Friday, 10 August 2018

The Skill of the 18th Century knitter of Great Britain - knitting stockings with over 40,000 stitches before you reach the heel!

I am fascinated by the knitting skills that had been built up in areas of Great Britain culminating in the peak of quality in the days of the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 to the early 19th century when knee breeches were the vogue amongst well-to-do men and this meant wearing very finely knitted stockings for the lower leg, and ladies could show a neatly stockinged ankle.

Kendal in rural Cumbria in northern England had been one of the principle areas for fine hand-knitting during that time and it had been the custom for whole families to knit stockings and gloves with great skill and receive a modest extra income to supplement that of the main breadwinner. In truth, there were few other ways of gaining extra income in sheep-farming areas, fewer jobs in agriculture being available. In the newly expanding and busier manufacturing towns, where the new inventions of steam power had created excitement and new industries, it seems the population did not take so well to knitting and its relatively poor earning potential.

I recently found in a Newcastle (England) newspaper, the following:

“My witness is, that few people here knit well. At Kendal, where industry is honoured, many of the best families knit for sale occasionally; and many an industrious mother, after keeping shop, or working other business all day, will sit down and knit a stocking at night, making all her children about her do the same, to the great conveniences of families, insomuch that a beggar belonging to the place, or a ragged or bare-footed child, cannot be seen amongst them. I do not hereby mean to invalidate the scheme of your correspondent Humanus, for the enlargement of prisoners for small debts, which is more absolutely necessary in this place (for reasons he has given) than in any other, at least till such a manufactory as above mentioned, to employ the whole of our poor, be set forward in town, which would leave them pretensions to beg, or to run in debt. And it must be allowed on all hands, that thus enabling the poor to live of themselves, would be a hundred times more advantageous to the community at large, than all the charities which all the wealth a nation could establish, to keep the lame and lazy in ease and indolence.

April 10, 1775 A Lover of Industry”


 Aberdeen in the north east of Scotland; where fishing would well have been one of the principle ways to earn a living, seemed to have an established pool of excellent stocking-knitters.

And this was published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal of Tuesday 27 June 1758:

“WANTED, AN apprentice for learning merchandize, particularly the stocking trade. Enquire at the publisher of this paper. That DAVID SHAW of this place gives out at his room in Cruikshank's close, in the Broadgate (Aberdeen), kinds of silk, to be knit into ribbed hose ; therefore, all good hands will be constantly employed, and meet with good encouragement, as high prices will be given. None need apply but such will either knit a pair of thread hose, by way of trial, or shew their performance, by bringing a thread stocking of their own working. The silk is prepared much in the same way with thread, only much softer, and easier for the fingers. N. B. At the above place is given out, all sorts of threads to knit ; where attendance will be given on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 to 1, and from 3 to 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and Fridays from 7 to 12 forenoon"

Introducing expensive silk for knitters to work with showed a willingness to invest in the skills of local knitters by the merchants. It also suggested that the Aberdeen merchants had tapped into the very top of the aristocracy trade! The very earliest of the published patterns for stockings showed that the definition of a stocking was that it reached over the knee (being kept up by garters) and was very finely knitted. The top of the stocking was safely hidden by the breeches.

If you thought you were a skilled knitter, just look at the instructions below aimed at teaching girls and boys of under 13 or 14 years (School leaving age was early at that time).

Here is the Recipe for stockings of the late-19th century from a book called:   KNITTING TEACHER’S ASSISTANT, DESIGNED FOR THE USE OF NATIONAL GIRLS' SCHOOLS.

For a Stocking of a Hundred and Forty-eight Stitches, Second Man's Size, with Needles and Wool rather finer.


Q. How many stitches do you cast on?

A. One hundred and forty-eight. Forty-nine on two needles, and fifty on the third.
Q. How many turns to the narrowings?
A. One hundred and forty-eight.
Q. How many narrowings?
A. Twenty-one.
Q. How do you narrow?
A. I slip one, knit one, and pass the slipped stitch over the knitted one before the seam, and knit two together after the seam, leaving one stitch on each side between the seam and the narrowing.
Q. How many rounds do you leave between the narrowings?
A. Five rounds between. 
Q. How many rounds to the heel?
A. Eighty.
Q. How many stitches for the heel?
A. Forty-five.
Q. How many for the instep?
A. Forty-six.
Q. How long is the heel?
A. Forty Rows. (Ed. in plain stocking stitch in those days)
Q. How many stitches do you take up for the foot?
A. Twenty-nine on each side.
Q. How many narrowingws for the foot?
A. Ten on each side.
Q. How long is the foot between the narrowings?
A. Sixty-eight rounds. 



 (Ed. No details for shaping the toes or the turning of the heel – you were supposed to know that already or look it up in the primer!)  

Narrowings are decreases. By my reckoning, you cast on 148 sts with very fine wool on probably 1.5mm needles, and there are 148 + (21 x 6) + 80 = 354 rows before the heel begins. And the leg requires 41,000 stitches and that is before beginning the heel and foot rows. Knitting a man's stocking was a massive task for a child.

The seam is a vertical line of alternate knit and purl stitches to imitate the stitched seam of the old cloth hose. It also helped in the counting of rows. Think of the very visible seam on modern ladies glamour stockings!

That is quite a feat of knitting, especially for girls in schools when you left school in your early teens.

Note there is no rib at the top, so the top would roll over! The elastic property of ribbing was recognised only in the later part of the century. Garters (ties made of ribbon or knitted strips in garter stitch) were used above the knee).

The author did not use a tech-editor!  The maths do not add up, but never mind, knitters can cope with that.

Double-Pointed Knitting Needles

Maybe you would like to emulate the old knitters and make very fine stockings – or maybe you make cotton lace or miniature knits. For those of you wanting to work with finer gauge knitting needles than are generally obtainable, I have sourced steel needles from Asia. These are based on hollow rods, therefore not so heavy as the older British and European needles. However, as I cannot find anything finer than 2mm in Western Europe available currently, I have purchased a few sets of these needles.

In the UK we generally knit with a set of four needles, the stitches arranged on three needles and knit with the fourth. In the US there seems to be a liking for casting on to four needles, therefore requiring a fifth to knit them off.  I am selling them in sets of four, aiming to source sets of 5 in the future, enabling you the purchaser to decide how many you need in a set!

Before deciding to stock these needles I bought a set for myself and have now used them for nearly a year for many projects. They are not so heavy, shiny and glossy as many sold in the Western world, but that means they do not keep sliding out of the stitches, especially at the very beginning and end of the rows. For beginners in round knitting they are more stable in your hands than the shiny needles. I have come to enjoy using these needles and hope you will too.

If you like knitting flat, just buy two needles. These needles work VERY well in knitting belts. I make and sell these organically-produced belts in a range of belt sizes (or to order) on my website.

To obtain these needles, (currently my stock is not big as I am testing the market!) please go to my Etsy BygoneYarnyShop. If your size is not in stock, please send me a note through Ask a Question button on the Etsy listing.