Wednesday, June 17, 2009

UK knit circa 1800?

How did folks in the UK knit circa 1800?

1) Certainly, hand-held DPN (or needles held, supported, or controlled in the arm pit) with the yarn in either the right or the left hand. These needles develop a very slight curve and distinctive wear marks at the extreme tip that allows them to be distinguished from broken awls. The disadvantages are that knitting firmly can put a stress on the wrists, knitting is slower than with a knitting sheath, and long needles are difficult to control.

2) Short (6- 12 inches), straight (more or less), DPN held in a knitting sheath under the right elbow or over the point of the right hip, with the yarn in either the right or the left hand. These knitting sheaths were 6 to 10 inches long in a variety of designs. These designs for such sheaths included bundles of feathers bound together with a bit of waste yarn or a cone of leather filled with horse hair for tucking into the waist band. of the sheath designs work very well tucked into apron strings. Many Other designs allow for separate tapes or belts. In general, the needle flexes along its length, and does not rotate in the needle hole of the knitting sheath. Many of the needles pick up a significant curve or arc with use. These needles have distinctive wear marks in an annuls ~1 cm form the shoulder of the needle tip. If you see this band of linear striations, you know the needle was used with a knitting sheath, and that it was a knitting needle and not something else. Such knitting sheaths can be used with 3+1 needles for small objects or many needles if a large carpet or blanket is required. The side of the right hand pushes the needle into the stitch and the base of the thumb pushes the working needle back through the stitch. It is a low stress knitting technique suitable for people with tender hands and wrists. It can be a very pleasant way to knit at a reasonable pace. It can also be done quite aggressively to knit very rapidly. This technique allows knitting fabrics much tighter than any other method on this page. These are most of the old knitting sheaths that people liked, and kept, and that one still finds in the collections.

3) Knitting sheath as above in 2) but used with 2 needles for lace items knit flat.

4) Gansey needles (14 -18 inch long steel DPN) used with a knitting sheath firmly attached to a strong belt over the right buttock, with the working needle arched forward under the right arm. The belt is worn much lower on the body than in the short needle technique above. The weight of the right arm rests on the needle. The needle is forced downward into the stitch, the right hand loops yarn over the tip, and the spring action of the needle lifts the loop of yarn back through the old stitch to form the new stitch. This is a powerful, industrial knitting technology. It can be done very fast, and then it is very hard work. On the other hand it is the easy way to knit a real gansey.

5) Curved, blunt needles called “pricks” used with very large knitting sheaths (40 -50 cm) tucked into a belt worn low on the hips. The yarn is controlled with the left hand. The prick rotates in the needle hole of the knitting sheath. The prick is “popped” into the working stitch with a down and out simultaneous impulse of both hands that caused the prick to pick up the yarn as it stretches the forward leg of the working stitch. The stretch of the yarn and fabric provide a spring action that push the prick and yarn back through the working stitch, which then pops off as the next stroke starts. The process is very fast and very demanding. This was a method for commercial knitting. As soon as the need passed, these big sheaths were tossed in the fire, and people reverted to straight needles with smaller knitting sheaths. The nature of the spring process means that everyone using the same sized needles and the same yarn will tend to knit at the same speed. Thus, everyone in the room can sing to the pace of their knitting, knit to the pace of the song, and at the end of the evening, everyone will have knit the same number of stitches.

6) Knitting belt/pouch with DPN. Very similar to 2) above, excellent with the blunter needles used for the softer spun yarns used in Fair Isle knitting. The needles are not as firmly held and have less of a tendency to develop an arc and develop polish rather than marks on the shaft of the needle. Perhaps not quite as fast as knitting sheath but very good for travel.

7) Knitting hearts – very small, decorated knitting sheaths, designed to pin to a lady’s dress to support very fine knitting needles used for knitting lace.

I am a bit pedantic, but I would say that circa 1800, there were at least 11 different and distinct knitting styles in Great Britain, the use of which employed at least 7 different tool kits.

A note, at one time, I thought that gansey needles were very difficult to manage without a knitting sheath. Now, I know some knitting styles that allow use of long needles without the use a knitting sheath. One of these methods is the knitting style of Miriam Tegels. (A second is s Spanish style of "Pit Knitting.") However, I still think that if Miriam Tegels and I sat down together to knit ganseys, for the first day or two she might blow me away, but that by the time we had knit a dozen ganseys, she would be a convert to knitting sheaths. I know that I just sold a set of knitting sheaths to a knitter that had learned excellent pit knitting skills as a girl in Spain. I showed her how to use the knittng sheaths, let her play with them for a while, and at the end of the session, they went in her knitting bag.

Monday, June 15, 2009

New Lion Brand Fisherman's Wool

I knit my first gansey from "Lion Brand Fisherman's Wool" some 3 years ago. It is an extrodinary garment knit from an extrodinary yarn.

However, Lion Brand has changed its sourcing of Fisherman's Wool. It is now a different fiber, a different spin, and a different ply. It is not the same. I bought a bit of the stuff, and will knit and test.

It really does feel nice while being knit, and looks nice right after being knit, that is it is easy to knit consistently and uniformly. There does not seem to be any veggy material in it, however there were a fair number of breaks in the yarn.

It felt wonderful while I knit it. As knit, the fabric felt wonderful. However, it lost stitch difinition while being blocked. The fabric lost elastisity and resiliance while being blocked. I would not use it for any garment that might get wet. I would certainly not use it for a gansey, and I would certainly not use it for anything a fisherman might wear.

Monday, June 08, 2009

How Knitting Sheaths Work

I get this question- frequently. So, I am going to post an answer, HERE, where everybody can find it.

First, a knitting sheath is a tool like a knitting needle. Just as there are different kinds of knitting needles, there are different kinds of knitting sheaths. And, just as there are different techniques of knitting there are several different techniques of using a knitting sheath. The most common knitting sheaths can be used while tensioning the yarn in either the right or the left hand, or with a strand of yarn in each hand, or with two strands of yarn in either hand.
A knitting needle is a lever for moving yarn. In most modern knitting techniques, the mechanical advantage is about 1: 3, with the fingers/ thumb of the hand providing both the force and acting as the fulcrum of the lever. This places stress on the hands and wrists. When the needle is inserted into a knitting sheath, the knitting sheath becomes the fulcrum and the force is applied with a 1:50 mechanical advantage. In addition, the knitting sheath allow the forced to be generated by the large muscles of the shoulders and transmitted through the very strong tendons of the upper arm.

With a knitting sheath or stick tucked into a belt or apron strings under the right elbow, and a fairly short working needle set it, The needle is pushed sideways into the working stitch with the palm, the yarn for the new stitch in any one of half a dozen ways, and the base of the thumb pushes the working needle out of the stitch, finishing the new stitch and transferring it to the working needle.

Gansey needles act as springs. One end is firmly anchored in a knitting sheath, and the needle flexed under the right arm. The weight of the arm pushes the needle tip into the stitch, and as the arm is lifted a bit, the needle springs upward, finishing the stitch and pulling it onto the working needle.

In swaving, (terrible knitting) a short curved needle pivots in the knitting sheath, and the yarn tension is controlled by the left hand. The blunt needle is “popped” into the stitch with a symmetric downward and outward push with both arms. The forward leg of the old stitch and supporting fabric act as a spring. The needle catches the yarn with another “pop”, the force of the arms holding the stitch open is relaxed and the spring of the yarn in the old stitch pops the needle out of the old stitch (still carrying the yarn) to form the new stitch on the right needle. (I have not mastered swaving yet and there may be changes to this in the future.)
Knitting sheaths are tools that provide leverage, just as hammers are tools that provide leverage. You can drive a nail by holding a lump of iron in your hand, but using a hammer is easier. You can knit with hand held knitting needles.

That is my story, and I am sticking it until I get better data.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I made the same stupid mistake as Rutt

I did.

Look at the knitting sheaths in all the collections and most of them are 2o to 25 cm in length. Then, at the end of the Beamish collection is a big one -- with curved needles -- see the fine Beamish image at It is 42 cm long. A big one!

I looked at it, and I did not pay attention because so many knitting sheaths were smaller and they worked very well with even 12 inch straight needles.

However, knitting with curved needles is a different technology and requires different tools.

I tried making a bigger knitting sheath. See above. The big one. It is the one that works with those little curved needles. Try an evening of swaving with one of those 20 to 25 cm long knitting sheaths, and the next morning you will wake up with sore fingers.

Really, the little ones do work just fine for straight needles.

Monday, June 01, 2009

In a rut

I read all of Rutt. Then, I looked at a bunch of his original sources, and read him again. Then, I went to the shop and made needles and experimented. Then, I went back and re-read passages.

Note for example that I compare what he says on page 20 with what he cites from Howitt on page 120. On page 122, Rutt discards Howitt's eyewitness description without a stated reason. Rutt's eyewitness (Sedgwick, pg 122) has abandoned the curved needles by the time Rutt meets her. Why? I propose that she stopped swaving because swaving is a high effort activity. It is hard work. It was a way for a commercial knitter to knit as much as possible per hour, and Sedgwick was no longer getting paid by the piece, so she did not put in the effort into knit extra fast. The swaving needles were thus surplus, and got lost – maybe a metal drive during WWll.
Rutt assumes that the needles were bent of long usage, but does not state a basis for that assumption. However, a look at old museum needles shows two classes of bent needles. Needles randomly bent from long usage show clear differences, and needles with a deliberate bend in them. The Dentdale knitters put a deliberate and specific bend in their needles. My first swaving needles looked like the bent from age needles. Once I understood swaving, I went back and re-bent my needles. Re-bending the needles was a real effort, but then, my needles looked the deliberately bent group of needles in the museums. Those needles did not get bent by usage. Rutt should have figured this out.

Rutt does not consider the possibility that there might be a very fast, commercially oriented hand knitting technique that required a knitting sheath and needles with very specific curves. He does not think about the physics or the ergonomics of swaving. Old Mrs. Sedgwick no longer had a need to knit very fast, she no longer had the strength, she no longer had the skills, and she no longer had the old curved needles. She no longer had the big knitting sheath. She was not a good witness for the technique. Yes, she did show him one or two of the 3 or 4 knitting techniques that they used, she just did not show him all all of them.