Saturday, February 27, 2010

New technology needles

I have been admiring and praising the Hya-Hya DPN for knitting softer spun yarns on the basis of some hand knitting at a show. These are very light weight knitting needles made from stainless steel by fusing the tips on to tubing. Recently I bought a bunch of them and it turns out that for use with a knitting sheath sizes US#1 and larger sometimes tubing crimps and collapses suddenly unless the knitting sheath fits them just perfectly. used very gently, and they will likely work very well, but I am an agressive knitter and they lasted seconds.However, minor wear in the knitting sheath can result in such loss of perfection. Their #0 and smaller needles are solid stainless steel, which does not crumple like that larger needles but does not have much spring and bends rather than flexing.

The Signature needles have that fine point so beloved of fast knitters of tightly spun yarn. Again in sizes above #0, the needles are made by fusing aluminum tips to tubing. Again localized pressure on the shaft of the needle can result in fatal (to the needle) crumples. Moreove, Signature needles do NOT like being stepped on.  Knit VERY gently if you must use your Signature needles with a knitting sheath, and I do think you will be OK. Signature’s needles in sizes #0 (and smaller) are made of a very high quality stainless steel, and are not real “springy”, they may bend on you in knitting sheath use. Still they are beautiful needles made by very nice people.
My needles just are not as pretty. On the other hand my needles have more spring, and there is nothing that your or your kid or your horse can do to damage the needles that I make (except leaving them in the damp so that they rust.)  Take the above with a grain of salt, because I bend my spring steel needles all the time. I bend them and they keep on working.  Hya-Hya and Signature do not keep working if they get bent.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I do not give many citations. Suppose I cite British customs taxes from the 14 th century? The few folks that would go to London and check the original customs ledgers know where they are and how to get permission. For anyone who is not going to check the original manuscript, there are variety of transcriptions and summaries of those documents. However they are mostly in collections and you have to go to the library or collection, put on the white gloves and look. Just having the title of the document does not ensure that I did not transpose some numbers when I was taking notes on my little steno pad.
There are a lot of library skills that I take for granted. My dear Readers should take that as a complement.

I said, “that we do not do fine knitting any more”, and we do not. Bug knits is tiny stitches, but it is novelty work. There is a wonderful collection of similar work in a knitting shop on the North Shore of PEI, and I am sure that there are many other similar artists around. The lady on PEI said that each of the little garments required more than 200 hours of work. In contrast, the Pope’s Stocking was a fragment of men’s hose that was designed to be worn.

As late as the start of WWII, a good deal of fine knitting was still being done in the couture houses in Paris. These were finely knit, one of kind objects, which were not publicized. They also required thousands of hours of hand knitting. By the mid-1980s those knitting divisions at the couture houses were phased out. One of the last of those professional knitters now works as a sales clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue in SF. She is one of the few people in the US that I have met that knows how to knit with a knitting sheath, but most of the knitting when she was working in the couture houses was looser, and done with circs.

Folks today do knit gansesys. Gorden knits beautiful ganseys on circs, but he knits for half an hour per day and it takes him a YEAR to knit a gansey. Dawn9163 on Ravelery knit her son a wonderful gansey on circs in only 6 weeks, but at the end, her wrists were sore. The days of "terrible knitters" doing a gansey in a day are passed. I can knit a plain (but absolutely weatherproof) gansey in a week without hurting my wrists. I can knit a good, weatherproof sailor's kit in two weeks. I made many determined attempts to knit such fabrics on circs, and never could do it (fast enough to suit my needs for winter wear). At one time, I had a whole bin of failed attempts. For the first couple of years after I moved to DPN/knitting sheath, I would go back to my circs and make another stab at knitting such fabrics on circs.  I always failed.  No! that is not quite right. I COULD do it, but I could not do it fast enough or long enough at a time to to make it a practial method of production.   I would freeze before I got enough knit to keep me warm.  With a knitting sheath, I can easily keep myself and all my skiing and hiking buddies supplied with weatherproof knit wear.

The French had year-round navy patrols of the English Channel in the last couple of decades of the 14 th century. Why? Who knows? The British Crown was too broke to mount an invasion. Would you have volunteered for winter patrol in the English Channel? Not considering their ships, lack of charts, lack of coastal facilities, poor food, and lack of weather forecasts. No, France pressed their sailors. Press gangs worked later, and they worked just as well in 1380. We know that the Channel Islanders were knitting garments for sea faring men, and some of that product went to France. It is very likely some of it went to the sailors on Channel patrol. Ships are expensive, and hypothermic sailors result in lost ships. No, France bought their sailors tightly knit ganseys so the sailors could keep the ships a float. It is worth noting that 100 years later, France was still one of the largest customers for English wool. Trade routes tend to persist for generations.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My View of Knitting History

I am highly amused by the reaction that I get when I talk about knitting sheaths in history groups. Knitting sheaths are tools, like rocks and hammers. Sometimes they are the right tool, sometimes they are the wrong tool for the job. However, for me, it is funny for somebody that has never used a knitting sheath to vehemently say that knitting sheaths are unnecessary. That is like somebody that has never used a hammer telling a carpenter that hammers are unnecessary. I have to think that this is a residue of the Victorian loathing for the poverty associated with “knitting for pence”, and the Victorian distain for the tools of the impoverished contract knitters.

Actually, I thought about felt quite a lot. However, we have good knowledge that it was not much used aboard square rigged, sailing ships. So the real question is why was felt not used more? The answer is that felt clothing does not suit the kind of work done on a (square rigged) ship. As a result, the great sea faring centers have museums devoted to knitting, not felting. Felt clothing was very practical and popular on steam ships starting in the Victorian Era.

Knitting for subsistence fishing could be performed by wives, sisters, mothers, and other family members. However, Great Britain was a great sea faring nation with a navy that pressed crews - no chance for a mother to knit for her son while he served in His Majesty’s’ Navy. So there was commercial knitting for seamen as early as there were navy press gangs – and in France that was um – 1380? Customs tax records suggest that the wool that those French navy sailors wore came from England and was knit in the Channel Islands. Knitting was such a large industry in the Channel Islands that for a while customs tax on British wool exported to the Channel Islands was the primary income for the British Crown. When the Tudor Wool Act was passed, (to protect the Yorkshire knitting Industry) the Channel Islands turned to piracy, which was only resolved when Sir Walter Raleigh reestablished knitting on the Channel Islands as an industry. In those days, knitting was big business.

In Victorian days, knitting became conspicuous consumption in the tradition of Thorstein Veblen, Gary Becker, and Kevin Murphy. Knitting loosely proved that a lady’s house had central heat. Ladies wrote new knitting manuals to teach their students how to knit slowly and elegantly. Another great virtue of knitting slowly and loosely is no stress on the wrists. Thus, the ladies were able to discard the distained knitting sheaths. The old professional knitters did not write their skills down, and subsequent generations of knitters from all walks of life looked to the knitting manuals written by Victorian ladies. However, later generations of knitters forgot that those Victorian ladies had a distain for practical professional knitting.

As Mary Thomas writing in 1938 said,

Knitting sheaths, or sticks, as they were sometimes called, are now a feature of museum interest, but at one time, when hand knitting was a vast and flourishing industry and speed a matter of pence, every knitter owned and used these implements. . . .

 Mary Wright was one of the first to address the subject of knitting sheaths openly in her 1979 book, Cornish Guernseys & Knit frocks. (It is also worth noting that she damaged her wrists knitting a replica gansey on circular needles.)

In the old days, when knitting was an important technology, they were very, very good at it. One of the finest examples of knitting that we have is a fragment of silk hose with designs in gold filaments from the Arab world, knit in the Ninth Century. That was knit with the élan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur. Yes, today we have people that do things like:, but it took her more than a month and she had sore wrists afterward.

In the Victorian era, we lost much our heritage of these professional knitting tools and expertise. We no longer have cadres of talented professional hand knitters with trade secrets, advancing their craft generation by generation. We forgot how to knit ganseys without sore wrists. We have forgotten how to hand knit silk and gold at 30 stitches per inch. With a few exceptions, now, we do “hobby” knitting. Our professional knitters are designers that make a living doing designs for “hobby knitters”. I look to history, not for history per se, but for clues that can let me be a better knitter in the future.

Knitters that come to me for “history” are going to be disappointed. Knitters coming to me for ideas on how to knit better are going to be amazed and delighted. I have used rocks (Clovis blades) to cut my meat, but sometimes a steel knife is - just better. I have pounded nails with a rock, but sometimes a carpenter’s hammer is – just better. I have used Addi Turbos, but sometimes DPN with a knitting sheath is - just better.

He, who knows only his own generation, remains always a child.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

An approach to using different sized needles with the same knitting sheath

Many Victorian knitting sheaths have adapters that allow several different sized needles to be used with the same knitting sheath.   Many of these Victorian knitting sheaths with adpaters have a look about them that make me think of vocational school projects for teaching young men to use a variety of power tools.  That is, these are not tools made by a knitter.  Moreover, I do not see much in the way of wear marks on such tools suggesting that they were often gifts and keepsakes.

Several knitters have asked about how to use several different sized needles with one knitting sheath, and this is certainly a workable approach. The photo shows two knitting sheaths that I made which accept  adapters.  By changing the adapter, different sized needles can be used with the knitting sheath.  Thus, with these 4 adapters, US # 0, 1, 2, or 4 needles can be used with either of these knitting sheaths.
These are crude prototypes, but they work very well.

Another advantage of this system is that the knitting sheath can be made of a light weight or decorative wood while the adapter can be made of a harder wood such as maple. Thus, the  design life of the system can be longer, that the design life of a system with the (steel ) needle flexing against a softer wood.

On the other hand, these adapters are tricky little fellows and I expect they will tend to runoff, join the circus, and never to be seen in a knitting bag again. 

Monday, February 01, 2010

Wood for knitting sheaths

The traditional wood for for making knitting sheaths was "sycamore".  I had been looking for sycamore, and the American sycamore that I had been finding was not suitable.. 

The deal is: English sycamore is very similar to America soft maple. Sycamore from Scotland and Yorkshire is more similar to the harder American maples.

Thus, maple, and particularly rock or sugar maple, is an excellent wood for knitting sheaths.
Two Yorkshire style knitting sheaths made from rock maple.

Every time I use "goose wing" knitting sheaths, I am amazed at how well they work for gloves, hats, and other small knitting when tucked into apron strings  I love them.

My thanks to Chris at Robert Sorby.