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.

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5 thoughts on “Swaving – A Load of Old Pony

  1. Hi Karen. I have seen an interview or two with Mrs Sedgwick. (Maybe one by Kathleen Kinder, now I come to think of it?)

    I know Marie Hartley, interviewed years after ‘Old Hand-Knitters’, said she regretted not borrowing a friend’s cine camera and filming. I do wonder if there was ever a piece on our local news, ‘Look North’ or ‘Calendar’ – would have passed by un-noticed by me as a child because I wasn’t interested in knitting in those days!

    I bet they taped over their old tapes, though so would be surprised if anything survived even if someone , somewhere did film this. I hope by keeping this blog going someone will stumble on this, maybe and realise the value of some footage they have? It would be fantastic to see.

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  2. Kathleen Kinder (writing in daelnet.co.uk) says “MRS CLARA SEDGWICK who was born in Dentdale in 1898 and died in Settle in 1987, must have been one of the last authentic Dales knitters. I feel very privileged to have known her and to have been taught by her to knit with a knitting stick in the old Dales way. ” So then the question becomes has Kathleen recorded this knitting style on video.

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  3. And then, in a splendid fit of exhuberance I misspelled “deleting” in favor of “delighting.” Oh well, I guess after all these years of both knitting and typing, my fingers tend to get a bit ahead of my brain!

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  4. Sorry, I just noticed in looking over my previous post that I was describing three methods of knitting I currently use, but only wrote about two of them. I suppose the truth of the matter is that I don’t use only three, but more like five or six. Depends on the project, or if some student wants to be taught a specific method.

    P.S. I am delighting the web site information in my login because I let the hosting fees lapse and no longer have that website.

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