Sticking It

Goose-wing knitting stick

Here is my first knitting stick, and the only one I currently use.

At some point, I was sent some kind of knitting stick by a hobbyist, thinking of making them for sale, I guess  – but it did not look like any stick I have ever seen – and I’ve seen hundreds.  Nor did it work well enough for me to endorse.  I’m sure I was polite, and no doubt touched by the kindness of the would-be knitting stick maker, but this wasn’t a Road to Damascus for me. I wouldn’t write so much about these things if I couldn’t use them but they are not the way I choose to knit, except for Living History when, I think, anyone ‘doing’ 18thC onwards and thinking of knitting in front of the public, should have one.

For Living History, we can only use things that are documented, and provably existed. It had a sort of neolithic look to it. So no practical use.  It’s not hard to get hold of 19thC knitting sticks in the antique shops round here, but I have never had the money so am happy with my lone repro.  Around the same time, a couple of spindle makers sent me prototypes for feedback – both were starting out but have since become well-established, and sadly don’t need my input anymore! – and so I thought nothing more about it and used my own Wensleydale stick.

My beautiful stick is a goose-wing style, from The Wensleydale Longwool Sheepshop near Leyburn, in the Dales. I heard the gentleman who used to make these, stopped quite a while back, so if you’re interested in getting a proper, UK made knitting stick, you could try Alison and Hugh’s Handmade Things, who make repros for living history folk and come highly recommended by people whose judgement I trust.

Dales Countryside goose-wings

These goose-wings in the image here, come from the Dales Museum of the Countryside, in Hawes. As you can see, the sizes and styles vary but not greatly. Workaday knitting sticks were seen as replaceable items; charity school children were given a new stick every year but could pay for another if they broke one, inbetween times.

Incidentally, fine ladies doing ‘parlour’ knitting, did indeed use sticks – here is a definition of what they are, from the most influential knitting writer of the early Victorian age, Jane Gaugain:

“…A knitting sheath, &c., to be fastened on the waist of the knitter, towards the right hand, for the purpose of keeping the needle in a steady and proper position….

From a list of ‘necessary implements for knitting’ in the ‘Ladies’ Handbook Of Knitting Netting And Crochet’, London, 1843.

A couple of the knitting sticks at the Bronte Parsonage Museum looked to be quite elegant and well-made. The two heart-shaped tin sticks were cruder than equivalent brass hearts I have seen all over Yorkshire.

Knitting sticks were used in Yorkshire, at least, well into the 20thC and probably only died out when feasible circular needles came about. So it is a fallacy to believe they were given the coup de grace by the fancy parlour knitters.

 I am not a Dales knitter – my family moved to the West Riding and then down into the Vale of York by the 1890s. But many were Dales knitters before that, presumably, having the surnames mentioned in ‘Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, and being up in Westmorland and Wensleydale – up til the late 19thC. One ancestor is described as ‘spinner’ on an impromptu 18thC census! Use of knitting sticks cut across classes and borders.

Maria Bronte was born in Cornwall but into a wealthy mercantile family – not a fisherman’s gansey in sight.  Incidentally, the fancier knitting sticks are often identical in overall size, hole depth, gauge of hole, etc to the proper workaday ones. As posted previously, there is only evidence for ‘swaving’ as a Yorkshire inland technique (not a Cornish one, and not a coastal one even in Yorkshire) – something that came out of the 18thC INLAND farm based knitting schools. So to say knitting sticks were ‘for’ swaving is ridiculous – they were also for Jane Gaugain’s refined readers, working on the latest pineapple reticule in pretty Berlin wools. If they weren’t, Jane wouldn’t mention them.

Recently, I was asked about the depth of holes in knitting sticks, and rather than have to write this up several times on forums, I thought I’d put some info here, to make it more accessible for folk.  Any wood-workers reading this, who’d like to knock out a repro, do feel free to give me a sample to road-test! I will be honest, rather than polite as restraint seems to have been my downfall last time…

Here is a whistle-stop tour round the sticks in the collection of the Bronte Parsonage Museum  (yet more evidence that parlour-dwelling middle class ladies did indeed knit with knitting sticks!)  These are currently in the reserve collection, so not on view to the public, although I believe the stick marked “M.B” is going on display this year, if it hasn’t already.  It is rare we can tie an initialled stick to an owner – museums have tens of knitting sticks, and rarely provenance for a single one of them. So it was nice there is one stick at Haworth we can say was very likely Maria Bronte’s.  Or Branwell’s if she had it when she had her maiden name.

If you’d like to visit the museum, details here:

The Bronte Parsonage Museum website.

The Brontes’ sticks could have Yorkshire or Cornish provenance – looking at them, I strongly suspected they had both; some coming up fro Cornwall with Maria and later, Elizabeth Bronte and some originating in the West Riding parishes where Patrick Bronte was incumbent. Maria came to Yorkshire the same year as the Luddite riots. It is a strong piece of Yorkshire lore that Patrick may have secretly buried some of the Luddites who died of their wounds, in Hartshead churchyard.

Here is a write-up of some of my notes, re. the Bronte knitting sticks:

Two tin heart-shaped sticks are in the museum’s collection, along with several fairly fancy wooden sticks. I’ll look at the tin hearts first. H210:2 had a hole depth of 5.5 cm was consistent with the wooden sticks’ holes, and traces of the remains of a tabby-woven taupe tape attached. H210:1 is 11.5cm long, and the brass-necked hole has a depth of 6.5cm which would fit needles upto 5mm diameter. It had the remains of a brown tabby weave tape tie, only 8mm wide. ie: the small metal knitting sticks were used with woven tapes, as opposed to leather belts or tucked into aprons.

H.211 is a wooden stick, which appears to have some damage (a small burn?) half a cm from its base. I reckoned, if a stick fell from your belt when knitting by the light of the fire, it might get that kind of damage. Both Anne and Charlotte often wrote of house-keepers knitting by firelight, in the evening.  Its hole was 4 cm deep and the hole’s gauge  This indicates how much give there would be for a needle – it’s not to say it was used with 5mm needles; but it certainly couldn’t be used with needles bigger than 5.5mm!

H200 is a fancy knitting stick made from fruit-wood, with a 6cm deep hole, and looked to be machine turned.

H201.2 looks like oak and was marked ‘MB’  – presumably for ‘Maria Bronte,  or her maiden name, Maria Branwell, the Brontes’ mother – although an elder sister who didn’t survive childhood was also a Maria. Again, the hole was 6cm.  This and the tin hearts, I suspect, were amongst the few possessions of Maria’s that survived the shipwreck where she lost most of her possessions from Cornwall. No doubt the sticks were personal (and small) enough to travel with her, when she moved up to Yorkshire.

H2011 also looked like oak, and had an end with an acorn turning. The hole’s gauge was 3.75mm and it’s depth a mere 2.5 cm.

Comedy Knitting stick, Beamish Museum

In other words, the knitting sticks’ holes  looked to be generally around  5-6cm deep, and the sticks around 16.5cm long – some less. The sturdy goose-wings like my own, are bigger than this. Sticks used for knitting bump yarn – according to accounts – were considerably larger.  Extant Bronte knitting needles I saw – both in the reserve collection and on display – were around the 1.5mm mark.

For much more meaty info about the knitting related items in the Bronte Parsonage Museum, and some great images of them, do track down my piece in Spring 2013’s Knitting Traditions. 

It might be an appropriate point to thank the Knitting Traditions readers for their lovely feedback and comments. I’m hoping to do much more about West Riding knitting history, in the future and hopefully will be back up to Haworth in the next month or two, rooting about in the Brontes’ underwear drawer (well, looking at the extant frame knitted stockings), amongst other stuff, to see what can be brought to light!

And look out for another Yorkshire piece in Knitting Traditions, next Spring, where I will bring to you some rather cool if not slightly freaky 18thC Yorkshire knitting, which I have been busily working on for the past fortnight or so.

I’ll leave you with the order of the boot, from Beamish Museum’s People’s Collection, IRN62770.


(Laughter). The Story of David Dawson “the Milnsbridge Poet”, & Incendiarism By An Insane Woman

Perkins’ Violet. Image by JWBE (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

This week, I went in search of my relative David Dawson, father of Dan Dawson. I had spotted David’s name cropping up frequently on Dan’s various patents, for improved dyeing processes and machinery,  as”David Dawson, gentleman”.

It turns out David credited himself with the development of magenta as a synthetic dye, and the 21 year old Dan was carrying on experiments alongside his father, when they accidentally dyed the bread red for weeks, after experimenting in their oven, at home. Magenta was the second aniline dye to be developed; and unlike Perkins’ mauvine, which is now largely consigned to the history books; magenta (fuchsine) is still in use today, in textiles and ball point pen inks.

Dan was fascinated with chemistry and synthetic dyes and worked with his father to develop magenta. David had other sons, but Dan seems to have been the prime mover.

David was born in Longwood, near Huddersfield, in 1808 into a Non-Conformist family of clothiers and dyers and wool trade folk generally. As a boy, he loved music and hit on a scheme to get music lessons for free:

“In a humourous speech he gave an account of the difficulties he had had to contend with when a boy, in order to obtain instruction in singing. This was only done by a number of boys subscribing 2d per week in order to send him to take lessons from a singing-master at Elland, he in return teaching the subscribers all that he learned from the master. (Laughter).”

The Huddersfield Chronicle , Saturday, April 10th, 1858

David was a devout Baptist, and often played the piano, sang or – he became famous for this – delivered speeches in rhyme, earning himself the name “The Milnsbridge Poet”. Sometimes he preached, but he was very active in education – being a prime mover in the Mechanics’ Institute movement, and the Baptist Sunday school movement, so working class children and young people were able to access an education.

Mechanics’ Institutes were set up across the West Riding, to provide evening classes, and circulating libraries giving access to books and education to working class people. The Bronte sisters were members of Keighley Mechanics’ Institute – even nominally middle class people might struggle to access expensive books – and they attended lectures at the Mechanics’ Institute. David Dawson seems to have been feverishly active in the set-up of various Institutes in the Huddersfield area; serving on committees and lecturing about being a manufacturing chemist, himself.

Whilst still at Longwood, he took on an orphaned 13 year old boy, Richard Heaton, and Richard proved so able he moved rapidly up the ranks to become the dyeworks foreman. Later, he worked for and part-owned a neighbouring dyeworks at Milnsbridge, owned by Haigh.

He started his first dye works in the village of Longwood, although later when the business was burgeoning, moved to Milnsbridge.

David married fellow non-conformist, Selina Cotton in September, 1833 and they went on to have a large family – as is usual, in my family, mainly sons. Later, his sons were to be active in the dyeworks; some staying in Milnsbridge; Dan studying in Berlin under the famous dyer, Hofmann, and other sons setting up a dyeworks in Philadelphia, US – although they returned when import duties crushed the business.

Politically, David was Liberal and one of Huddersfield’s most keen Anti-Corn Laws campaigners, petitioning the House of Commons and the House of Lords for reform.  Landlords wanted to keep corn prices falsely high, imposing heavy duties – but many of the new middle and mercantile classes wanted restrictions lifted, to relieve poverty (The Corn Laws had contributed to the Irish Famine, and scarcities of grain in the UK, too), but also so that their factory workers’ wages could be lower as bread was the Englishman’s staple diet – high grain and bread prices meant higher wages.

The Huddersfield Chronicle reported the Longwood Mechanics’ Institution’s annual soiree, every year without fail and every year, Mr David Dawson would deliver a witty speech in rhyme:

“Mr DAVID DAWSON, who has earned for himself the title, the “Milnsbridge Poet”, subsequently gave a rhyming description of the past and present history of Milnsbridge, in which he alluded to the sports once enjoyed by the occupants of Milnsbridge-house, and in laudatory terms referred to the great amount of good brought about in the village throught the instrumentality of the present occupier of Milnsbridge-house, and his much-respected father. The audience heartily applauded David’s rhyme throughout its delivery.”

The Huddersfield Chronicle , Saturday, May 14, 1864

He seems to have been a jovial man, who brought laughter wherever he went.

One newspaper account is of a talk his son Dan gave. Dan set up experiments and in the interlude when the experiments were being set up, ‘The Milnsbridge Poet’  took the piano and played music to amuse the audience.  David’s relative – my dad – would have loved this as he was also a keen and classically trained pianist (who came by a lifetime’s fere piano lessons from musician Lloyd Hartley, by winning a Leeds piano competition. Not the Leeds piano competition – this one was a precursor!)

From ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield”, David and Dora. Artist Frank Reynolds, Wikimedia Commons

David’s life wasn’t all laughter and happiness.  In 1856, son Dan, aged only nineteen, married 26 year old Mary Ferrar. Mary came from Northamptonshire, and so her family’s background probably wasn’t well known to the Dawsons. Mary’s father, Samuel Ferrar, was down as ‘Ag Lab’ on the 1841 Census, but his job description on the marriage certificate is “sailor”. Often, people would switch between being inland mariners and farm labourers.  Inland mariners had a reputation for hard living, in the 19thC, and were often seen as slightly dodgy types.  A Samuel Ferrar served a week in Northampton jail in 1819, for Larceny (theft).

Dan and Mary’s marriage produced one child, Lily, in the summer of 1863. I had wondered how Dan  coped being apart from his wife and child when he went to Berlin to study dyeing with Hofmann.

Here is one experiment on a patent for a fire extinguisher, David and Dan brought out in 1866, when Lily would only have been three. This is the kind of experiment that would be banned on Health and Safety grounds now!

“On Wednesday evening about 1,000 persons assembled in the vicinity of the chemical works of Messrs Dawsons Bros., to witness an experiment made by the patentees of “an improved means of extinguishing fires in steam ships, mills, manufacturing and other buildings” The scene of the experiment was the upper storey of one of the buildings occupied by Messrs. Dawson. In the centre of the room, a large quantity of wood, &c, was placed, and a little after nine o’clock a light was put to the materials, and in a few minutes the whole of room appeared to be a mass of flame, and some present were fearful that the fire would go too far before the apparatus was brought into action. This fear was, however, groundless, as the machinery was set to work, and in about half a minute the flames were entirely subdued, and the room was in darkness. A hearty cheer greeted the successful termination of the experiment. The process adopted consists of the application of gases, devoid of oxygen, which are conducted into the room where the fire exists, by means of flues … combustion is at once arrested. The necessary gases can be obtained in great abundance… at a very short notice, and a very low cost, three or four tons not costing more than a few shillings. The patentees are Messrs David Dawson, Dan Dawson, and Thomas Broadbent, all of whom are resident in the village.”

The Huddersfield Chronicle, Saturday, July 28th, 1866

Setting fire to a first storey room with 1000 people present wouldn’t be considered entirely safe now. You have to admire the confidence David and Dan had in their invention.

Amongst that crowd, presumably, was Dan’s wife, Mary. And no doubt an idea was forming because, amongst all the newspaper accounts of the Dawsons being witty and entertaining, and inventive like a bolt from the blue, comes this. I make no apologies for quoting in full, this journalist writes it with more immediacy than I ever could:


MARY DAWSON, wife of DAN DAWSON, manufacturing chemist, was charged, at the Borough Court, on Saturday, with setting fire to a building the property of David Dawson, chemist, Milnsbridge, on the 12th May. The prosecutor stated that the prisoner was his son’s wife, and that she had latterly conducted herself in a very strange manner, and that there had been great unpleasantness in the family. On Wednesday, May 12th, she stated that the property would be in danger. On Tuesday, 11th of May there was a haystack set on fire, belonging to Messrs Haigh & Heaton, adjoining his property. Therefore on Wednesday night, 12th May,  about twelve o’clock, he placed himself in a position where he could see the house where the prisoner lived. He saw the police, and made a certain communication to them, and remained watching about half an hour, when he saw the prisoner come out of her house. He was concealed within eight yards of her door. She looked in various directions. He crouched down, and saw the prisoner go in the direction of his property. She was out of his sight for half an hour, and he saw her return to her house. A few minutes after the factory clock struck one, smelling something burning, he looked round, and saw a straw shed and a joiner’s shop on fire. The police and his son were there, and they soon put the fire out. Mr Armitage’s engine arrived. The damage was upwards of £5. The building belonged to witness, and he let part of it to another tenant, Sarah Stansfield, wife of Police-constable, W. Stansfield, said they lived next-door to the prisoner. About half-past six o’clock on Wednesday evening the prisoner came to their house and asked if Mr Stansfield was in; and the witness replied that he had gone to bed. Prisoner said she would go and see Mr Armitage, and appeared to be in a wild and unsettled state. About eight o’clock, the prisoner called witness into her house, and said that she had been recommended to take out a warrant against her husband. She asked if witness thought she could get a warrant that night, and witness replied she thought not. Among other things, the prisoner stated that the property woud be burnt up, and that would be the way that badness would come on them. She said that Richard Heaton had had his stack set on fire, all from badness, in the same way; and (she said) they would be left quite penniless – Mary Sykes, single woman, stated that on Wednesday evening, she went to see the prisoner, who wanted her to go with her to a house she had recently left. Witness went with the prisoner, who said she wanted to take some things from that house to the one she was then living in. The prisoner found in the house a box of matches on the sink stone, and after striking a light, she put the match box in her pocket, and took it to her own house. She heard the prisoner say something about Richard Heaton’s fire, – and that it was all with neglect, and, if they did not mind, theirs would be done the same way. Police-constable Stansfield said, about half-past twelve o’clock on Wednesday night, he and Police-constable Redman went to look around the prosecutor’s property. Witness saw a shed on fire and assisted in putting it out. He had passed the shed about three-quarters of an hour before, and all seemed right then. Afterwards he went to the house of the prisoner, and found her in bed. When charged by him with setting fire to the property, she replied: “I went to bed about eleven o’clock, and I have never been out of the house since.” He found a box of matches on the head of the bed. There was a second charge against the prisoner of having set fire to a stack, the property of Messrs. Haigh and Heaton, but the depositions were not read.  – Mr. Clarke, surgeon, said he examined the prisoner on the previous day, and came to the conclusion that she was not sane, and not responsible for her actions. The magistrates made an order for the removal of the woman to the lunatic asylum.

The Huddersfield Chronicle , Saturday May 22nd, 1869

The ‘Heaton’ in Messrs Haigh & Heaton is Richard Heaton, David’s former protege. Whether Mary picked up on some bad blood between the Dawsons and the neighbouring dyeworks, who had presumably poached his very able foreman years earlier, we can’t say.

However, a few years later, Haigh’s dyeworks went into administration and from all accounts, David was very active in making sure the company was liquidated but his old rival was not bankrupted – a kind act that seems typical of the man.

So far I have been unable to find poor Mary Ferrar Dawson on any Census, post this date.  However, sometimes enumerators protected the identity of lunatic asylum inmates; recording them as merely initials. I will look for Mary, and hopefully, find her.

Dan and Lily  lived with David and his mother, Selina – in later years their home was named “Hoffmann Cottage”, presumably in homage to the famous dyer.  Their lives returned to a more even tenor after the disastrous marriage.

David died in 1884. He’d been retired for many years but had remained active in the Mechanics’ Institutes movement, in Huddersfield, and Sunday schools for his Baptist church. He also seems to have accompanied Dan, now one of the most well known dyers in Europe, on his various talks and lectures.  So closed the life of a generous, kind gentleman. What’s not to love about an industrial chemist who played the piano in the interludes between experiments being set up during lectures?  Here’s his obituary:


On Wednesday forenoon, Mr David Dawson of Milnsbridge, died suddenly at his residence. The deceased gentleman, who was 76 years of age,  had been out for a walk in the morning as usual, and on his return went into his garden with his spade. It is supposed he exhausted himself before he was aware of the consequences, and died, as a result of his undue activitiy, a couple of hours afterwards. In his earlier years he was a dyer at Longwood and, we believe, claimed to be the discoverer of the then new dye, magenta, and turned his attention to the chemistry with considerable effect; in fact , founding the chemical manufacturing concern at Milnsbridge, now carried on – considerably enlarged from time to time – by his sons. He retired from business many years ago. In politics, he was a Liberal, and religiously he was a Baptist, occasionally officiating as a local preacher. He early interested himself and others in the advocacy and support of the Mechanics’ Institutions in his own and surrounding villages. The first Mechanics’ Institution festival reported in the first number of The Huddersfield Chronicle was held at Longwood, and Mr David Dawson was there described as giving one of his characteristic witty, grave, and humorous speeches. During the anti-corn law agitation he took an active part in obtaining the repeal of the corn laws, celebrating the passing of the final Act with an original compostion, entitled ‘Corn is free’, which was sung to a popular tune of the time.

The Huddersfield Daily Chronicle (West Yorkshire, England), Friday, August 22, 1884

Tour de Fleece 2013 – mojo and mojitos.

Organic Shetland from

The Tour de Fleece runs every year, for the duration of the Tour de France, hand-spinners all over the world set their own wheels spinning, like the cyclists, setting themselves challenges and try to spin yarn daily, even if it’s just for ten minutes.  Some people use the Tour to expand their skills, others just to have fun. On Ravelry, many join teams and spin along with friends.

I was going great guns in the first week – not only spinning entire bobbins per day but scouring pounds of raw fleece too. But sadly, there’s been an unintentional break in my Tour de Fleece. Mainly due to having to be prosecution witness in a court case two hundred miles away, which predictably, got scheduled slap bang in the middle of the second week of the Tour. We were exhausted when we got back from London, and then we were rushing around like blue-arsed flies with a practice 1800 Living History event. I’ve been wiped out since the weekend – although during the event I did manage to spin one cop of wool on my Great Wheel. Am hoping my Tour will get going again, today, as I am working on an 18thC knitting pattern for a magazine, and have decided to handspin the wool needed, to make a second sample for the photoshoot – so the pattern will be written for a commercial yarn, but I am going to make a more precise repro of the item, from handspun.  (As the grist of the yarn in question turned out to be somewhere between DK and Aran; not precisely either, so handspun will give me a more accurate repro!)  Like almost all ‘old’ knitting, the item I am reverse engineering is from a 2 ply yarn. I realised I had some tops, already dyed with madder, which will be perfect.

I used to spin whatever I felt like spinning, but the older I get, the more I seem to spin to purpose. It’s quite an interesting challenge to spin yarn to reproduce 18thC wool with a fairly hefty grist.

In an attempt to regain my previous Tour mojo, here is some of my spinning so far – which was going great til I had the ‘break’!

My main Tour aim was to spin up most of a Cheviot fleece I have had lying around for several years. It was the Best Fleece in Show at Masham Sheep Fair in 2008. Carded, it looked like this:

Hand-carded rolags and drum carded batts

One basket was hand-carded (the ‘picklock’ or ultra top quality wool). The other two, still really prime wool, were drum carded batts, carded on my trusty old David Barnett drum-carder.  One of these baskets has since been re-carded by hand, as I realised I had spun the rest and needed the final basket for Living History, where small rolags are more authentic.

After a few days, I got bored spinning 3-4oz of creamy white Cheviot every day, so ended up spinning some art yarn and silk and other odds and ends, to stop me from going crazy. This means, so far during the Tour, I have spun woollen and worsted; wool, silk and even some trilobal nylon I had a tiny sample of in deep stash.

I always think that anyone can spin worsted. After all, that’s how you start – inch-worming with a short, forward draw, as a rule. Some spinners spend their first few years spinning nothing but worsted or semi-worsted from commercial or hand-combed tops, if you think about it. Following recent debate on Ravelry re. what makes a “good” spinner – one criteria for me, anyway, is to be  someone who can spin decent woollen yarn.

Airy, balanced Cheviot spun English longdraw
Airy, balanced Cheviot spun English longdraw

Handspun – especially worsted – can look very solid. Badly spun handspun looks lifeless and dead.  Of course, if you block the bejaybus out of it, it will never knit up into a decent fabric, either.   I know there are spinning gurus and their acolytes who believe that spinning worsted is The One True Spinning. But for me, the true challenge for a spinner, is to spin woollen that is light, airy and well balanced. Because that is far harder to do: to consciously spin light, airy, yarns.

The secret is not only in the spinning but in the fibre preparation – your aim is to trap a tube of air down the centre of a rolag as fluffy as a squirrel’s tail! I have seen some shots of lifeless, lank, over-processed handspun online, recently – you can somehow tell when a yarn is ‘dead’ as a Norwegian Blue parrot, even just from a photo. Now woollen yarn spun longdraw in a relaxed way is, for me, the epitome of what handspinning is about; the ability to spin airy yarn that has some life to it and does not look lumpen or dead.

It’s not about “perfection” – almost the opposite.

My Cheviot so far has been spun on all three of my wheels; the Timbertops Lonsdale, Chair Wheel and Jack Greene Great Wheel, this weekend.  When plied, it won’t matter which wheel spun it.  I use the Lonsdale mainly for silk/worsted/spinning slow and the Chair Wheel – which has two drive wheels so is accelerated – to spin longdraw or if I want to hurry up, or do a lot in one go. And the Great Wheel got an airing outside our 1800 period Tavern, this weekend, where I spun in the shade, in 90 degrees heat (and stays!)

I had a little Tour de Fleece side challenge which I have only been practising for, so far: to spin 1g of some fine wool to 100 yards. As it seemed like an idiotic challenge to me, and when I read that apparently this ridiculous, in the realms of World’s Longest Thread spinning, is everyday stuff for a “good” spinner, I had to accept the challenge.  I’ve been spinning thirty odd years and never needed or wanted yarn like spiders’ eyelashes once.  But for me some of this Tour is about what constitutes “good” spinning – I thought I’d explore definitions even at their most idiotic extreme. I may have lost over a week of my Tour, but I intend to use the time to explore this whole concept of “good” spinning, subjectively and objectively.

I will probably not get round to the Spider Eyelashes, but if I do, will post my results here.

Almost Alien spindle and bobbin of Cheviot, Day 1 TdF
Almost Alien spindle and bobbin of Cheviot, Day 1 TdF
Spindle kit. Image courtesy Almost Alien

My only Tour spindle spinning so far has been on this fantastic little spindle. As a Living Historian, I have spent my life spinning on wood, lead, bone, horn or original medieval spindle whorls. So Almost Alien’s vividly coloured little doodad was a novelty I couldn’t resist at Woolfest. Almost Aliens are modular – they are made from 3D printed whorls in different weights, which you can change as you go. Hooks are removable and replaceable and – the cleverest thing of all – the spindle shaft has a carbon fibre bobbin, so when full, a bit like a paper quill on a Great Wheel, you can just slip it off then block on the bobbin, or ply from two bobbins rather than plying from the spindle.  I got the ultra light and love it so much, I am considering getting a kit.  I bought mine near the end of the Saturday at Woolfest and didn’t want a kit, just one spindle and one whorl – so Brandon kindly sold me his demo spindle. The Almost Alien is a good spinner; spins for a long time and I love the fact I’m not likely to break the whorl if I sit on it.  Which happens. Also if I break or lose the hook, can simply get another. I was spinning silk tops – again, just a tiny sample bag I’ve had in the drawer for maybe a decade!

Merino plied with trilobal nylon and thick n thin BFL
Merino plied with trilobal nylon and thick n thin BFL

The term “Art Yarn” can be a polite way to say “crap spinning” – ie: unintentionally thick n thin, with nepps in.  In my case, “Art Yarn” tends to be the spinning that happens when the sun is over the yard-arm…  But really, I think something only qualifies as real “Art Yarn” if it has some ridiculous plying method going on, or you have spun earwigs into it, or something…  Here is some “Art Yarn” I spun one or two mojitos in to the evening,  one night as an antidote to all the bobbins of white Cheviot.  In the centre: merino (?) plied with a small sample of trilobal nylon bought so long ago I’m not sure where it came from. Outer nest = BFL from the excellent Babylonglegs.  

For more info about spinning Art Yarn, check out Lexi Boeger’s Intertwined 

And, of course, Sarah Anderson’s The Spinner’s Book of Yarn Designs

Cheviot with 2p for scale
Cheviot with 2p for scale

My other Tour chore was scouring the accumulated raw fleeces. My favourite so far has been the incredible Organic Lleyn fleece, bought for a tenner at Woolfest. It has been one of the best fleeces I have ever bought – and over the years that’s a lot of fleeces!

Am still wiped out, but will try and pick up where I left off, and regain some TdF mojo, today! One last basket of Cheviot to go and, despite having over a week off, I will have completed my main aim for this year’s Tour. Also have a small, gorgeous moorit Shetland fleece to scour whilst we have this good weather, and a Ryeland from Karen at Wildcraft. Then to decide what to do with the coffee coloured Ryeland; the grey, white and moorit Shetlands and the lovely, top quality Lleyn fleeces scoured during the Tour.

I am hoping to be able to run courses on hand-spinning, as well as inland ganseys and 19thC Dales knitting, in the very near future. If any of yous have some preferences, as to what you’d love to learn, drop me a line (

Organic Lleyn fleece
Organic Lleyn fleece in background

Close Knit, or Nalbinded?

Yes, the Genie can use a knitting stick!

One thing about Yorkshire folk is – we don’t suffer fools gladly.  Look away now if you’re squeamish.  This is going to get honest. Anyone coming here from Ravelry,  pull up a chair and bring the popcorn. You already know where I’m going, with this.  I like exploding myths and poking at bullshit with a stick. I spend a whole chapter in ‘River Ganseys’ exploding myths.  (Coming soon! Hot on the heels of the new edition of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, which exists in galley proof and we’re giving it the final once-over, as we speak). I’m not very good with  rhodomontade. And I don’t do ‘romance’ very well with my textile history, either. Although a smattering of romance is what sells historical knitting, at least if we’re doing it – let’s get it right.  And randomly deciding ancient coptic nalbinding is knitting to fit your thesis is not “getting it right”.

In the last (nalbinding) post, I posted this picture. Apologies for quality – we took it in the rather poor natural light inside the children’s bedroom at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, last year.

You can see, far from “lacking experience with knitting sheath produced fabrics”, this particular Genie can and does use a knitting stick. To make knitted fabrics! From her own handspun. I forget the tension of this, but it will be somewhere around the 7 or 8 stitch per inch mark on 2mm-ish needles. I can also nalbind. It seems odd to find in a comment to a blog that my opinions are invalid as I have no experience of fabrics knitted using a knitting stick – as that comment directly links to my last blog post which had this very picture of me in 1800 costume, knitting with a knitting stick! Bizarre.

That said, the relevant experts at the V & A have been rubbished, so I am in extremely good company.

Portuguese knitting hook, from Lisbon market.

In civilian life, I knit Portuguese style which is so fast and produces a fabric with such nice tension, I really don’t need or want to use a stick. But when doing living history; a stick is the whole point.

I have attracted some angst and ire because I was honest enough to say a knitting stick doesn’t produce magical fabric with magical special qualities. It really doesn’t. It just speeds things up. And only if you knit British/Continental style in the first place. Worse still – fabric knitted in my normal way looks identical to fabric knitted with a stick. Which blows all that buy-a-knitting-stick-and-your-knitting-will-look-as-if-it-was-swaved-by-magical-unicorns crap right out of the water.

Contemporary professional gansey knitters in the UK tend to knit on circular needles, which totally obviates the need for sticks. They still produce lovely garments, in quick time.  I do ganseys on circs too, for what it’s worth. Although once the arm gets narrower, I always switch to dpns, but that is just personal preference. Either way, a knitting stick is surplus to requirements.

I grew up knitting how my mum taught me, and her mum taught her and so on back to the Humber fishermen’s wives and the Vale of York farmers’ wives of the early 1800s, maybe beyond. In other words – I used to knit continental (the ‘older’ way in some parts of the UK). So a stick did speed that up. It does very little for the Portuguese style knitter, though. Which is why I only use the stick for living history events.  The second the public are out of the door, I’m back with the yarn round my neck or through a hook…

I’ve been handspinning since the early 1980s, so presumably have no experience of that as well. The handspun wool in the photo above is probably a fluke.

Apparently, we’re told,  the sign of a fabric knitted using a stick is that it is uneven, amateurish-looking and rows out yet the final fabric is dense and cardboardy.  This is why the experts can’t tell their nalbind from their knitted. I say this, as the ridge at the start of the instep of the nalbinded sock has been strangely attributed to rowing out.  As most knitters are aware, rowing out is a problem for beginner knitters, and also sometimes the result of using badly spun/plied yarn. In the nalbinded sock, the ridge is due to the sock’s construction.

The stocking I’m knitting in the photo is from handspun Wensleydale wool. No rowing out, you’ll notice. When I get to the instep there will be no huge, obvious ridge.  The nalbinded sock was worked toe-up, apparently, and I suspect may have been constructed in two parts then joined where you get the ridge. I’m not sure as you can turn a heel in nalbinding pretty well however you like and you do see that ridge a lot on nalbinded socks, but not on knitted.

As a living historian, I have known a number of knitters who can use knitting sticks.  The stick I use was made by someone in the Dales, copying extant examples that abound up there. In every respect, it is identical to the knitting sticks from the 18thC and 19thC Yorkshire Dales.  I can therefore infer that any fabric I can knit using them, using the right sized needles and yarn with characteristics like that in original artefacts, will be a decent approximation of, say, a pair of 19thC stockings. That said…. It tells me nothing about a pair of socks nalbinded in “the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile in central Egypt”.

‘Yorkshire’ sticks I have seen made by contemporaries who have been unable to study actual sticks tend to be way too small, and also, I suspect, the makers may be unaware of the depth of the holes in extant sticks, if the knitting produced by them is so poor the knitter assumes rowing out to be normal, something about the sticks could be very, very wrong.

I’ll be publishing some of my documentation of knitting sticks at some point, which may improve their product if they care to read the actual hard data we have collected.

Returning to the confusion between nalbinding and knitting. Apparently, we’re told, rowing out is a typical characteristic of fabric knitted by someone using a knitting stick… Yet the nalbinded ridge at the instep (seen on many extant nalbinded socks, several linked to in the previous post) is not rowing out but a common feature of nalbinded socks.

As for nalbinding to the same gauge as the Coptic socks… common sense (and my miniscule experience of Bad Nalbinding) tell me that if you use a finer thread, and pull each stitch tight as you go to the required tension – you will have a finer end product. Their fineness is nothing to do with knitting sticks as they are from a couple of continents and a thousand years in the future, away. On the Ravelry nalbinding group, nalbinders have made repros of ancient nalbinded socks and they look very creditable.

Speak this quietly – but my handspun Wensleydale wool has not been blocked, or even washed. And yet…. no rowing out. And no bumpy, unevenness, or snarls of over-energised yarn, either.  I’d knit it straight from the bobbin – if I had enough bobbins. So take it from me – a stocking knitted using a stick, from handspun (shock!horror! Even unblocked handspun) can look even and shouldn’t row out. We’re told that blocking handspun yarn before use is essential. Maybe it is if your spinning isn’t upto scratch, yet?  As you can see even from my poorly-lit photo, unblocked handspun makes perfectly good stocking yarn.

2008-08-28 19.15.42 (2)
Handspun Wensleydale

I spun this Wensleydale you see in the first picture years ago – but stupidly, not as much as I needed. So recently, had to spin a bit more (after miraculously finding the leftover roving on a shelf at Other Half’s work). Left bobbin was spun on a 1990s’ Timbertops flyer; right bobbin on a 1970s’ flyer. The old spinning as in the stocking above, was perfectly matched by the new, and these were later plied into a balanced yarn that decidedly won’t row out. And it will look as good as the fabric in the stockings above, even without being washed or blocked. When wound into a ball ready to use, despite being unwashed/not blocked, it doesn’t look like cat barf, either.  Strange, that. Could it be we are all being told how to knit/spin by someone who lacks… experience?

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that poor craftsmanship (rowing out)  is a sign of fabric knitted using a knitting stick, or due to using hand-spun yarn. As the picture above shows – knitters using sticks in the past could produce perfectly good fabric without ridges or lumps, and from yarn that if well spun, may not have been washed or blocked.

None of this changes the fact the nalbinded socks are nalbinded. They are not knitted. Furthermore, they were not knitted using knitting sticks, a technology which has its origins in Europe, well over a thousand years later.

My knitting stick, Wensleydale stockings and 1800-dressed self will be at Dove Cottage again, on September 7th. The stockings are called The Neverending Stockings of Doom as, like my namesake Penelope, I take them to events, then rip them out and re-knit at the next event (too many people distracting me for me to remember if I am increasing or decreasing). This year, I intend to actually finish the damn things. Possibly. Hence spinning the extra yarn to finally get it done.  I’ll also be at the Preview for the Close Knit exhibition at Hull Maritime Museum, next month, which has more knitting sticks than anyone can reasonably shake a (non-knitting) stick at. And one of my ganseys is in it! Do come along and meet us at Dove Cottage in September, or get along to the exhibition which opens in August (partly the Moray Firth Group’s travelling exhibition, partly local Humber stuff) where you can see some old and new ganseys, most knitted without sticks but that look precisely the same as the ganseys knit with.

I understand the Dales gentleman who made my knitting stick has now retired, so if anyone knows someone who is making good knitting sticks in the UK, please contact me here, and I will link to their details, so anyone interested in this (non coptic! and not 1600 years old) technology, can find a stick of the right size, with a hole the right depth, made by someone who has preferably held and examined a few of the originals. Equally, if you know of a woodworker who would like to make these but needs some measurements of originals, if they contact me I can help them out with some raw data.

And in the meantime, don’t let anyone tell you rowing out is a sign of fine fabric knitted with a knitting stick. It is the result of shoddy craftsmanship.  Oh and those nalbinded coptic socks? They’re nalbinded.


And another thing…   Also in the comments section of said blog: “The V&A Coptic socks were done in 3-ply cotton, not wool.”  That’s odd. Because the V & A say:

Materials and Techniques

Nålbindning (sewing stitches) wool


The socks are in bright red wool


It would seem the swatches with commercial cotton are doubly pointless.

Trawling For Red Herrings

Credit: Wikipedia. This photo was taken as part of ‘Britain Loves Wikipedia’ in February 2010 by David Jackson.

“Textile historians often find it difficult to tell whether early knitted objects are made using a single needle, as here, or using more than one needle, as the finished articles are so similar in appearance.” [From the holy writ, source of all sources ™, Wikipedia, text to the image shown left].

Just back from the British Museum and London, I am enjoying reading about nalbinding, at the moment. We have just acquired some Boreray and Ouessant fleece – some of which may well end up nalbinded for the “professional Viking” in the family. Husband works as an historical interpreter so wears Viking clothes to work!

I have only learned to nalbind this year and consider my efforts too embarrassingly bad to photograph. So the image of contemporary nalbinding below, is the work of Karen Carlson, an experienced and accomplished nalbinder whose work shows you what it should look like.

Nalbinding has been seen as some as a forerunner to knitting. But it owes more to sewing, as a technique. You use a single needle, with yarn threaded through an eye and short lengths of yarn, to build a 3D structure from loops, as you go – hat, glove, sock, bag, or whatever.  If you look at this video, re. Coptic stitch in nalbinding, you will see how closely it resembles knitting. It would be easy to confuse with knitting.

Even museums can mislabel nalbinding and, confusingly, some museum descriptions use ‘knitting’ or ‘sewing’ or ‘nalbinding’ in the same breath.  Nalbinders know nalbinding when they see it, however. Consider these nalbinded socks at the British Museum  (I was there earlier this week but didn’t see these – so much to see!) Also a fragment from down the road from me, at Coppergate:

Coptic sock 1

Coptic sock 2

Coppergate (York) sock

These have that characteristic-of-nalbinding ridge before the instep (after heel is turned).   You don’t really see that in a knitted sock.

Knitted socks have no instep ridge.
Knitted socks have no instep ridge.

Click on ‘object details’ and you will see the description of them as being ‘naalebinding’ although the initial, general description has the word ‘knitted’. Nalbinders on Ravelry have already reproduced similar socks, in case there is any doubt that stitch that looks knitted, is in fact nalbinding.   Nalbinders turn heels in whatever way seems good to them, so there are no hard-and-fast “recipes” for nalbinding.

I know how nalbinding is done, as I have learned to do it. I wouldn’t normally feel I was qualified to write much about something – even if I can do it – if I can’t yet do it well.

So it was fascinating to read a blog full of half-arsed opinions about nalbinding, from a person who cannot physically do it and confuses coptic stitch nalbinded items with knitted ones. Knitting historians have not always been knitters themselves – and dilettante bloggers may well be average knitters/spinners but not historians (or, apparently, attended universities where they were trained to think rigorously).

Some museums have mislabelled textiles in the past. No big deal. Museums have also attracted experts with phenomenal knowledge, in the past, such as Grace Crowfoot.

I deal with curators frequently – they are people with formidable levels of knowledge and ability. I suspect the bitchiness about them “getting it wrong” can only come from someone who wants to write online about textiles, yet does not inhabit that world, or know any of the deeply impressive people whose world it is. Sure, people can get it wrong. But generally – they don’t.

Firstly, let’s deal with the assertion that the V & A don’t understand their own collection (as well as our amateur, non nalbinding hero). We’re talking here about these ‘Coptic’ socks, familiar to anyone who knows a smattering of textile history.  Our intrepid hero would have us believe that the V & A has mislabelled them as nalbound, when they are knitted.  Yet they resemble the other nalbound ‘coptic’ socks in other collections. And presumably,  whoever assessed them – was an expert. And (this is where our hero may have to go and fan his red face as he realises what an embarrassing faux pas he has committed) possibly they have even handled the items. And looked inside.

In fact this statement comes from someone who wants to posture as an ‘expert’, but has only seen historic textiles as a tourist peering through a glass case. I’ve considerable experience of physically handling old textiles “behind the scenes”, having been privileged enough to have been allowed to do this at various museums, in the past few years. This does not make me an expert – just someone with a growing body of experience. I’d hesitate to opine about crafts I can’t even do.  Hell… I’m hesitating to opine about nalbinding even though I can do it!

Whoever examined these socks, would have done exactly what I do when I handle textiles – look at the inside/underside/wrong side.  You would see it was nalbinding pretty quickly, I’m guessing, by looking at the inside of the item – nalbound socks would have lots of joins which may be apparent or less so, depending on the experience level of the person doing the looking.

The first thing I do is look inside an artefact, if I can. You can tell far more about how something was made by looking at the bits that people who create museum displays/photograph artefacts for books, don’t want you to see. For example, with knitted items you are looking for the start of a round; you may be more interested in the holes/repairs and subsequent history of the thing as with a lot of 19thC knitting, a broken stitch tells me far more than a perfect stitch (using a needle gauge where there has been a break with an intact stitch below, I can find out the size of needles used, for example).  Finding the maker’s “mistakes” is very informative about how something was constructed.  A tourist will marvel at the item behind a display case. I will pick it up and look at the backside (so to speak!) The bits the curator thinks you don’t need to see…  Anyone who tells you old knitting was ‘swaved on pricks’ (pardon my French) by the Most Wonderful Knitterz In The World has not seen a single extant piece of professional knitting from 18thC/19thC England, is all I’m saying as they often abound in mistakes and errors and glorious problems that may not be immediately apparent from Wikipedia, or your average shot you can find of an artefact online.

I’ll give you an example. There is a very well known pair of 19thC gloves that survives at a museum in the UK. They were donated in the early 20thC and have been on display permanently, since then. The pair is displayed with one glove placed prominently above the other. The reason being, at some point, someone unpicked an entire finger, so one of the gloves bizarrely only has 3 fingers.  But that point at which the fourth was frogged and then left on a thread, tells a knitter so much about how that glove was made… you can get a clear view of the handspun yarn and see its precise grist; you can get a needle gauge and figure out the size needles used; you can see inside the glove which is rather fragile and could never be turned inside out…  In the display case, the gloves look pristine and none of this is apparent. Museums are becoming more aware of people being interested in the workings, and how things are made, and the ‘Fashion in Detail’ series of books have also cottoned on to this concept – that we want to see close-up construction details, so there are an increasing number of museums who will display textiles ‘wrong-side’ up. But that blog post is clearly the result of someone who is not a rigorous thinker, or experienced textile historian. Which of course wouldn’t matter, if they weren’t trying to sell you something, and doing it with an authority that is not backed up by experience or education.

This is me knitting with a stick; handspun Wensleydale yarn.

Historically, nalbound items would be wool in Europe (cotton in Egypt, of course). And most spinners/knitters know how to splice wool so joins would be almost invisible. But they are detectable, and there – especially to the experienced hand-spinner.  (I think it might be more obvious with cotton than with wool but I have never seen or handled anything Coptic – yet).

Nalbinding can be confused with knitting – especially if it is the Coptic stitch and you are only looking at images online and you are not a nalbinder. Pretending well known nalbound objects are knitted, so you can claim that knitting sticks were around about 1300 years before they were – making them a must-have item for anyone who wants to do ‘real’ knitting – is beyond disingenuous.

Fineness is achievable in nalbinding; dependent on the grist of the yarn used and the tension of the nalbinder.

If the V & A say those socks are nalbound – they have looked inside them and can see they are nalbound. I’m back in London next month, and I am tempted to set up an appointment to go take a look, but I won’t because if I was going to spend a morning looking at a museum textile, my time is too limited to make it this one when there is something at the Museum of London I’d give my eye teeth to spend a couple of hours examining and documenting. And it is not nalbinding.

Nalbound socks do tend to have that typical ridge at the instep. Some nalbinding stitches look just like crossed (Eastern)  knitting.  Some nalbinding looks nothing like knitting too, as the extant nalbound items across Europe and elsewhere, have different stitches. Including one rare item with a stitch only found in York, I believe.

And finally, of course, even if the Coptic socks were knitted – it has no implications whatsoever for the history of knitting in Europe. None. Nada. Zilch. They are Coptic. There’s your clue. They are not English.

The first mention of knitting in England is from medieval times.  Knitting sticks  in England do not predate the 17thC. Coptic nalbinded socks were not knitted and certainly not with knitting sticks – a European (ie: different continent’s) technology from well over a thousand years later.

It seems an odd thesis; to be desperate to prove knitting existed in Europe a thousand years before it did. And knitting sticks in Egypt a thousand years before they existed at all! A nalbinded coptic sock  tells me as much about the history of English knitting, as a Mesopotamian jug would tell me about Napoleon’s foreign policy. That red coptic sock is a red herring, in other words.

Nalbinding Resources

Some brilliant how-to videos in English and Finnish: Neulakintaat

Karen Larsdatter links to resources

Phiala’s String Page – Nalbinding

Nalbinders on Ravelry Group

This is nalbinding. Credit: Karen Carlson

Magenta Divine

Sample from the Pattern book of Sam Hill, 18thC Soyland clothier. From Calderdale Council’s site.

They say “blood will out”, and so it seems to have proved.

We broke the last brick wall in my family tree a few months back. Names included:  Lister, Smith, Dawson and Crabtree;  a long line of wool weavers, clothiers, and mill-owners in Longwood, near Huddersfield, and in Halifax.  My surname should have been the clue – “Lister”, meaning “dyer” is a West Riding wool trade name, dating back to the Middle Ages.

Except, I was brought up with the story that my great grandfather, John Lister, was a Leeds foundling who randomly chose the name “Lister” when he was nineteen. In fact, his father, Tom Lister,  a “press setter” (cropper in the woollen mills), died when John was very young. His mother Hannah Lister nee Smith,  re-married – her second husband was a Birmingham-born blacksmith, Charles Deeley. On Censuses, John appeared with his step-father’s surname, sometimes misspelled as “Daley”, to compound the confusion, so we had been unable to find a “John Lister” of the right age, at the right place. Which, in turn, made us assume he was not lying about being born a foundling with a different name.

It appears he was brought up partly by Hannah and Deeley and partly by his much older sister, Elizabeth Helen Gillespie, nee Lister. He was not with the Gillespies on any Census night but years later told family they brought him up (although he also told people they were randomers who fostered him – not relatives).

Knowing this, research led me to my wool trade ancestors – the entire paternal line of my paternal grandfather were in the West Riding wool trade, as far back as we can trace, at the moment. The Listers were Halifax weavers/small clothiers.  Alternate generations, the eldest sons seem to have been croppers. Croppers were the elite of the wool trade; their job so skilled it added huge value to the cloth. They were the men put out of work by the frame cropping machines in 1812. Halifax and Huddersfield croppers were the backbone of the Luddite movement. It is possible the Listers were on one side of the Luddite struggle; whilst the more prosperous Smiths and Dawsons were on the other.

I know, from records, my grt grandfather x 5,  Ely Crabtree was a weaver, as well. But have yet to find out much about the Crabtrees.

A woollen weaver might call himself a clothier if he completed roughly one piece a week and took it to the Cloth Hall. According to ulnage rules, we know most woollen pieces were over twenty yards in length; varying according to spec.

Many small clothiers were also small farmers, with a few acres. The Smiths and Dawsons appear to have been clothiers, then manufacturers, on a grander scale. In the 19thC, my great grandad X 4, Thomas Smith went into business with a clothier neighbour called Hanson, and they manufactured “Fancy Woollens”. At an earlier date, his father seemed to have been trading with a clothier family called the Dawsons – indeed  Tom’s wife was one Betty Dawson, also from Longwood.  Tom and Betty were Non-Conformists, like many in the West Riding, and are buried at Salendine Nook Baptist church.

Some clothiers kept records of their output and from these records, we know that they might weave anything between four and nine yards or so a day – when they had time to weave. This might add up to thirty or more pieces per year, given there were times in the year when weaving was not a priority; farm-work was.    (Incidentally, warps were usually sized outdoors, from pegs in walls and seems to have gone on outside whatever the weather).

These larger scale clothiers/mill-owners like the Smiths and Dawsons would manufacture some pieces for themselves but also buy pieces from smaller weavers.

Reading “Some Aspects of the 18thC Woollen & Worsted Trade in Halifax”, Ed. Frank Atkinson, Halifax Museums, 1956, I stumbled on this reference to familiar names. In the Day Book of John Sutcliffe, clothier, 1791:

Sold Messrs Dawson & Smith

1 Dble Russel  @ 62 shillings

Ditto  @ 72 shillings

1 Sat.quild lasting  @ 63 shillings

Ditto  @ 75 shillings….

I can’t say for sure the Dawson & Smith that Sutcliffe transacted with were my great x 5 grandfathers – but it seems more than possible.

According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary:

Russell. A ribbed or corded fabric formerly in use”.

And according to the Glossary in the Atkinson Book:

Lasting: Kind of durable cloth”.  (As in “everlasting”). I’m guessing this was likely to be woollen, as this is what these weavers were generally working with. “Quild” may be “quilted”, or it could refer to some kind of surface patterning? I am not sure.

These are pieces bought by Dawson and Smith from Sutcliffe; Sutcliffe, in turn, commissioned various weavers to make them; procured the wool, had combers comb it, hand-spinners to spin it and supplemented that by buying machine spun yarn as well.

Lastings and russells were made from a combed warp and weft. “Stuff” was fabric made from combed warp and weft, and “cloth” when it was from carded fibres. According to E.Lipson in “The History of the English Woollen & Worsted Industries” (1921).  Interestingly, another ancestor, Halifax wool weaver William Lister, is described in one parish record as “stuff maker”. Combed wool was premium value and quality and used in some of the high-end pieces, but sometimes just made a good warp. But by no means always : many cloths had a carded warp, which might scare modern handweavers but seems to have been done.

For at least two generations the Dawsons and Smiths specialised in weaving various forms of combed or carded wool into “Fancy Woollens”, although some family members, like David Dawson, seem to have branched out into the dye-house.

Also in the village of Longwood along with the Smiths, were Dawson cousins; some clothiers, some small farmers, butchers, and inn-keepers.

I have not been able to pin this down yet, but a preliminary search makes me think my great grandmother X 4 Betty’s cousin, was the  Longwood dyer, David Dawson.

Next time my kids moan about the smell from my dye-pots, I will tell them about David Dawson’s son, Dan. Because it’s all in the genes, you know….

DSCF2870Dan was about twenty years old, in 1860, and started messing around in the kitchen at home, trying to perfect his idea for making a chemical dye. Most hand-spinners, weavers and dyers have heard of William Perkins, the pioneer of aniline dyeing, who took the world by storm with his synthetic mauve dye.  In the scintillatingly titled ‘Chemistry, Society & Environment’, By Colin Archibald Russell  (Royal Society of Chemistry), on Google Books, I found this titillating glimpse into one of my relative’s kitchens:

By 1863-1864, not more than five artificial dyes were available, namely Mauve, Aniline Blue, Magenta, Imperial Violet and Phosphine.  Modest weights were produced at the beginning.  Production often started in household equipment, as with Dan Dawson, who dried Magenta in a domestic oven ca. 1860 (Specks of Magenta appearing on  bread for weeks afterwards)…

I have been dyeing for over thirty years but never used synthetic dyes. One of the things that makes me vain and proud is getting a good, true red from madder – a fine and subtle art, and not straightforward – as opposed to the dirty brick red it likes to dye wool. An hundred years before I was born, Dan Dawson was also in search of a good red, in his home kitchen. Finding something about that sends chills down my genealogical spine!

This also means that, whilst I could write you a book on natural dyeing in maybe a fortnight I have always known nothing and cared less about synthetic dyes, and feel embarrassed to have been so dismissive of them!

A little Google fu, so far shows me some fascinating insights. In any history of synthetic dyeing, the early names to conjure with are William Perkins, and two German dyers, Heinrich Caro and August Wilhelm von Hofman.   In a footnote, to ‘Knowledge and Competitive Advantage: The Coevolution of Firms’, by Johann Peter Murmann, (Google Books)  Dan pops up again, when the author is discussing the close relationship between German and English pioneers of dyeing:

A good example is Dan Dawson. After founding a dye firm in Great Britain, Dawson, at age thirty-eight, decided to let his brothers run the business while he went to the University of Berlin in 1874, to study with Hofman…

Dan’s firm went from strength to strength as he worked on new processes, and developed different colours, moving beyond his original experiments with Magenta, to Soluble Blue, Chrysoidine and Bismarck Brown. These latter clearly showing Hofman’s influence. He also seems to have received patents for various processes for fixing (mordanting) the new dyes on cotton fibre – always a trickier process than wool, as dyers here will know.

His factory became known as Colne Vale Dyeworks, and was in Milnsbridge, Huddersfield.  By the 1880s, Dan Dawson’s sons were setting up dye factories in Philadelphia although were bankrupted by a hike in import taxation on some of their raw materials.  The Huddersfield dyeworks continued, though. His relative, my great uncle X 4, Dawson Smith, had emigrated to America in 1860 where he fought with distinction for the Union, ran woollen mills in Indiana, and eventually re-trained as a lawyer and become the County Attorney. It seems these wool trade Longwood Smith and Dawson lads ran between two countries; some settling in America, with their cutting edge expertise and some returning to Yorkshire. In later years, Dan travelled extensively in Europe. My great grandmother X 2, Hannah Smith, seems to have married cropper Tom Lister, and made it as far as Leeds and that was it; despite eventually having two brothers in the US, and several cousins and nephews. It may be from hearing tales of the “rich” mill and dyework owning relatives that my great grandad formulated the story he was in later years to tell his wife and his six children – that he was a foundling who randomly settled on the name “Lister” after visiting mill-owners.  Although the story as he told it was that they were not relatives, just people he was scamming. Most good liars have an element of truth in there to lend their stories some realism, and after three generations were confused by John’s tale, we have at last found the truth.

As a printer, he worked with colours (my father longed to train as a lithographer, remembering childhood visits to the printing shop). Magenta is rather important in printing. Maybe some of those colours John Lister used, were related to the synthetic dyes his family developed?  People always wondered where he got the capital to start his business, and maybe – just maybe – there is an element of truth in the story about the expedition to con a mill-owner. Even if estranged from his mother, John may have met his Smith and Dawson relations at some time in childhood.

Myself, I will stick with my natural dyes but maybe from now on, have more appreciation for those chemical ones, as well.