History Knitting Leeds

Stash Enhancement Opportunities, 19thC Style

Berlin Rooms, 1840

Today I thought I’d journey back in time to the 19thC wool shop/yarn store. Why don’t you come along for the ride?

When I was a kid in the 1960s, there was an old fashioned draper’s in our village. I used to be enthralled by that shop; all the shiny wooden shelves, and unchanged Victorian shop-fittings… It was stripped out long since, in the 1970s. It was a bit like a shop in the Wild West; with fabric, and buttons and notions (presumably wool, too although I don’t remember it). Also lino, and other totally random things, crammed to the elaborate corniced ceiling.

I’ve been thinking about shops a fair bit, recently… In my research, I discovered a fascinating link between well known Edinburgh designer/writer, Jane Gaugain and York’s own Elizabeth Jackson, which I shared in a recent ‘Yarnwise’ but wanted to put in context, here.

When the trade restrictions of the Napoleonic Wars were over, it seems there was a yarn store on every high street. You will see them listed on Censuses as “Berlin Warehouses”.  Knitting went from a functional thing (stockings and caps mainly) to a decorative pastime; a hobby as well as a grinding necessity.

In 1824,  London born merchant J.J. Gaugain advertised the latest Parisian fashions, and haberdashery at his shop ‘The Foreign Warehouse’, at  65 New Buildings, North Bridge,  Edinburgh; where, his advertisement said, he was sure his patrons would continue their support “since the removal of his establishment from London to this city” . [Caledonian Mercury, October 28th, 1824].

In the 1830s, the smart money was on Berlin wool. Seeing the strong, bright colours, suddenly middle and upper class women everywhere wanted to knit. Who better to define ‘Berlin wool’ for us, than J.J’s wife,  Jane Gaugain herself:

“German wool is the produce of the Merino breed…and is the best sheep’s wool that we possess. The merino fleece is brought to the greatest perfection in Saxony…It is chiefly manufactured at Gotha; the dying [sic] of it performed at Berlin… ” (1843).

In 1824,  whilst J.J.Gaugain made his move to fashionable Edinburgh; in another elegant city, York goldsmith and jeweller, Edward Jackson was listed as bankrupt. Throughout the 1820s, Edward, born 1786 in York,  somehow continued trading, on York’s busiest thoroughfare, Coney St, but must have been searching for a new string to his bow. His shop adjoined an exhibition hall; tall, light and airy, ideal for visiting sculpture exhibitions – and freak shows.

1823, freak show at 14, Coney St

Meanwhile, for the Gaugains, business might have been booming, but their marriage was unhappy. They were eventually to live apart. Maybe J.J was getting itchy feet as early as the mid 1830s – he was already expanding his woolly empire South of the border in the summer of 1836:

“Berlin Stitching Patterns

Mr Gaugain, Importer of German Patterns, Wools, &c., in EDINBURGH, has established  a Branch Warehouse in YORK, under the management of Mrs Gaugain’s Sister…
Saloon, 14, CONEY STREET.”

[York Herald]

No 14 was a light, airy ‘saloon’, once used for travelling exhibitions and freak shows.

The shop adjoining ‘Mr Gaugain’s Berlin Wool Depot’, belonged to none other than Edward Jackson, goldsmith and jeweller. Fresh from his bankruptcy, Edward must have eyed the fashionable ladies going in and out of the next door shop, and formed a plan. A later advertisement hints how the Jacksons linked embroidery and crafts to goldsmithing:  “Every article requisite for the work-table constantly on sale… Instructions in the various branches of Ladies’ Fancy-Work. Arms, Crests, and Other Designs, drawn to order…”

In 1836, J.J.Gaugain decided to retrench operations, and Edward Jackson took over the neighbouring shop. But he didn’t turn it into a jeweller’s. ‘Mr Gaugain’s Berlin Wool Depot’ became ‘The Berlin Rooms’.

In the Spring of 1838, Edward Jackson married 29 year old Elizabeth Ruddock, daughter of the late West Riding cloth manufacturer, at St Olave’s in York. It is possible Elizabeth was one of the embroiderers in his workshop. Elizabeth’s family were sculptors and ecclesiastical stone carvers; presumably attracted to York by the prospect of work at the Minster or others from the myriad of churches in the city, on every street corner.

Just as tourist traps in the city now sell armorial crests to tourists, the 1830s’ tradespeople of York profited from them, too. Upmarket craft services and supplies appealed to everyone; the aristocrats with their embroidered arms, and the middle classes, who wanted to be seen shopping where the fashionable folk shopped. The mid 19thC yarn store had only to hint at its royal or aristocratic patrons, to get the less royal and aristocratic flooding in. In her Preface to the second edition of her book, Elizabeth Jackson wrote that she was indebted to “several Ladies high in rank and station” who were long-term customers at her shop. Jane Gaugain’s manuals were dedicated to various aristocratic ladies, even royalty.

In 1839, the Coney St shop was still advertised as Edward’s shop. By 1841, it was Elizabeth’s. She stamped her character indelibly on the business and took the family from bankruptcy to prosperity – wool was her gold.

Only three years married, the 1841 Census reveals that Elizabeth was not at home on the night the census was taken. Her absence might be explained by the fact she had just opened a new branch of the Berlin Rooms on New Bond St, in Leeds and was maybe in transit between shops. Her widowed mother, Mary was still living with her in 1851 and again, points to the usual fate of unmarried or widowed women; dependency. Elizabeth’s contemporary, straight talking Mary Taylor defended women with young children going out to work, saying:

“They are earning money that, the more affectionate they are, the more anxious they are to get. The work of earning it…is their first duty…”

We should not underestimate women like Jane Gaugain and Elizabeth Jackson, who turned craft into commerce and escaped what proto- feminist Mary Taylor called “the cage” of domesticity. Although ironically, they did it by selling books and materials to make that temple to family; home. Jane, estranged from her husband and Elizabeth, possibly not wanting to rely on Edward’s business acumen for her own living.

Elizabeth Jackson wasn’t without competitors; one of whom was probably Mr Gaugain’s sister in law, who appears to have stayed behind in York, and started up her own shop in competition to the Jacksons’:

1836, Battle of the Berlin Shops

“MISS CURRIE from Mr Gaugain’s Depot for Ladies’ Fancy Works, 14 CONEYSTREET YORK, begs respectfully to inform the Ladies of Yorkshire, particularly those who have kindly promised her their Patronage, that she will open the shop, NO 47 OPPOSITE THE CHURCH, on the 16th of January, for the sale of Berlin Wools,…December 27th, 1836”. A Miss Currie appears in the list of subscribers to one of Jane Gaugain’s earlier titles. It appears Catherine was widowed, and must have decided to stay in York, to make her way in the world, with her own shop.

Directly under this ad, was Elizabeth’s own. Two wool shops on one street!

A year later, Catherine Currie’s ad ended with the rather pointed: “N.B. C-C wishes to state that she has No Connexion  [sic] with any other House in this City” . According to the 1841 Census, Catherine Currie was still trading from 47 Coney St, and listed as “Berlin Wool Dealer”. She was gone by 1851.  In 1845, Elizabeth traded from 15 Coney St, sharing the premises with the goldsmith’s, and the ‘Berlin Rooms’ were renamed ‘Jackson’s Emporium’. Elizabeth now had shops in York, Harrogate and Leeds.

These shops seem to have been huge, warehouse style buildings with impressive frontages and in prime locations.  The wool they sold was both British and imported. British wool was often regarded, slightly unfairly, as inferior. Standard types of yarn seem to have included a very fine, white wool called “Lady Betty’s”, for baby clothing; Andalucian and merino are often mentioned for women and children’s stockings, and Scotch fingering, for men’s. Popular colours in Victorian knitting manuals include ‘Albert Blue’ (which more than one writer warns you, will run so wash it first!); maroon, red, and mauve are also often mentioned. Interestingly, baby knitting – not specifically for either gender just babies generally – was often pink. ‘Fleecy’ is often mentioned. Apparently fleecy came in three qualities – “common”, “best” and “super”. It was made from the fleece of Leicester sheep (a forerunner to Blue Faced Leicesters, probably).

Berlin rooms were crammed to the rafters with colourful yarn, and the books of the most famous knitting writer/designers; Mlle Riego de la Branchardierre (who self described as “Writer and designer” on a Census; Cornelia Mee; Jane Gaugain and our own Elizabeth Jackson. Their books sold in the thousands, often being reissued in different editions, and were, according to the ads, universally available in booksellers and wool depos. The Gaugains and Jacksons expanded to other cities. The Berlin wool shops must have been some of the first chain stores in the UK. But are now largely forgotten.



Writer, crafter, textile historian, machine knitter, handspinner and dyer.

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