ohkdboxGot a parcel, this morning. Getting parcels is always brilliant, but this was a particularly brilliant parcel.  Some print copies of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’.

These will be distributed around the shops of museums in the North of England who helped us during our period of research. I will put up details soon.

On October 4th, I will be at Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds for the launch of Leeds Wool Week, being a Luddite (in costume) and will do workshops on great wheel spinning and ‘Knitting the Old Days Way’. (Details to be posted, soon!) Would love you to come along and learn about spinning and knitting the old Dales way.  Will have a few copies for sale with us on the day, so if you want to buy one – ask a Luddite!


If you are in the US, or  – wherever you are – it’s an e-version of the book you’re after, check this out:



From the Armley Mills Wool Week Ravelry page:


Join us on Saturday the 4th of October 2014 to help launch Wool Week here in Leeds. Armley Mills Wool Festival is going to be a really exciting combination of shopping and a celebration of our woolly heritage, with workshops, demonstrations of now rare skills and machinery, talks from well known knitwear designers and performances of rare knitting music from WWI and WWII. Held within a historic woollen mill which now houses an amazing collection based upon Leeds’ industrial heritage. This event is going to be very special. The festival is open from 11am to 5pm, normal museum admission price applies, some sessions may be charged separately. More details to follow soon……

Armley Mills Industrial Museum
Canal Road
LS12 2QF
Museum Website


The Leader of the Luddites, engraving, 1812

Mum and me. Too young to object to frilly dresses!


What was your first piece of knitting?  Mine was… a pink dog lead!

For many knitters, our craft becomes intricately purled together with their life stories and personalities. We all have a story in stitches; here’s mine.

Like so many women (and men), I learned to knit from my mother at around the age I went to school. No doubt she learned from her mother. And so on. So the way we knit is in the DNA unless your school taught you, first. I can never know my mother. So knitting is a way of connecting with her, and everything lost. Why we knit is at least as interesting as how.

Last year, I entered a short competition piece on why I started knitting, to Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman’s “Stories In Stitches” site.  I was thrilled to get an email from Donna telling me I’d won and shortly after, two of Donna’s lovely books landed on my door-mat.

Stories In Stitches 3: World Wars I & II is now out. And very apposite with all the World War I commemorations coming up.


Why do we knit?  How did you start?  Here is a  version of the story I shared with “Stories In Stitches”.



I was ten in 1971. My mum had taught me to knit when I was five but I was a tomboy, and had little interest in it.  It must have been around 1966, she taught me to knit. Being lazy, I only wanted to cast on a few stitches. I remember it was pink wool, and as the narrow band of garter stitch grew, I had no idea what it was I was knitting. It must have been summer, as the front door was open and I remember I was sitting on the doorstep, knitting this… thing… when some elderly neighbours, the Harrisons walked past,  and they asked  me what I was knitting. Couldn’t think of what it was,  and always had a love for dogs as you can see from the photos…. so randomly blurted out:

“A dog lead!”


The pink ‘dog lead’ was never finished – don’t think I mastered casting off, that day as that was something I taught myself from books, years later. The only other memory I have of  childhood knitting is being asked to knit a square for a blanket, at the old Girls’ School, in my village (historic 1870s’ Board School building, currently under threat. See the ‘Save Sherburn Junior School campaign page, here).  I loathe knitting blanket squares to this day. Which is why I never do it.  Seem to recall the number of stitches changed every row; it was covered in holes and someone had to cast it off for me. It was humiliating, that knitted square. Mum was a competent knitter but more of a seamstress. I can remember her sewing a lot – but only rarely knitting.


Mum came from an old farming family in Cawood by the river Ouse  – my grandad (dad’s dad)  had a boat at Acaster Malbis and we’d spend time with him on it at weekends. In July, 1971, grandad died. It was round about that time, or a bit before,  mum got these knitting patterns for blue ‘fishing jumpers’, and was planning on knitting one for each of us. I think she was working on mine first. She’d knitted most of the body. I couldn’t wait to get it: navy blue and what I’d now call a ‘gansey’, although she worked from a commercial pattern.


Dad, Skipper the dog, and me

One night that November she died, unexpectedly.  Mum had severe asthma and we were used to her being ill, so thought nothing of it on the morning of November 18th, 1971,  a Thursday school morning no different to a thousand previous mornings, we thought, dad said mum was having the day off work as she felt ill and was in bed. He said she was asleep and not to disturb her. Being a disobedient child, I of course ignored that and before I walked to school, opened her bedroom door, to briefly check on her.  I remember she was wearing her favourite yellow nightie, and looked asleep so I probably just said “See you later, mum!”, shut the door quietly, and walked to school.


By the last lesson of the day, things felt…. strange. My teacher kept looking at me oddly. Years later she told me she had been told that last break that my mother was dead and had to carry on with lessons, as if nothing had happened. This gave her an incredible bond with me and years later, when I was at secondary school and a friend worked as a waitress, she said she met our old teacher and her first question was “How’s Penny?”


I also knew something was up as at home time,  Mrs Taylor told me my dad was waiting for me in the staff car park. Parents were never allowed to park in the staff car park. I could see dad had been crying, when I got in the car but he wouldn’t tell me what had happened til I got home.


Turned out, mum had died in the night – she collapsed in the bathroom and dad carried her back to bed, then rushed out to ring the doctor (we had no landline so he had to run to the village phone box). Our GP had been a specialist in asthma, coincidentally, as his young wife had also died of it, only the year before. So I can’t imagine what was running through his head as he got out of bed and came to our house. Mercifully, my brother and I slept through the whole drama. As another young man recently widowed with a child, the doctor advised dad to tell us mum was asleep so he could get us to school as normal and buy himself time to do the pragmatic things, like death certificate, funeral arrangements etc. (In those days funerals were usually in three days’ time).  So whilst I had been at school that day, mum was lying dead.


Months later, my aunties came round and sent me out to play at the bottom of our orchard. It was an acre of fairly heavily wooded land, with the house at the top of a steep hill and the end of the orchard at the bottom, so I couldn’t see what the aunties were doing til it was too late. They made a fire and burned almost all mum’s things. They did it when dad was out at work, thinking they were doing his (and us) a favour. They meant no harm – I couldn’t be angry with them. At the same time, it compounded my grief in many ways; having almost nothing left of my mother whatsoever.


All I had left was her sewing machine and a bag someone had stuffed in the bottom of a laundry basket, which had the half-finished jumper she’d been knitting for me,  in it. It had been 5 years since I’d knitted, but I thought I remembered how. I started trying to knit. But it unravelled. It seemed, the harder I tried; the worse it got. Until there was nothing left but a pile of wool.  I felt guilty I had destroyed one of the last things I had of her’s. At the same time, I knew she’d have said it wasn’t my fault. She had been the best of mothers – and loved us beyond all things.


And although I didn’t realise it for years and years, right there you have it – why I knit. Partly to reverse that unravelling of the last of her things; a way of getting back to her. A way to go home.


In my 20s, one of Maggies’ Millions,  I picked up a book, ‘Traditional Knitting’ by Michael Pearson. Utterly broke, spent my last penny on it. And read it obsessively. There was a hand drawn map showing my mum’s village. And lots of blue ‘fishermen’s jumpers’. Gansies. And I picked up needles and yarn and.. remembered how to knit. It just came back to me. Although it took me ages to realise I knit inside out and backwards.


Doing genealogy – another way to get back to the roots of things, and family –  I found out my mother’s mother’s ancestors were fishermen on the Ouse and Humber, as well as the farmers I had always known about. So maybe my strange, half-remembered way of knitting was a direct survivor of some mother’s mother’s mother’s mother – mum’s ancestors; Nettletons, Richardsons and Abletts; old fishing families from Partington, Sunk Island, Hull. All memory of them long submerged and gone by the time I was sat on that sunny doorstep in 1966, knitting my pink dog lead. A long band of garter stitch, to be used as a garter was the first piece of knitting mentioned by many a Yorkshire knitter in the past.


I have spent the past few years researching and writing about ganseys. I don’t have nightmares about unravelling my mum’s last piece of knitting by accident, any more. Largely because if I want a blue gansey – I can knit one, myself.


The last time my mother saw me I was a proper tomboy; never wore a skirt unless compelled, hated dolls, climbed trees and tore about on my bike. None of that has changed in the forty three years since we last saw eachother.  Apart from the climbing trees bit.


My mum, in the 1940s. Mary. 1924-1971.


So she would be shocked that I’m now a knitter. She was so proud to have a daughter – I was the only girl in my generation of  our family. I often felt guilty that I couldn’t please her by having clean hands, wearing frocks and ribbons. When it came to piano practice they used to have to come find me, prize me off the high branches of some tree in the orchard, and scrub my hands before the piano teacher would let me touch her piano. (My dad’s nickname for me was ‘monkey’ because I loved climbing so much). I knew, on some level, I must have been a bit of a let-down to her although of course, she loved us absolutely. But the knitting – that would more than redeem me.

We all have our own stories in stitches. Knitting is family, home – love so in a very real sense, it is our story. I don’t even know why I knit backwards and inside out. But I love it that I do. Someone – maybe my mother, maybe by great, great, great grandmother, who knows –  did it that way, too. I can never hear her voice again but when I knit, my hands are like her’s as I remember them and it feels like she is here again. And I am home.


Donna Druchunas

Stories In Stitches


Edwardian flags cycling gloves



Last month we were lucky enough to see the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, in Yorkshire.  Hardly been off our bikes since. And the month has been more Tour de France than Tour de Fleece, round here.

I forgot all about this pattern, til today when, cycling along, I remembered I’ll need to knit some new fingerless gloves for cycling this winter. Here’s a simple (and free) pattern I did for the lovely Blacker Yarns website, a while back. It works very well using 2 balls of their Classic DK.

Handspinners can approximate DK, too – there’s not a lot of spinning in these. Cotton might work, for summer.

It’s based on the common Scottish (and Yorkshire) gansey motif called “flags”. The first gansey I ever knitted was a flags pattern. The flags motif was used in a pattern for a cycling jersey in M.Elliott Scrivenor’s 1903 “Knitting and Crochet Book”. Just as soon as I finish the handspun gansey pattern, due to be published in a certain rather sumptuous U.S magazine (will put up links when it’s out), I’m straight onto working on a vintage style cycling jersey. I’ve been poring over images of 1950s’ cycling jerseys – love everything about them. Will be fun trying to approximate something special (in merino?) for winter cycling.

And here’s a little cycling fashion piece I did for ‘citycycling’ ezine, a couple of years back. Cycling has a huge role in the history of feminism and women’s clothing, as it became a catalyst for women’s clothing to change and become pragmatic.

To finish, here’s a photo my son took at the Tour de France. A total fluke as he had to hold his phone over the crowds’ heads and had no clue who he’d captured (if any of the peloton). But he got the Stage 1 yellow jersey, Marcel Kittell and King of the Mountains Jens Voight. Red spotted jersey pattern?  Maybe not. The Edwardian Flags Cycling Gloves would look nice in yellow, though…

Grand Depart, York, Stage 2, Tour de France.





Antis Spinning Wheel, 1795

Antis Spinning Wheel, 1795

We’ve spent some time looking at the workhorse Great Wheel of the common woman – and ‘professional’ spinner – as far as any 18thC spinner was ‘professional’…

So… How about them there fancy spinning wheels?  York became a centre of excellence for wheelmakers in the late 18thC and early 19thC so I didn’t have to look more than a few miles down the road from my house, to find out about some innovative – but stylish – wheels and their makers.

When it came to pretty treadle wheels, “Probably the finest English maker of wheels of this type was John Jameson of York…” [Peter Brears, ‘The York Spinning Wheel Makers’].  Jameson’s wheelmaking business seems to have come about as result of travel across Europe and a wish to provide employment for “the industrious poor”. As we shall see, innovations in British wheel design came from beyond the UK. Like spinning;  spinning wheel making was sometimes seen as useful employment for the unemployed.

One of Jamesons’ trade labels read:

“JOHN JAMESON his TOY & TURNERY MANUFACTORY in Carlisle Buildings, Little Alice-Lane, in the City of YORK”

(Carlisle Buildings is now St Williams’ College, by York Minster).


St William's College, York, site of Jameson's shop

St William’s College, York, site of Jameson’s shop. Credit: Nat Hunt

Jameson started his manufactory round the corner, in Goodramgate, as a work of philanthropy. In ‘The York Courant’, 22nd August, 1780,  Jameson advertised his toy workshop/turnery, citing the city of Nuremberg where “there are neither beggars nor poor rates” as “the inferior class of people” were able to make a living making toys and small wooden items. [Quoted in Baines].  It seems Jameson had travelled in Europe: Germany in particular, seems to have had a continuing influence on innovations in the Saxony wheel.


As he wasn’t a Freeman of the City of York,  he couldn’t trade within the city walls, so set up on Goodramgate and within a decade, had moved to Carlisle Buildings (St William’s College’) in the shadow of the Minster.  Both sites close by The Bedern, York’s notorious slum, AKA “Hagworms’ Nest”.


Catharine Cappe. Image Courtesy Long Preston Heritage Project.

Catharine Cappe. Image Courtesy Long Preston Heritage Project.

At the same date Jameson was establishing his turnery, only a few streets away, Quaker philanthropist Catharine Cappe was taking the city’s “poor miserable girls upon the town” (ie: child prostitutes) and transforming them into industrious handspinners.  Mrs Cappe had seen firsthand the appalling working conditions of the children employed in a York hemp factory and wanted to establish a Spinning School on Andrewgate, to give them a chance in life. It’s possible Jameson supplied the York Spinning School’s machines. Jameson’s toy turnery seems to have evolved into a spinning wheel manufactory; making toy and normal scale wheels. He may also have imported  wheels readymade from Germany, as Baines cites an advertisement from 1789, selling the “‘Best inlaid and mahogany German and other spinning wheels’” [Baines, 159].


Jameson sold up in 1806, selling off his tools and all his wheels.


Joseph Doughty was baptised at St Michael-le-Belfrey, in York, in 1755. His shop was at 6 Coney St  (same street later we were to find the knitting emporium of Mrs Jackson. No 6 was at the top end of Coney St, near the Mansion House).  Doughty’s advert from ‘The York Herald’, 14th February 1795, mentions an intriguing innovation which sounds remarkably like the Woolee Winder – a device that obviates the spinner changing hooks on a flyer –  familiar to contemporary spinners:


“‘N.B. The new-invented spinning wheel, the most complete ever offered to the Public which winds the thread on the pearls in a cylindrical manner, and prevents the Ladies having the trouble of altering the thread in the feather…’”


According to Peter Brears, Doughty’s wheel seems to have incorporated an invention mentioned in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Art, 1793:


“‘Twenty guineas were this year voted to Mr John Antis of Fulneck (the Moravian settlement) near Leeds, for his ingenious method of causing the bobbin of the common spinning-wheel to move backward and forward by which means, the time lost by stopping the wheel to shift the thread from one staple, on the flyer, to another, as hitherto constantly has been practiced, is avoided.’”


It is intriguing that these refined upright parlour wheels were the ones to incorporate an innovation to speed up the spinning.  It is also interesting that those post Industrial Revolution inventions to speed up the now dead-in-the-water handspinning industry, both came from US inventors. (See our discussion of The Minor’s  Head).

Antis mentioned that his ‘contrivance’ would help both those who spun for a living and ‘ladies’ who spun for pleasure. (Putting paid to the myth of “Victorian parlour ladies’ wheels” as Antis seems to take it for granted a fine parlour wheel can also be a workhorse). Baines quotes a letter Antis wrote to the Society of Arts, saying: “‘I had it tried by a lady her, who sometimes spins for her diversion, who… thought it might save a person at least two hours, if not more in a day; which would be a great object for poor people.’”  [Quoted in Baines, p.165].  Although I suspect “a lady”’s guess of a two hour time saving was the generous side. Two years later,  Antis improved his design.


Fulneck Moravian Settlement, Leeds. Credit: Betty Longbottom , via Wikimedia Commons

Antis was an American-born Man For All Seasons; musician, composer, ‘mechanic’ and  inventor; not confining himself to spinning innovations  but also developing machinery for coal mines, mortice locks and “night bolts”, amongst other items. I found an account of Antis in  The General Evening Post, April 11th, 1786 where an anonymous writer described his correspondence with “Mr Antes” of the Moravian Settlement at Fulneck, Leeds. The anonymous writer was establishing that James Bruce Esq of Kinnaird had been to Abyssinia –  Mr Antis confirmed it in a letter. (It looks like poor Mr Bruce Esq wasn’t believed when he told tall tales of his travelling, so the anonymous writer contacted Antis, who had travelled with him).

Antis (here called ‘Mr Antes’) was born in Pennsylvannia, US., to German parents, “having shewed early abilities as a mechanic”, he moved to Europe. Antis became a watchmaker, although he served no apprenticeship. He travelled to the Moravian settlement at Cairo (slightly more exotic than Leeds!) Mr Antis lived for 11 years in Egypt before coming to the Fulneck Settlement in Leeds. He retired to Bristol where he died in 1811.  Before leaving America, he made instruments and a violin he made in 1759 is thought to be the earliest stringed instrument extant, made in the US.

It was only after doing a considerable amount of legwork to track John down, I realised he had a Wiki page. Doh. (Although there he was ‘Antes’ which probably explains my failure to pull that up on a straightforward search). I had already found a John “Antos” married twice, in both York and Calverley, West Yorkshire, to Susanna Crabtree in June, 1786 (marriages three days apart – maybe the second was in a Moravian church?)  Crabtree is a West Riding surname, so no doubt Susanna was from somewhere not too distant from Fulneck. On their marriage in York, her birth year was given as about 1761 and John’s as around 1746.

You can read more about Fulneck Moravian settlement here. Moravians, like Quakers, were a force for social change and philanthropy in 19thC Yorkshire. They lived in a self-sufficient community where textile production was important.


Antis’s Improved Spinning Wheel of 1793 and 1795 were both years after the introduction of the Water Frame and mechanised spinning. No doubt handspinning was in keeping with Moravian values.  Antis’ adaptation could be added to existing wheels, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica:


“his contrivance may be added to old spinning wheels of every construction ; and that it would not considerably increase the price of a new machine, made according to his plan.

Such are the advantages derived from Mr. A.’s mechanical ingenuity, which have, from experience, been ascertained in Yorkshire : it is therefore to be hoped, that so useful a domestic implement will speedily be introduced into other -counties of Britain.”

Doughty wheel with Antis’ ‘contrivance’, here.

There is also a Doughty wheel illustrated in Baines, p.166.

The wheelmaker’s mark was an ivory circle inscribed: ‘DOUGHTY YORK’.

John Doughty died in 1801. His wife, Martha, took over. Later her name was Marshall – it’s not known whether she reverted to a maiden name or married his business partner.  Wheels marked ‘Marshall late Doughty’ date between 1807-24, when she ceased trading.


Martha Marshall sold the business to John Hardy. His ivory disc read:‘HARDY LATE MARSHALL’. In 1832 he stopped trading. In the decline of Doughty’s company, we see the end of handspinning, as it was known.

Ivory inlaid detail, Bankfield, Halifax, Credit: Caro Heyworth

Ivory inlaid detail, Bankfield, Halifax, Credit: Caro Heyworth



‘Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning’, Patricia Baines, Batsford, 1977.

‘The York Spinning Wheel Makers’, by Peter C.D. Brears, Furniture History, Vol XIV, 1978 p. 19 -24

The General Evening Post, London, April 11th, 1786  (newspaper)




ret pat dis 2The records of The Retreat asylum, in York, present some fascinating data for textile and costume historians.

Possibly the most valuable of all the tens of thousands of pages of records, are the Patients’ Disbursement Books. These recorded patients’ spending money and also monies patients earned from work, themselves.

In the late eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries, there even seems to have been a full blown micro-economy of patients repairing clothes for eachother and some patients spinning and knitting for the benefit of others. We can’t know whether this was thought to have therapeutic benefits, or whether it was an accidental by-product of the enlightened way in which The Retreat was run by its founders, the Quaker tea-dealing family, the Tukes.

The Disbursement books have accounts for named patients; each patient having their own pages, and interspersed amongst them, are records of the patients’ work, or what is referred to as the “Work Book sundry patients making and mending and knitting etc”.  These records were kept from 1796 onwards, and randomly interspersed with the individual patients’ spending accounts, are pages titled “Men Patients Work” or sometimes “Men Patients Work With Some of the Women’s”.

Either way, we’re privileged to glimpse these lost and long forgotten lives. Come with me, a moment, and we will step into the elegant confines of The Retreat, and see what we can find out about our ancestors’ knitting and hand spinning.

In 1799, patient Judith Robertson spent 3d on “knitting needles”. In 1802, John Summerland had: “A shilling for Cotton for foot of stocking” – which suggests the expense of cotton stockings as opposed to worsted. Frequently, patients were paid only 2 shillings and sixpence to knit a pair of worsted stockings. In 1807, “stocking worsted” cost just 10d.  Re-footing stockings was an ongoing thing.

In 1810, a patient bought “worsted for footing”. This reminded me of the passage of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales':

In Deep-dale (near Dent) the farmers principally employ themselves at home in sorting and carding wool for knitting. They call it welding; and the fine locks, selected for the leg of the stockings, they call leggin, whilst the coarser part goes by the name of footing. Two old people, Laurence and Peggy Hodson o’ Dockensyke, were both upwards of seventy, when Peggy died. As she lay on her death-bed, she said to her husband, ‘Laury, promise me ya thing, – at tou’ill not wed again when I’se gane.’  ‘Peggy, my lass,’ answered Laurence, ‘do not mak me promise nae sic thing; tou knaws I’se but young yet.’  The old fellow did wed again, and his brother, on returning from the wedding, made this report of the bride : – ‘Why-a, she’s a rough ane. I’se welded owre and owre, an’ I canna find a lock o’ leggin in her; shes a’ footing.’

[The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, p.80]

In 1808, Patient John Baker paid four shillings (20p) for “2 Pr Stockings & 2 Night Caps knitting”. John Gendry paid the same. By the middle of the year: “Patients work overall, Debit 15 £ 11s  and 3d. Credit 15 £, 11s and 3d”.  I.e: the books were balanced and all patients had paid for the work done for them. That is quite a volume of making and mending for a handful of months.

In May, 1808, two patients were paid for spinning worsted. H. Hall got six shillings and H Woodville, 4 shillings and 11d. When you consider at around these dates, the last remaining hand-spinners in Yorkshire might earn about a halfpenny per day spinning several ounces of wool, then 4 – 6 shillings represented a lot of spinning.

By the end of September, The Retreat’s Knitters were two shillings and 6d in credit, but by the last day of the year, they were ten shillings in credit. This might suggest knitting was something of an autumn/winter activity.

The same names or initials crop up frequently in the accounts for spinning and knitting. “M.W”  (probably patient Mary Wilson) and James Hashold are names that recur; Hashold’s in the context of knitting and Wilson’s in the context of spinning and knitting – in line with what we’d expect genderwise, for the respective crafts at these dates.  In 1815, the accounts mentioned:

“M Wilson wrested cotton 4-/… Worsted 2-/3d”  ["Wrested" is an old word for "tightly twisted"]. In December, 1815 M Wilson was credited with five shillings and 6d for knitting 4 pairs of stockings. Over the years, again and again M. Wilson is recorded as buying or spinning worsted.

The Retreat used worsted to make, repair or re-foot stockings. Throughout 1817 and 1818, “M.W” was repeatedly paid for worsted. Although in March 1817, patient Christopher Choat paid 7 shillings for “2 Pr Lambs’ Wool stockings”; so stockings could be woollen spun as well as worsted. (Dales knitters and Yorkshire farming families routinely knitted worsted stockings for commercial mills and woollen stockings for their own home use).  In 1807, Valentine Johnson paid “M.W” four shillings and 5d for a pair of stockings. In 1808, Sarah Impey paid two and six for “Lambswool Yarn for Stockings” and 8d for needles.

In June 1818, Elizabeth Hanbury bought “silk stripe stockings” although their price was rolled in with other items: “muslin, Dimity Crape, Parasol, Sarsnet.” for which, altogether, she paid four pounds, one shilling and 5d. Several times, patients bough “knitting cotton”. We can only speculate what was made from this.In 1817, Sarah Brady was paid a hefty three pounds for “Thread”. Sometimes, eighteenth century (and earlier) accounts mention “thread stockings” – as distinct from Lamb’s Wool, cotton, silk, woollen or worsted. I am not sure, but it is possible ‘thread’ meant two colour? They seem to have been expensive: in 1809, Sarah Harris bought a pair of stockings for one and six, but also a “Pr of Thread Stockings” for 4 and 6.

In ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, it is recorded that during the early part of the nineteenth century, Yorkshiremen still knitted but, as the pack-horse roads into the more remote areas were improved, they got shyer about doing it in public as outsiders found it “quaint”. Behind the walls of The Retreat, male patients who could already knit, maybe continued to knit. The small income some patients made from their spinning and knitting would have paid for little luxuries for themselves. The Disbursement books record patients buying oranges and lemons,  coffee, canary seed, strawberries,  snuff, sweets, alcohol, tobacco and the latest books – including anti-slavery books, poetry and novels, as well as everyday expenses like hair cuts, shaving, mending of stays and shoes.

At the end of March 1812, the Disbursements record a shilling spent on “Tape and needles”. If these were knitting needles, then ‘tape’ might well refer to simple tape bands, often used to attach knitting sticks to the knitter. At least two of the extant knitting sticks at the Bronte Parsonage Museum still have remnants of tape attached to them. Whilst workaday knitters used leather belts, it seems some of the more genteel knitters preferred tape (and The Retreat had many refined patients). Much later in the century, a doctor was to record one patient, a Daleswoman, pretending to knit, using “a bit of wood” – possibly a knitting stick, although the doctor, unfamiliar with this, wasn’t sure what he was seeing.

Dales gloves. (Originally pink and cream). I've reverse engineered these - pattern will be up soon!

Dales gloves. (Originally pink and cream). I’ve reverse engineered these – pattern will be up soon!

In June, 1809 Benjamin Boynes paid one shilling and 3d for: “A Pr of woollen Gloves”. Again, it’s likely these were knitted and possibly spun, in-house. This mention of gloves is a rarer thing – stockings seem to have been the commonest item made in-house. Poignantly, only months later, Benjamin’s accounts say:

“30 Sept 1809  9d Shroud JA  5 s 10d Making 1s 6 d Coffin 63s  Gravemaking 2/6″ …   (“JA” would be the person who made the shroud).

His funeral cost three pounds, five shillings and sixpence. A modest send-off by standards of some Retreat patients.

Most patients were buried in the Quaker burial ground behind The Retreat, which served for York’s entire Quaker community, not just the asylum – another measure of the humanity and humility of Quakers. But the Patients’ Disbursement books show the cost of funerals – and some patients’ funerals were far more lavish affairs than others.

Gloves were knitted in their thousands in the Dales but rarely crop up in accounts so it was especially interesting to find these, here. (The mill account books Misses Hartley & Ingilby mention in ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ are no longer extant, sadly. Or at least, their whereabouts is currently unknown). In 1808, Mary Jackson bought “Mitts” whilst a year later, Mary Boone, intriguingly bought “Fleecy Gloves” for a mighty 4 shillings. (It can’t be known for sure, but “fleecy” might refer to thrummed gloves, a bit like the famous Maine mittens?) In 1812, Thomas Atkinson paid two shillings and 9d for “yarn for Mufatees”.

Rarely a named knitter makes something for a named fellow patient. In 1809, Sarah Impey paid four shillings and sixpence to “Mary Prideaux for a Pr Stockings of her knitting”.

A page from Patients' Disbusements, 1804/5

A page from Patients’ Disbursements, 1804/5

By the 1820s, mentions of the patients doing their own spinning, diminish although patients continued to knit.  This reflects the death of the spinning wheel, out there in the world beyond The Retreat’s walls. From Case Notes it is apparent that many patients would never have been capable of spinning, at all.  By the second decade or so of the nineteenth century, amongst patients’ occupations, ‘spinner’ becomes a male preserve and there are a number of textile related occupations amongst the inmates. This would not be surprising for an asylum in Yorkshire, but The Retreat was unusual in that it drew patients from all over the UK and Ireland and in fact only a minority of the patients were Yorkshire folk.

It seems the patients weren’t always great at spinning. 18th February, 1805, the records mention:

“P[ai]d [illegible] for [illegible] of Comb’d wool spoil’d by the Patients in Spinning.  5 shillings”

That “Comb’d” wool tells us the patients were, at least in February 1805, spinning worsted. In 1805, raw wool cost around £70 a pack.  (According to the Journal of wool scribbler Joseph Rogerson, The Thoresby Society,  ‘Leeds Woollen Industry 1780-1820′,
Vol 30, 1929).

A pack was around 20 stones (280 lbs).  This would mean that the 5 shillings’ worth of wool the patients “spoil’d” would be about 1lb in weight – not a great deal of wool at all. The fact they were spoiling wool suggests there may have been patients teaching other patients to spin. As many hand-spinners learned to spin around age 5 or 6 – it’s not likely an experienced spinner, even a not very proficient/out of practice one, would be spoiling much wool at all. So this one entry tells us a great deal.

You can read more about Crafts and The Retreat in the current (June) issue of ‘Family Tree Magazine’.

York Quaker Cemetery

York Quaker Cemetery


Images 1 and 3 Courtesy the Borthwick Institute. Credit: Nathaniel Hunt

Image 2: Courtesy The Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. Credit: Belinda May

Image 4: Credit: Nathaniel Hunt





 This month’s ‘Family Tree Magazine’ (UK)  has a piece I did about crafts in eighteenth and nineteenth century asylums. Whilst researching, I stumbled on these amazing  Native American autographs, in The Retreat’s ‘Visiter’s Book’, made by visiting Seneca nation dignitaries, in 1818. Couldn’t shoehorn them into the piece,  so here’s one for all of yous out there who love this stuff.

I hope to be getting back to the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds, very soon, to do some more research on the amazing Lorina Bulwer’s craft work, and hopefully will be evolving some workshops for those of us who want to learn to rant via the medium of embroidery.

Gentle Reader, join me in the pages of Family Tree Magazine and find out more about our ‘insane’ ancestors and the way they used crafts for therapy, venting, and sometimes simply to pass the time.

Asylum records (where they exist) are an incredible resource for both historian and genealogist. In areas like Yorkshire and Lancashire with a rich textile industry heritage, you can find amongst those committed; spinners and weavers, mantua-makers, milliners and tailors, knitters, mill-owners, husbandmen and farmers.

To find out more, read this month’s ‘Family Tree Magazine’ (June 2014). Available at all good newsagents, etc.





Images By Kind Permission of The Borthwick Institute, University of York

Image Credit: Nathaniel Hunt (York College’s Art & Design Student of the Year)





Skeins of gansey yarn

Skeins of gansey yarn

This week, I’ve mostly been spinning gansey yarn.

Here is some of it on the clothes horse. It’s been washed and is dried unweighted. That is the extent of ‘blocking’ for knitting yarn.

Why is commercial guernsey yarn always 5 ply? Because guernseys came about post Industrialisation. By the 1820s, most yarn in England was machine spun. The Spinning Jenny had already been superceded by the Water Frame. Handspun was less common, although some 20thC Dales knitters recalled their grandmothers spinning for home use but they are often talking about small things like stockings and gloves rather than the ‘Popped Uns’ (jumpers) and ‘jackets’ they contract knitted for mills.

So 5 ply guernsey yarn was firmly a product of the Industrial age. Machines liked making singles of a certain grist (fatness) and 5 plies of those singles made the perfect yarn for knitting guernseys. Other yarns made from the standard singles included 3 ply, 4 ply and double knitting.

There is no real reason for guernsey yarn to be 5 plies, but it might be better at more than 2. There are structural differences between 2 and 3 ply yarn.  I decided to go with 3 plies for my handspun. That gives me good stitch definition due to 3 ply having a more circular cross-section than 2 and also a bit more wear and strength.  No need to go up to 5 plies as it would never have been done historically: too much labour expended at nearly double the time to spin 5 singles as opposed to 3.

I decided to match my yarn approximately to Frangipani. It’s a nice grist; not too fat.  I wanted a slightly higher ply twist, though. I used iSpin Toolkit for all my calculations re. wraps and twists per inch and their handy calculator for ply twist to get a balanced yarn. First time I have used it and found it extremely handy.  Will be using it for all my projects!

On a certain blog, we are told, with utter authority:

” the old Fisherman’s Wool was rather tightly spun singles of fine wool, rather loosely plied.”

But this is the pronouncement of someone who has never seen ‘the old Fisherman’s wool’ or rather, the extant ganseys made from it. In fact it often strikes me as being fairly tightly plied. And, just to confound the theory that a looser ply makes a more ‘waterproof’ fabric with extra integrity therefore those ganseys were used for fishing… oddly the opposite is true:  ganseys I have seen that appear to be made from a slightly ‘woollier’ yarn, plied a bit looser, are often the grey ‘Sunday best’ ganseys that were never worn to sea. The ones worn to sea often have a sheen and patina, gaps between the stitches, and stitch definition like you wouldn’t believe, from the fact they are plied tightly. Oilskins existed, of course, so no need for a totally ‘weatherproof’  fabric.

Now the art in handspinning gansey yarn is to accentuate the lustre and the fact you’re preserving the length of the staple – at the same time, not to produce leaden, lifeless looking worsted. Fine spinning is of no interest to me as a rule as I want to spin for knitting. And I don’t enjoy lace knitting.

singles ganseyI’m spinning Blue Faced Leicester because it is easily obtainable beyond the UK,  so other spinners can replicate, but also because ‘Biffle’ is another product of the 19thC, like the gansey itself. It has the lustre of older longwools but is finer and softer than Cotswold, Wensleydale or Swaledale – all of which I sampled. All this spinning is for a design due to be published later in the year so the project as it progresses wil be Top Secret…

The big question is: how long would it take to spin the yarn for a gansey?   Bear in mind most of my spinning, 95% of it, is wool spun longdraw or silk spun semi-worsted from the fold. And for a gansey you need a short, forward draw (for true worsted).

Well, I looked to a certain blog for info:

one can easily spin and ply 400 yards of gansey yarn in 8 hours, so 30 to 40 hours of spinning time is a very reasonable estimate for total spinning time for the yarn for a gansey.

Only I’m afraid to admit, I failed to meet the Blogger’s exacting requirements as I found I couldn’t spin a skein of gansey yarn in 8 hours.

Admittedly 3 ply not 5, but I have discovered I can easily spin 100g of BFL into 3 fine singles of gansey yarn  in…. 75 minutes.

Am left wondering why our Hero is so slow, when he has spent so long pimping his wheel?   I’m using a TT Chair Wheel as it came to me from Mr Williamson in 1998.  Admittedly, it’s not an entry level wheel . So you could probably pimp a “Traddy” til you were gansey blue in the face and still end up with a much slower wheel than a Lendrum Saxony or some models of  TT, or many others, as they come to you from the workshop.  Maybe someone should tell him.

Our Hero says:

” I want a better tool. I am always refining my tools so they work better. Better tools are how better spinners made better money…”

I’m different. I like my “tools” fit for purpose.  On the day I buy them and ever after.  I don’t want to refine them or spend further money on them. I am not a wheelwright, or turner or mechanic.  Spinners in the past were the same – they spun on the wheel they had. It’s unheard of to find an old wheel that has been heavily adapted after manufacture.  (And I say that as someone who has seen many old wheels both on display in museums and behind the scenes in reserve collections – not as someone who has just read a book or two). The best contemporary wheel-makers provide all a FAST spinner needs. Although it doesn’t fit the thesis that they have been actively selling “slow” wheels for “Victorian parlour ladies”, or, in Our Hero’s more sexist and offensive language “Boss Cows” and their herds…  The statement:

…modern wheels all have a very narrow envelop [sic] of performance design standards.  Is that because they go as fast as is mechanically possible?  No, it is what the group wants, so everyone can spin the same yarns at the same rate.

insults wheelmakers, who are fellow craftspeople as well as spinners.  According to this person, spinners (that’s you and me!) are divided into ‘Boss Cows’ and… cows. Nice, eh?  And the whole herd is part of some kind of evil conspiracy to keep wheels slow. These are the words of someone who has only owned a nice, but mass produced, entry level wheel and makes the mistake of judging every other spinning wheel on the market, by the standards of the only wheel they have owned. It also shows deep ignorance of old wheels as they are essentially no different to our modern ones. I think we’re looking at some profound misogyny here, with all the references to cows and Victoria’s court and hobbyists. For ‘hobbyist’ read: ‘female’.

A preliminary scout about in a spinners’ Rav group suggests that quite a few of us routinely spin considerably faster than the Blogger.  And even when we’re not trying to “race”. Check out YouTube video of Abby Franquemont spinning on a Lendrum Saxony, to see fast – but relaxed – spinning. Slow wheels have their place, too. I have days when I prefer to spin on my Timbertops Lonsdale. So I spin on it. I am not denigrating slower wheels. Spinning is a joy, not a chore.

Our Hero plies loosely but I am the opposite  and ply pretty tightly with a fair few twists per inch which slows down the plying process considerably. Even so, I am spinning in minutes what he appears to be able to produce in hours. And that is consciously going fast but by no means going flat out… I am not a particularly fast spinner, compared to many others. It is not something I have ever cared about, or focused on. Other spinners go faster than me.

If you are a competent spinner, you can spin the 5-ply needed for a gansey in 30 or 40 hours.

Ah that must make me (and many, many other spinners) incompetent, then. As I am spinning in odd moments, between other jobs (like handspinners of the 18thC) and after just several sessions last week, already have 700g of gansey yarn. There is a lot in there, as usual, about how “experts” are not as expert as our Hero:

The spinners that have been spinning for 30 yeas [sic] should have gotten busy 25 years ago and developed those skills.

I’d just say: don’t make assumptions about craftspeople. Or denigrate them. 30 years is, coincidentally, precisely how long I’ve been spinning.  And without any wheel modifications, and not much effort to consciously ‘go fast’,  I can more than half the vaunted spinning time. Many experienced spinners will be faster than me.

My approach to learning to spin the impossible worked. Their criticism would only have validity if they were much better spinners than I am.

Show us the yarn. Show us that you can spin a full hank of 5-ply sport weight in 8 hours of spinning. If you can’t do that, then you do not have the moral authority to criticize me.

To be honest, in 8 hours, I could spin 3 skeins of guernsey yarn to his 1. Better, faster… and cheaper.

That said, I’d give no credence to the idea that speed = good spinning. But just wanted to deflate the windbag and his offensive assumptions.

75 mins is a reasonable amount of time to spin one leisurely, Parlour Lady skein of gansey yarn.  So… What shall I do with the other 5  1/2 hours, per skein? Spinning a skein in 8 hours is not “doing the impossible”. But maybe doing the improbable, for certain wheels…

Anyone familiar with The Blog will know that whatever the Blogger is currently doing, becomes the yardstick by which others must be measured and found to fail.  Apparently no-one’s opinion on weaving is valid, unless they have woven ‘a bolt’ of ‘woolen shirting fabric’, for example. I have 2 problems with this particular example. (i)  no ‘shirting’ fabric in Europe was woollen. Shirts were always made from linen, later cotton. So there is no such fabric in the English aulnages anyway, historically. So no need for anyone to make it as even re-enactors can’t use it. And (ii) Well… as you haven’t done it yet either, all your opinions are invalid, by your own criteria.

And, all the folks who say that my analysis of history is wrong, did not manage to learn to spin as fast and as fine as I do.

No. That’s true. The boss cows spin faster. Some of them finer, too.



Old Hand Knitters of the Dales is up for pre-order  as an e Book,and print copies coming VERY soon! (It’s being printed in the UK, although it has a US publisher, so copies should be available here, too, shortly)

And I will try and get a thrumming video up and linked to on here, so anyone who is making the General Carleton Hat or the G Walton 1846 gloves, has a handy guide, ASAP.








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