It looks like I’ve been neglecting the knitters for the genealogists here, so I wanted to post today just for the patient knitsters.
Here are the famous Hawes knitters from ‘The Costume of Yorkshire Illustrated By A Series of Forty Engravings Being Fac-Similies of Original Drawings’ By George Walker, 1814. I do so love a catchy title.
Much of the reason I’ve been quiet is the book on the history of Yorkshire knitting, I’ve been working on for the past few months. It’s not that I’m not knitting – more that I’m cogitating as my dad used to say. Here is the fruit of this week’s cogitations, where I finally finished getting my head round Portuguese knitting, played with a Dales-style knitting sheath, and wrote some words…
We all knit in different ways. ‘English’ and ‘Continental’ vie with eachother for the ‘most common’ amongst UK and US knitters. But there are so many more styles of knitting – pit, Portuguese, Russian, Peruvian, Norwegian, Eastern or some heretical combination, various hybrids, lefty or ‘mirror image’ for the lefthanded- and many others. Knitters can throw, lever, or pick the yarn to form the new stitch. There’s so many variables to each aspect; where you keep the yarn, how you tension it, how you manipulate it and even the direction in which you’re going – or which is your active needle.
I was taught to knit continental (to the shock of my step-mother, who is an excellent English-style knitter!) When I returned to knitting in the 1980s, the prevalent view was that continental knitting was “faster” than English style. And very little mention of any other alternatives.
But back when my stepmother commented on my knitting continental, I wasn’t even aware there were other ways to knit!
I grew up thinking everyone knitted like me, because – until I was a teenager and my dad remarried a Southerner – I’d never seen anyone knit any differently. Over the years, I realised I was also knitting inside-out when in the round. And 99.999 recurring % of my knitting is in the round.
Most knitters, working in the round, work right-side facing, and the knitting progresses clockwise, as you look at it from above. I knit wrong side facing, and anti-clockwise as viewed from above. It hurts my head to think about it too closely, but I suspect that means I’m doing summat different! But, as we know from knitting’s various ‘heretics‘ and ‘anarchists’, “different” does not equal “wrong”! Not that I ever, for a second, considered I was “doing it wrong”! Yorkshire folk tend not to think like that. (Talking of anarchy, that brings to mind my grandad, who would pay my cousins and older brother a few shillings if they got into trouble at school… my other grandad wasn’t one for conforming much, either….)
Now I suspect my eccentric knitting (which was the norm in our family) was probably the product of my mum being the daughter of generations of farmers – and the odd fisherman – in a remoter place. Kids were taught to knit pre-school age, so remained uninfluenced by ‘school style’ knitting. ‘Polite’ knitting = English style: yarn on the right. We knitted yarn on the left. Also, our family stayed on the land into the 20thC, so no disruption of ‘old ways’ by the Industrial Revolution that ‘got’ 90% of Brits’ ancestors!
Of course my weird way of knitting is nightmarish when I have to write patterns for other people – as basically I’m going in the opposite direction and with the wrong side facing, as I work. I then have to flip everything in my head before I can write it down for others to copy! It throws up a few unforeseen problems but in a way that’s good too, as it forces me to think.
A quick genealogical aside but if you follow your maternal line relentlessly – mother’s mother’s mother etc – see where you get. Mine end up with late 18thC inland fishermen’s wives, via a lot of farmers’ wives. If your ancestors stayed put throughout the seismic shifts of the mid 18thC-early 19thC… and your family ‘ignored’ rules imposed by schools and the 1870 Education Act (in the case of UK) … it’s entirely possible, if your mum taught you to knit – you are knitting in the same way your ancestors did!
In ‘Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, (1951) , Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby refer to a famous passage in William Howitt’s 1838 The Rural Life of England, describing how Dalespeople knitted:
All this time, their knitting goes on with unremitting speed. They sit rocking to and fro, like so many weird wizards. They burn no candle, but knit by the light of the peat fire. And this rocking motion is connected with a mode of knitting peculiar to the place, called swaving; which is difficult to describe. Ordinary knitting is performed by a variety of little motions, but this is a single uniform tossing motion of both hands at once, and the body often accompanying it, with a sympathetic action…
I was careful to say ‘people’ not in the spirit large chain bakeries now call gingerbreadmen ‘gingerbreadpersons’ – but in the spirit of accuracy. Men, women and children of both genders, knitted in the Dales.
This type of movement was called ‘swaving’ in some parts of the Dales, ‘weaving’ in Swaledale, and all over the place more commonly called “strikin’ t’loop”. Basically, if you strike t’loop of your knitting in a well-judged way – you knit fast.
Knitting historians have been frustrated by the vague, kind-of nature of extant descriptions of swaving. The most oft quoted descriptions are of course, Howitt and Hartley. A few weeks back, I stumbled on some first-hand accounts, which gave much more detail of what swaving really was… and the rather specific times when it was needed. I feel a bit like a stripper – am conscious of avoiding “showing too much too soon” but, gentle Reader, I promise will share everything I’m finding with you in my forthcoming book rather than pre-empt myself, here. Going off half-cocked, so to speak… You wouldn’t want that.
But suffice to say, swaving was fast knitting. Very fast. They could knock out entire sets of gloves or socks in an evening. But then, as my researches in York showed me, even a 7 year old in 18thC England, was expected to knit an entire stocking per week, before admission to a charity school. Figures around the 200 stitch per minute mark, are mentioned.
Speed knitting is not my forte, but it was standard issue amongst 18thC and 19thC commercial hand-knitters. They used steel needles (but not always), bent needles (but not always) and knitting sticks (but in different ways)!
This week I have been mostly messing around with knitting sheaths, following all the research I managed to trawl up in the past few weeks. Some Dalesfolk tucked the sheath under their arm, so were practising ‘pit knitting’ (urgh – can someone think of a nicer name for that please?) Some, in the belt or using a ‘cowband’. Different kinds of needles were used for different jobs.
We can learn a lot by looking at today’s speed knitters and their techniques.
Miriam Tegels has the Guiness Book of Records record for fastest knitter. But she was out-knit by Scotland’s Hazel Tindall, who has the World Record. The Yarn Harlot, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, is another fast knitter.
All three of these knit in different ways; Miriam using the pit method and – if I’m correct – yarn to left continental-style (documented in 19thC Dales but by no means the only method used); whilst Hazel knits English style with yarn to right and using a knitting belt, or “wisk” and Stephanie the ‘Irish Cottage Style’ (levering with yarn tensioned in the right hand).
None of them are ‘doing it all wrong’! They are all so different and yet – so right!
Beyond messing about with my knitting sheath, a repro Yorkshire goosewing one bought at Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop, I have also learned to knit Portuguese style.
I switched to purling this way well over a year ago because it is just so much faster than my usual knitting. And as I knit inside out, there are simply more purls than knits in my work.
But it’s taken til now to get round to sitting down with good old YouTube, and finally mastering the knit stitch, Portuguese style. It’s counter-intuitive because you have the yarn at the front of the work. Having learned it, and played with it – I’m thoroughly enjoying it. And more to the point – using it!
As knitters it’s fun to sometimes challenge yourself and pick up a new style of knitting. It pushes the boundaries but it also informs you about the style you are most comfortable with. It can be frustrating, feel un-ergonomic, and there are moments when you think you might as well revert to old ways. But don’t! Add to the repertoire!
When I was a student teacher, one lecturer said to us: “When you’re teacher, go off and learn a new skill yourself. Something you have never tried before. When you’re back to square one, experiencing all the pitfalls and how you feel when something goes wrong/right… that’s when you become a great teacher!”
To teach well – you have to remember how it feels to be a learner, in other words.
And I think he was right.
There are a few videos on YouTube re. Portuguese knitting, and using them all together, I have got to the point I was probably at with my own weird Yorkshire knitting, more years ago than I care to admit.
And although I spend most of my life in dusty archives, and museums, researching Yorkshire knitting – I’m always fascinated by everything about our craft, from all over the world. We have so much to learn from eachother, at the risk of coming over all Paul McCartney and ‘Ebony and Ivory’ on yous. I think a lot of knitters have that insatiable curiosity. Fusion of styles is a great thing!