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!

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15 thoughts on “Not Swaving, But Drooning

  1. Stilll waiting with baited breath for the River Gansey book. As I am midway through 70 now, I begin to wonder if I will fade away before I see the results of your excellent research.

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, my grandmother and a cousin actually had a hand in my training at age 5. The cousin’s surname was Middleton, and while she was certainly not old enough to have been a production knitter trained at a knitting school in Yorkshire, the possibility surely exists that she may in fact have been taught by such a one.

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    1. The name ‘Middleton’ rings a bell in that context! I was excited when I found out my great X 3 grandad – who brought up my great grandma when she was orphaned in childhood – was from Westmorland, and my great grandma’s cousin – also brought up by the old man – was on a census as ‘stocking knitter’. Surprised because my family were Leeds people. And he was a carpenter by trade. Well, I’d thought we were Leeds people going way back. When I traced my Westmorland and Yorkshire Dales names, they were all farmers or the classic Dales thing farmers/lead miners and one direct line ancestor was on a late 18thC informal census as ‘spinner’. And several of my surnames came up in ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ – which is now out, incidentally! When the work dried up in the Dales – or an older brother inherited the farm – they ended up in the West Riding, where the work was. Turned out both my dad’s parents, both Leeds born, had Dales ancestry – one from Westmorland and one from Yorkshire.

      ‘River Ganseys’ has had numerous delays, all out of my control sadly but the good news is, I am picking up the reins this week, completing the final layout myself, to speed things along. I have said for the past year, at this rate my second book will be out long before my first. ;o)

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  2. Thanks for writing this. I am only just discovering all of the details of said blogger’s inaccuracies and I had read a bit of his ‘work’ but felt that he used a lot of words I just didn’t recognize. So I looked it up and yours is one of the only other blogs that addresses the subject of swaving. So nice to know that there is someone out there *not* choosing to rewrite history, but actually study it…

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  3. Additional thoughts on the matter: In the short clip of the video presentation at the Dent Village Heritage Museum, which can be accessed online, the knitter appears to be doing a fairly normal English Lever technique, much as I use. She is not seen to be swaving in this short clip, but could of course have done so had there been more than one or two stitches demonstrated. Personally, I find that I can make a slight variation in English Lever wherein I use the left needle to push into the new stitch, push just past the feed yarn (supported by the right index finger) and, catching said yarn on the return, a slight upward lift of the right needle will indeed pop the old stitch off the left needle, while firmly placing it on the right. Is it possible that I have been doing swaving and not known that was what it was called? I can do it fairly rapidly with the knitting stick, but as mentioned, it is not quite as fast for purling, though it can be done if practiced a bit.

    I also have some curved needle, but do not see that the curve serves any particular purpose for this type of knitting except to allow the needle to be more horizontal, so that you don’t have to turn your head sideways to get a good look at your knitting. I also find that I can do this technique quite adequately with circular needles and no knitting stitck, by just allowing the right needle to swivel or lever around using the right middle finger as a fulcrum or pivot point. It is done not quite at the point of the joining of the cable and the needle, but somewhat forward, perhaps midway down the actual short needle portion.

    While I am lucky to make speeds of 35-40 stitches per minute, which would, presumably allow somewhere around 110-120 stitches over a 3-minute timing, this falls way short of the Dales knitters “reported” speed. To be sure, the flick of the right needle upward does indeed move the new stitch from one needle to the other quite rapidly, and without benefit of stop-motion photography, you do not actually see the motion in progress, but only the new stitch almost magically appearing in place on the right needle.

    So, while awating further information from you, I am left with my musing that perhaps I have been “a swaver taught from early childhood” with my own knitting, as I have been using this technique (which I, by the way, have called egg beater knitting, owing to the semi-curlar motion of the right hand, similar to using a hand-cranked egg beater) since I was first taught knitting by my grandmother and a cousin. I am fairly certain that my grandmother never reached any speeds approaching 200 or more stitches per minute, she nonetheless achieved very nice, even-tensioned knitting without any apparent great effort. It was not anything special to her, but merely “knitting.” I am beginning to think that perhaps the actual style was not so uncommon as the published reports may indicate, just that it wasn’t called by any “cute” or “mysterious” names by those of us who used that method in places other than Dent village.

    I have, so far, seen nothing to indicate when your upcoming book might become available for pre-order, so must content myself with just carrying on.

    I do have one other question, though. I see references occasionally to addresses or roads on “East Riding” or “West Riding” etc. What exactly is a “Riding.” Is that a horse path, or some other obscure reference unknown to those of us not living in that part of the world?

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    1. Ah, don’t worry, the book is still in the pipeline – we are just adding an Appendix, as something came up at the last minute we didn’t want to leave out!

      Yorkshire was (I think?) the only county in England that was divided into Ridings (a bit like a state having counties). It was a corruption of “thirding” (a division into three). So originally, we had the West, North and East. (No South). In the early 70s, there was a local government re-organisation and we lost our historic ridings. Now we have North, South, East and West Yorkshire. Where I live was in the old West Riding, but is now North Yorkshire, for example.

      The three Ridings and the newer sub-divisions have distinctive dialects and accents.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riding_%28country_subdivision%29

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  4. Humh… A certain self-proclaimed blogger has decided that his somewhat awkward attempts at English Lever knitting are indeed swaving, and then proceeds to show his comparison to his “regular” knitting so that we can see the difference. Well, I am sorry, but I personally see no difference. I was taught English Lever something like 60 years ago, and while I can state from my personal experience that it indeed wicked fast if practiced properly, I sincerely doubt that the Dales knitters actually achieve 200+ stitches per minute. Either there was something wrong in the timing of the knitters, or the person doing the timing was not personally a knitter and simply did not recognize when a stitch was completed. If the current world champions are only just now clearing the 200 barrier over a 3 minute timing, 200 per minute would simply seem humanly impossible. Have you watched Hazel Tindall’s video on YouTube? Her fingers are truly a blur, but if you have learned to do English Lever personally, there is absolutely no doubt in your mind that what she does is plain and simple English Lever with the aid of the Knitting pouch and belt. Imagine what she might do had she been taught swaving. That word, by the way is compared to trees waving and straightening in gusting winds. I believe I saw the definition in one the the Webster editions of the dictionery, but cannot say now which. Nonetheless, I am a sheath knitter, and I use both traditional English Lever, and have fairly recently adopted the same style of knitting propounded by Stephanie Pearl McPhee (The Yarn Harlot) for the general run of the mill knitting, because it truly is more ergonomic and less stressful to my hands and wrists. I still waver occasional depending on the project, but still, probably because of the publicity, am waiting with bated breath for your additional information on swaving. I have seen several so-called authorities describe it, and the general concensus was that it was a left-handed yarn carry, but not continental. Okay, fine, so how the heck does one attempt to work it out? Hopefully you will lift the veil a little more before the ever awaited release date of your new book, just to keep our interest up!

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    1. It does look like we need to do another swaving post, soon.

      From the videos on said blog, there is nothing whatsoever going on there that fits Misses Hartley and Ingilby’s descriptions of ‘swaving’. It sounds like it was a movement of both arms simultaneously whole upper body rocking motion – making them look, according to Howitt, almost like shamans! Not just a sedate static thing where the “swaying” goes on somewhere in the pivot of the end of the needle in the knitting stick – but something the entire body has to do.

      I got an interesting comment (See Kathryn, this page) about seeing a lady in Pateley Bridge swaving WITHOUT a knitting stick, which is a key piece of the jigsaw, I think. So hopefully as this blog stays up, more people who saw swaving might come forward and tell us more. It is odd that the said blogger disregards primary sources, or any information actually from Yorkshire or Yorkshire-folk.

      I suppose the vital thing to stress from now on is no special tools needed to swave. There is no ‘kit’ you need to buy. Also, I suspect it is something people learned from early childhood so hard for us ever to replicate, or get close to.

      Anyone who saw the last of the swavers in the 1950s or feasibly, 60s – your words are the words that count. Hope someone else comes forward who has seen it or heard talk of it. My dad worked in Mineral Valuation for the Civil Service and in the late 60s/early 70s, his work frequently took him up to the Dales. In school holidays, I’d go with him. We’d often find ourself in the back of beyond, at some remote quarry or similar, chatting with locals as “the man from the Ministry” did his work (Can remember once going in a potter’s work-shop, somewhere up there, and watching the potter work – wish it had been a knitter!)

      We can say the said blogger is utterly out in his concept of ‘swaving’ – unless he can put up a video that shows something that looks as dramatic as the motion Hartley & Ingilby describe. According to interviews with them, they saw it many times. Because what he has up on the blog right now, is just “someone knitting”.

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  5. I remember one elderly lady in Pately Bridge in the 1950s who didn’t use a knitting stick but did knit very, very fast with a swaying motion and did call it swaving. Alas I didn’t learn it from her – I wasn’t as interested in knitting when I was at primary school as I am now. She did teach me to make butter and cheese and I used to go with her to sell the butter in Ripon market.

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  6. This is really interesting – I had only heard of swaving as a Dales technique (Hartley and Ingilby, Kathleen Kinder etc). It certainly doesn’t seem reasonable that “galloping” speed could be achieved when any change in stitch type was needed (so all purl or all knit with very little shaping would be possible, but not ribbing/moss stitch or similar). Were the needles/pricks curved deliberately by some knitters, or were they just distorted with use over time? I certainly have some thinner diameter steel (and aluminium) needles that have acquired a curve solely from the tension that I knit with.

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    1. Hi Karen

      My take on it is – some needles are born curved, some achieve curvedness – and some have curveness thrust upon them! Old Dales knitters claimed the curved needles were faster but even so, some preferred straights. So homemade needles certainly, were curved when made or kept straight according to preference. When you use a stick for any period of time with fine gauge needles, they seem to develop a natural curve anyway.

      Curved needles are often mentioned specifically in the context of swaving. I guess this must be because the curve swivels better in the knitting stick? You can indeed ‘strike t’loop’ more effortlessly if you hold the needles so the end scoops up the stitch – if that makes sense.

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  7. As an American, I tend to assume a word I don’t recognize is dialect. I love these words and collect them.When Google Books scanned Howitt, I searched it for “swave” or “swaving”, because sometimes I find books of more of these collected dialect words.

    But looking at the original text, I wonder: is it possible “swaving” is a typographical error for “swaying”, or even that it was originally typeset as “swaying”, but the bottom of the Y broke?

    (You are the only person I think might give my little hypothesis a serious hearing!)

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    1. Hi Alwen! I have seen the word across a number of texts; sometimes a primary source, sometimes, a 20thC interviewer in all different fonts. So not much doubt it is “swave”. I think that’s just a dialect rendering of “sway”. I’m trying to think of a similar verb with an -ay ending, that changessimilarly – and can’t, off the top of my head, think of one! Might come to me, though.

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