“Our First Long Journey By Ourselves”

knit trad
‘Traditions Today’ email.


I was really excited last week to get my usual ‘Traditions Today’ email from Interweave, because it was trailing my article and  “Mrs Jackson of York“‘s stocking pattern  in the forthcoming  ‘Knitting Traditions, Spring, 2013’.   Available for pre-order now, and should be out at the start of April. I hope those of you who love this nerdy stuff, enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed researching and writing.

In June, 1845, Anne and Emily Bronte went on “our first long Journey by ourselves “;  a three-day long excursion to York.  They probably stayed at the George Inn, on Coney Street.  We know Charlotte and Anne stayed there as a staging post on Anne’s final journey, in 1849 – and the Brontes were creatures of habit.  The George Inn was right opposite Elizabeth Jackson’s  Berlin Rooms

DSCF1405York’s other big coaching inn, The Black Swan, was also on Coney St, a few doors down.

I went on the trail of knitters in the Brontes’ novels, was privileged to examine some knitting artefacts at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth; and have recreated the stocking from Elizabeth Jackson’s  “The Practical Companion to the Work-Table”, which was in its second edition just as Emily and Anne were staying on Coney Street.  From the knitting sticks and the gauge of the needles extant in the Parsonage’s Bonnell Collection, it is clear the Bronte sisters could knit a stocking!

To re-create the 1840s’ stocking, I used Rennies’ Supersoft Lambswool;  the hard-wearing yarn of choice used by many re-enactors and living historians to knit stockings. I used the greasy yarn on cones, but ungreasy wool in balls is also available.  Rennies is spun in Scotland, and the company has been going since 1798. The Brontes were huge fans of all things Scottish, so I felt they’d approve. I knitted my version in a screaming version of bright purple and marzipan – mainly because I have read of knitting folk in the Dales dyeing leftover grey wool with logwood, to make purple stockings for their own families. And yellow from weld was a cheap and readily available dye. Also, Emily famously wore a hideous mauve gown with yellow flashes of lightning, so my purple and yellow combo was a tribute to her.  But if you have more restrained taste, do check out the Rennies’ colour range, as there is something there for everyone. These days we can buy online – so much easier but maybe less fun than the stash enhancement done by Miss Murray in Anne Bronte’s “Agnes Grey”, who:

 …Ostensibly… went to get some shades of  Berlin wool, at a tolerably respectable shop that was chiefly supported by the ladies of the vicinity….

I wonder if Anne did the same, in 1845, on Coney Street? We will never know. But it’s fun, speculating.

coney st
Coney Street, York. Credit: Nate Hunt

Swaving – A Load of Old Pony

By Gervase Markham (Cavalarice, or the English Horseman) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I prefer to take my information from the horse’s mouth. Other folk go to the opposite end.

And some of the misinformation coming out re. ‘swaving’ is, frankly, a load of old pony.

Let’s see what Dalesfolk – who saw it – said ‘swaving’ was.  Then see if you can find any reliable/accurate demo of it online. I guarantee you – you won’t. No-one is currently doing it, as defined by – well, people who saw it. Or rather; someone may be quietly, modestly swaving away, somewhere but they are not online telling us about it!

Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby saw swaving with their own eyes. ‘Swaving’ is also known as ‘strikin’ t’loop’ (please gods, let no-one appropriate that one) and apparently, in Swaledale, it was known as ‘weaving’. As discussed in a previous post, the etymology is uncertain but it looks to mean “see-sawing” or “rocking”.

Certain would-be ‘swavers’ have decided swaving is all happening out of view,  somewhere at the end of the needle in the socket of the knitting stick. They claim that enthralled bystanders see nothing different, from a distance, when they see them ‘swave’. And right there, you have it.  If the casual bystanders are seeing nothing weird – you are not swaving.  In fact, you’re knitting sedately.

Swaving was a whole upper body, rocking movement.  Hartley and Ingilby noted:

… the secret of the method is the rhythmic up and down movements of the arms performed so that the right needle ‘strikes the loop’ without the least hesitation. The body sways up and down in sympathy with this action which is something like the beating of a drum

[Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, Hartley & Ingilby, p.18, 1991 edition].

They add:

… It is impossible to do it in slow motion; and the loops fly off quicker than the eye can see….

The fact the very word means “rocking” in dialect, added to the Misses Hartley and Ingilby’s account of it, is compelling evidence.

And brings us back to Howitt’s famous 19thC description of swavers:

….They sit rocking to and fro like so many weird wizards…. 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

[Howitt, quoted in ‘The Old hand-Knitters of the Dales’, p. 79]

From this we can conclude: no rocking motion – no swaving.

I have been unable to find video footage (so far) as anyone contemporary or in the archives, swaving. Knitting in a ponderous manner with no see-sawing/rocking motion, or simultaneous movement of both hands – well, you can find that.  It isn’t ‘swaving’. That is absolutely crystal clear from Howitt and the Misses Hartley and Ingilby’s descriptions.  It is unfortunate when dialect terms are being appropriated by folk who don’t even understand them.

No special ‘tools’ are needed. A recent comment on my blog from someone who saw swaving in Pateley Bridge, mentions the fact the lady had no knitting stick.  For the convulsive, simultaneously both arms kind of movement – a stick would be a matter of choice. Neither do you need ‘special’ needles. The needles in various museums are often curved, but  sometimes, not. You can do it with Hiya Hiya small gauge steel needles. Having seen (and handled) needles from various museums across the North of England, it was evident to me that the needles used in the past by commercial or gansey knitters had no special magic.

So I hope no-one spends any money in the quest to swave. Simply read the accounts, and have a go!  Yorkshire folk are known for their directness – but also for our thriftiness. “Owt fer nowt” was one of my dad’s favourite sayings.  If folk out there want to knit in the spirit of the old Dalesfolk – just do it how it pleases thee, and tha’ll be reet. And don’t part wi’ thi brass to do it.

Swaving in the context of ganseys is a load of rubbish too, as the surviving swavers in the mid 19thC told the Misses Hartley and Ingilby that it could only be done for sections of plain stocking stitch. Ganseys of course, rely on purl and plain alternating for their patterning.  Stocking stitch jumpers were knitted in the Dales.  Howitt specifically says it was ‘peculiar’ to the Dales.

Living Historians are going to have to reclaim this one, before its meaning is distorted. Call to arms! (Well, needles). If anyone reading this finds a video of someone swaving (either now or in the past), do give us the link and we can all share it. In the meantime, please be assured no-one alive is doing it. Yet. Or if they are, they are not putting videos up on the internet.

When you swave but the casual onlooker can’t see any difference between that and your usual knitting style – you’re not swaving. You’re just knitting.

Her Name is Finger Paper

Just a few textile related items from Selby inventories, from the second half of the 17thC.

In amongst this, there are some interesting items. A ‘worsett’ (worsted) wheel would possibly, at these dates, be a sort of intermediate style wheel, somewhere between a great wheel and a smaller wheel. The spinner sat down – instead of walked as at the Great Wheel –  and sometimes there was a handle to turn the wheel itself.  There may or may not have been a flyer – chances were, the spinner would still have to manually stop to wind the yarn onto the spindle, as on a Great Wheel. The Great Wheel remained pre-eminent for spinning woollen from carded wool; but it seems the new, smaller wheels were seen as better for worsted. As in flax spinning, worsted fibre supply was held on a distaff.  In the wood-cut above, the fibre on the distaff is not the characteristic fairytale book conical shape, we associate with flax, so this woman is probably spinning worsted.

A ‘spoile wheel’ was possibly a wheel for winding yarn (spoile = spool).
Selby is close to the East/West Riding border, so the dialect word for worsted, “wassit”, now appropriated by some is, slightly further South, rendered as “worsett”.

The will of Thomas Candler  (1680s)

…In the Presse House, …. 1 loome, £10 3 (shillings) -4 (pence)
In th e worke shope, 5 loomes, .1 warpin mill, 4 worsett wheeles, 4 spoile wheeles £7-1s-6d. In the Combing Roome, 3 pairs combs,1 pair carsay combs £1-4s-3d. In a Closett, some dyeing waires, £1-0s-3d… In the wool chamber, a parcel of yarn £2-10s, i parcell of comb woole  £3-8s-6d,  1 parcell of fleece woole, 3£-3s-9d, i parcell of brooken woole  £2-6s , i ps of baggin  £1-10s….

Carsay = kersey. It’s interesting that they had a different sort of comb. In “17thC Woolen Cloth Specification”, Stuart Peachey, (Stuart Press, 1991), Devonshire Kersies are defined as “…between twelve and thirteen such said Yards… and being well scoured, thicked, milled, and fully dried, shall weigh thirteen Pounds the cloth at the least….”  Yorkshire kersey was notoriously coarser than kersey from more Southerly locations. Kersey was made from combed wool and was woven fairly narrow. It was hard-wearing and comparatively cheap.

This one has several points of interest. Robert Watson’s occupation was not noted, but the inventory from his shop was fascinating. NB: stocking knitting needles by the lb.  The 2s probably refers to “per dozen”. Note also the use of the word “needles”.  The “incle” is a narrow-ware; a warp-faced braid. There are few references to inkle looms, but the fact the braid was called “incle” is suggestive of the idea that maybe there were ‘inkle’ looms by the 17thC.  The Shorter OED notes the first usage in 1532.

The “blew linnen” may be important. There is some debate as to whether all undershirts were white/undyed, as previously believed, in the 17thC. It is possible that blue shirts were also found in the 17thC. This is slightly backed up by Charles I’s blue, silk knitted shirt, from the 1640s.

The administration of Robert Watson’s estate
Sept 10, 1689

Inventory Nov 8th,  1688
Goods in the Shopp
5 doz of stockins att 7s,  £1-15-;  one doz ditto 13s;  3 doz of childrens stockins att 2s  6;  120 yards of blew linn, 8-17-8,…. 8 pr. of worstet stockings att 2s 6d., £1; 5 pr of womens stockins at 1s 8d., …. 21 lbs of worstet att 2s., £2-2; 4 1/2 of yarne at 18d per lb., 6s 9d…. 59 peices (sic) of small Incle att 8d., £1-19-4… 2 doz. of pinns, 9s…. 4lbs of knitting needles, 2 s; 3 paire of leather stockins, 1 s 6d…. 1 peice of callico,15s….a groze of Incle, 5s; 46 peices of ditto att 10d £1.0.4… A parcel if wash balls, 10s…Total of inventory  £344.2.4
All sorts other things… (three barrels of herring), oil, a huge inventory of spices, and tobacco….

Finally, this yeoman’s will which I found really poignant – showing how much their livestock meant to people. (Not textile related!)

Landscape with cows and Wildfowlers, Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The will of Miles Watson

Feb 20th, 1664 …I Miles Watson of Burne, yeoman give to (sister in law) one cow, couller black, & her name is Finger Paper…

Selby wills edited by Dr F COLLINS for the Yorks Arch Soc Vol XLVII1912

“Primarily Drinking British Gin”

The Retreat. By Gemälde von Carve [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
This week I’ve mostly been writing articles, including one about a Dent-dale knitter who was confined to The Retreat, a progressive asylum in York, opened in the 1790s. I stumbled on this terrible knitter of Dent accidentally, when researching the textiles and clothing, spinning and knitting going on at The Retreat in the late 18thC/early 19thC.

The ‘Terrible Knitter of Dent’ article will be in a forthcoming issue of ‘Knit Edge’.  So I will keep my powder dry and say no more about it here. It’s a gripping story and a rarity to be able to put a name, a description and an entire life story to that usually anonymous body of people; knitters. I hope folk will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Whilst researching, I was fascinated by the reasons people were certified and admitted to the asylum. I started collecting some of the reasons people found themselves there. On admission, patients had already been ‘certified’ and these certificates were placed in the Admission records. Question 4 on the certificate, was: “Supposed Cause of the insanity?”

Sometimes, doctors left this blank or said words to the effect “Search me!” A common reason for admission was “Religious melancholy” or simply “Religion”. At the start, most patients were Quakers but as time went on, they admitted on much wider criteria.

Here are just a handful of the most interesting answers, from the 1820s:

“A violent attachment to a female not approved by his friends.”

“Perhaps attending overmuch to business.”

“1st, an accident, which caused a severe contusion of the Brain.
2nd. By fright, caused by a man (unknown) getting into his Lodging room, secreting himself under some Linen in a corner of the room, and after about five weeks after this he was attacked with the first fit…”

“Uncertain; he thinks he has not been as humble as he ought to have been”.

“Hipochondriac [sic]”.

“A tedious confinement with an affected family”.

“Intemperate drinking”.

“Religious melancholy”.

“Suppose a fear of not being able to pay his just debts owing to the depression of the times”. (1826)

“Disappointments from a long attachment to a man” . (28 yr old woman)

“Intemperate use of Opium”.  (A woman of 43 or 4)

“Perhaps anxiety”! (A 29 yr old woman had three kids the youngest 17 Days).

“Suppressed or irregular menstruation”.  (A 33 year old woman).

And finally, my favourite:

“Primarily drinking British Gin”.