antique textiles Hand spinning Knitting

10 Best Patterns From Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection

General Carleton hat. From a Whitby ship wrecked in the Baltic, in 1780.

The General Carleton hat has just been republished in Interweave’s  ’10 Best Patterns from Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection’.

I’m hearing from museum historical interpreters, and living historians all over, that they have made this hat. Canadians love it for some reason! It has a certain crazy charm to it.

If you can’t find the yarn (Rowan Tweed Aran, now discontinued), use Ravelry’s Yarn tab to find a similar weight alternative. Rowan Tweed was a singles, but it would be fine knitted with a plied yarn, too, so long as it is Aran weight.

Hand-spinners can approximate the yarn by spinning an Aran grist singles.  The original hat had more stitches than the published pattern, and was from a slightly finer grist yarn; something between a DK and an Aran. I decided to write the pattern for a commercially available yarn to make it accessible to knitters but at some point, I hope to publish a stitch-by-stitch repro of the original hat. I saw it on display at The Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby when it was on loan from Gdansk Maritime Museum.

Orange-reds from madder.

The colours are putative but appear to be a light and a dark natural, plus one other colour that may have been an orangey red.  Dyers can reproduce this with a slightly-too-hot madder dyebath, or coreopsis.

Onion skins have been suggested as a possible dye-stuff, and with alum would give a reasonable colour but I think the wool at these dates would be more likely to have been dyed with a professional dye – like madder. The bands of colour in the Whalebone Scrapers picture, certainly appear to show a vivid orange colour. And the fact three men are wearing it suggests it was possibly seen as a bit of occupational clothing, in Yorkshire at least. Walker’s engraving was made 30 years after ‘The General Carleton’ was lost.

Whalebone Scrapers, 'Costumes of Yorkshire', George Walker, 1814
Whalebone Scrapers, ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’, George Walker, 1814

2 replies on “10 Best Patterns From Piecework’s Historical Knitting Collection”

Hi Chris! I don’t know – I certainly haven’t come across any mention in primary sources. Plenty of mention of woad, madder and logwood. Which means I was a bit sceptical about the assertion in Stephen Baines’ book on the wreck of The General Carleton, from an expert he asked who gave the opinion it might be onion skins. Like you, I associate that with a sort of 1970s’ ‘Good Life’ home dyer. I know people dyeing small quantities of yarn in the Dales in the late 19thC used commercial vegetal dyes like logwood, so suspect some sort of commercial dyestuff is more likely. But I can’t know. (Last I heard the knitted items from The General Carleton hadn’t been analysed so, as far as I know, the dyes remain unknown). The brick red many dyers avoid getting with madder (see pic above) is very close to the sort of bright orange Walker illustrated. The Walker prints were hand-tinted, and the edition I use was a First Edition in quite good condition, so the colours are as true to Walker’s intentions as possible… And it does read, to me, as more of an orangey-red than say a red, or the slightly buff toned orange I know I have got with onion skins in the past. I have got a very similar colour with coreopsis but not sure if that was ever used in commercial quantities in the UK.



I’m curious — is there actual historical evidence for the use of onion skins as a dye? I know it’s many people’s first experience of a natural dye, but the impression I had is that it’s a fairly recent phenomenon (likely 20th century) since white, rather than yellow, varieties of onions were more common until then.


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