Hearts and Charms in Folk Art

Heptonstall gravestone
Heptonstall gravestone

“If the youngest daughter in a family is married first, the eldest had better unravel one of her garters; knitting the same, mixed with other wool, into something a man can wear. This she must present to the one she has special regard for, and it will most likely incline his heart to her.”

[Yorkshire Wit, Character, Folklore and Customs, Richard Blakeborough, 1898]

Blakeborough wrote how knitted garters were once popular gifts, and often wanted “to work charms and spells with”. He said knitted garters were about an inch wide and a yard long. This is a nice example of how knitting and folklore intertwine.

In 1847, at a murder trial,  Ellen Beresford described what her sweetheart, George Collis, had been wearing when she last saw him. Amongst the articles of clothing, she mentions “…a white knitted garter, and one with a red sort of binding”.   Maybe the red was some kind of love token?

Knitted garters were regarded as the nursery slopes of knitting and often the very first thing a child made, when they learned to knit, so had fond associations with learning at a parent, or grandparent’s knee… In an interview in the 1980s, elderly Dent knitter Clara Sedgwick remarked that she had learrned to knit before she went to school and when she had mastered knitting garters on two needles, she graduated to stocking knitting on four.

Clara’s interviewers looked at Clara’s knitting stick.

We noticed how light were the sticks…and Mrs Sedgwick said that cherry wood was a favourite material with the carvers, many of whom presented their sweethearts with a stick on the day of their betrothal.

hull maritime
Courtesy Hull Maritime Museum

Many ornate sticks were love tokens – tokens of romantic love carved by a suitor but also sometimes, a sign of filial love; a special gift from father to daughter. There are often hearts or heart motifs on knitting sticks – some crudely carved; some, exquisite. The hearts motif is also a popular one on many Yorkshire ganseys. It can be found in Fair Isle knitting, as well. Again, it may have been seen as a sort of protective charm to keep a loved one safe, or remind them they were loved!

Central hearts motif, Bridlington child’s gansey from Rae Compton

Earlier this year we were in the West Riding, up in Heptonstall. Because the old church was abandoned, left standing as a ruin with its gravestones all round it, and a new one built – there are a remarkable number of 18thC gravestones surviving intact. The folk art on some of them was remarkably reminiscent of the carvings on some knitting sticks. The heart and cross combined on the Heptonstall gravestone pictured above, also occur in the knitting stick pictured, from Hull. Brass or tin heart shaped knitting sticks were universal across England, too. Most Yorkshire museums have one or more. There is a notable tin heart at the Bronte Parsonage Museum which may have come all the way up from Cornwall, with Mrs Bronte.

Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum
Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum

Not Swaving, But Drooning

Manchester Art Galleries, ‘Dales Knitter’ doll. 1830-40

“I was too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”
Stevie Smith, Not Waving But Drowning

So, what is “swaving”?

In the words of the oft-quoted passage from William Howitt’s ‘The Rural Life of England’ (1838):

“…As soon as it becomes dark, and the usual business of the day is over, and the young children are put to bed, they rake or put out the fire; take their cloaks and lanterns, and set out with their knitting to the house of the neighbour where the sitting falls in rotation…The whole troop of neighbours being collected, they sit and knit, singing knitting-songs, and tell knitting stories… 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 the hands at once, and the body often accompanying it with a sort of sympathetic action… They knit with crooked pins called pricks.; and use a knitting-sheath consisting commonly of a hollow piece of wood….”

Howitt’s account is taken by some as Holy Writ simply because it is one of the few accounts in print (or rather, widely circulated), to describe swaving. However, we should not get too OCD about Howitt’s every word. He was not a knitter. This is about as good as it gets, if you want a description, though.

“Swave” is a lost Yorkshire dialect word; so obscure that even the more obscure reaches of the ‘Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society’ couldn’t give us many clues. When I couldn’t find anything cognate in the most definitive Anglo Saxon dictionaries, I knew it was probably a medieval (later) word.

I have looked in all kinds of obscure books and journals on Yorkshire dialect. Including one 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).

Distracted by this glorious book, I did find a gem for the hand-spinners here – in a poem called “T’deeath of Owd Deeasy An Eclogue”, which is a lengthy poem about the tragic death of Georgy’s old mare. Georgy, a practical Yorkshireman, mourns the death of his faithful horse but simultaneously calculates how much value he can get out of her body:

“Thy hide poor lass! Ah’ll hay it tann’d wi’ care,

‘T’ull mak’ a cover to my owd arm-chair.

An pairt – an appron for my wife to wear,

When cardin’ woul, or weshin’ t’parlour fleer….”

In another poem, 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:

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….”

In the poems that make up the book and the glossary – no mention of the verb “to swave”.

However, I finally struck gold in “Yorkshire Words Today. A Glossary of Regional Dialect” David Paynter, Clive Upton & J.D.A Widdowson [Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1997].

Sway-pole  n. see-saw. West Riding.

Sway, various dialects use in Scotland, England…also Lakeland. ‘a see-saw’.

I am taking a leap and betting money that ‘swave’ comes from the late Middle English “sway”, “To cause to move back and forward, side to side” [Shorter OED]. In our context, it means “to rock” like a see-saw.

Howitt described just this kind of motion. What is problematic is when his words are taken so literally, it is pronounced by Authority that ALL swaving used special needles (no – just needles)  and ALL swaving needles were called ‘pricks’ (snigger, but yes that is just a Yorkshire dialect word meaning ‘needle’ generally – not specifically any one kind of needle), and that ALL swaving happened with a special knitting stick. (In Yorkshire dialect it was more often ‘stick’ than ‘sheath’). Don’t waste your time making the more puerile amongst us laugh by insisting your ‘swaving’ needles are now ‘pricks’. That is just the defunct, catch-all word for ‘needles’, and not something arcane or specific to this one technique.

Swaving happened with a stick or wisk – Howitt mentions both and we have no reason to disbelieve him, as both survive as extant artefacts in Yorkshire.  Folk swaved with curved needles.  But there is no reason to believe these are ‘special’ or magically ‘different’ in any way to the usual curved needles. What Howitt described was a group of people all of whom happened to have curved needles.  Some 20thC Dales knitters said they knew people who preferred straight needles, and others who preferred curved; and there were those folk who swapped between the two, depending on mood.  A curved needle would help the knitter ‘strike t’loop’ if held at the right angle.

Researching my forthcoming book ‘River Ganseys’ I took a few other peregrinations into Yorkshire knitting history – ah come on, it’s me. I never stick to the point!  And one thing I researched was… swaving.

Interviewed in the 1970s, Marie Hartley said:

“… We found and saw one person knitting in the old way, Mrs Crabtree of Flintergill, Dent, then in her 79th year. We were told to go and see her, and when we knocked at her door she opened it with her knitting in her hand and a knitting sheath tucked in her apron band.
“We regret that we did not meet her sister, Polly Stephenson, who also used the ‘swaving’ action in knitting…

“…The swift execution in knitting was achieved by the exponent being taught as a child, often by her father. We wish that we had borrowed a cine camera and recorded Mrs Crabtree in action, for this skill is something which has gone, never to be seen again in the Yorkshire Dales…

Had Misses Hartley and Ingilby been able to borrow a cine camera, we’d be in less doubt about the precise nature of swaving, today. I’ve been checking out archive footage for the past couple of years now, in the hope of finding swaving as someone else may have caught it on film, intentionally or not. Still haven’t found it.

Numerous Dales knitters interviewed in the 1950s-70s did remark that swaving could only be practised fast on straightforward sections of stocking stitch – not on ribbing, or lace, or anything else at all. Some said it was faster to use bent needles, others said they preferred straights. Knitters did not routinely ‘swave’ everything in sight, as some would have you believe – because whole sections of work were not suitable for this technique. They’d swave down a plain bit, then revert to their ‘normal’ way of knitting if there were a lot of purls, or swave but swave much slower. I suspect swaving was not much use for two colour knitting either, given the fact they said they couldn’t use it much for Knit and Purl. Swaving would work great for that endless Forth Bridge for 18thC and 19thC knitters – the vanilla plain stocking, in other words.

So far as I know – to date – we only have reference to this as a Yorkshire, inland technique. That may change as other information comes to light.

The misguided would have you believe there is barely a discernible difference for the onlooker,  between swaving and ‘normal’ knitting. Not true. Swaving was a very visible rocking motion of the whole upper body, not a tiny fine motor thing happening at the tip of the needles. No-one was in any doubt when they saw swaving – either Howitt in the 1830s, or Marie Hartley in the 1940s. It looked so different, Marie Hartley wished she’d filmed it. The technique would not be called the dialect word for ‘see-sawing’ if all the see-sawing was happening inside the knitting stick!

Ganseys do not lend themselves to a crafty swave – because so much of them is Purl and Knit relief patterning – a total no-go for swaving, according to those surviving into the mid 20thC who were taught to knit by habitual swavers. We can’t reconstruct everything there is to know about swaving, but there is no reason to believe a special or different stick was used for it – and certainly no special adaptations or attachments would be needed. The movement appears to have been an almost convulsive rocking of the whole (upper?) body thing, not a tiny swivel located somewhere in the knitting stick.

Less often quoted, is Mary Howitt’s novel, ‘Hope On, Hope Ever!’  (1840), which also describes Dales knitters, but not swaving:

… the dales-people have another employment…. this is knitting. Old men and young;  women and children, all knit…. There still is a demand, at Kendal, for their goods – caps, stockings, jackets and shirts; and, though everyone says the trade was better in their father’s time, they still go on knitting, contented in the belief that, while the world stands, stockings and caps will be wanted, and consequently, dales people will always be knitters…

Stockings and caps would of course, be prime swaving material, with all those acres of stocking stitch.

There are several passages in Mary Howitt’s book describing various characters knitting stockings; no doubt this reflects the reality of the vast majority of the Dales people’s work. At one point, a character mentions giving someone a dozen pairs of stockings of her own knitting, as a gift. Swaving would make this work go faster – where purl stitches are only used at the faux seam and, possibly, clocks (patterns) at the ankles.

One 1950s’ source interviewed a Sedburgh woman, who was taught to swave as a child. She said they called it “strikin t’loop”, which is rather more suggestive of the motion – presumably if you hit at the right speed or angle, what you will get is a loop straight on the needle. This lady was taught to knit by her grandma who learned to knit at a knitting school in the Dales – as many, many Yorkshire children learned to knit. Not the romantic ‘at grandma’s knee’ stuff – this was an industrial technique. And again, rather than a ‘fisherman’ thing – the only evidence we have for swaving suggests it was an inland phenomenon. Sedburgh, or ‘Sedbusk’ as it was often called, was known for its fine glove knitting tradition.

Knitting schools were run by farmers or their families. Some coastal towns also had their knitting schools. Sometimes the masters or mistresses even of coastal knitting schools are also traceable to inland farms.  It was at the knitting schools that children learned to swave. This lady remarked that only ‘clever’ knitters could swave a purl stitch but even then, that would work for garter stitch – not alternating purl and knit, as in a gansey. Top speed she called ‘gallopin’. She said you slowed down to canterin’ when it wasn’t just knit stitch.

This puts swaving fairly firmly in the stocking knitter’s armoury of techniques and out of the romantic gansey knitting fisher families, although those children on the coast who attended a Knitting School will quite likely, have learned to swave.  Not what some ‘experts’ want to hear.

If you want sources and references and much more detail about ‘swaving’  or ‘strikin’ t’loop’, – do get on our mailing list at Cooperative Press, and you will be amongst the first to know when my more in-depth look at the art of swaving, is published. I will have much more info there, and everything is referenced for your delectation.  Soon now!