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.