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 5.5.mm.  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.

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4 thoughts on “Sticking It

  1. Thanks so much for your reply! Even your answers to comments are a history lesson! I’m so glad you have your blog to help alleviate anxiety that some of us might have about being incompetent knitters! Keep up the great work!

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  2. Nothing superior about knitted fabric that is knitted with a stick – truly, it is just faster. And I think it is easy to over-state that, too. I have knitted with sticks and knitted without and my tension is no different, whether I use one or not. Maybe I’m a tight knitter. Maybe not. But for someone to knock your confidence in summat that is meant to be fun – is just wrong.

    I think the exaggerations about the magical qualities of sticks come from a very obvious motivation – that person is selling them on Etsy. It’s the oldest retailing trick in the book, to try and insinuate you have The Universal Panacea. That’s all we’re seeing there. Sticks are great for us living history people, because we can show one aspect of normal life in the past people have forgotten about. That’s all.

    I think it’s not so clear cut as being a case of the new technology superceding the old – but that definitely was one factor. The 1870 Education Act changed the way many UK folk knitted, as the proscribed curriculum did encourage what we now call English or American style knitting, as opposed to the older ‘continental’ style – so maybe people confuse that change with other changes also happening at the same time?

    Knitting sticks could be very fancy – and I have seen silver and ivory ones that show signs of wear and usage. So it is also erroneous to think that ‘love token’ sticks were unused. Dales knitters interviewed in the 1950-70ss showed interviewers knitting sticks lovingly made by their dads, for example, which they had used for decades – as well as other sticks, as people often had more than one.

    In the Beamish Collection, there is a goose-wing stick with a WW1 regimental insignia on it. And again, those old Dales knitters interviewed in the mid 20thC were sometimes still using sticks at the time they were interviewed – when they were no longer knitting for commercial necessity, but for fun.

    So no-one can know, but I suspect the sticks died out for a whole load of reasons – partly the coming of the circ (modern Yorkshire commercial gansey hand knitters tend to use circs, which makes me think those old Dalesmen and women would have adopted them too, had they the chance). Also partly the Death of The Apron. Sounds daft but… every old Yorkshire lady when I was a kid wore an apron in the daytime. Think Norah Batty!

    By the late 70s, you saw this less and less. I know my old aunties wouldn’t do anything not in their pinnies. Pinnies came off after tea, when the sun was over the yard-arm and the bottles of stout came out…

    Also the death of commercial hand-knitting played its part. Although to say it was somehow slaughtered by delicate Victorian ladies is overstating it. Added to that the rise of us wimminz which got us out of the home and into the work-place. We know knitting sticks hung on in parts of upland Yorkshire – because folk are slow to change. But I suspect sticks died out for a number of reasons, over decades and decades.

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  3. Very informative and well written, as usual! Just a quick question – you said in the beginning that the sheaths were left behind when circulars came out. So it’s not some Victorian conspiracy to suppress but rather a choice was made when a new technology came about?

    For a while, I believed in the confident assertions of some other blogger that a proper knitter only uses the old technology. Being a continental knitter it left me feeling bad about my knitting (I’m not joking!). But if the sheath was no longer used because something else was preferred, then maybe I’m not a bad knitter after all?

    You’re blog has helped me recover my confidence in my style of knitting!

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