Hand spinning History Knitting

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.


6 replies on “Inside The Wool Spinning Mistress’s Closet”

Fascinating, thank you! As I’m writing a series of novels involving a charity school, currently for indigent gentlewomen but hoping to have a wing for other girls, this was particularly useful to me.
It’s not unreasonable to expect a 7 year old to knit socks without a pattern; I was shown how at some point before that, and practised knitting for my dolls before I knit myself my first pair of socks. I had just started Brownies, so I would have been 7 [and they were in the most ghastly psychedelic neon green which I loved]
This school must have been a real life saver for the girls who took the opportunity to advance, and I suspect of those married, many were able to marry because their skills meant they could do some piece-work to add to the family economy.


Yes. Catharine Cappe was trying to do a better job than the older, established charity schools – who were happy to apprentice kids out. She felt that was exposing them to too much risk of maltreatment, and so hoped to give them skills they might find useful in more than one walk of life. Apparently, many of the girls came to the school barely dressed at all, so I am guessing their sponsors would supply the wool and needles to knit the stocking they needed, to prove they could apply themselves. I have seen info for other York charity schools where the kids needed one or two respectable citizens to vouch for them, to gain entry to the school. It doesn’t seem to have been easy to gain a place, in any of these schools. I am guessing that the basic education in the three Rs, was valuable in itself, for working class young women who would not normally have even been able to access that.


indeed, in a time of poor literacy, being able to read, write and figure, and know how to sew, knit, mend and possibly do laundry could give a girl the chance of working up to Housekeeper, or to run her own business/be a real business partner to a husband. It also made an opening as a school teacher for younger children at least. What an admirable woman Catharine Cappe was, a real heroine.


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