ganseys Genealogy guernseys Knitting

“You’re Doing It All Wrong!”

By kind permission of Yorkshire Ancestors at

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.

Credit: Belinda May, Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes

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!

My knitting stick!

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.

Moominmama knitting English-style!

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!

You can visit Andrea Wong, the doyenne of Portuguese Knitting, here. This is useful, too!



18 replies on ““You’re Doing It All Wrong!””

I am pleased to find this article and this great supply of information as I am working on a (german language) blog with the subject “knitting intelligence”…

thanks for your infos, you are doing it the right way!


I loved this article! just stumbled upon it while surfing, but was pleased to read the reference to ‘pit knitting’. I am a real beginner, even though I learned to knit almost 40 years ago. I was taught by a lovely lady who grew up in the Hebrides and she told me that she learned wearing a belt with a horse-hair stuffed pouch with various sizes of holes to fit different size needles. Since I didn’t have one of the belts, she said the next best alternative was to stick the needle in my armpit. I’m always viewed strangely by people who see me knitting this way, but I can’t seem to get the hang of the ‘conventional’ style.


Now I know where my weird knitting style has come from, being left handed all my right handed relations in Leeds tried to show me to no avail and I eventually taught myself 30 Years ago from a Book knitting English Style right Handed but holding the right needle between my Legs because I found it awkward to try and hold it in my right hand, now I read here about the sheath method those Yorkshire Ancestors of mine have got a lot to Answer for as I’ve been living in Australia for the past 40 + Years must be in the Genes.


Just a short comment on the Yarn Harlot style of so-called Irish Cottage knitting. I have seen it referred to as English Lever style, but at least by my reckoning, it is not. You do not, in fact, “let go” of the right needle to flick the yarn for stitches, because if you are doing it the way Stephanie shows it, you aren’t holding the right needle at all, except to brace it against what God gave her in abundance with the heel of the right hand. That is slightly more difficult for a man to accomplish, thus the use of the knitting sheath or stick prevails!


Interesting to re-visit these earlier posts, however still no update on a possible release date for your upcoming book?

I have found over a period of years, that if I knit continental style, left hand yarn tension and carry, that I do much better if I use the “combination” style purl. That is, wrap the purl from the bottom up, rather than top down. This does, in fact, reverse the orientation of the knit stitch, but that in itself is of little to no consequence. The only time I have found that to be any sort of problem is in lace knitting and when trying to match the “lean” of decrease stitches. For those times when it actually would make a difference, it is a very simple matter to simply remount the knit stitches involved so that they can be knit “regular” style, and achieve the proper left or right leaning decrease.

I have practiced Portuguese/Greek/(insert name of other country here) style with the yarn carried around my neck, or with a knitting pin, and find that yes, it is fairly fast and easy to accomplish, but still requires a good grip with my right thumb and forefinger, so it does little or nothing to ease the arthritis pain. Also, because the different motions require using muscles that are not really used that often, I get tired much more quickly using that style.

I have been knitting for some time using a knitting sheath or stick, though I use it with my “working needle” supported on the right side of my body, as opposed to what may seem the more-usual method of knitting with the stick on the left. I guess it’s just what you get used to. I knit with the stick or sheath using the English Lever style knitting, flicking the yarn round the needle to form stitches using my right index finger. I find that with practice it is as fast, or possibly even faster than continental style. However, I have found that owing to some arthritis in my right thumb basal joint, that knitting the Yarn Harlot way is much more relaxing and far less stressful on my thumb. Using the Yarn Harlot throw and the knitting stick combined allows me to fairly easily complete about half of a stockinette stitch sock in one evening, while watching TV. I have worked out a method of using the stick with circular needles, so I can knit my socks using the sheath and lessen the strain on my wrists and fingers even further. I do not use the pencil style needle hold that the Yarn Harlot espouses when using DPNs, however. I have tried it (enough to get fairly fast at it) and still do not like it. I find that knitting anything larger than a sock or glove simply gets to be way too fiddly with the fabric draping over the top of my thumb, and cause much more paid because of having to trip the fabric much harder to keep from dropping it.

So, the bottom line for me is that I use the knitting stick for about 90% of my knitting, only not using it if I am doing cables extensively, or lace work that causes me to have to keep “reading” the stitches to see where I am in a pattern. I do, occasionally use the “oxter” method or pit knitting, and also the other option of simply parking the end of my long right hand working needle in the thigh crease of my right leg for support. The stick is more secure, and allows for faster work without dropping stitches, so that is still my preference.

At present, I am about 3/4 finished with a Yorkshire Fisher Gansey, using the snakes and ladders pattern over all, which means that every row has lots of purls, and multiple cable turns every 8th row. This most definitely works faster and easier using the stick, and the Yarn Harlot type tensioning and flicking, as the purl stitch and knit stitch are exactly the same movement, with just a slight tip of the left hand needle to switch from one to the other. Very satisfactory and much easier way to form stitches. It would even work nicely for cabling if I werent using such a tight tention. (2.5 mm needles American size 1-1/2) and 4-ply yarn of light worsted weight. If I drop a stitch at this tension, it immediately heads for the southern border and tries to escape into Mexico, so I have to slow down and take extra care when cabling. I can often do normal tension cables without needing a cable needle, but with this high-tension work, I don’t trust myself. Therefore, I use the U-type cable needle as a sort of safety net to prevent having to rip and redo extensive yardage in tight gauge.

Please do keep us informed as to the expected release date of your book. I am very much looking forward to it.


Being taught knitting by my mother, the way her mother and grandmother and mother in law and everyone she knew of did, I have come to the understanding i am knitting dpn’s and one pointed needles the English or non.Continental way, although I think we would call it plain or Dutch knitting. Thread in right hand, needle in armpit or under arm (oksel in Dutch, sounds like oxter a bit, yes?). My grandmother was gifted a beautiful wooden sheath carved by her first boyfriend with Frisian woodcutting and her cyphers. The sheath was to be tucked in the apronband at her high waist.
Regarding the fast knitting of the Continental way: I have no doubt knitting in the round it might be a tat faster, purling absolutely not. I have seen many demonstrations live but also on the net. What at first appears to be right, Continental knitting on two or four or five needles being faster, at second and better looking is comparing apples to pears. When demonstrating how s l o w English knitting is, they knit the way a starting 7 year old does: hold the needles with both hands, pitch right needle through loop on left needle, careful, do not let the loop go!, let go of the right needle, pick up the thread with your right hand, sling the thread around the right needle, pick up the right needle again, pull thread through loop, let loop go, pitch right needle through etc. This is how a child/beginner does the English knitting and is a long way from the experienced way with the thread over the right indexfinger, never letting loose of the right needle, pricking trough the loop and slinging the thread in one fast movement. If I would compare my English experienced knitting to the way a young and starting Continental knitter is strugling with the picking up the thread through the loop, I would say English knitting is much faster (look at Yarn Harlots video’s how she knits, just using the middlefinger and not really slinging, but I guess a kind of combined slinging of the right and hooking of the left hand movement, is she fast or not.) I wish really I could teach the knitters in English method who do the completely letting loose of the righthand needle the wrap over the indexfinger method, they would become faster really quick. Do not get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with letting go of the needle, it just is a bit slower and requests many more movements, which can lead sooner to RSI. Needless to say I master both methods, so I can compare, I love the Continental knitting in the round with really short needles (passenger in cars and on trains) but I hare purling Continental style, just a movement or two too many.
Learning to knit Dutch/English style there is this little rhyme: insteken, omslaan, doohalen, af laten gaan or in english :pitch it in, sling around, pull through and let go. See, there is no: let go of the needle in there.


Hi – Very interested to hear when your book comes out! Let me know when I can buy it. Have just posted a link to this post from my blog about traditional crafts! Am making my way around the British Isles highlighting regional crafts. Hope thats ok!

All the best Rachel


Well, I am uncertain whether my reply went into a moderation queue or just disappeared. I got up to get some ice water as my computer room is hovering just below 90 degrees. When I returned, my long draft message is seemingly in the “black hole” of the internet.

I have found little information about swaving anywhere. I am delighted that your site came up on a multiple-site search of the internet, and I hope to learn whatever more you can teach me.

I seem to be a rather eclectic knitter, using different styles at different times and projects, both to rest fingers and wrists by switching projects occasionally, and other times to simply confound those looking on by doing something they have never seen. (Mischevous, yes. Entertaining? You bet yah.

The uncle to whom I referred passed away when I was about 14 or 15, so I have no access to any of his birth information. Since I learned that the last of the Terrible Knitters of Elizabeth Middleton, I made a wild guess that he may have been related. My aunt, Thyra Pepple Middleton, was born in Ruleville, Mississippi, c. 1900. One of my Pepple relatives was also a genealogist, and researched several lineages in the family. She informed us that she traced back to William the Conqueror’s time (not him, of course, but one of his warriors) coming to live in England (presumable in the Dales area.)

As that relative has also passed, I have no access to either her published results (if she ever published them) or to her notes, so I cannot go further with any investigation.

I can advise that when I discovered sheath and pit knitting, I took to them like they were genetically programmed into my fingers. I learned the moves, and was knitting at my current rate of 70-80 stitches per minute within about four hours practice time. I realize that is painfully slow, but I am not a speed knitter, and I have had a whole lot of English and Continental knitting over the last 60+ years to push into the background to get myself into the real swing of this new (to me) style of knitting.

I can certainly appreciate your reluctance to show too much too soon, but am waiting with bated breath for your upcoming book. Hopefully that will provide the impetus to discover on my own (or with your gracious help) what swaving is all about.

I was on a different site recently which apparently is located in the UK, wherein several of the members described a film which is said to be running (or available) at the Dent Village Heritage Centre, but owing to my lack of funds, I doubt that I will be making a trip just to view it. I have seen a very short clip of a “Terrible Knitter” who describes in very heavy dialectal English the social gathering of the knitters, and sitting around knitting by the light of peat fires with the candles extinguished to save the wax. The bloggers on the other site stated there were parts of the film showing the singing get togethers where everyone was apparently keeping up with each other by singing and knitting in unison. I don’t know whether this was a description of swaving, or whether there exists any actual footage of that technique. Hopefully in your recently mentioned research you will find enough information about that to at least make an educated guess about how the yarn was held, and the formation of the stitches. It sounds a lot like regular continental knitting except for the insistence that both hands were moved together to form the stitches rather than a lot of simple one handed operations. I will be very interesting to learn how your research progresses, and hopefully will keep up to date with your postings about it. I definitely want to be on your notification list when your book is ready for release.

(Should my other long post show up, I apologize for double posting. Since it disappeared from my screen, I have no way of knowing whether it got sent out to you or not.


I am (currently) a sheath knitter (using lever style, right hand yarn carry), a continental knitter (both standard, eastern, and combination), a Portuguese knitter (occasionally) and would most sincerely love to learn swaving. I keep hearing about it, but none of my relatives are knitters in this generation, so I have no direct line of access to the method. I suspect that my Middleton relatives may have had Yorkshire ties, perhaps even Dent, but since all are now gone, I will not be able to confirm their knowledge or learn anything from them. I learned “polite” style at age 5, and plodded along that way for many years. When I was in my mid 20’s, I was a manager and instructor at a yarn show in Southern California, and managed to acquire continental style and stranded Norwegian color work. There have been many “non-knitting” years in between, but now, at age 67, I long to learn the styles/methods of my ancestors. Since I am living on pension, I have strong doubt that I shall ever visit the Dales, though that would delight me. I have heard of a movie/video that runs at the Heritage Museum in Dent, but have little to no chance of visiting there to see it. I am currently inquiring whether a CD of that movie might be available. I would love to make a contribution of my time and effort to keep the swaving alive for one or two more generations, but without a bit of help from my friends, that goal may be unattainable. I am greatful that I turned up your blog, and hope to follow it going forward. I would love to hear any new information you uncover regarding swaving. Since I am now struggling with arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome, I have switched mostly to sheath knitting with a bit of pit knitting occasionally. Both methods seem to be easier on my joints. I have heard, and hope that it is true, that swaving is easier on the joints as well, and hope that I may soon learn how it is/was done so that I can find out for myself what my ancestors knew hundreds of years ago, but somehow managed not to pass down to me.


Hi Roy

Re. swaving – and even using different types of sheath combined with certain lengths of needle for different jobs – I have uncovered a fair bit of info that will be in the forthcoming book! I found a lot of info that was published and ‘out there’ but in fairly obscure, local sources only available at several Yorkshire Reference Libraries, so have tried to pull it all into one place to make it available for us all. Only a generality, but pit knitting seems to have been favoured for the larger projects like ganseys sometimes, and sticks for the stockings/gloves. Marie Hartley said in more than one interview in the 1970s and 80s, that she wished more than anything, she’d had a cine camera and been able to film swaving, of all the things she gatehred info on. I will be visiting the place where Marie and Joan’s original notes etc have been deposited soon, and will see if I can find anything else relevant to ‘Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’. The swaver she particularly wished she’d filmed was a lady called Stephenson, from Ravenstonedale. My own great great grandad was a Stephenson – from Ravenstonedale! So as you can imagine this is of huge interest to me. Like you, I wish ym ancestors had passed this down. Middleton is a Yorkshire name. If you have a grandparent/great grandp name/approximate birth place or lcoation, do email me and I will have a look on UK Ancestry for you and see what we can find.

Dales knitters mentino switching back and forth between different methods, different sheaths and no sheath and curved and straight needles, according to the job in hand.


Fascinating – can’t wait for your book. I’ve lost my maternal knitting line – my mother doesn’t like to knit and learned badly from her mother. The latter, my grandmother, had an invalid mother from an early age she had to care for (we’re talking 20s and 30s here) and was a self-taught knitter. She made lovely socks, apparently – nothing is extant.


In southern Scotland at least, ‘pit knitting’ would be ‘oxter knitting’ – any better? 🙂

I’ve never tried a knitting stick, despite having made a whole gansey. I think I’ve got the gansey bug now, though, so may well investigate this technique for a future project.

Thanks for so many interesting posts – can’t wait for your book.


Thanks for this; what an interesting post. I’m having to amend the way I knit following injury, so am especially interested in alternatives. I also like the knitting inheritance aspect; I never knew my Irish granny, but thanks to my mother, I knit like her (well, for the moment, that is).


As someone who was taught to pit-knit (in Spain) then learned the English “polite” way and who has subsequently taught myself Continental for knitting in the round, I’m very encouraged by your advocacy of catholicity in knitting. With the internet it’s so easy to learn culturally distant methods and apply them where appropriate to different situations. This was a great post, thanks!


…‘pit knitting’ (urgh – can someone think of a nicer name for that please?)…

Well, “Axillary Placement of Tool Holder” (APOTH) comes to mind. It’s noways as reliable to memory as Pit Knitting, however.

So, shall we adopt decorative euphemisms or speak plainly?

As ever, I enjoy your posts. Thank you.


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