Thursday, 4 April 2019

Shetland Knitters Really Did Knit 200 Stitches a Minute!

I have spent many weeks and months researching the old knitters' reputed rapid speed of knitting.

A vintage film made in the early 1930s in Shetland, Scotland, showed aspects of lives which would not have changed for a couple of generations. This is many years before oil was discovered in Shetland and the old ways of life were to change for ever.

A while ago, this old black and white film was shown on British TV under the title 'Visit the Crofters' by the British company 'Talking Pictures' which discovers old and often unknown films from the archives of the famous old British film studies such as Pinewood. I watched it quite by chance one morning, and the lovely people at Talking Pictures have given me permission to analyse their film to study the old methods of knitting. The whole film also shows crofters rounding their sheep up off the hills, plucking - rooing - them, fishing for herring and making baskets. The film had a tourism-type commentary and some background music, but these added nothing to the subject of knitting.

Thank you, TalkingPicturesTV!

I have permission from the British TV Channel 'Talking Pictures' to work on their film, and here is the result. Thank you 'Talking Pictures'!

There have been stories of the phenominal speed that the old knitters could reach, and just as many suggestions that these stories were fictions - How could anyone possibly knit up to 200 sts per minute! The fastest knitters in the world of the 21st century cannot exceed 100 sts a minute. But these stories came from researchers not known for exaggeration.


Mary Wright in her book 'Cornish Guernseys & Knit Frocks' said:
'Freed from the necessity [by using a knitting stick] to hold the working needle, the knitter could use the fingers of the right hand as a shuttle to move the stitches from the left-hand needle. This greatly increased the speed of knitting and by a rhythmical motion of arms and body, the knitter would strike the loops 'faster than the eye could see'. Experienced knitters achieved very high speeds of about 200 stitches a minute.
 ' "Granny's fingers moved so fast, you couldn't see them" Mrs Edmunds of St Blazey"  '

Marie Hartley and Joan Ingleby wrote a definitive book 'The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales' in about 1949, on professional knitting in Yorkshire (published 1952) and this described the knitting techniques practiced. 
"Mrs Crabtree remembers that her mother could knit a jersey or frock, as they were called (US: sweater) in a day and was paid a shilling for it."
If you go to Youtube you will see a video I published a few weeks ago summarising my research on this topic, and you will be able to see extracts from that "Talking Pictures" silent film on the knitters of Shetland. The fingers of the knitters are a blur, but the knitters are indeed working at 2 stitches per second and one of them considerably faster.

So the stories were NOT fiction! you will see from the silent conversation of the two ladies in the middle that this film is shown at real time speed. 

The film is mono-colour and very low resolution. The light is poor for the indoor scenes, so examining the film was not easy.
I slowed down the film to one-eighth of its original speed to see the individual hand movements of each stitch.

I could see how each stitch is formed: the wool is held in the left hand, and the working needle in the right. This is not the same as continental knitting as currently practiced, there is no change in the needle angles, and no twist in the actions of the hands. No hooking of the yarn. This is a very relaxed style. 

First the right hand needle is swung into the first loop on the left hand needle. The right hand needle is moved right-wards and the stitch is formed by the index finger of the left hand wrapping the yarn around the end  of the right hand needle. This was quite a difficult movement the first time I tried it and it took quite a few minutes to get my finger to work as I wanted! (I can now appreciate how difficult it is for a new learner of knitting!) It is the mirror image of the index finger movement practiced by many right-hand knitters. Immediately the needle is swung back leftwards under the left needle (it now contains its new loop) and a big swing right-wards pulls the old stitch off the left-needle. This big swing has another function too - it pulls just sufficient wool off the ball to feed the next stitch; to snug up the previous new stitch and ensure an even tension (gauge); and of course, prepare for the following stitch.

The right-hand needle now completes its swing back leftwards and immediately enter the next loop ready to form a new stitch.  All the while, the left hand has barely moved and the right hand has not moved its angle.

The action of the right needle is rather like a figure of eight. The knitter is giving a sympathetic sway to ease the needle's swing - is this the swaving, the sympathetic movement, often referred to by the old writers (including Mary Wright), said to be essential to maintain the speed?

The knitters could knit while walking, then the ball of wool is pushed into a pocket or tied to the waist by a little hook, to give an easy 'pull'. The yarn is pulled out from the centre of course to avoid the ball spinning into a tangle.


One knitter is making a narrow band of lace. She has tied her work to her belt to give tension, allowing the old row stitches to be stretched out and therefore easier to enter. The string is moved and adjusted every few rows to maintain the firm tension.

Interestingly, all these knitters are using pairs of needles with knobs. Not a single knitting stick between them!

I timed the knitters by slowing the film down to one-eighth speed! The fastest knitter was knitting at a phenominal 14 sts in around three seconds – that is a rate of 280 stitches per minute.

This gave me food for thought. It has revealed a skill and technique that just about every knitter thought had died out without being recorded. Incidentally, I have discovered another couple of films showing the same fast knitting but as yet I do not have permission to publish them.

To join my newsletter group please go to my website woollywoodlanders.co.uk and email me from the top of any page, and receive a free knitting pattern from my site.


(Unfortunately, in the introduction I appear to be gagged!!) To see all this for yourself watch my video - to be found by its title: 

Shetland Knitters Really Did Knit 200 Stitches a Minute!















Thursday, 11 October 2018

75 years ago - Knitting To Survive


I first learned about the WW2 secret death camp at Sobibor in Eastern Poland from the 1986 film “Escape From Sobibor”.
As trainloads of Jews and other people destined for elimination arrived at the camp’s train station, a few were picked out of the lines to work for the Nazi soldiers and the guards. One of the groups selected were teenage girl knitters. These knitters were among the few spared from immediate death.
Just 42 prisoners of the hundreds of workers at the camp survived from around 300 who escaped during the uprising on 14th October 1943, and among those forty-two were four of the dozen knitters. Thanks to the film “Escape from Sobibor” the world learned of the camp and its prisoners. We now know the story of these four knitters and what happened to them.
The four survivors, Esther Raab, Hela Weiss, Regina Zielinksi, and Zelda Metz had worked together in Staw-Sajczyce, a Nazi forced-labour camp. They were all sent to Sobibor in December 1942 when the camp was built and ready for its grim task. They lived in a hut apart from the other prisoners because the soldiers did not want their socks contaminated with lice.
Hella, was only eighteen when she arrived, and later recalled that day:
“We went through a deep forest, and then we saw a sign [that] says Sonderkommando [a squad of Jews ordered to build the camp who, when it was fin­ished, were shot]. As in a dream, I heard a voice of one of the Germans say: “Who can knit?’ and I stepped out of the line… . The German ordered me to come forward, and then they took me to a cabin, where I found two girls whom I knew before: Zelda and Esther. In my childhood, my mother taught me how to knit socks, so my job was to provide socks for the Germans and to iron the shirts of the S.S. men.
After her escape Hella fought with the partisans and in the Russian army. She received six decorations for fighting against the Germans including the Red Star. In Czechoslovakia she met a Jew in General Swoboda’s army, whom she married and they settled in Israel. Hella died in December 1988 in Gedera, Israel.
Esther Raab moved to the USA after the war, and one day with fellow-escaper Samuel Lerner, Estera recognised SS-man Erich Bauer (later sentenced to eight years in prison), from Sobibor, walking along a street in Berlin.
Zelda Metz, after escaping during the revolt, hid with peasants. She obtained false papers stating she was an Aryan and she worked as a nanny for a family in Lwov, finally settling in the United States of America in 1946.

After the war some of the survivors testified for the records and for the Sobibor war crimes trial of 1965.

Regina Zielinksi testified, recalling how they acquired the wool needed for the stockings. The girls had to unravel old knitted clothes removed from the gas chamber victims. Her testimony explained that they had to make the old wool new. “This way we started to knit. All the socks were for the soldiers. They had to be big and long and warm. We had to make at least one sock a day. So the knitting time wasn’t just from dawn to dusk. Sometimes it carried over as long as the lights were on, till about ten o’clock at night in the winter. Later on, it was a little longer.”
Regina married on December 24, 1945 in Wetzlar and settled in Australia on August 3, 1949. She told her story to her son Andrew, who published it in 2003 under the title ‘Conversations with Regina.‘
Regina said, “If you’re not a knitter like me, you may have never heard of World Wide Knit in Public Day (which actually spans one week every year). When people asked me what I did for WWKIP that year, I proudly said, “I went to the death camp at Sobi­bor, and I knitted my sock because I wanted to, not be­cause my life hung in the balance. I knitted for the sock knitters of Sobibor whose names we don’t know and for those who survived incredible odds. I knitted for life. In remembrance there can be hope.”

 A knitted stocking from a 1933 British publication

In the 1940s and 1950s men wore stockings not socks, and Regina says the soldiers wanted them long and warm. Stockings reached the knee, and only children wore short socks. Stockings took a lot of knitting and would take around 8 ounces (200 g) of woollen yarn, so required around twice the amount of knitting as a pair of modern ladies’ socks. I wonder how many knitters today could knit a stocking in a day.

These girls evaded the gas chambers because they knitted socks.

(Information taken from www.jewsforjesus.org)

There is an online knitting and crochet organisation called Ravelry.com which has 4 million members. There is a page mentioning the knitters: https://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/lizkor-remembrance-socks

More details of the WWII survivors can be found in https://www.holocausthistoricalsociety.org.uk/contents/sobibor/sobiborsurvivorsandescapees.html

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 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.