On the day we got our (catastrophic) election results, I thought I’d hoist the red flag (well, red petticoat) and talk about living history then and now, and the random thoughts I had whilst re-modelling a piece of ‘costume’ from the 1980s. Comrades, the Red Flag is at half mast today. But the red petticoat will live on, survive change, and emerge re-made a-new.


(On a piece of art by E. PENNY, R.A –  ‘Lavinia’):

… The beautiful Lavinia he has made a homely country girl, sweating in August under a red flannel petticoat. Happy choice of drapery!…

Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Saturday, May 12th, 1781

CHARITABLE DONATIONS. …. Ninety-four women, residents of Great Bolton, were furnished each with two shifts,  a pair of stockings, a red flannel petticoat, and a shilling loaf…”

The Morning Post, Friday, December 24th, 1830

THE WORKING CLASSES AND THE CORN LAWS   … by his side lay three children, and one sat by the embers of a dying fire, mending an old red flannel petticoat…

The Charter, Sunday, December 8TH, 1839

Hollar engraving of a servant

Thirty three years ago, I made a couple of petticoats for re-enactment/living history, in the English Civil War Society. We wanted to copy those double petticoats seen in the Wencelas Hollar engraving.  I read somewhere, that red flannel had been a common choice for women’s petticoats. So one was red, one yellow – not bad, as more luck than judgement, madder (red) and acid yellow (weld) were indeed cheap and common dyestuffs.

In those days, most female 17thC re-enactors’ clothing consisted of neatly matching waistcoats (we then called them ‘bodices’) and skirts, a la Margaret Thatcher. My instinct from the start was, surely most of the common people were wearing secondhand clothes and handmedowns, or things adapted and altered from older clothing; most everyday clothing was unlikely to ‘match’. I was Glad to be Garish.

At that time, women in re-enactment, if they wanted to portray women, were restricted to being water carriers on the battlefield. I found that boring. This led to me looking for a craft to learn, so I could do something ‘authentic’ – which was right at the start of living history.

In those days, living history was just getting going. I had been one of the handful of people in a little tent at an event at Ulverston – roughly half of us Blackwells (Royalists), and half of us Montagus (Parliamentarians), who were in at the start of living history.  Only two of us were female.  I have since seen on a forum, people claiming to have been there who most definitely were not – I think that fabled tent must have held 50 people, if everyone who claims to be there was there! I do think that is where living history started in UK re-enactment. The White Company came along months after, if I remember it right – one of their founders was our old regiment’s commanding officer – which left a vacancy for CO filled by my then 23 year old worser half.

These days we take living history for granted. But it started with a small group of ‘levellers’ or ‘diggers’, probably long forgotten. The ECWS had a very small but vociferous minority who were starting to push around 1979 or 1980 for what we then called ‘non combatant’ roles. The “non combatants” were even, at one point, threatened with ejection from the ECWS  if they didn’t take to the battlefield – or at least, several I knew, were. But they persisted. Eventually they got the Baggage Trayne and that gave a place for people to take on other roles.  Now, many regiments also have their own living history folk – we started doing LH within our own regiment, Foxe’s. “Re-enactment” was eventually more than infiltrated by what we now call “living history”. These days, the public probably come more for the living history than the battle. Some living history folk get sniffy at the word “re-enactment” but I use the terms interchangeably as whether it is civilian or martial, we’re all re-enacting something.

1910 Singer 66K treadle sewing machine. One of my babies.

1910 Singer 66K treadle sewing machine. One of my babies.

Which brings me to last week. One of the things I do in my love for all things textile, is tinker with old sewing machines. One way we used to pay for going to events all over the country, was to make clothing for our own friends, our own regiment, and sometimes, people beyond. We usually did this on my husband’s great grandmother’s 1890s’  Pfaff sewing machine. Sometimes, we used vintage Singers or my mum’s 1970 Brother machine. This was in the time before anyone considered hand-stitching historical ‘costume’. Although everything was usually hand-finished, we’d do most of our sewing on elderly machines, so were used to them. A Singer 66 isn’t going to complain if you ask it to sew leather, or layers of thick wool. These old workhorses were demonstrated by reps sewing through successively thicker fabrics, finishing the demo with the machine sewing through a tin can.

1902-ish Jones Family CS machine

1902-ish Jones Family CS machine

I spent a bit of last week restoring a 1910 Jones sewing machine, and to run it in, did a few projects. Whilst doing this, I remembered I’d bought some really nice red flannel to make a new petticoat for our 1800-ish living history forays. And I was about to cut into the nice new red flannel when I remembered I had that red flannel petticoat made on some old machine or other, back around 1981 or so. Why not adapt that?

Red Flannel petticoat, made early 1980s

Red Flannel petticoat, made early 1980s

In 1981, a machine sewn petticoat was fine. To be honest, I sometimes think it would be fine today too. As whenever I look at extant clothing in museums, it strikes me that they look machine sewn, whether 17thC or early 19thC or anything inbetween.  The technical difference being that most sewing machines make a lockstitch, not a straight running stitch but to the uneducated eye it looks similar. The average sewing machine could sew more like a competent, 1800 home-seamstress, than I could, is the truth. But still – I decided to take my old petticoat apart and remodel it; my wonky handstitching notwithstanding.

Extant 18thC petticoats rarely have the original waistband. We all expand (or decrease) and change and in the past, clothes were handed down in wills, or given to friends and family, or sold on, or pawned, or…. altered for another person or another incarnation of yourself. So we have to be wary extrapolating info about waistbands on petticoats, more than most garments a re-enactor might want to make.

I knew the original waistband that fitted me in 1981 when I had a 22″ waist if I breathed out, would be no use now all these years, decades of insulin resistance and 5 kids on. Looking through Linda Baumgarten’s ‘Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790′ ,  I realised I could even use another material for a waistband, such as linen or silk as I knew I would have no hope of matching this 30 year old  flannel, made at a mill that has probably been long torn down. So I set to ripping apart the petticoat we first made all those years ago.  Not just because I am fatter (I had already adapted the waistband, moving a hook and eye to its furthest extremity), but because I wanted to re-use old material. Let’s face it: some living history people spend ages distressing and ageing up new fabric to look old and worn. Here I had a genuinely faded, elderly piece of cloth to work with.

When I work on a vintage sewing machine, especially when cleaning out the accumulation of lint, I wonder who owned the machine before me, and what they sewed on it.  My tiny herd of vintage machines – all common models of Jones and Singers – date between the 1890s and 1916. Like spinning, I suppose, we textile folk are intrigued by continuing the threads once held by other hands. This time, I knew whose hands had done the sewing, long ago.

I got a strange feeling, unpicking the old flannel petticoat. Back in 1981, I hadn’t even bothered to match the colour of thread to the red flannel. You see this in extant historical garments as well – sometimes the sewing thread will be a different colour to the fabric, or change colours as and when they ran out of something.  Also, I had sewn it originally  using cotton, not linen thread which is fine for my 1800 re-modelling, but totally wrong for the 1640s!

A proper selvedge

A proper selvedge

That red flannel came from a stall on Birmingham’s outdoors market, run by a lovely gentleman called Mr Sharman. He’d get bolts of cloth fresh from Yorkshire (and elsewhere) and many Mondays we’d go and see what he had. He had all types of wool; often broadcloth of a stunning quality.  We financed our hobby by making clothing for other re-enactors so our finds there became our friends’ clothing.  One time, he had the red flannel. It was old fashioned flannel and had a proper selvedge – not like you get on modern cloth. But, being flannel, it was not heavily fulled so would unravel a bit when cut into. As I prized the waistband from the skirt, I was surprised to see how well it had stood up to the ravages of time.  I also realised that the petticoat was pilled, and the original colour dulled on the outside. So I made an executive decision to turn my petticoat the other way. For the next thirty years of its life, it will be the other way out!  This is utterly in keeping with what our ancestors would have done. It still looks distressed enough and is a shade of red I haven’t seen in a long time.

Original machine stitching and tacking stitches on waistband.

Original machine stitching and tacking stitches on waistband.

I soon unpicked the waistband and the long seam. The original white tacking stitches were still intact under the waistband: I must have figured no-one would ever see them holding the pleats in place and in any case, they’d give it more strength if left in situ. Interestingly, in ‘Costume Close-Up’ several garments that look fancy on the exterior, are shockingly finished on the inside, and tacking (basting) stitches did indeed get retained. Maybe  I was a mantua maker in a former life!  Somehow, unpicking my two rows of brown stitching and the white tacking stitches was poignant. I was  another person, the last time my hands did this work. I lived in another world. I hadn’t realised I needed to shape the upper edge of a petticoat if I was wearing a bum roll under it. That kind of thing didn’t occur to us in 1981. Luckily there are no crinolines or bustles or bum rolls for 1800 so the unshaped petticoat skirt could stay unshaped.

Back in the 80s, we didn’t get to see the incredible clothing in museums’ reserve collections, I could now go and study at the drop of a hat. We only had a handful of sources, like Hollar and Dutch genre paintings, and a couple of books like Norah Waugh’s  ‘The Cut of Women’s Clothes’ and C and P Cunnington’s ‘Handbook of English Costume in the Seventeenth Century’. We had to figure things out from them. Now there are many good resources, more appearing all the time, and the internet. Researching then, with no transport or money to get to other museums, we had to piece together whatever we could, with the limited information out there. My husband figured out the first ever montero cap, with the help of his mother who came from a long line of Luton hatters. He also made the first Scottish bonnets for sale. A friend’s mother knitted the first ever thrum cap I saw, after we showed her an engraving. Interesting how so many memories flood back when your hands are working with a piece of your past.

Sewing an 18thC/early 19thC petticoat, you have a few fundamental decisions to take. You can machine the first pass down a long seam if you are flat felling it by hand afterwards. Similarly, you can use a sewing machine to attach the waistband to the skirt, on the first pass along it, as when you fold the waistband over, it will be hidden forever, anyway. Depends how anal/pragmatic you are.

I have entire ensembles where every stitch is hand sewn. But I am coming to the conclusion my hand-sewing is equivalent to an 1800 four year old’s. So if it is going to be forever hidden, I will machine sew a long seam. I see no virtue in doing otherwise – especially as this is faster and more durable (in my case). If, however, you feel the need to fess up under fellow LH interrogation, you’d better hand sew every stitch.

My original petticoat had a centre seam (hidden by a judiciously placed pleat), then a 6″ slit at the centre back, where there was a fastening. It is more ‘authentic’ to leave slits at either side for use of a pocket which meant I changed the orientation of my 2 skirt pieces so the seams in the new petticoat are now at each side. Luckily, the seams were selvedges.

Re-modelling an old Red Flannel Petticoat

1. Unpick original stitching – waistband, hem, seams.

2. I decided to turn pieces the other way out, and then put the two skirt pieces with the new right sides together. Iron out creases, try and steam out creases from old pleats, in particular, as far as it’s possible.

3. Sew up each seam, leaving 6 – 9″ slit open at the top, on both sides. At the slits, you can fold back selvedge/edge of skirt about 1cm to wrong side, and hand sew flat.

Seam showing 2 rows handstitching on right side.

Seam showing 2 rows handstitching on right side.

4. Now, if your petticoat fabric is thin enough, eg: linen,  flat fell seam, working stitches by hand on right side. I found it useful to make a row of tacking stitches as a guideline as you will be working on right side of fabric, and want to make sure you catch the seam edges under. I tacked close to the edge of the flattened seam, on the wrong side then when I flipped work to flat fell up the seam, only had to sew on the inside of the line of tacking stitches, to be sure I caught everything down. When working on the right side of fabric, I used a back stitch.

My flannel was too bulky to do a true flat fell, so instead I pressed down the two sides of the seam flat, and then felled down the right side on first one, then the other.

Do this for both seams, leaving the pocket slit on both sides. Even if you don’t want to make a pocket, it is a more typical way to make this, and the slits are there if you change your mind, later!

5. Find waistband material. I used a length of linen cut from a red linen petticoat I made too long! Make two waistband pieces, each the length of 1/2 your waist measurement, plus 12″ either side. Find centre of waistband, and mark or stick a pin in to mark where it is. Now mark 12″ from either end of waistband.

6. Find centre of skirt front. Mark or mark with pin. Use your waistband as a guide as to where you want to place pleats.

7. Pin pleats skirt Front and Back.  According to “Costume Close Up” many extant petticoats have a large-ish centrally placed box pleat, and then small single pleats either side of it, facing the pockets on each side. Pin pleats in place for Front and Back.

Blanket stitching edges. An overcast stitch would probably be more 'authentic'.

Blanket stitching edges. An overcast stitch would probably be more ‘authentic’.

8. Now overcast or blanket stitch along top of skirt, to keep pleats in place. This will prevent a bit of fraying but also make it easier when you come to mount the skirt on waistband.

9. Attach waistbands to Front and Back of skirt, right sides together. Sew at least twice. This has to be strong! Fold over and whipstitch in place on wrong side.

10: Finish ends of waistband. See those 12″ of waistband dangling either side of Front and Back waist? Turn up the bottom by around 1cm. Press. Fold down top and turn under to cover raw edges. Press. Pin together and sew.

11. Hem your skirt. I use whipstich again.

This might not be the most authentic 1800-ish petticoat in the world, but will be serviceable and is made broadly similar to extant examples. A red flannel petticoat was seen as a rather rustic item of clothing. It is hard to infer too much from the extant petticoats in museums tend to be made from more high status materials, such as silk and may have been treasured and kept as they were beautifully quilted, as well as very expensive in an age when every yard of fabric cost dear.

Back stitches are common because they made a seam strong and durable. Often seams were sewn with a quick running stitch punctuated every so many inches by a few back stitches, to add strength: easier to unpick for future alterations in a world where cloth was a special, finite resource. Whipstitch is commonly found on linings and hems. The eighteenth century mantua maker sometimes left her workings-out: the inside of a piece of clothing may have looked more hastily done and sketchy than the public face of the piece.

Several years back, at an ECWS event I recognised someone who bought a doublet my husband made around 1981. I was amazed to see he was still wearing it. I was always terrified anything we made might fall apart.

To finish here are some interesting newspaper quotes, mentioning red petticoats.:

“Before” pic of original waistband. Place material on ground – puppy will sit on it.

“….She is small in stature, and had on a black gown, black chip bonnet, a plain buff kerseymere shawl, and some say a dirty red petticoat. It is suspected the imposter may be a man in a woman’s dress…”

[Description of a conman/woman, at Malton, Yorkshire, The Leeds Mercury, Saturday, November 27th, 1824]

On Saturday evening, at about eight o’clock, a woman was found lying dead on the road… She is a big woman, with a red cloak, a stamped gown, and red petticoat, and had two shillings and three-pence hapenny in her pocket, and a small whisky bottle. There are no marks of violence about her and therefore it is supposed she had been the worse for liquor, and died with cold…”

[Whitehall Evening Post (1770), January 26th, 1788)

Friday morning, a woman in a short Jacket, with a Red Petticoat, was found drowned in a pond near Whitechapel Mount.

Penny London Post or The Morning Advertiser, August 1st, 1746

Hastily photographed the finished item (just before dog sat on it again).

Hastily photographed the finished item (just before dog sat on it again).

Sloes in flower, Yorkshire Museum of Farming, April, 2015

Sloes in flower, Yorkshire Museum of Farming, April, 2015

Last year, we tried and failed to establish a dye garden at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming.  Our main problem was slugs. Big slugs. Lots of slugs. Nuclear bombproof mutant slug pellet-survivor slugs.

I’ve been an organic gardener all my gardening life, after stumbling on a dog-eared copy of Laurence D. Hill’s ‘Organic Gardening’ that unaccountably was amongst my dad’s books.

The organic way to deal with slugs are beer traps.  AKA ‘slug pubs’. I have done this and found it works, in the past. But last year’s slugs were the leviathans,  behemoths and juggernauts of the slug world and not actually living at the Museum meant we couldn’t be on guard, at dusk – when the slugs come out…

Although I continued gardening organically at home, at the dye garden in the Museum of Farming, it was more like all out war with the monster slugs. They ate everything in their path – our weld, woad and flax. All we were left with were some transplanted, already large madder and goldenrod plants, kindly donated by a member of the York Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers. Every single thing we planted  from seed, ended up in a slug.

Same with my plants at home. As belt and braces, simultaneously with planting woad, weld and flax at the Farming Museum, we planted it here in our garden. Everything here was eaten too. It was the worst year for slugs I have ever known.


Madder – almost the only survivor of Slugmageddon 2014!

I have grown woad, in particular, for years but on and off and not recently so was starting from scratch. We got seeds from Kings Seeds and Teresinha at woad.org.uk. Both reliable sources of good seed.

I bought my first ever woad seed 30 years ago from Suffolk Herbs, who are now part of Kings Seeds, when I first read  ‘A Dyer’s Manual’, by Jill Goodwin. This remains my favourite book on dyeing, ever and despite dyeing since the 1980s, I still refer to it constantly. Somewhere, in a garden in California, South Birmingham, where we lived in my early woad-growing career; they must wonder what that weird ‘weed’ is or maybe it became a garden escape in the nature reserve behind our house. Two hundred years from now, archaeologists will find woad pollen in the ground and wonder if there was a woad industry there.

It didn’t help that we had started the Museum garden, digging a bit of waste ground that is heavily sheltered, and previously covered in couch grass and nettles – so Slug Nirvana. It was never going to be easy but the site is lovely, and has the afternoon sun.

Dye garden "Before"

Dye garden “Before”

We call it the ‘dye garden’ rather optimistically. It is, in fact, more of a dye border.  I like to think of it as analogous to medieval strip farming. We hope to end up with a long strip of dye garden, and if we can manage to hold down the couch grass and slug attacks, this year, we hope to keep expanding it til we can be self-sufficient in woad and weld.

We will keep digging up couch grass that returned over the winter, and reclaiming garden well into May, as and when we can. We are growing the woad and weld at home in biodegradable newspaper pots – because with its tap root, woad really doesn’t like being transplanted, but we think it may stand a better chance against the slugs if grown to a decent size then transplanted. I’ll blog our progress (or the slugs’ victory) over the next few months…

Last week, I was at the Museum, starting to reclaim our dye garden. We will sink some substantial planks of wood all round the edges, when complete, to help keep out the couch grass as it re-invaded totally after slugmageddon.

Dye garden "After" (well, "So far"!)

Dye garden “After” (well, “So far”!)

There won’t be much to look at – apart from the madder and goldenrod, for a couple of months. But we hope by summer to have an interesting garden; growing a few of the commoner dye plants like weld, woad, madder, dyers’ greenweed and some later ones like goldenrod and coreopsis, inspired by the beautiful dye garden at Armley Mills, in Leeds.

Whilst I was clearing the weeds, it occurred to me that the small patch of goosegrass (cleavers, or galium aparine) might be worth exploiting. Whilst some weeds yield decent enough dyes, they were usually not used on any large scale because better dyes existed. Anything with the suffix tinctoria is usually your clue. But that’s not to say that folk didn’t dye at home using what was to hand, small scale. Your soil would be needed for food so too valuable a space, for most people, to use it for colours for your clothing. But who’s to say that “weeds” weren’t exploited?  Poorer people wore nettle fibre instead of linen from flax. There are 19thC accounts of Dalesfolk dyeing their own stockings, buying logwood from the mills in small quantities.

Very few dyestuffs give a true red. The hated weed, goosegrass, happens to be in the same family of plants as madder (rubia tinctoria), the only source of true reds in Europe, for more than a couple of thousand years, til some New World dyes came along. Other related plants include Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum) and Hedge Bedstraw (Galium molugo).  Only madder was commercially viable as it has much bigger roots than the others. But chemically, the colour you get is similar.

Cleavers (galium aparine) and their roots

Cleavers (galium aparine) and their roots

Like madder, the bedstraws and cleavers, need to be left in the ground several years because what you are after are not the fine, hair-like roots immediately under the soil but the deeper, red or brown coloured, woody roots that look a bit like twisty worms. This is where the colour is.  In the case of goosegrass, these are few and far between and hard to find. After half an hour trying to find as many dye-bearing roots as I could, I had the princely amount of 5g of root  – which hints why madder, and not goosegrass or the bedstraws, were commercially viable.  But 5g is enough to do a test dye of 5g of silk and 5g of silk goes a long way…

With unknown dyestuffs it is a rule of thumb to work with a 1:1 weight ratio.

It is not worth using electricity to dye with 5g of dyestuff the fast/usual way. So this is what I have done. It’s a good method for testing small amounts of unknown dyestuff and not risking much fibre. It is also low impact on the environment.

I used chalk here as you do that with madder. It can be omitted for other weed roots, like docks, nettles, brambles, etc – unless you are experimenting with pH levels and their effect on colour. In which case – fill your boots. I have got decent dyes from nettle and dock roots, in the past. But would only bother if I had a patch of nettles or docks to clear.

I used to use this method of dyeing a lot with my classes of primary aged kids – our classroom must have stank like the Science Experiment From Hell, sometimes!  But the kids enjoyed predicting what colours they’d get.

Goosegrass in a corner of the dye-plant bed

Goosegrass in a corner of the dye-plant bed

Low Impact Test Dyeing

Use this method with other weeds/roots.

Hedgerow Red (Goosegrass, Lady’s or Hedge Bedstraw)

You Need…

Kilner Jar (or any wide-mouthed glass/ceramic vessel)

Pinch of alum

Ground up uncoloured chalk (I used half a piece of tailor’s chalk as that was what I had to hand)

5g (or whatever you dig up) weed roots (in this case, goosegrass)

Same weight as above of silk or wool

Hard water


Dig up roots. Leave to dry, if possible, whilst outside so you can get as much mud off as possible.

Rinse roots thoroughly. Dry on a sunny windowsill, or wherever works best for you.  When dry, weigh.  Now weigh out equal amount of fibre. I’m using silk as it takes dye well. If you have pre-mordanted fibre, leave out the pinch of alum. If not, a surprisingly small amount of alum should be enough to fix dye.

Chop up roots into small pieces, so the colour can bleed out easier.

Grind up chalk and dissolve, with alum, in hot water.  Place in vessel.

Bring up level of water to about 2/3rds. Shake again.

Drop in roots.  Shake or stir a la James Bond.

Drop in thoroughly wetted-out fibre.

Cover, but don’t fasten lid down tight (it could ferment and explode!)

Re-visit your experiment daily over the next few days/week; turning over the fibre, and giving things a bit of a stir to distribute the colour evenly.  When desired depth of colour is reached – voila. Take out, wash and rinse.  I have found in the past that this pinch of alum is usually enough to fix the colour if dyeing such minescule amounts.  You have dyed a small amount of fibre, without using much fuel and without risking a colour you dislike on a lot of fibre.  If you like the results, you can dye more of it, conventionally. If you hate it – you have only lost a few grammes of fibre, a bit of time and you can always over-dye later, with a strong dye pot.

Goosegrass roots soaking (Fibre not yet added)

Goosegrass roots soaking (Fibre not yet added)

A typical blurry inland waterways photo. Gives you an indication of what we were working with, when researching this! Leeds & Liverpool Canal Society.

Just realised I’ve made no mention of the fact ‘River Ganseys’ is available for pre-order.:


I feel like I wrote ‘River Ganseys’ a million years ago. It is a foray into the arcane world of the inland waterways ganseys, put in the general context of the history of Yorkshire knitting (I hope). There will be patterns; several of mine, and one an ‘authentic’, historic, previously unpublished pattern from a 1950s’ inland gansey knitter – I’m longing for these to go live so I can see other people’s versions of them! There is also a chapter on handspinning for gansey yarn, and a ‘101’ gansey making chapter, as well as charts and of course, lashings of Yorkshire knitting history.

‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ is available in the US from Cooperative Press, also Schoolhouse Press. I will be selling it direct from this site, as well, very soon so the UK people can get hold of it. Freyalyn also stocks it – hopefully she will comment here and let us know which shows she’s attending, this year!

I’m now working on the next book. Have to keep it under my woolly hat, for now – but it’s a project that is really, really, REALLY exciting. Even more history (and a few historical patterns) and…. a twist.

Lizzie Lee, 1856, Reuben Chappel. A Humber vessel.

Lizzie Lee, 1856, Reuben Chappel. A Humber vessel.

Unusual, high status yellow stocking, early nineteenth century. Image ©The Kyoto Costume Institute, photo by Naoya Hatakeyama. http://www.kci.or.jp/archives/digital_archives/detail_47_e.html

A Party of Ladies and Gentlemen , from Salt-petre Bank and its environs, enjoyed the amusement of a Hop, a few evenings ago, at The Cat and Bagpipes, on the Fulham Road… the most genteelest couple at the Ball, were a Lady with red shoes, yellow stockings and blue clocks… and much to the credit of the Ladies, no more than five got drunk, during the whole evening.

Oracle and Daily Advertiser (London), Wednesday, July 9th, 1800.

In the eighteenth century, even the colour of your stockings said something about who you were.  Yellow stockings were somehow shameful. Maybe a hangover from Malvolio’s yellow stockings and crossed garters, in ‘Twelfth Night’?

By the eighteenth century, they became associated with charity schools, poorhouses and prison inmates.Or flashy, embarrassing people. Red and blue became seen as ‘provincial’, but yellow seem to have not even been that.

Until the advent of aniline dyes, most yellows were probably made with weld. It was cheap and plentiful. Raw wool fibre for knitting could be dyed in the wool (ie: before spinning) or the finished yarn dyed.  Before the factory system, raw wool was often distributed by middlemen – commonly grocers, and sometimes handspinners themselves – who would have it spun, then return it to the same middlemen to be re-distributed to weavers or frame or hand knitters. So hand knitters might be presented with natural coloured or wool of all colours to be knitted into stockings. The high-end eighteenth century stocking was  silk, or silk with cotton feet. Then came worsted stockings (the preparation and spinning for worsted being more expensive and skilled processes than for woollen spinning).

Woollen spun stockings were often referred to as ‘thread’ or ‘yarn’ stockings. There were also cotton stockings. Stockings could be frame knitted – often knitted flat and the pieces sewn together. Silk stockings may have been frame-knitted more often. But it’s likely the stockings of the everyday (wo)man were hand knitted.  In the extant stockings from the wreck of the General Carleton, (1785) the vast majority of the stockings are hand-knitted.  Most stockings were dyed, and white were often high status as they required bleaching and would have been so impractical as to imply you had plenty of money, and many pairs of stockings, if you were wearing them. Some hosiers advertise white stockings as “fresh from the bleach”. Towards the end of the century, the fashion changed from white to black stockings.

Naturally grey wool was also used and some lower status stockings appear to have been called “mix’t” – probably knitted from various previously dyed colours, scribbled together in a scribbling mill – maybe leftovers from the manufacturing processes. An advert of 1798 puts “Grey and Marbled Worsted” stockings at one 1 shilling and 6d a pair. [Oracle and Daily Advertiser (London), Tuesday, October 30th, 1798].  Silk stockings might go up to anything as high as around 14 shillings a pair, at the same date. (According to the Patients’ Accounts at The Retreat asylum in York).

There are surprisingly few runaway servants or apprentices described as wearing yellow stockings, throughout the century. Most of these wore ‘grey’ or ‘mix’t’. ‘Marble’ wool is sometimes mentioned in hosiers’ advertisements; this was probably the same as ‘mix’t’. Few of the surviving extant eighteenth century stockings are yellow which may also reflect their low status, apart from brief seasons when yellow was suddenly in fashion.

On Friday night the Shop of Mr Thomas Clifton, Grocer….was broke open and robbed of… a Quantity of Stocking Yarn of various Colours…  (Birmingham)

Public Advertiser (London), Thursday, October 10th, 1765.

Mr Clifton was no doubt a mill’s middleman, and would have had the stocking wool on hand for professional hand-knitters.

Frame-knitted silk, English, c. 1730. Found on coraginsburg.com

It made sense to dye stocking wool. Maybe yellow became despised as it was cheaper and more practical than white.

Cochineal (for scarlets)  was 14 – 16 shillings a pound in 1791, according to the trading prices listed in World (1787) (London), Saturday, August 27th, 1791. Logwood (for purples) could be bought for £12 a tonne in Liverpool in 1808, according to Joseph Rogerson, the Bramley mill-owner.  These were ‘exotic’ imports. Native weld, easy to grow, must have been a fraction of the price.

Talking of fashions in the time of James I, a 1777 writer says:

We learn from Sir Thomas Overbury, in his Character of a Country Gentleman, that Yellow Stockings were worn by some of the Ordinary Gentlemen in the Country.

Public Advertiser (London), Thursday, February 6th, 1777

Which implies that by the end of the eighteenth century, yellow stockings were seen as somewhat infra dig.

In a newspaper report on Cold Bath Fields Prison, we are told:

The convicted prisoners, in general, are clothed at the county’s expence. The clothing is good, and consists, for males, of a blue cloth jacket and trowsers, yellow stockings, and a shirt;  for females of a blue jacket and petticoat, a cap, yellow stockings, leather shoes and a shift….

Porcupine (London), Monday, December 29th, 1800.

Yellow stockings as a badge of shame for convicts and the poor, survived into the nineteenth century. In ‘Howden, an East Riding Market Town’, Susan Butler and Ken Powls mention that Howdenshire poor were doled out “yellow stockings” according to the parish records and vestry meeting minutes.  In the 1820s it was noted that stockings in the workhouse “are all in future to be dyed yellow”.

It’s possible the poorhouse bought them unbleached, maybe in the grease – so cheaper – to be scoured and dyed later.

First published in ‘Knit Edge’, No 3, May, 2013. Putting a name and finding the life story to one of one Dent knitter.

US young asylum inmates. Margaret was a similar age when first admitted to The Retreat.

Margaret Thwaite: A Knitter of Dent in the York Retreat Asylum

“…remains without material change. July 28 .. She still knits away with a piece of string and pieces of wool and needles producing only a tangle – if she cannot get anything to employ herself in this manner with she rubs her hands together all day long till she rubs the skin off then she rubs away at the sore…”  

[From Case Notes of Margaret Thwaite, 1874. March 1, The Retreat].

When I started looking at the records of The Retreat, a progressive asylum near York,  I was hoping to find some knitting, spinning and costume records in the account books; maybe the odd mention of knitting as an early sort of occupational therapy, in the patients’ case notes. What I found, unexpectedly was… the sad story of one of the ‘terrible knitters of Dent’, who spent seven decades locked away. I went in search of this woman, Margaret Thwaite, hoping to piece together her story and share it with her modern day descendants – the not always entirely sane modern knitters of Dent and everywhere else…

The Retreat was founded by Quaker philanthropist, William Tuke, in York in 1796. It pioneered the humane and gentle treatment of the mentally ill and became the model for similar asylums, all round the world.

18thC female asylum patient

In 1790, a Quaker woman, Hannah Mills was admitted to the notoriously brutal York Asylum, where inmates were left chained to walls, wearing rags, living on dirty straw in their own excrement, whilst tourists paid money to stand and point. Hannah’s family became suspicious when they weren’t allowed to visit her, and she died a few weeks after being admitted. Local Quakers investigated and found appalling conditions. As a direct result of this, Tuke set up his progressive asylum, mainly for members of the Society of Friends.

I was researching costume references, finding a wealth of mentions of haberdashery; obscure names for cloth, hats, gowns, and mentions of knitting and spinning, when I stumbled upon Margaret Thwaite  in the Admissions records. She was described as being a woman from Dent, and that piqued my interest immediately, as Dent was the powerhouse of 19thC Yorkshire Dales hand-knitting. I decided to track down Margaret’s case notes, and any mention of her in the account books, so I would be able to see if there were any references to knitting – all along suspecting it was highly unlikely I’d find anything.

There is no documentation previously known for any named, individual Dales knitter. These skilled knitters were faceless, nameless ghosts flitting occasionally into books about knitting and textile history. Even to be able to put a name to one, and find out more about her life, would be a fascinating thing.  I didn’t, for one second, expect I was going to be lucky enough to find mention of Margaret’s knitting. But went to look anyway.

Margaret Thwaite (sometimes ‘Thwaites’) was born in 1815, to Quakers James and Ann Thwaite.  James may be the James Thwaite in the Non Conformist records, born to John and Elizabeth Thwaite in Aysgarth, on 10th May, 1770 and married to Ann Blakey in York on 20th February, 1793 . On marriage, his parents are given as John and Elizabeth and her father is Joshua Blakey – James and Ann were to go on to have children called Joshua, John and Elizabeth.. A 90 year old Joshua Blakey can be found living on a farm with his son, at Counterside, Askrigg, in the Dales, in 1841. Several of the Thwaites’ children were born at Counterside and Margaret’s sister was to stay here, decades later.

On successive Censuses, Margaret’s birthplace was given as “Pontefract”. This confused me, as Margaret’s admission notes clearly said she was “from Dent”.  Pontefract is in the heart of the industrial West Riding of Yorkshire; not in the Dales. Birth certificates came along as late as 1837, so anyone born before that date, may well have had only a hazy idea of where they were born. Also, Margaret’s birthplace would have been given by a Retreat attendant, looking at the Admission records, who recorded the last place she was known to be living, prior to admission. Which might not be the place where the patient usually lived.

Richmond. Image courtesy Wikipedia

In fact, Margaret Thwaite was not born in Pontefract although she was admitted to the asylum from there. Her father appears to have lived there, whilst her mother was in the Dales. Margaret was christened in  Richmond,  in the North Riding, on the 14th April, 1815. Richmond is in the Dales, only 13 miles from Dent,  with an imposing castle and, according to Baines’ Directory of 1823, a thriving town with stay-makers, fellmongers, tallow-chandlers, weavers, straw-hat makers,  flax dressers,  surgeons, gun smiths, hair dressers, the two William Vittys Sr and Jr., who were Spinning Wheel and Reel Manufacturers, and numerous taverns some with woolly names like “The Fleece”, “Bishop Blaize” and “The Shoulder of Mutton”. Sometimes, children born in remoter villages like Aysgarth might be christened at some distance – especially if their parents were Non-Conformists.

In a 16thC record of woollen goods in Yorkshire, Thomas Caesar wrote: “In Rychemond there are above 1000 knyters….”  [quoted in ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, p.24]. In 1724, Defoe also described Richmond as a hotbed of knitterly action:

“‘… here you see all the people, great and small, a knitting; and at Richmond you have a market for woollen or yarn stockings….’” [‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, p.25].   It is possible, as Non Conformists, the Thwaites lived 13 miles distant from Richmond, in Aysgarth, but had some of their children christened in the larger town.

James and Ann had children christened first in Aysgarth, in the Dales; later, Richmond. In Woodhall, Aysgarth, they had Elizabeth (1794), and Mary (1795), in Richmond they had  Ann (1797), John (1799) then back to Aysgarth, this time at Counterside, to have William (1807), Jane (1810) and  Joshua (1812). In Richmond, Margaret was baptised in 1815, then Sarah in 1817 and Richard in 1819. That may not be the complete family – just the birth records I have been able to find. Ten children and so far as I can see, Elizabeth, Mary, Ann, Jane, Joshua, Margaret, Sarah and Richard made it to adulthood.

Aysgarth was prime knitting territory, in the Dales.

Yore Mills, Aysgarth. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

James Thwaite’s occupation is described only once in all the records. He is listed as “yeoman”. The turn of the 18thC saw yeoman farmers at their most prosperous and thriving. No doubt, he retained some interest in land at Aysgarth, whilst pursuing other business interests in Pontefract. Margaret Thwaite would be a fairly typical early Retreat resident – middle class, land-owning Quaker family who had various business interests, and could pay her bills. We should remember that not all ‘terrible’ (for terrible read ‘awesome’)  knitters of the Dales were working class. Knitting was a universal skill in the Dales.

Non Conformist records noted that in August, 1827   the Thwaites were in Pontefract – James, Ann, Margaret, Sarah and Richard. The James Thwaite born in 1770 in Aysgarth was born to John and Elizabeth Thwaite; Quakers.  Non Conformist records from 1827, describe Margaret as being a Quaker, of Pontefract but “at York”.  She would have been 12 – too young for admission to The Retreat. She may have attended one of the Quaker schools, or with family in the city. Other women on the same pages of the Non Conformist have occupations but for Margaret, they record simply “Spinster”. Which suggests she didn’t have to work for a living. Elsewhere in the same book, James, Ann, Margaret and Sarah are listed – but not Richard, so presumably he was living somewhere else in 1827. James is described as “Out of Business”, which could mean bankrupt, unemployed or simply retired. Ann was “Wife of James” and the two girls were “Daughter of James and Ann”, all of them residing in Pontefract – except Margaret who was, again, listed as “At York”.

Margaret’s status as a Yeoman’s daughter would not make her exempt from knitting. In ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby quote William Howitt, who took us on a ride through the Dales in his 1844 book, The Rural Life of England, written when Margaret had already been away from Dent for six years:

‘… The woman knits when her household work is done… We saw a stout rosy girl driving some cows to the field. She had all the character of a farmer’s servant. Without anything on her head, in her short bed-gown and wooden clogs, she went after them with a great stick in her hand…. As we observed her proceedings from a house opposite, and, amused at the contest between her and the calves said, “Well done! dairymaid!” “O!” said the woman of the house, “that is no dairymaid: she is the farmer’s only daughter, and will have quite a fortune. She is the best knitter in the dale, and makes four bump-caps a day”; that is, the young lady of fortune earned a shilling a day….’”  [The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, p. 80].

For Margaret knitting would be ‘home’. Although hand-spinning was dying out by the time Margaret was born in 1815, it was by no means dead yet – and survived strongest and longest in remote Dales villages where farming families had spun yarn for their own cloth within living memory, sent it to local clothiers to weave, then had it back to dye at home. And even when that practice waned, many still spun for knitting yarn.

Margaret’s parents appear to have lived apart, by the 1830s if not earlier. Margaret appears to have been admitted briefly in 1836, and released and returned to Dent, but re-admitted in 1838. This time, there would be no release. Her re-admission records state:

“M.T. has lived at home for the greater part of her life in a country situation with her mother, who has been for many years in a state of mental excitement chiefly connected with religious subjects, and though not requiring confinement on account of her own or others’ safety, has been decidedly deranged…..”

It seems that Margaret and her mother were left in a remote cottage somewhere in the Dales, when James and the rest of the family moved to Pontefract. Although James sometimes recorded that they were with him, and no doubt they visited, Margaret maybe fell ill after being confined for “many years” alone with only her manic mother for company. Alone in their home, the women maybe knitted, like so many locals. In the spread-out parish of Aysgarth, many people are listed as Farmer or Knitter on censuses.

An exquisite little book from 1810, with the catchy title: “Specimens of the Yorkshire Dialect To which is added a GLOSSARY of Such of the Yorkshire words As Are Likely not to be understood by those UNACQUAINTED with the Dialect” (Anon, Published Knaresborough, Price 6d), a girl thinks of her dull and not very wealthy paramour, and hopes at the coming Fair, she can swap him for a rich farmer’s son:

John Everett Millais [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Why sud Ah nut succeed as weel,

And get a man full out genteel

As awd John Darby’s daughter Nelly;

Ah think mysen as good as she

She can’t mak cheese or spin like me….”

Margaret may have learned to knit from a very young age, from parents or grandparents. She was only a teenager when admitted to The Retreat but Dales lasses could spin and knit fast, and she would have had more than a decade’s experience at the point she was admitted to The Retreat. She was to spend her entire remaining life behind its high red-brick walls.  Some Retreat patients were eventually well enough to live out, in a row of cottages at Osbaldwick, living in a sort of sheltered accommodation. Many patients had day trips, even weeks back home and some patients’  stay was only brief anyway. As a severe and long-term patient, Margaret would have been confined to the building and grounds.

Admission notes record Margaret entering The Retreat in  1836, being discharged at some point as she re-entered in May, 1838. Her diagnosis is “frantic”. She was said to be 24, and had been insane for four years; the cause: “religion”.  The Dent doctors had tried the usual 19thC panacea: “Bleeding seems to be the only remedy that has been employed”.

Bleeding – applying leeches to the patient to suck their blood, which supposedly reduced internal inflammation – wasn’t working.

Until age 20, Margaret seems to have shown no signs of illness: “… there was nothing peculiar in her previous habits or manner and no unusual weakness”. Being shut up in a remote place, alone with her mother was the trigger, and seven decades’ incarceration behind the walls of The Retreat would only see this once normal young woman deteriorate into hopeless insanity. The doctor’s note that she was “alone” with her mother is the key. In a large family, teenage Margaret alone was responsible for an insane adult.  Shades of ‘the madwoman in the attic’ in Jane Eyre. And her story was not so unusual or melodramatic as we might think.  People had no resources, or help to deal with violent maniacs in their homes; admission notes for the Retreat patients often detail families in despair, spending years locking a family member in a room where they tear off their clothes, and self harm – utterly terrifying for the families, as well as the insane person. Margaret was a young woman left to cope singlehanded with her manic, but “not dangerous” mother. Knitting, that universal Dales occupation, was maybe an outlet for her. James Thwaite made the fatal decision not to hospitalise his wife – just bury her in the country with one daughter as her carer. According to the first UK census, in 1841, James Thwaite was living in Monkhill, Pontefract and  listed as being 70 and born in Yorkshire. He was “Independent” (retired and living on his own means) and living with daughters Elizabeth (born 1793), Sarah, and son Joshua, a teacher, born 1813.  Ann was living back in Monkhill, with the family – presumably because hiding her away in Dent had been to no avail.

The results of the decision to leave Margaret caring for Ann, alone in the Dales, in the 1830s were catastrophic.

In the early decades of The Retreat, patients were encouraged to carry on with their old hobbies and interests, or occupations, where practical. Account books show them keenly buying books, going on day trips, buying newspapers, alcohol, confectionary, and even knitting yarn and needles. As a form of proto-occupational therapy, in the 1790s, the patients were encouraged to hand-spin yarn which they could knit into stockings, mittens or gloves for themselves or friends, or sell to fellow inmates who couldn’t spin or knit.

Accounts were kept for both Male and Female Patients’ Work, and a typical entry might go like this:

“Men Patients’ Work  1798

5 May

Rec’d for Knitting (J.W)  1 shilling and 6 pence.

31 Dec

Spinning 1 lb  20  [illegible]  10 pence

2 P[ai]r of Yarn Stockings Knitting G.S   3  shillings and 1 pence”.

Or, from an entry for Ruth Sheffield in 1809:

“27 Jan 1809

Worsted for stockings (Knit by Ann Smith)”.

In the same year, Sarah Impey paid “.. Prideaux for a P[ai]r Stockings of her knitting”.

Account books kept track of the wool bought, and what items were spun and knitted by and for the patients. In The Retreat, Margaret would have been allowed to knit. Both men and women patients knitted. One patient, James Hashold seems to have been a prolific knitter, earning around one shilling and sixpence per pair of stockings. Another patient has the world’s first documented stash. Patience King spent over a pound on “stocking worsted” in 1807 and a few months later over two pounds on “knitting worsted”.  That must have been a serious amount of yarn.On 10th September, 1799, Judith Robertson bought: “Knitting needle “ for 3 pence.

This must have meant a set of “needles” – it is likely the Retreat employee who kept the ledger wasn’t always au fait with the terminology! A year later, Judith bought:

“Patent knitting needles”  for 3 pence. ‘Patent’ maybe meant slick, shiny steel, or needles with a patented finish.

In the records for August, 1835, Richard and another sister, Jane, are recorded as having moved to the Brighouse Monthly Meeting. Brighouse was also an industrial area in the West Riding. Later, Richard was in Holmfirth, “Assistant with Joseph Pollard”, also in the West Riding, before returning to live and work in the Dales.

On Margaret’s  re-admission in 1838, the doctor had opened the case notes with the words that first attracted my interest: “Margaret Thwaite of Dent”.  Her mother’s mental illness “may fairly be considered as a probably exciting cause of the daughter’s state of mind.”

Margaret’s case notes were completed by various doctors, over decades. An early entry in 1836 described her like this:

“Margaret Thwaite no 518

16th May,  1836

Single, aged 21 years, had been unwell in her mind for 6 or 7 yrs. the disorder has been chiefly manifested in disobedience and irritability of temper. It is supposed to be constitutional, (added above, in tiny letters:  “her mother also a [illegible] to Ellen Dickenson*?)  She has had no distinct paroxyms but has been more perverse latterly. Her previous habits were not [illegible] but her temper was always [illegible]. No medicine means have been used. She has never had fits not palsy. She has sometimes refused food but has shown no disposition to injure herself or others.”

*Ellen Dickenson was another patient.  In 1834, Eleanor Dickenson was recorded in the Retreat’s account books, buying: “stockings, Merino, Diaper”  (diaper was a herringbone weave fabric) for one pound, eight shillings and tuppece.  Ellen was also a knitter, way back in 1822, earning four shillings and sixpence for making, mending, or knitting for other patients.  In the 1841 Census, she is listed as a patient, aged 40, and a schoolmistress born in Yorkshire.

At Margaret’s death, the asylum didn’t notice that she had two admissions – one in 1836 and one in 1838. But she was assigned a different case number in 1838, which suggests she was released, at some point, before being readmitted. It is possible she was to be one of the longest staying patients of the 19thC.

Two years later, when re-admitted, the doctor states Margaret has been ill for four years. It could be that doctors, two years apart, have taken accounts of Margaret’s history from different sources. Maybe, she was brought to The Retreat by different family members in 1836 and ‘8. The 1838 doctor gives us a description:

“M.T. is of the middle stature and medium size; muscular system, flabby; mammary glands, slightly developed; neck rather long; full body, large; head, small rather round; hair light, fine and long. Face rather round; cheeks rather high; complexion, pale but disposed to be florid; a general want of expression; eyes, grey rather sunken with a light bluish halo beneath; moth large; prolabium pale and dry; teeth regular, very yellow; the tongue white, rather furred; appetite tolerably good; bowels disposed to be confined, requiring frequent doses of the domestic medicine; catamenia completely absent and have been so for 6 months prior to admission; pulse 75, rather sharp; does not complain but is stated to look poorly compared with what she was when admitted. Her countenance is frequently distorted by an apparently foolish and unmeaning smile, or titter; and can frequently degenerate into a grimace; and she often is muttering unintelligibly to herself. She is good tempered and tractable, but she frequently indulges in a playful kind  of contradiction; thus, if I ask to see her tongue, she will say “Nay, ger out!” and immediately shew it…. She is generally quiet and easily managed, but occasionally she is noisy at night, sings, is only occasionally employed on going on little errands around the house, now and then she has done a little needlework, but it is so badly done, as to be of little use… She sometimes reads, but scarcely seems to understand. Perhaps the deranged state of the mind may best be characterised by the term of imbecility. I have not detected nor heard of hallucination…”   [29th September, 1838].

From later doctors’ notes, I suspect the “needlework” mentioned here is indeed, knitting.

Sometimes, patients would go through intermittent violent, then calm periods and the doctors would have to intervene, during the times when they were more challenging – even shaving their heads, and using restraints. Presumably at these times, the pointy sticks were firmly taken away from Margaret. When peace resumed, she would be encouraged to do her ‘needlework’ again.

In the 1840s, as Margaret continued at The Retreat without the revolving door syndrome of many of the patients, who were on a permanent cycle of treat, release, re-admit – her family disintegrated. First of all, her father died. The Quaker records stated:

“James Thwaite , of Monk Hill near Pontefract Yeoman, died aged about 71, 23rd March, 1842” He was buried in the Friends’ Burial Ground, Pontefract. Then,  Margaret’s brother the teacher, Joshua died aged 33, on 15th March, 1846 and was also buried there. It is unlikely Margaret was allowed to go to the funerals of family members.

Emigrants’ ship. In ‘American Notes’ Dickens describes his passage out to the US on a steam ship to be so terrifying, he made the return journey by sail!

A couple of months after Joshua’s death, Margaret’s sister Sarah married Vincent Swithen Bloomhall; a merchant from New York, USA, the son of John Bloomhall, cabinet maker. She had her father listed as “James Thwaite, gentleman”. “Yeoman” and “gentleman” were often interchangeable terms in the 19thC. In the 1880 US census, Vincent and Sarah could be found in Conshohocken, Montgomery, Pennsylvania. It is likely she is the same Sarah Bloomhall, aged 75, to be found in 1891 at Bainbridge, Wensleydale, (Richmond district and close to Counterside where the Thwaites and her mother’s family, the Blakeys, had lived), living on own means.  Sarah gave her birthplace as Bainbridge – but was recorded as “wife” not “widow”. A few months later, Sarah was noted on outward passenger lists, as leaving Liverpool bound for Philadelphia. We can only wonder whether Sarah visited her long lost sister, in the York Retreat, on her journeys home?

The 1840s had seen the family decimated. Margaret’s older sister, Elizabeth died aged 53  on 28th August, 1848 and was buried at the Friends’ Burial Ground in Pontefract. A month later, she was joined by her mother, Ann.

Younger brother Richard lived on, and it may have been Richard who paid Margaret’s Retreat bills. He may well be the Richard  who married Charlotte Harker, at Wensley on 10th January, 1846 . Charlotte Harker was born in 1826, daughter of a Wensley blacksmith. In ‘Costume of Yorkshire’, George Walker wrote about the people of Wensley Dale “…In any business where the assistance of the hands is not necessary, they universally resort to knitting…” (1814).

Richard was a cattle then pig dealer near Leyburn. The Harkers lived with them on High St, Leyburn in 1861. Charlotte was a  straw bonnet maker. Leyburn is only ten miles from Richmond and so, although there are several Richard Thwaites of a similar age, from the similar area, I think this one is our most likely target. A John Harker, aged 12, lived with James, Ann and the (grown up) children in Pontefract in 1841.

Richard’s life as a dealer in livestock in the idyllic Dales, and Sarah’s as a Pennsylvanian merchant’s wife couldn’t be more far removed from Margaret’s proscribed life behind the walls of The Retreat. The doctors’ case notes were written up sporadically, over the decades, giving us the occasional glimpse of Margaret slowly deteriorating as she became institutionalised. Tragically for her but interestingly for us, Margaret’s mental illness manifested itself in her knitting (or attempting to knit):

Unattributed image of asylum doctors, patient and attendants. Mid nineteenth century, judging by the hat!

“1860  [no month] she is in a state of advanced dementia… She has been induced to employ herself at knitting, but the work she performs is more a tangled web, which, like Penelope of old, she pulls out as fast as she does it, working away, hour after hour, with no other result. Her health is tolerably good, but she is thin and pale and has periods of vivacity intermitted with periods in which she is very still, silent and sullen…”

This is so poignant. By 1860, Margaret was in her fourth decade of committal.

“March 1st, 1874.

…remains without material change. July 28th… She still knits away with a piece of string and pieces of wool and needles producing only a tangle – if she cannot get anything to employ herself in this manner with she rubs her hands together all day long till she rubs the skin off then she rubs away at the sore…”

A couple of years later, a different doctor’s handwriting tells us there may have been a positive improvement in Margaret’s condition:

“Dec 3rd 1876… … Does needlework… Seems useful”

In the 1870s. Margaret seemed to spiral into periods of violence alternating with periods of calm:

“1877 Dec 3rd

… she has made no progress… has been more apathetic and inactive, at times has been violent – kicking and hitting her fellow patients and attendants. .. feet cold, face blueish, appetite and functions… regular…

7th Is more lively, does needlework; and the [illegible] seems awful.”

18thc stickThen, the most fascinating entry of all:

“1882 is in fair bodily health. Much demented, and frequently more or less excited; when in the latter state she chatters incoherently and unintelligibly, and often swears and usually has a piece of tape or string and bit of wood in her hands, with which she goes through the manoeuvre of making a stitch in knitting, immediately dropping the stitch, this is incessantly repeated.”

By 1885, the decline is clear: “Is extremely demented, and very dirty in her habits. All her food is administered by hand. Occasionally says a few incoherent words, but never talks intelligently. Is in fairly good bodily health….”

Five years later, and fifty years into her stay at The Retreat, Margaret is still, pathetically, trying to knit:

“May 1st 1887 sits all day playing with a piece of string and every now and again breaks out laughing in an idiotic manner…”

And later, the same year: “Sits all day long playing with a piece of string and wood. The feet are quite blue and are always. Although very feeble…is very dirty in her habits.”

Knitting stick at work. Grasmere, 2012

Knitting stick at work. Grasmere, 2012

What we may be looking at, is an unintentional description of Margaret trying to use a knitting stick (“bit of wood”). Maybe Richard or some other relative brought her a knitting stick from the Dales. What looked bizarre and insane to the doctor, would have made sense to anyone in the Dales. By 1887, knitting sticks were falling out from the common memory, generally.
We can see the decline from the “tractable” girl of the 1830s, to the seriously demented woman of the 1850s onwards. Margaret’s mental illness – created by being holed up in a remote place with a religious maniac as a teenager – was simply exacerbated by decades in the asylum. It is hard to reconcile the “rounded” and “flabby” young woman of the 1830s with the skeletal elderly woman.  Margaret’s  weight was recorded in 1881 as being a shocking  7 st 1lb (99lb).

By 1882, doctors remark: “Is frequently in a condition of mild excitement, running about the gallery chattering, and sometimes swearing. Occasionally tears her clothes..”

Bethlem Archives – this photo shows a ‘strong dress’.

Sometimes, Margaret had to be hand-fed, and sometimes, she ripped off her clothes. Some asylums had special “strong dresses” for female inmates – heavily quilted and made from tough, uncomfortable but indestructable materials.

By 1887, brother Richard was dead and Sarah, in the U.S. Her other siblings were long dead. Margaret had no-one to buy her yarn anymore, no doubt, hence the reports of her playing with “string”. Her Retreat bills must have been dutifully paid, or she would have been committed to the less humane York Asylum. It is possible her sister, or sister’s family in the US paid for her treatment. I wonder if Sarah realised that might have been her fate, had she been chosen to be the daughter left alone to look after Ann Thwaite in Dent? Indirectly, Margaret had sacrificed her potential life of normality, but her siblings  were free.

Margaret spent 62 years at The Retreat.She is there from the first UK Census in 1841, to 1891. Her full name was only ever given once, over sixty years, on the first Census. From 1851 – 1891, she is listed as “MT”, with no occupation, and often, no birthplace. It seems in an effort to be discrete, inmates were only recorded as initials. “MT is still recognisable, by correlating the age to the initials. In 1861, ‘71 and ‘81, her birthplace, as usual,  is recorded as “Pontefract”.

She died in 1900, aged 85. Amongst the Retreat records, I found the official notice of death:

“Date of Reception Order: 12th May 1836

I hereby give you notice that Margaret Thwaite a private patient received into the hospital on the 16th day of May 1836 died therein on the 19th day of January 1900


85 years


Profession none

Place of abode immediately before being placed under care… Monkhill in Pontefract

Apparent cause of death Senile Decay

Post mortem: No

Time of death 7:15 am

No injuries

Duration of disease… Some months

Names and desc of persons present at death… Annie Boyes, Charge Nurse Susan Bell, Nurse, The Retreat, York

Whether or not mechnaical restraint was applied to deceased within seven days previously to death… No

Signed Henry J Mackenzie, acting medical superintendent.”

This gave me a new piece of information not in the case notes; that Margaret had been received in 1836, from Pontefract, although the doctor at the time recorded her as living in Dent alone with her mother. Presumably, the situation in the remote cottage had deteriorated and Margaret and Ann were brought to Pontefract, before Margaret was taken to the asylum. This may explain why census enumerators were always told Margaret was from Pontefract. Had I been dependent on censuses alone, I would never have suspected The Retreat even had a terrible knitter of Dent amongst its patients.


The Retreat’s graveyard. Many York Quakers were buried here, not just patients. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

The Quaker burial records said:

“Margaret Thwaites (sic) died 19.1.1900 Residence: Pontefract Spinster  date of burial 23.1.1900 Place of burial: Friends Burial Gd, York  District registered York”.

Her family had been buried at the Friends’ Burial Ground in Pontefract, but Margaret was laid to rest in the Friends’ Burial Ground in the grounds of The Retreat. She was not even to escape from its boundaries in death.


Apt graffiti on a wall, The Retreat. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

Compiled from records of The Retreat, held at the Borthwick Institute, York University. Admission Notes, Case Notes, and Patients’ Disbursement ledgers. Also death notice.

Also compiled from Census data, parish records, and BMD index.

Here’s some events coming up in the next few months. I’ll add in new ones as they’re finalised.


Caro lurks in shrubbery, Dove Cottage, Grasmere

24th February, 2 – 3 PM.

An Afternoon in Dove Cottage: For the Love of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journal.   Sold out!  My partner in crime, Caro Heyworth and I will be doing a fireside chat, at Dove Cottage in Grasmere, where Dorothy Wordsworth wrote   her famous journal. We will be chatting along with Barbara Tonge about aspects of Dorothy’s Journal. We’ll be in early 1800s costume, with my spinning wheel, talking about Dorothy’s colourful descriptions of the Wordsworths’ neighbours and friends. Also home textile production of the local statesmen (yeomen) and the death of handspinning on Westmorland, Cumberland and Yorkshire farms, around the time the Wordsworths lived at Dove Cottage.

Mini Great Wheel at Armley Mills, Leeds

Mini Great Wheel at Armley Mills, Leeds

June 6th

Armley Mills (Leeds Industrial Museum). Formerly the world’s largest woollen mill, now a stunning museum. We will be in the Weaver’s Cottage at Armley Mills as Luddites for the museum’s Wool Week. I will also, for some of the time, be in the Manager’s Office next door to the Weaver’s Cottage (swanky!) doing a  workshop on Your Textile Industry Ancestors. Come along if you want to know more about textile industry jobs, how to trace your textile industry ancestors. Or if you just want to meet some Luddites.

bankfield gw

Secret carving on underside of Welsh Great Wheel’s table. In storage at the Bankfield Museum, Halifax. CREDIT: Caro Heyworth

July 18th, PM.

York Guild, Yorkshire Museum of Farming.


“Woollen Spinning on The Great Wheel”.

I’ll go on about how to spin woollen true English longdraw style; ideal wool preparation, and how to spin on the Great Wheel.

Will be a chance for anyone attending to have a play on the wheels, afterwards!

My Jack Greene Great Wheel. Here being spun on by the lovely Emma, at Bolton Castle.

My Jack Greene Great Wheel. Here being spun on by the lovely Emma, at Bolton Castle.



The belief on which this is founded I have often heard expressed by an old neighbour of Grasmere.

SWIFTLY turn the murmuring wheel!
Night has brought the welcome hour,
When the weary fingers feel
Help, as if from faery power;
Dewy night o’ershades the ground;
Turn the swift wheel round and round!

Now, beneath the starry sky,
Couch the widely-scattered sheep;–
Ply the pleasant labour, ply!
For the spindle, while they sleep,
Runs with speed more smooth and fine,
Gathering up a trustier line.

Short-lived likings may be bred
By a glance from fickle eyes;
But true love is like the thread
Which the kindly wool supplies,
When the flocks are all at rest
Sleeping on the mountain’s breast.

William Wordsworth, 1812

Dove Cottage, Grasmere,  in the rain. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in the rain. CREDIT: Nathaniel Hunt

The Murder of William Horsfall, from ‘York Castle In the Nineteenth Century’

202 years ago this month, the show trial of a handful of Luddites ended, and men were hung at York Castle after a ‘Special Commission’ at York Assizes. They built the scaffold unusually high, so the crowd of thousands could see the men die, like a farmer hangs a few crows pour encourager les autres.

On January 8th 1813, Longroyd Bridge croppers George Mellor, William Thorpe and Thomas Smith were hung for the alleged murder of mill-owner, William Horsfall.  Mellor was said to be the West Riding’s ‘King Ludd’. Only 23, he was literate, intelligent, charismatic – a born leader. Evidence has recently come to light that the ‘Guilty’ verdict was decided by the government, weeks ahead of time.

Hartshead Church, where Rawfolds victims are said to have been buried in an unmarked grave

The three men’s bodies were dissected at the County Hospital in York, to obviate the possibility of martyrs’ graves.  Patrick Bronte is said to have quietly, at night, officiated over the burials of  Luddites killed during the Rawfolds raid, in an unmarked grave, when he was vicar at Hartshead.

Reporters noted the York crowd watched the hangings in baleful silence. Maybe they knew it was more about preventing Yorkshire folk of all trades from ‘combination’ (developing trade unions) than it was about the death of Horsfall. Horsfall’s own funeral had necessarily been a low key affair at Huddersfield parish church.

On January 16th, fourteen more men were hung for the attack on Rawfolds Mill and stealing arms – when I read court accounts in the newspapers, it struck me that many had brought credible witnesses to court who gave them solid alibis. So it is not even clear if all the hanged men were even Luddites at all. The hanged men were: John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, Thomas Brook, William Hartley, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, James Haigh, James Hey (or ‘Haigh’) and Job Hey. Some of those surnames may be familiar to anyone with West Riding ancestry.

Horsfall of Marsden near Huddersfield, had indulged in a spectacular piece of what can only be described as  trolling. He had boasted he was going to install new shearing frames even if it meant he had to ride upto his saddle in (the workers’)  blood. Riding back from Huddersfield market, across moorland, Horsfall was shot.

We know the Horsfalls stayed in the wool trade in one capacity or another, as a Horsfall descendent donated this rare example of a knitted Welsh Wig to St Fagan’s Museum, documented and pattern by the marvellous Sally Pointer.

Throughout 1812,government agents had infiltrated the Luddite movement. Westminster dispatched spies to participate in “twissing in”, the secret initiation ceremony where Luddites were “twisted” (like threads spun into yarn) into service. Laws were rapidly passed so even uttering the words of the twissing in ceremony was a capital offence.  Far from lobbing a few stones, the Luddites were organised like a military operation, and armed themselves by raiding remote farm-houses for firearms, which they then drilled with on moorland, so they could attack the mills and break the machines that took away their livelihoods.  They raided in disguise, blackening their faces for camouflage at night. Many were well read, autodidacts not the backwards-looking, destructive neanderthals of myth but politicised, skilled craftsmen (Craftspeople were always, historically, hard for those in power to pull into line – many were early supporters of the Parliamentarians in the Civil War, for example).  In the West Riding, weavers and croppers were notoriously Non Conformists and free thinkers.

Croppers, or ‘shearmen’, had for some time had an effective proto-trade union but the 1802 Combination Act threatened this, making trade unionism illegal.

My great x 3 grandfather, Thomas Lister, was a wool weaver, born in 1791 from a long line of weavers, clothiers and wool merchants in Halifax, Yorkshire.  Many clothiers were one-man operations; weaving and then selling their pieces at Piece Hall.  Often a weaver aspired for at least one of his sons to become a cropper as they earned more than the weavers and then they could finish cloth and make it higher value, in-house. On family trees, you often see the line of oldest sons down a few generations going: weaver, cropper, weaver, cropper…

Thomas’s son, Tom (my great-great grandfather) was to become a cropper but his career was post mechanisation of the process. Thomas Lister the elder was the same age as some of the arrested Luddites and he moved to Longroyd Bridge in Huddersfield, somewhere between 1811 and the early 1820s. Both Halifax and Huddersfield were at the epicentre of the Luddite movement – a government agent described a twissing in ceremony witnessed in a Halifax pub. As weavers/croppers, actually at Longroyd Bridge – where the Luddite ‘ring-leaders’ were based – it is more than possible my ancestors were caught up in the conflict, either in Halifax or Huddersfield. I have always hoped they were!

In late 1812, before the York show trial, over a hundred ‘Luddites’ were arrested and imprisoned at York Castle. I have yet to trace the men on the prison calendar, but when I do, would not be remotely surprised to find a Lister in there, somewhere. Another great x 3 grandad from this time is Tom Smith, a Longwood (Huddersfield) clothier. Sadly with just about the most common name in England at these dates, that makes it hard for me to find out whether my Tom Smith (born 1799, and lived for many decades after this time) was related in any way to the Huddersfield Thomas Smith who hung alongside Mellor. Like the hanged men, both my Smith and Lister ancestors were Non-Conformists – baptists and methodists.  The second batch of hanged Luddites sang a methodist hymn on their way to the scaffold.

Croppers (sometimes called shearers or cloth dressers) were usually seen as the most skilled of all craftsmen in the wool trade; they raised and cropped the nap on finished cloth. One nick of the shears and the entire piece, representing hundreds of hours of work, was ruined. When a cropper finished, he added great value to the finished cloth. So, croppers were the highest paid textile workers. An apprentice cropper would have to work heavy shears which was agony til a ‘hoof’ (callous) developed on his hands. This took time.  They also had to develop incredible upper body strength and stamina as well as skill. They had a reputation as hard drinkers and men not to be messed with. I’ve written elsewhere about my relatives, the Huddersfield aniline dyers, the Dawsons, who were active in setting up Mechanics’ Institutes in the West Riding, to educate the working classes. But even before the Mechanics’ Institutes, many in the textile industry were educating themselves.

Our old (biased, wealthy) friend, George Walker, writing in 1813 about croppers said:

“… The majority are idle and dissolute…”

[Costumes of Yorkshire, 1814]

Which is interesting as the twissing in oath actually requires that the new member is “sober and faithful” in all his dealings with fellow Luddites. I suspect what people outside the industry saw, looking in a workshop, were the shearmen drinking a quantity of ale or small beer – safer than water, and standard to most British labourers in the nineteenth century. (Woolcombers had to work in a heated space so, like blacksiths, may well have drunk even more!)

Gig mill

Conflict was inevitable when crude machinery was developed – the gig mill and shearing frame which saved employers’ labour costs: “… a machine managed by one man and two boys doing the work of eighteen men and six boys…” (Lipson, p.189).  Early shearing frames were not even very good at cropping. But employers persisted with them for obvious reasons.

So the irresistible force hit the immovable object as the suppressed – and now soon to be unemployed – workers, clashed with the struggling employers. Mills like Rawfolds were heavily defended by armed soldiers. As the Peterloo Massacre showed, early nineteenth century governments were never slow to fire on their own (disenfranchised) citizens, if it suited their aims.

The textile industry drove the development of capitalism, more than anything, in the new, industrialised world and these men were amongst the first and the most dramatic casualties.

Government had ended their ability to combine together and fight for better wages, or better working conditions. What else were they supposed to do?

The whole episode was during the Peninsular War and yet there were more soldiers in Yorkshire, than on the Peninsular. In 1812, there were a thousand soldiers stationed in Huddersfield. A city of only ten thousand people…  In other words, there was a very determined effort by the powerful, to smash the rebellion before it got out of hand. In 1812, the law was changed so that the penalty for breaking a machine was death: it had previously been transportation.

They didn’t rage against all machines – just those that took away a craftsman’s skill forever and replaced it with something that was not improving the quality of the cloth at all.

I am proud my ancestors were weavers/croppers at the height of Luddism and in the eye of the storm.

The concerted effort to stamp out this workers’ movement, was effective. After the show trials, some of those still held at York Castle were transported. Others were quietly let free.

The Luddites were effectively crushed by the state yet I’d suggest they accomplished something incredible. They planted the seeds which, a generation later, were to become the Trade Union movement. If their voice was silenced brutally by the government, it re-emerged later in a groundswell of opinion that ultimately led to universal suffrage and rights for millions of people in the earliest industrialised society on the face of this planet.

Twissing In Oath:

“I, [insert name], of my own free will and accord do hereby promise and swear that I will never reveal any of the names of any one of this secret Committee, under the penalty of being sent out of this world by the first Brother that may meet me. I furthermore do swear, that I will pursue with unceasing vengeance any Traitors or Traitor, should there any arise, should he fly to the verge of  [left blank, possibly “Hell”]. I furthermore do swear that I will be sober and faithful, in all my dealings with all my Brothers, and if ever I decline them, my name to be blotted out from the list of Society and never to be remembered, but with contempt and abhorrence, so help me God to keep this our Oath inviolate.”

Armley Mills Industrial Museum, Leeds. Weaver’s Cottage at end!

If you would like to attend a (free) workshop on Tracing Your Textile Mill Ancestors, come and see us at Armley Mills (Leeds Industrial Museum) on June 6th.

I’ll be there with our Living History Yorkshire Luddites group giving a workshop on how to find your textile industry ancestors, and what their jobs actually were! I’ll post details nearer the time.

Resources: On the trail of the Luddites, Lesley Hall and Nick Kiplng, Pennine Heritage Network, 1984

The History of the English Woollen and Worsted Industries, E.Lipson, A & C Black, 1921





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