot stocking pattern, and the dimensions and instructions are relevant today, and would suit anyone who works in water, or any really cold conditions, the slight change in modern needle sizes over so few stitches makes no real difference.

 The introduction in this book says that demand for these socks always outstripped supply, so no doubt there was a real market for the thousands of seaboot stockings, to be worn by countless thousands of fishermen and mariners. We know that local stocking knitters were kept supplied with bundles containing skeins of 'bump, and these seaboot stockings were what I believe our Yorkshire knitters were producing during their winter evening get-togethers.

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Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Of Being Proficient in Knitting at the age of 7 some 250 years ago. 
I recently was thrilled to learn that three of my grandchildren wanted to learn how to knit at the ages of 8, 10 and 12. Within three months, they are all proficient knitters of garter stitch and have ceased to drop stitches or finish up with a greater number of stitches than when they started.

In the 18th century, children of the working class were in various parts of the country taught to knit for their future living at a very early age. The following newspaper article shows that children as young as under 8 years of age were expected to be able to complete the knitting of stockings good enough for sale.

The Caledonian Mercury of Wednesday 3 August 1763 published the following advertisement:
Edinburgh, 29th July, 1763. HIS Grace the Duke of Queensberry, and the Honourable the Commissioners and Trustees for fisheries, manufactures and improvements in Scotland, do hereby advertise the following PREMIUMS, for promoting the spinning of woollen-yarn, the knitting of woollen stockings, and weaving of woollen cloth, in the Presbytery of Penpont, which is the upper part of NITHSDALE, in the shire of Dumfries. The Board of Trustees defraying one half of the premiums in money and utensils, and the Duke of Queensberry, contributing the other half, with the ground, buildings, etcetera.
 For SPINNING WOOLLEN-YARN. To each of the two girls under ten years of aged who spin the greatest and best quantities of good woollen-yarn, before the 1st of February next, not less than five spyndles, seven shillings.To the family who spins the greatest and best quantity of good woollen-yarn before the first of February next, thirty shillings.
A number of wheels are also to be distributed among proper persons 

To each of the two boys or girls under eight years of age who knit the greatest and best quantity of woollen stockings, and boot-hose, of the kind called Sanquhar stockings, before the first of February next, not less than five pairs, seven shillings.To the boy between eight and twelve years of age, who knits the greatest and best quantity of these stockings and hose, before the first of February next, not less than eight pairs, seven shillings. To the family which knits the greatest and best quantity of these stockings and hose, before the 1st of February next, thirty shillings. 

There were also up to five lesser prizes in each category, so he gave out a small fortune to the successful applicants.

The Duke of Queensbury was obviously a very generous philanthropist locally, as he also helped young tradesmen to own a home, as this paragraph shows:

To the Journeyman Weaver, married, or who marries within two years from this date and works, before the 1st day of August 1764, the greatest and best quantity of the woollen-cloth, proper for Thornhill market, a house lately built in Thornhill, consisting of a kitchen and shop , and a garden at the back of the house, to be possessed by him and his heirs, provided they continue the business of weaving, rent-free, for 19 years ...

There are still many knitters who sell their work, and there will be those who make their living knitting as machinery still cannot replicate the finest lace or Fair Isle; though perhaps not at such a young age.

Knitting has evolved since 1764, now being predominently a leisure occupation.

My designs have now expanded beyond little collectible clothes; please visit my new BygoneYarnyStuff shop in Etsy, where you will find republished patterns of yesteryear, not quite as old as 1764, but a few going back more than 100 years. I have collected several stocking and glove patterns for those who want to re-create original designs. More patterns appear regularly as I delve into the past!

Woollywoodlanders designs for the leisure knitter who wishes to create exciting little collectible items of clothing for Sylvanian Families or Calico Critters.