Thursday, February 28, 2013

Back to Brears Fig 5

When  swaving, I find wear between the needle and a wooden needle adapter to be much greater than I expected.  Thus, I end up using brass inserts in the needle adapter. I have already recounted that with long needles motion between the needle and needle adapter causes rapid wear.  I dealt with this by devising a tapered needle adapter that minimized motion between the needle and the needle adapter.  Thus, wear  in knitting sheaths is a problem.

Whittlers did not have the option of the tapered needle adapter that I use, and are unlikely to use brass inserts.
Looking at Fig. 5,  we see whittled knitting sheaths.  Whittled chains and caged balls can only be done on soft wood. Whittlers did not have the option of the tapered needle adapter that I use, and are unlikely to use brass inserts.  With the exception of no. 1, these are love tokens, and not functional knitting sheaths. However, they present some points of interest.

"Historical documentation" of No. 1 says that it was used under the arm.  Likely that source was in the Victorian time frame accustomed to pit knitting, and source was not likely aware of traditions of knitting sheath use.  The chain would not function in an under the arm position.  The pull on the working needle would have been too great.  From the drawing, it appears to me that the needle adapter is a separate piece of wood from the whittled chain. Thus, the needle adapter could have been made from a harder wood, and was replaceable so the whittled chain could be used with a series of  needle adapters.  It was likely hung at the waist by a cow band.

Nos. 4 & 8 hint that knitters had more than one object dangling on their right side. And Nos. 2, 4, & 8 have multiple hooks.  I take this to mean that knitters had a clew to hold their yarn and a hook (with a swivel) to hold their knitting.

My guess is that functional knitting sheaths were made of  harder woods, and  whittled chains with hooks (at each end) were common to support clews and knitting, but did not make it into Brears, because they were not knitting sheaths per se.  If we look at Fig 4., and remember that many of these are non functional love tokens,
I think Nos. 1,8, & 9 show where hooks or cords could have been hung.  Likewise, Nos. 3,4,9,10, 11,14,15, & 16 in Fig 3.

All in all, and considering Howitt's descriptions, we can expect that the old knitters had clews for yarn and hooks for knitting dangling from their knitting sheath or their belt near the knitting sheath.  This works if the floor is dirty.

The clew is easy with a center pull ball or even a cone with the right kind of hook.  With either a center pull ball or a cone, no swivel is required.

The spun yarns and cords that they had at that time would have tended to untwist under sustained tension with a swivel, but they needed the swivels so the knitting could turn as they knitted round and round. My guess is that knitters without a whittler just braided themselves loops or used strips of cloth or leather laces from which to hang their knitting. Without a swivel, all of these get twisted up and tangled.  Note that Fig. 5 No. 6 does not have a swivel in it.   Note that the 4 swivels in No. 8 are not functional.

Actually for big knitting, I like loops of  braided nylon cord with a swivel from my fishing gear and one of those big safety pins that they sell for holding stitches.  I fold the knitting up into a compact package.  I put a loop of cord through the bottom of the sheath, the swivel, another loop of cord, and the stitch holder. Then the stitch holder holds the knitting.  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


I must thank =Tamar for her sharp eyes and keen memory.

She is one of the great resources in the textile community.


Real Hate

A lot of knitters and spinners hate me.  It is a good hate, but it is not a REAL HATE.  I have been the object of  REAL HATE.

A long time ago, I worked for Steve Weil, who had been Branch Chief at the US EPA responsible for writing the RCRA hazardous waste regulations.  So when ASQC was writing the environmental data quality standards  I was invited to join in.  The ASQC standards become part of the EPA RCRA regulations, which also applied to CERCLA.  A few years later, part of my job was to tell Program and Project Managers at the Hanford nuclear facility (US-DOE RL) that yes, they really did have to comply with data quality standards.  They had not budgeted for this, and they thought it was going to wreck their budgets. These were powerful men, who made a lot of money for Bechtel, and they were accustomed to getting their way.  They had REAL HATE for me, and the power and access to implement that hate.  It was only the direct intervention of  Dr. McHugh in US-DOE EM-63 that saved my ass.

While I was finishing up the manuals, Dr.  Tindal went around to the Program and Project Managers, and said, "Hey, data quality standards are a magical, double edged sword that can save your projects huge amounts of money." And sure enough, the Program and Project Managers, were able to save so much money for taxpayers that they got a $10 million performance bonus.  Then, they loved me.

Experienced  spinners spin and knit the way they were taught, and they have never seen anyone spin or knit differently, so that assume that they are spinning and knitting as well as humanly possible.

Then I come along and say,"No,15th - 18th century spinning and knitting was better." Experienced knitters and spinners just do not believe me.  The are experienced, and they have never such such work (actually produced), so I must be liar. They hate me for saying they are not the best that ever was. Don't these folks go to the Louvre and look at how well the threads in the tapestries were spun? It is amazing.  I spent 3 minutes looking at the Mona Lisa.  I spent 5 hours looking at a dozen tapestries.

For the last century, recreational spinners and knitters compared their output to that of other recreational spinners and knitters.They did not compare their work to to the work of professionals with the elan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur.  Yes, an NFL professional football team is better than a bunch of guys that used to play in college that get together and play on the local high school field.  And professional spinners in the 18th century were better than modern recreational spinners.

And that word "competent" brings out the core of the antagonism. For a long time (centuries), it was assumed that any competent spinner could spin wool at its spinning count. (

The whole British wool grading and pricing system was based on experienced spinners using their little twisty sticks to determine how many hanks (of 560 yards) per pound a competent spinner could spin from that wool.  So, I say a competent spinner can spin Cotswold at 40 hanks per pound (22,000 ypp), Shetland at  60 hpp (34,000 ypp), and Rambouillet or Merino at 70 hpp (40,000 ypp.)  This drives modern hand spinners up the wall.  They do not think it can be done.  They think I must be a liar.  In fact, spinners spun this fine at commercial speeds. By taking their time, spinners can spin much finer. A number of modern spinners spin wool at over 100,000 ypp.  However, the modern assumption is that it takes years and years to learn to spin that fine.

No, it takes a set of planned evolutions to build the skills.  Not a class here, and a class there, but planned and sequential training, with extended and focused exercises.   In 1600, British spinning schools trained spinners to spin a fine linen thread in each hand in two years.  It is not rocket science.

So last summer, I did a spinning evolution to learn to spin finer.  Part of it was spinning miles and miles of 30,000 ypp Shetland singles.  I spun that because there is an easy and  accurate way to gauge grist. One cuts a short piece of single off cleanly, and drops it into soapy water in a saucer.  If the single is at the spin count, there will be 18 -20 little fibers of wool in the water. So, anyway I spun miles of those singles.  It was my spinning homework.  If your spinning teachers do not assign you miles and miles of homework, they are not doing their job. My spinning teacher is known for doing a fine job. Not wanting to do lace, I turned the singles into 10-ply fingering @ 3,000 ypp.  It is nice sock yarn.

Experienced spinners do not believe that I did it and they hate me.  (Some of them claim to have also taken classes from my spinning teacher, but if so, they did not do their home work.)

 Go buy a pair of very fine socks at an excellent department store such as Saks or Nordstroms  and look at how finely the yarn is spun.  Fine plies is the right way to make yarn for really nice socks.  Now look at the yarn they sell for knitting socks your LYS.  Knitters get all wound up over color and softness, but there is more to excellent socks than color and softness.  When I say things like this, you can see why experienced spinners and knitters hate me.

But, it is a magical, double edged, sword.  I am also giving them a way to produce much higher quality textiles.  I am not saying that everyone should knit and spin like I do,  I am just saying that as community we should keep this repertoire of tools and skills alive. Better tools and skills put higher quality textiles within reach of  more spinners and knitters.

The motto over the door of my favorite library is:  "He who knows only his own generation remains always a child."  They wonder why I am patronizing and condescending. If someone thinks like a child, I treat them like a child. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Torque, Tension, and swaving

Long needles require longer knitting sheaths (mostly) to withstand the torque of the long lever arm provided by the length of the needle.  Knitting sheaths for swaving do not need to withstand that torque.  I may have been absolutely wrong about the short spindle form knitting sheaths in Brears. They may be to scale, but were used for swaving.

These are two Yorkshire knitting sheaths that I made along time ago. (Long before I worked out swaveing.)  They  mostly differ by the direction of the spiral design carved on them.  First, I made the one on the left, and it never worked (with the straight needles that I was using at the time). The one on the right worked acceptably when tucked into thin apron strings, but was never good enough to keep me from moving on to other designs.   However, for swaving, their performance is excellent and  substantially indistinguishable.  (Both always had brass inserts.)  Now, I have to go back and reconsider a lot of styles and designs that I had previously discarded.  The only thing wrong with some of those designs for swaving is the hole for the needle is too deep.    Relatively short swaving needles do not have to be inserted as deep into the knitting sheath because they do not have to withstand the torque. For swaving, needle holes less than 0.5" deep work well, while I had to make holes for long needles more than a inch deep to keep the long needles from popping out of the knitting sheath and into the furniture.

Two different spindle form knitting sheaths for the same size and length of needle, but since different knitting knitting techniques are used the knitting sheaths are different.  The long sheath is of the Dutch style and works very well with 6" straight needles (sock needles) and the short one is for 6" curved needles that rotate in the knitting sheath.

This raises the obvious question, "Can one swave with a leather/horse hair knitting pouch". Yes, but it is not as fast or easy as with a properly designed/ lubricated knitting sheath.  It is kinda like handheld knitting with wooden needles; there are many reasons to knit with wooden needles, but more speed is not one of those reasons.

It turns out that my trouble with doing decreases while swaving was in part because I was knitting very tightly.  And, swaving, allows knitting much tighter than in any other form of knitting that I know.

However, it is also possible to knit very loosely while swaving, giving swaving a larger range of fabric types for a given needle size than I am accustomed.  It is like  hand held continental where one can knit very loose fabrics with small needles.

However, with continental, one can just switch from tight knitting to loose knitting, or from loose to tight.  However with swaving it seems to take about 4 rows.  Anyway the bottom line is that one can knit loose fabrics while swaving, and that such looser knitting makes decrease stitches much easier.  However, knitting loosely while swaving does mean knitting slower because the fabric has less spring to it to pop the needle out of the stitch.

Swaving is much faster than I could ever knit with long needles (gansey needles), and I do not seem to be near a peak speed.  It is nice to have objects that seem to just sort of fall off the needles.  I have to be more careful to always count rows or check the length frequently.  In the old days, an evening of TV was a 4" sock cuff.  I could cast on and knit all evening without checking the length. The next morning, in the light I could finish the cuff, and turn the heel.  In the evening, I could knit most of the foot, and finish the sock in the morning's light. Thus, most of my work socks have about 5" cuffs.  I was not paying attention, so the current pair on the needles has 6.5" cuffs.  I will save them for winter wear.  It will be OK.

I had been using brass inserts in the needle adapter for swaving needles/pricks, as this reduced the friction, and allowed the needle to rotate more easily.  However, installing a brass insert was extra effort. Now, I am moving to simply making the needle adapters for swaving out of rosewood, black walnut, or similar.  With a bit of bee's wax , these woods seem to make a perfectly good bearings, allowing free rotation of the needle.  How they wear will be another question. I have not decided if the extra bother of working with these woods is more or less than the bother of a brass insert.  However, everyone seems to think the rosewood turnings look nice.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Goose wings

I remember the first time a strapped on a replica Yorkshire goose wing.  I was amazed at how it just fit the point of my right hip, and pivoted so nicely.  That pivot instantly suggested a knitting motion that worked with goose wings.  Sometimes I still knit like that. 

However, it turns out that a goose wing is much more versatile.
If we look at the goose wings in Brears, Fig. 2 No. 13, Fig. 6, & Fig. 7 Nos. 1-3 &  9, the first thing we note is that Brears proveniences them all from a relatively small area of North Yorkshire (Wensleydale, Teesdale, Eden Vale, Balderdale, Appleby, Dent, and Castle Bolton.    Despite being from small area the goose wings in Fig 7 are designed to be tucked into a sash, wide belt or waist band, while those in Fig. 2 & Fig. 6 are designed to be tucked into apron strings or a narrow cow band.  Thus there was likely a difference in costume of the knitters, suggesting that they were made in different periods.

Brears notes that the earlier sheaths tend to be plainer.  My explanation for this is that earlier sheaths were utilitarian (often used for professional knitting). There were like many of them, but they were bought from professional knitting sheath makers, used, and discarded before they acquired sentimental value.  Here I have to disagree with Brears because we know from other sources, in the 17th century every village had a cane maker or similar that also made knitting sheaths.  The sharp eyed anonymous will point to Fig.5 No 1 and say it is early (1680) and elaborate, but Fig 5 deserves its own post.   However, Fig 2 nos 16-18, are early, and have carving that does not detract from their functional use.

Looking at Fig 7 Nos. 4-8 & 10-21 we see knitting sheaths in a spindle style.  Some of these are similar to the Dutch knitting sticks that were used with short needles to make knit socks, these are shorter, putting the knitting lower in the lap.  Actually some of these would be very functional if they were at least as long as the goose wings.  If they are as short as they appear, then they are less functional for serious knitting.  From this we can deduce that Brears did not draw at a consistent scale.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Diversity of knitting sheaths

A knitting sheath is as simple or complex as a hammer. Their essence is the same, they are tools that provide leverage.  My tool dealer (Grizzly industrial)  offers 157 different kinds of hammers, and that does not include antique hammers such as a cobbler or wheel wright might have.  Thus, it is reasonable to think that there might be a large number of different kinds of knitting sheaths - each used for a different kind of knitting. And there are.

If we look at the various knitting sheaths drawn by Peter Brears in The Knitting Sheath, published in Folk
Life vol 20 1981-82.  We see the following kinds of knitting sheaths:

     Fig 2

Fig 3

Fig 4

   Fig 5

Fig 6

   Fig 7

     Fig 8

I am struck by several factors.  One is that he does not distinguish between knitting sheaths used for swaving and those for use with long needles. he does not indicate the size of the needle that fits the sheath.  And, he does not distinguish between, professional tools, 'love tokens' intended to be functional, and love tokens intended to be purely decorative or sentimental.With only one exception, Brear does not indicate wear marks (or lack of wear marks).

In Fig. 3 Nos. 1 and 8 are clearly utilitarian tools. Nos. 2, 3, 7, 10, and 11 are functional tools with decorative carving that enhances their functionality.  While Nos, 4, 5, and 9 have carving that diminish their functionality, and  Nos, 6, 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 were likely never intended for any use what so ever. No.6 is heavy. The woods that are soft enough to carve ball-in-cage are to soft to make good knitting sheaths.  The  ball-in-cage structures in nos. 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 are not likely to be to survive the stress of knitting with long needles.  The  ball-in-cage in No. 4 is not required to transmit the full stress of the needles, but only survive handling.  It could survive handling in the context of careful knitting for the family, but is not likely to survive sustained professional / commercial use.  Thus, some knitting sheaths were made for use, and others were purely for sentimental and decorative purposes.  And some were made to show off whittling ability.


The Knitting Sheath
Peter C.D. Brears published in Folk Life  A Journal of Ethnological Studies Volume Twenty 1981-82
deserves some careful review.  Therefore over the next few posts, I am going to annotate several aspects of the work.

Several thing jump to mind.  The first is that this is a peer reviewed academic journal that can be found in research libraries and reprints were sold at a nominal cost at various museums in Yorkshire.  (My copy cost  95 p at the Castle Museum.)  The second is his acknowledgement of hand knitting as a profession and industry. The third is his noting that the knitting sheath was used in this industry almost without exception. And, the fourth is his reference to William Howitt's description of knitters in Dentdale.

Anybody that says they could not find Howitt's passage on knitting, just was not looking.  I may make mistakes, but I go look.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Waist Coats & Vests

If we look at the standard references on clothing, waistcoats and vests were made from woven material.

However, Mary Thomas gives a stranded knitting technique (weaving) that she said was much used for Victorian waistcoats. In Weldon's Practical Knitter, we see a large number of  patterns for waist coats, vests and under vests, some of which are long sleeved. 

Thus, it is clear that the Victorians wore knit vests and waist coats without this practice intruding into fashion history.

One advantage of weaving is that it produces a warmer fabric with less need for knitting tightly. For the same warmth, a waist coat of this kind of knitting requires more wool and is heavier and bulkier than a waist coat knit with long needles and  knitting sheath of the same warmth.

When I knit with circs, I did some weaving  and as I moved to long needles/knitting sheath, because it was very easy.   However, as I came to understand how warm fabrics knit on long needle with a knitting sheath could be, I stopped weaving because it added weight and bulk to an already warm fabric.

It is interesting that directions for weaving do not appear in the Weldon instructions. 

And when we look at Colonial trade of Maryland, 1689-1715 (1914) by M. S. Morriss, in Appendix II, (imported from England) we do find  both cloth and “ worsted” stockings and both wool and worsted waistcoats, which I take to mean that there were knit waist coats. The book is reprinted in The Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science (1914) by Herbert Baxter Adams 

Taken in the context of the  above imported garments, the material at tells us that a sailor’s waistcoat could have sleeves, be called a jacket, and be worn outer most.  This is certainly consistent with seamanship texts from 1750 to 1840.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The decline and fall of the knitting empire

After 1812, there was a movement to teach the poor (in work houses/ poor houses) to knit. As a result, there was a flood of hand knitting and knitters wages collapsed.  

By 1840, to be a professional knitter was to be poor. At this point, the tools and knitting methods of the professional knitter went out of fashion.  Knitters started pit knitting so as not to be seen with a knitting sheath.  And the knitting skills associated with using a knitting sheath were lost. Knitters stopped buying knitting sheaths, and the skills of making knitting sheaths were lost. Words for various specific tools and techniques were lost.

There were several contributing factors. Steam replaced sail reducing the need high quality seaman's sweaters. On the deck of a steam boat, a cheap felted pea coat is better than an expensive knit sweater.  Frame knitting became much better, and "machine-made" become fashionable. Homes, businesses, churches, and transportation were better heated, requiring less clothing to stay warm. All in all, there was less need for fine hand knitting.

The entire culture of professional knitting was lost in 3 generations. Talented young knitters did not go into knitting (if they could avoid it) because because knitting as a profession did not promise respect in the community or good wages.  Young people with elan went into other professions. Knitting as a craft form did not expand, and move forward.

Certainly, good Shetland lace was knit.  This was supported by developments in wool breeding and mechanical spinning. However, all of that lace knitting kept those Shetland knitters in poverty.  In 1885, a lady might buy a Shetland lace christening gown for her niece, but she bought it at Harrods, and would never actually talk to the knitter.  The best that can be said is that those lace knitters were being exploited.  Yes, they produced great quantities of fine lace, but that was despite their lack of tools and working conditions, not because of their poor working conditions. With better tools, better light, better shop conditions, and better yarns, they could have turned out better lace.  The best yarn they had available was in the 12,000 ypp range, with some silk blends going a bit finer.  It does take the finest tools and supplies to turnout the finest lace. If one is going to work at a professional pace with the finest needles, then one needs a knitting sheath to stabilize the needles. However, the skills of making such knitting sheaths were lost. One does not attempt the finest lace, if one is going to be blocking it outside.  One only does the finest lace when one has a protected attic to dry/block the final object.  One needs a dedicated work space for the finest knitting. Child care and a hearth (soot & sparks) are the enemies of the finest lace.  In contrast, a hundred years earlier the lady wanting lace would have gone into the lace make's shop and talked to the knitter.  In 1785, the knitter was more respected and better paid.  In 1785, the better paid knitter had a better work-space, better light, better tools, and was able to do better work.

In Brugge, we looked at a good, private collection of lace. Of course there was a lot of Victorian stuff that looked nice - until you put it side by side with lace that was 100 years older.

Finally, any competent hand spinner can spin Rambouillet at 47,000 ypp producing 2-ply at 22,000 ypp, which is finer than Gossamer Cashmere. And worsted spinning produces a thin yarn with good tooth that displays well when knit with fine needles.  These days, I do a fair amount of knitting on needles in the range of 1.0 mm - 1.5 mm. I found that I like those needles by working with finer needles.  I am starting to have some ideas about lace.  


John Marchant’s Dictionary (2d ed 1760) defines jacket as a short outward garment such as a sailor might wear. Thus, what you would call a gansey or Guernsey would be called a shirt if worn as an under garment and a jacket if worn as an outer garment, and a frock if rather loose.  And if long, it would be a gown. Consider John Boyd’s A manual for naval cadets, where only in one reference are they called “knitted worsted jackets” and other times simply “jackets". Note well the use of “jackets” by Liardet, for the garment the crew is wearing to sleep in on cold nights. (Liardet was a sea captain who wrote a large number of texts on seamanship and military/ merchant ship management.) Likewise, knit wear may be called a “frock”, per Mary Wright
If sold by the ship (slop chest), they would all be known as “slop”. See for example; The Royal Navy, 1790-1970 by Wilkinson-Latham.
Additional information is in the Fourth Report of the Commissioners for Revising and Digesting the Civil Affairs of His Majesty’s Navy (1806). These reports include full details and history of the operation of the slop chests. In The laws, ordinances and institutions of the Admiralty, (1746, Vo.l 2 pg 301) we see both broad cloth coats and “Kersey gowns” are to be sold at 19 shillings. each. (~twice the price of a "striped suit" of clothes, or 3 time the price of a "blue suit") In The accounts of the Lord High treasurer of Scotland: 1473-1498, we see that “Kersey” is a finely knit fabric. From both contexts, Kersey was expensive.

Edited to say this is clearly wrong.  Kersey was a woven fabric.  Thus we still have the question of, " how did the top men stay warm." Twill fabric, even with a nap does not solve the problem.
Thus, we have knit upper body garments in the British navy slop chests in 1746, based on official government reports available in the national archives.  And the garments brought aboard by volunteers and merchant seamen are repeatedly referenced in the basic texts of the time.  The existence of such garments given the authority and the number of such references is beyond doubt.

If we must look to Admiralty documents, 

The Nautical Magazine: A Journal of Papers on Subjects Connected ..., Volume 2 (1833), at that time there are worsted, white knitted jackets. and in Admiralty Orders, &c. &c.

(Circular, No. 83.) Admiralty, 23d October, 1832, we have blue knitted jackets.
And note the that the slop chests did not sell “oil skins”. We know that some war ships had infrequent  “make and mend” days.(see for example Liardet on warship management. Other sources say some war ships went months between M&M days.  Sailors on warships were not given time to knit. This is no surprise as the Captain made a profit on all slops sold to his crew.) Thus if a man was pressed, and came aboard, he could buy a knit gown, and various kinds of cloth, but it might be months before the sailor could fashion a set of oil skins. Thus, we know that the “gown” had to be very warm. It had to be weather proof.
It is worth noting the difference between the Navy's selling slops to seamen and the way the British Army and Marines were clothed. In Reports from Committees of the House of Commons: Repr. by Order ..., Volume 13 (1803) pg 622 et seq., we see that clothing and equipment was issued to these forces, and if they remained in the service for 8 months, the soldier owned the clothing/equipment.  As we look at navy accounts pg 166 et seq we see line items for purchase of slops (to be sold to seamen) and clothing for prisoners of war,but no item for any other kind of clothing for seamen.  Thus, there was no funding for oil skins to be issued to seamen.  The sailor either brought an oil skin aboard, or made an oil skin on a "make and mend day" or went without.  On the other hand the  "striped suits" were lined with duck would have been reasonably wind proof, but not comfortable against the skin when wet, and very slow to dry. 
Academic and scientific works do not cite common knowledge such as is available in basic texts and encyclopedias. The above information is in the basic seamanship texts and encyclopedias of the time.    It was in the government reports on the topic from the time. It can be found in multiple other sources. Anyone with a basic knowledge of British or European shipping or fishing or naval operations circa 1750 should have be aware of this information.
The only question was, “How warm or weather proof, are such fabrics?” The answer is VERY! The proof is in the knitting and testing of such fabrics. That is what I have been saying, ‘the proof is in the knitting!”  The only peer review would be of the knitting, and that would require a knitter with expertise in knitting with long needles and a knitting sheath.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Waterproof systems

When I was designing systems for handling hazardous and nuclear waste, we were always doing “fault trees” and asking, “If this component fails, what else will fail?”, and “The failure of what other components will affect this component?”

When one does such fault trees on a 18th century square rigged ship, the integrity of almost every system comes back to keeping the sailors warm.  If the sailors go hypothermic, the ship’s systems fail. The weight of their  garments  affects how much work each sailor can do.  If the sailors clothes weight more, then the sailor can do less work.  If the sailor’s clothes are more bulky, then more space must be allocated to clothing and less to cargo.  If the sailor clothes are not as warm, then the sailor needs to eat more, then the ship needs more space for food and cooking and there is less space for cargo.  This goes on and on, and the issue of keeping the sailor warm is critical, and seemingly insurmountable.  It is a matter of doing forensic engineering.  The engineering says the ship will not work. 

Engineers these days do not know about wool fabrics knit from worsted spun yarns and knit with long needles and a knitting sheath.  Looking to the literature, the engineer sees the Victorian tradition of hand knitting, that says such fabrics are impossible to hand knit, and even if it could be done, the knitting  would be too slow and costly to be useful.  Thus, in the post Victorian era, such ships are impossible.

However, looking back at pre-Victorian knitting traditions, such fabrics were knit, and the technology to knit such fabrics rapidly and inexpensively was widely available.  With such very warm, light fabrics, and the square rigged ships become feasible, but are such fabrics possible?  The proof is in the knitting.

Someone who has never worn such garments thinks they are as impossible as an old sailor would think a modern cell phone was impossible.   The possibly of a cell phone is proven by the existence of a cell phone. The possibility of warm, light weight fabrics is proven by knitting them.

Think about recreating the water system on an 18th century square rigger;  wooden barrels bound with elm hoops.  Make a few.  Just like sweaters knit at a high density with long needles and a knitting sheath, the solid barrels hold water.  Now drill 1/8” holes on a 1.5” grid through the barrels.   They are not very big holes, and they are not real close together,  but the barrels no longer hold water and are worthless as a water system.  That is the equivalent density of a woolen fabric knit on hand held needles to a fabric knit on long needles with a knitting sheath.  The lower density fabric is not as functional for keeping sailors warm.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Why Seaman's Sweaters?

Or, Why didn't they just change their clothes and put on rain gear as required?

Back in school, I had a  professor that said, "One must make a thousand pots of tea, before one is ready to make one tea pot".  He meant that one must understand how the product will be used, before one can make a truly excellent product. One must remember that Russian tea is served differently than Japanese tea.  In this vein, one must understand the life of that sailor before one can understand the clothes of that sailor.

On sailing ships (pre-1830), top men were stationed in the top of the ship’s rigging because with every change of weather or course, there was ship’s work that had to be done promptly.  There was not time to climb down, change clothes, and climb back up.  And there was no way to store clothes in the top, and in a squall, there was no way to change clothes in the top.  (Yes, oil skins could be lashed to the mast, but one is not going to be able to don oil skins in the top of a ship during a squall. Modern skippers do not even allow crew in the rigging in such conditions.) The clothes that a top man wore as he climbed into the top, were all that he had for his 4 hour watch, regardless of what squalls should blow up (or blow away).

Their rigging and sails were natural fiber, when it got wet, the fiber swelled and the lines shortened and had to be slacked – rather promptly.  When the weather cleared, the lines and sails dried, and had to be trimmed – rather promptly.  The times when a land lubber would have the sailors changing their clothes, are in fact the exact times the sailors had the real work of a sailor to do.

If a weather event required "all hand"s, they came on deck in whatever clothes they wore while sleeping.  A modern racing crew can sleep in their rain gear for the duration of a race, but a seaman did not sleep in his oil skins every night for years on end.  He slept in his sweater, and trusted that to keep him warm during all hands calls. 

Real seamen could do real work, on real ships, because they had real sweaters.  Sweaters that shed rain, but vented under warmer conditions.  The technology to knit such sweaters includes long needles and a knitting sheath.  The technology can be used to knit other things, but it did make  good seaman’s sweaters.  It is a technology that most modern knitters have forgotten and  product that few modern knitters can imagine.

How much clothing and gear did a seaman have?  Space on board a ship was very limited. An officer or midshipman could have a sea chest, but a seaman kept his things in a sail cloth bag, perhaps a foot in diameter and 2' long. He would have the clothes that he wore and slept in; including a neck cloth, leather belt, belt knife, and marlin spike. He could swing out of his hammock, and go on deck ready to work. He would have a change of clothes for shore wear. He would have a couple of pairs of mittens, a couple of pairs of socks, a knit helmet, a cap, an oil skin & rain hat, an extra sweater, perhaps some knit drawers, and a pair of sea boots.  There would be his sailor's palm and needle, thread, beeswax, a razor, and a bible if he could read.   There might be a pipe and some tobacco.  In some fleets, there would be a cup, spoon and bowl.  A fisherman would have a pair of  knit nippers.  Sail cloth could be purchased from ship's stores to make other items.

 I estimate that it would take on the close order of  500 hours to knit all the knit wear.  I estimate that it would take a thousand hours to hand spin 5-ply for that much knit wear.  Thus, a young sailor's kit was a large investment.  

 In the Navy, the entire seaman's bag would be lashed to the railing inside the seaman's hammock and blanket while the seaman was on watch or at battle stations.  The sun and air killed the lice. It made theft more difficult.  And, during battle it reduced the number of splinters from the railings - Splinters from the railing were actually the most common cause of injury during naval battles. It is no surprise that we do not find seaman's gear in ship wreaks.

Typical water rations on board sailing ships was 3 liters per day for cooking, drinking, and washing.  There was no fresh water for washing clothes. (Except when it rained, and a rain squall was not likely a good time for sailors to stop work and wash.)  Woolens were "washed' by dipping them in stale urine and letting them dry in the sun.  It does a better job of cleaning wool than trying to wash it in sea water. Soap will not lather in sea water, and tightly knit wool tends to strain little critters out of sea water.  Then, the little critters die and rot, making the fabric smell like rotting sea life.  Stale urine was the best dirt extractor that they had.

Oops, that may be a bit more than you wanted to know.  : )

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Single purpose v multi purpose

The other day I had occasion to check a reference in Peter Brears, The Knitting Sheath.

I was reminded of how most of the knitting sheaths depicted are designed to do one task very well, rather than being more multi-purpose tools.  Was this because they had several knitting sheaths each dedicated to a specific task, or did they just have one knitting sheath optimized for one task they used for all knitting.

From Brears' drawings, it is not possible to discern if for example the Dent goose wings had interchangeable needle adapters. At one time, I thought maybe yes, but after a year of trying to make that work, I no longer think it is plausible.   Thus, I think each each knitting sheath fitted one size of needle, and likely was used with mostly with one length of needle, eg short swaving needles or long gansey needles.

In short, I think many (most?) were owned by contract knitters that knit one kind of object commercially for 7 or 8 hours a day, most days a week, or were replicas of such knitting sheaths carved into love tokens and kept for sentimental reasons.  While the sheaths could be used household knitting, they were optimized for one kind of commercial knitting.

Were there fewer sizes of knittng needles ?  Brears does not give the needle size of any of the knitting sheaths.  However, I can use any needle size from US3/0 to US1 in my knitting sheaths bored for US1 needles, and I expect that commercial knitters could do the same thing.  So just because they had only one knitting sheath, does not mean that they used only one size of needles.  My guess based on the history of wire standards is that commercial/contract knitting was standardized to a particular wire gauge, likely in the range of just under 0.01 inches, e.g., 0.095"= BWG 13 = 2.4 mm.  This is also of a size that would produce the gauge seen in a number of  knit items from the time.

Then if you spin at 10 hanks per pound, and make 5-ply, knit with those needles, you have a nice fabric, and all the math is easy for the spinners and knitters.

It seems that my move toward multi-purpose knitting sheaths is a move away from tradition.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Peer Review

Somebody said that any work I do on the revival of old knitting techniques needs to be peer an academic work, a science publication, or an engineering design.

Naw!  Its knitting.  If it is better, then it is better. If it is not better, then it is just more knitting.  The proof is in the knitting.

I went to some of the local textile judges, and asked if I could enter my fabrics in competitions that they judge (e.g., county fairs, fiber festivals .  Their response was that it was likely within the rules as written, but that the rules did NOT contemplate "gansey knitting" (or swaving), and such work belonged in a different class from hand knitting.  Entered in a "knitting" competition, my objects would be "ringers". I like and respect these judges and they know my work, so I was not about to go against their wishes.

Now, they know such objects are being produced, and they have had a couple of years to rewrite the rules. I can start entering the competitions.  And, now there are other knitters around using gansey knitting tools (long needles & knitting sheaths) so there should be some competition.

We have some very good knitters in the local spinning guild, and every "show and tell" produces a stream of "nice" and "very nice" objects.  If I do not get a reaction of  at least,"OMG, how did you do that?!" then, I know I need to go back to the drawing board and design something better.  If I get, "That is not possible! Nobody can knit like that!", then I know I am on the right track.

Monday, February 04, 2013

A note from a user

Knitting Sheaths
Knitting sheath and needles arrived today, and the resulting swatch just blew my mind. So very, very different than what I did with circulars (which will be of no surprise to you, I know, but it was still pretty amazing to me).

Pix at :

I get many such messages.