Gansey needles, Filey Museum. CREDIT: David Hunt

From the Patients’ Disbursement Books, The Retreat, York. Ref: Ret  3/10/1/1  

Judith Robertson

1799 10 Sept, 1799

Knitting needle  3d

1800 8 June

Patent knitting needles  3d  Pasteboard 4d  – 7d

22 Sept

shrowd – 7-/ 6d coffin 42 -/

(Pasteboard = cardboard, used to make bonnet brims).

Straights. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May. CLICK on any of these to enlarge.

The casual – and all too frequent – “coffin” and “shrowd” at the end of the Retreat asylum patients’ accounts, gets me every time.

The patients’ private accounts for their personal, needful things,  are a brilliant resource for the clothing/textile historian. From them, we can see that ‘Patent’ (shiny steel?) needles cost 3d in 1799. This was probably a set of 4 or 5.

Needles, curved and straight. Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. CREDIT: Belinda May

What were nineteenth century needles like? Blunt? Pointy? Both? Neither? Or even – as has been mooted – “flat-ended”..? The answer is – knitters, as ever, had their personal preferences.

Surviving needles in museums across the North of England, show every variation; blunt and pointy, curved and straight. Although rarely, of course, flat ended.

In 1981, Kathleen Kinder interviewed Mrs Clara Sedgwick of Settle, who grew up in Dentdale; maiden name Clara Middleton. Aged 82 in 1981: “…. She still uses the steel needles, size 13, which she brought out of Dent…What is more, the Editor of The Dalesman and I were shown and allowed to handle the knitting stick, carved in the traditional goose-quill shape, which her grandfather, Thomas Allen, had made for her mother. The needles the Dales knitter used were often finer  than size 13. They were known as ‘wires’ and were frequently bent with usage…”

Curved needles. Blunter and pointier. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Some were bent with usage and some deliberately bent by the knitters who preferred them like this. Betty Hartley told interviewer Maurice Colbeck: “…I used to wonder how they found needles fine enough to make them. [Dales gloves] Then somebody told me that they used to knit them on the old long hatpins!”

decm need3
Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

ycm1Knitting sticks were used by knitters of all social classes and backgrounds – witnessed by the sticks in the collection at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. A couple of years ago, we documented some of the sticks in their reserve collection, and saw two knitting needles from a “work-basket belonging to one of the Bronte sisters”. [Ref #: HAOBP: H176:2 and 3]. The needles I examined had fine gauges, around 1mm, and one had a slight curve which would suggest it was used with a knitting stick.

Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Anyone who believes all needles used commercially – or by genteel ladies – were ‘blunt’ or, ‘flat ended’, only has to actually see the extant needles, to realise the error of their ways.

I leave you, Gentle reader, with these images of nineteenth century needles, to refute the bizarre theory that is playing out elsewhere on the internet.

Straights – nothing ‘flat-ended’ but again, a mix of blunter and pointier; glove/stocking size. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Sarah Impey 31 March 1808 2/6 Lambswool Yarn for Stockings’ Needles and [fillet?] 8d, … 3/3 shifts making 2-/

[Patients’ Disbursements, 1807 -16] Various Patients’ Disbursement Books, The Retreat, The Borthwick Institute, University of York

Gran Taught Her To Knit at the Age of Three, Maurice Colbeck, The Dalesman, Vol. 57, January 1996.

Knitting in the Dales Way, Kathleen Kinder, The Dalesman, Vol 42, February 1981 p.908

The Old Hand Knitters of The Dales, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby.


Inside The Wool Spinning Mistress’s Closet

…each Girl has the following articles given to her:

A Pair of Scissors          A Huswife

A Thimble                       A Work Box

A Knitting Sheath            A Work Bag

A Pincushion                   A Comb and Case

At Easter she is allowed to have her Scissors ground; a Pincushion and String, Huswif mended, Her Thimble changed… a new Comb if necessary; a knitting sheath…. Whatever she uses more than these, must be bought  out of her own money….

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General.

by Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard

3 Shillings


Today I thought we’d take a look inside the eighteenth century Spinning School Mistress’s closet and, whilst we’re at it, nose through the charity school girls’ possessions.

Most girls came to York’s charity schools, penniless and literally in rags so the above list of items given to the girls would represent an investment. Finally, to own something all your own!

Some girls on admission, were barely clothed at all: if they hadn’t made their own clothes in school,  the children would have been “…sent in such a state as would render their very superintendence…nearly impracticable…” [p. 9]

When the school started it was more a night school. Founder Catharine Cappe wrote: “…Our first thought, was to have them taught to read, knit and sew on an evening after they had finished their work at the Manufactory…”

Once a formal school was established, a School for Spinning Worsted which opened in late 1782,  the girls had a uniform but had to leave it at school during the weekends, returning to put it on before going to church of a Sunday. It wasn’t long before the school was a boarding school, obviating the need to leave school clothes behind at weekends.

The Knitting school catered for the youngest children – knitting was seen as less skilled than worsted spinning. A seven year old was thought perfectly capable of knitting a stocking without a pattern; shaping the leg, turning the heel, etc.

At Catharine Cappe’s York Knitting & Spinning School, and later York’s Grey Coat School;  girls rotated every six weeks through different tasks; learning skills that would make them employable as servants, or maybe make them ‘diligent’ wives.

Children were expected to work at everything, in rotation – “wool-spinners, line-spinners, sewers, knitters and house Girls…”[p.32]

Line spinners = spinning flax. House girls = learning to cook and clean. Two girls would be permanently on duty sewing and repairing the charity school clothes.  The girls who carded and spun the waste wool for the school’s own use, also had the job of “twisting” (plying) the line (flax yarn). It seems plying was seen as a separate thing to spinning and might not necessarily be done at the same time or by the same person who spun the singles.

The idea was to make the girls employable, without being apprenticed as there had been some notorious cases of ex charity-children being abused when left in the homes of their masters/mistresses and apprenticed to trades.

York’s Grey Coat school ,which employed Catharine to overhaul its curriculum after the success of her own Knitting and Spinning School, took in “firstly, orphans, then if places remained, children of parents ‘in distress’, to save them from the parish Poor House “..or the houses of indigent Relatives”.  Some of the girls in the original school on  St Andrewgate, York, were rescued from a local hemp factory, because Catharine felt the adult employees were a bad influence. Other children were street kids, or had inattentive parents who let them go feral during the day. Some were, as Cappe put it, “miserable girls upon the town” (ie: child prostitutes),  Cappe characterised the children’s parents as frequently “dissolute” and “depraved”.

Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.
Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.

The Spinning & Knitting School grew to accommodate 30 girls. A girl might gain admission on being able to prove she could knit a stocking in a week.  Spinning also had to pick up some pace, as the girls were supplying an un-named ‘Manufacturer’ with their yarn, presumably to be woven into cloth.

By the 1780s, spinning was already largely mechanised in manufactories, but hand-spinners still contributed to the yarn required by a voracious industry. The Spinning School was giving the girls a skill that would soon be defunct, in the UK at least. If the hanks were the standard 560 yards, this was 2240 yds, per day, per child. To put that in perspective, it is marginally more yardage than some of the faster spinners in a competition like Spinzilla.  And they were spinning worsted, which is considerably slower than wool spun long draw. This fearsome pace had to be kept up for 6 weeks at a time. Girls could keep a quarter of the money their spinning earned. :

“…As soon as the children can spin four hanks of wool per day, they are decently clothed, and moreover…  they receive one fourth of their earnings in money…”  [p. 8]

The children made all the clothes needed for the school itself from “waste wool” left over from processing wool they sold to a manufacturer. The school was self sufficient, for clothing and only had to buy in stays, shoes and straw hats.

In 1785, Catharine reformed York’s main charity school for girls, the Grey Coat school. She appointed two Assistant teachers – one in the Wool Spinning room and the other to teach sewing, knitting and line-spinning. In April 1785,  the spinning mistress Mrs Lazenby, became “deranged” and her husband, the School’s Master, put her in a lunatic asylum. We only have to hope it was the Retreat, not York’s notoriously awful County asylum.

Catharine herself became Superintendent of Spinning at Grey Coats (alongside running her own school):

She had “…To superintend the wool-spinning; to see that it reaches the proper counts; that every pound is marked with the girl’s name who spun it; that it is reeled right; that the Mistress keeps her spinning closet in order, and spinning book with accuracy, to correspond with the manufacturer; keep all the accounts; receive the money earned by spinning;.. and to see every pound of yarn weighed before it is returned to the manufacturer…”

She wrote a footnote on this page, giving us a fascinating peep into the contents of the Spinning Mistress’s Closet:

“The Wool Spinning Mistress has a  Closet divided like the Clothes Closet and Reward Box, with the name of each girl upon the partition appropriated for the reception of her particular hanks, as soon as they are spun; the names being changed every six weeks when the new arrangements take place. This closet the Mistress examines every night, and she enters in a book what every Girl has spun in the course of the day. This book is shewn at the end of the week to the Lady who pays the rewards; and each Girl is separately commended or reproved, and her respective task raised or lowered accordingly as the circumstances  may require. A book is likewise kept by the assistant Mistress, with the particulars of the stockings knit, and line spun, in the course of the week. The same method is followed in the Spinning School.” [33]

The girls also had a Master to teach them reading, writing and arithmetic. No doubt a literate and numerate girl had more employment prospects: she’d be able to keep track of household accounts, etc. This literacy and numeracy was, in itself, a valuable gift as a quick survey of 18thC marriage records often shows that many working class women, if not most, could not sign their own name. The charity schools gave this level of ‘pragmatic’ formal education, on top of useful manual skills like knitting, spinning and sewing.

What happened to the Grey Coat girls? We find out in a footnote from p.41 of “Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendlly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee”, 1805:

The number of Girls, who have left the grey Coat School since it was new regulated in 1787, are 114. Of these, 23 are married; 47 are in service; 43 are dead; 2 are Mantua-makers; 1 is now assistant Mistress in the School; 7 are at home with their friends; 2 are at home in a bad state of health; 5 have turned out profligate; and 14, having left York, the Ladies lost sight of them…

Mantua-makers were dress-makers. The charity school must have given these two girls enough sewing skills for them to find employment, without any formal apprenticeship, on leaving.

Thanks to those blog readers/followers who came up and said lovely things about the blog at our Living History day at Armley Mills, on Saturday! Hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the Spinning Mistress’s closet.

A Yorkshire knitting stick. Credit: Belinda May. York Castle Museum.

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General, Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard, 1800

Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee, Catharine Cappe, York, pub. Blanchard, 1805.