Recently, I was browsing eBay for spare parts for a 1970s’ Brother knitting machine, when I spotted in the background of a listing, a torn envelope with “old” writing on, and what looked like a Harrison manual peeping out.
The seller – who had it in a job lot and, like many eBayers selling knitting machines, was selling something she’d inherited and didn’t understand – kindly agreed to hive off the envelope (and the exact spares I needed for my more modern machine) and sold me them separately.
I knew Harrison made csms (circular sock machines) and I knew they were good quality ones. My own machine is a Griswold – very similar, so I knew the manual might be interesting for me to scan so I’d have the patterns, then let go t someone with this actual machine who would love the manual.
When the envelope came through the post, it turned out it contained lots more than just the one manual I’d spotted.
It contained a 1920s’ manual, a 1930s’ one for Harrison circular sock machines, plus a whole pile of promo materials for various Harrison textile machinery and – coincidental, this – some receipts and correspondence regarding an architect buying sock machines and equipment from Harrisons, to put in a mental health hospital they were building.
Sort of appropriate for it to fall into my hands, of all people’s.
All the material seemed to date between the late 1920s – 1941.
Amongst the promo materials, were a couple of colour printed leaflets.One for the “Sun” machine (above) and another for the “Sunette”. I’m told these double mast machines like the one here, are so rare, even experts have only ever seen one come up for sale, or even seen an image of them apart from a blurry eBay sale some time back.
Also got this neat and pristine (1920s?) postcard of the Harrison factories.
Am scanning the material slowly and will share here as I get it all up.
I stumbled on these words again, recently, re-reading one of my favourite books, “Walking North with Keats’, Carol Kyros Walker, Yale University Press, 1992.
I’ve had a lifelong obsession with John Keats, and yet not been able to weave him into my work, until now. I had somehow forgotten or missed these words in Keats’ letter to his brother Tom, from the summer of 1818 when he made his walking tour of Westmorland, Scotland and Ireland, writing home to Tom as he lay dying at Well Walk, Edmonton. How did I forget this? As soon as I saw this paragraph, I knew I’d have to write about it.
Keats’ published writing career spanned only the 4 years between Waterloo and Peterloo. A time of economic privation due to the Napoleonic Wars and huge working class unrest – the Luddites had been hung like crows on a fence only six years before Keats went on his walking tour. There is more to unpack in his brief encounter with the Belfast weavers, than we might assume.
So come with me, Gentle Reader, for a stroll where we will unpack Keats’ brief but startling encounter with the Belfast cotton industry. There is more to unpack than you’d imagine.
When we think of Belfast textiles, we think of linen. But it wasn’t always so. From the 1770s, to the 1830s, the North-Eastern part of Ireland was pre-eminent in cotton production. And this was what Keats will have seen on his (brief) sojourn in Ireland. The industry that offended Keats’ ears – and politics – seem to have had had a rapid decline after the depression of 1825, and the removal of trade protections, just 4 years after Keats’ death. In its heyday, the Irish trade exported in large quantities to America and South America and produced some of the finest cotton thread in the world.
In the late eighteenth century, textile production shifted from cottages to manufactories. One woman spinning flax or wool on a simple spinning wheel to make a single cop (cone) of yarn, at home, developed into vast manufactories filled with unskilled workers – usually children, in the case of spinning machines – supervising rows of water, then steam powered machines, each spinning jenny having 72 heads. Child labour was cheaper than adult labour. So children as young as six, were used to work 16 hour days in factories. (For more info on child labour in the 19th century, see Their Darkest Materials). In fact by the time Keats encountered the streets in the shadow of the dark satanic mills, there was already a parliamentary enquiry underway into working conditions for children in cotton mills. Specifically cotton mills – they were thought to be more “barbaric” than wool, flax or hemp manufactories.
Sometimes, we forget that romanticism was born in the same moment as industrialisation and in many ways was a kneejerk reaction to the burgeoning world of machines and their dehumanising effect on people and despoilation of the natural world. During Keats’ and Brown’s brief stay in Ireland, Romance was headed off at the pass by Industry and Romance beat a hasty retreat.
Decades later, in the 1880s, Wordsworth’s fan Albert Fleming revived the linen industry in Westmorland and Cumberland. He wrote of finding an elderly lady in his village – she would have been a little younger than Keats, had he lived – who remembered how to use a spinning wheel. Inspired by Wordsworth’s encomiums for the art of hand-spinning, Fleming set about reconstructing the craft:
“ ‘In mother’s day,’ said my old friend, ‘every woman spun but when t’wheels died out the gude times went too; m’appen they’d come back if t’wheels did.’ Then and there I determined that the wheels should come back. ‘The venerable art torn from the poor’, should, God helping us, be given back to them.”
[‘Revival of Hand Spinning and Weaving in Westmoreland’, Albert Fleming, The Century, v. 37, 1888].
Fleming’s revival of the Westmorland linen industry was essentially a death throe of the romantic movement that started with Keats walking past those Belfast mills’ weaving sheds.
The dissonant sound of the shuttle would suggest the Belfast weavers were using power looms and by this date, steam power was superceding water.
By the late 18thC, linen – which had been ubiquitous for shirts and underwear for centuries – was making way for the new, more fashionable, cotton. New inventions like Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin led to an explosion in the slave trade – and new tech plus slaves in the New World led to the sudden cheapness of cotton as a raw material, in the Old.
As an area of linen production excellence, Belfast was well placed to be the centre of a new cotton industry.
Thomas McCabe and Robert Joy are credited with introducing cotton to Ireland, as a textile product. They commissioned the first spinning jenny in Belfast. Cotton spinning beginning in earnest in the city around 1777 with spinning jennies and carding machines put to use. Weaving and dyeing followed. Designs were often printed on the finished cotton fabric in Dublin or Manchester. Soon, Belfast wasn’t just carding and spinning cotton but exporting finished bales of cloth.
Cotton production in Belfast started as a philanthropic affair but quickly morphed into industry and enterprise.
Robert Joy introduced the industry “by a desire to render service to the lower orders of the working poor, particularly linen spinners and weavers…” Thomas McCabe wanted to establish cotton spinning as “fit and profitable employment for children in the Belfast Poor House” and initially several children were taught to spin cotton on a wheel but McCabe soon decided that machinery would be preferable. Nicholas Grimshaw, an English cotton and linen spinner who had lived in Ireland for a few years, supervised the making of the first spinning machine in Ireland – a spinning jenny made in Belfast. A Scottish spinner was brought over to teach the children how to work the machine (unskilled, as the machine did the work, children just had to keep the spindles going). McCabe and Joy, finding the poor house reluctant to fully fund the venture, went into business, promptly engaging in a bit of industrial espionage, sending a skilled mechanic to England to get experience of the latest spinning and carding machines there, in order to return to Belfast to build replicas of them. The result was a new and improved carding machine and a spinning jenny with 72 spinning heads.
The new machine could spin 14 times the length of yarn of a competent handspinner, in one week and the carding machine could card 20lbs of cotton per day, as opposed to the paltry 1lb per day achieved manually by hand cards alone. In 1784, the first water mill powering spinning frames, in Ireland, was introduced and by 1800, 13,500 workers were working in the Belfast cotton industry.
[More information in ‘Cotton Manufacture of Belfast’. The Belfast Monthly Magazine, vol. 3, no. 16, 1809, pp. 342–344. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30073610. Accessed 23 July 2021].
From these small beginnings, a prosperous cotton industry grew with many cotton mills centred in and around the city.
By the 1820s, mills were largely moving on from water power to steam power and the jarring sound that irritated Keats is likely to have been steam powered looms.
The noise in Lancashire cotton factories was so loud, that workers developed their own kind of sign language to make themselves understood. Known as “mee-mawing”, it was recorded for posterity in Les Dawson’s 1970s’ Cissie and Ada act, where Les and Roy Barraclough played two middle aged women who mimed all the scatalogical content of their conversations – this came directly from Dawson’s observation of women from the Lancashire mills.
It’s maybe worth pausing here to mention Keats’ links with Lancashire; the epicentre of the Industrial Age’s origins.
When his parents died, Keats was put in the care of a Lancashirewoman. His maternal grandmother, Alice Jennings hailed from Colne, Lancashire, born c. 1736. She had only been in London several years when she married Keats’ grandfather, John Jennings, so it is likely that even when Keats knew her as an elderly lady, she still spoke Lancashire dialect. She came to London around 1770. When first wed, in 1774, Alice lived with John Jennings at his inn, ‘The Swan and Hoop’, 24 Pavement, Moorgate. It was said the Jennings family were Non-Conformists . Although the Jennings had an Anglican wedding – family members were to be buried at Bunhill Fields, originally “the Dissenters’ burial grounds”.
According to records on Ancestry.com, one Alice Whaley, daughter of John Whaley, was baptised November 1st, 1736, in Colne. I can’t be certain this is her, but it is possible. I’ll continue to search laterally and hopefully will find Alice’s father’s profession but if it was textile related, I wouldn’t be surprised. Colne had its own cotton mills by Keats’ day many with their origins in the 18th century or earlier, when the industry would have been woollen cloth production. We know this as many mills had their origins as fulling mills – a process only needed for wool, not flax or cotton.
By the time Alice moved to London, the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire was underway but like many Lancashire women of an earlier generation, she may well have known how to hand spin wool and linen, if not cotton. We shouldn’t overlook Keats’ Lancastrian roots and it may be that Alice originally came to London to escape working in the new cotton mills. This may also have prejudiced John against the clattering power-looms.
“…Keats knew that to ‘literary fashionables’ his name was no better than that of a Dorset weaver boy – as vulgar as the poor citizens so cruelly trampled at Manchester…” [‘John Keats’ – A New Life, Nicholas Roe, Yale University Press, 2012, p. 342].
When Keats walked into Belfast, we encounter a classic clash between romanticism and industrialisation. He was not expressing disgust for the weaver or the working classes. But for their exploitation. Keats was progressive and radical by nature. There was a lot he’d find challenging, coming face to face with the realities of early industrialisation.
A year after his walking tour, Keats may have become aware of Samuel Bamford, “the weaver poet”, a versifying Lancashire weaver. Bamford was a politically radical advocate of the working classes, who sometimes wrote his poems in a dialect that for Keats would have recalled his Lancashire grandmother. A year after Keats’ walking tour, Bamford was charged with treason after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and got a year in prison for inciting a riot (despite evidence in court suggesting he did no such thing). In that same year, Bamford published a collection of poems, ‘The Weaver Boy’. Like Leigh Hunt, he continued to publish, even in prison.
The Acts of Union had united the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland in 1800. In the year after Keats’ walking tour, at Westminster, the government would pass the 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act which was the first piece of legislation trying to regulate children’s working hours. A Lords’ Committee heard evidence from Lancashire cotton mills, where, according to Hansard, Sir Robert Peel stated that over 20,000 people worked in the cotton industry. This Act was deeply flawed. It only applied to cotton mills not linen or woolen/worsted and millowners were often the magistrates so not about to enforce the law if it cut their profit margins. The Act prohibited children under 9 working. Hours were restricted to 12 a day for the under 16s. But this meant that even with the Act observed, a ten year old worked from six am to six pm.
Keats had every reason to be contemptuous of the cotton mills. Part and parcel with this, his radical nature branded him with reviewers such as Blackwood Magazine’s John Lockhart, as “the enemy within” – Bonaparte had been defeated but radicals like Keats represented the “reds under the bed” to the Tory mind. And there was a lot in the textile industries to disturb those of a more radical sensibility.
Lancashire had strong links with the Irish cotton trade. The Irish millowners seem to have been in close communication with similar manufacturers in Manchester and Glasgow, and Scottish, English and Irish cotton mills would seek out eachothers’ opinions of the latest advances in the technology. Hand looms continued to be used in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, as well as power looms but in the case of the Belfast cotton industry, as it had been, almost from its inception, an industry founded on latest technology, I suspect the handlooms in Ireland will have not been common in the cotton industry, because the Belfast cotton industry was technology-led from its beginning. There are records extant of Midlands, Lancashire and Scottish machinemakers extending credit to Belfast cotton mills throughout the period Belfast cotton held sway, suggesting the technology was constantly being upgraded.
In Belfast, it is thought that cotton was auctioned on the quays, directly from the American ships. Imported cotton came from America and the Caribbean – and both would be the product of slave-labour. Keats did not write expressly about slavery – and few biographers until Andrew Motion have seen him as a truly political poet – but in view of the general, radical tenor of his political opinions, we can probably safely assume he was not in favour of it. We can be certain his horror at the sound of the shuttle was partly caused by his sympathy with the oppression faced by the Irish cotton weavers; but can only imagine that it is likely his mind also strayed to the vile reality of slavery that made this cotton suddenly more plentiful and cheaper.
[More info here: Geary, Frank. ‘The Belfast Cotton Industry Revisited’. Irish Historical Studies, vol. 26, no. 103, 1989, pp. 250–267. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30008599. Accessed 23 July 2021.
Keats and his friend and travelling companion, Charles Armitage Brown, decided not to linger in Ireland: “We stopped very little in Ireland… living in Ireland [is] thrice the expence [sic] of Scotland”. They had also found the landscape between Donaghdee and Belfast uninspiring. So they turned round at Belfast and returned to Donaghdee, to get the ferry back to Scotland.
“…At a miserable house of entertainment half way between Donaghdee and Bellfast [sic] were two men sitting at Whiskey one a Laborer and the other I took to be a drunken Weaver – the Laborer took me for a Frenchman and the other hinted at Bounty Money saying he was ready to take it…” 
It’s apparent the weaver thought Keats was from an English pressgang. The fact he was eager to be pressganged, tells us a lot about the grim nature of working in a cotton manufactory.
In the same letter to Tom, Keats famously said: “…We live in a barbarbous age…” There was a stark contrast between the romantic abbey ruins, and Robbie Burns’ cottage, and the “romantic” landscapes Keats and Brown were seeking out on their walking tour, and the noisy, bustling cotton mills of Belfast. Romantic poets were living in the Anthropocene age – characterised by humanity’s impact on the environment. And they were amongst the first people to realise this and react to it. To put the jarring encounter with Belfast industry in context, Keats had just published ‘Endymion’ – a sort of pastoral idyll, the poem with the famous opening line:
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever…”
He may have been aware of the then ongoing parliamentary commission looking into child labour and working conditions in cotton mills. He was likely also aware of William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” of fifteen years earlier – which probably referred to the flour mills in Southwark, powered by Boulton and Watt engines (there are extant records from Belfast cotton mills, recording the purchase of Boulton and Watt machinery – this will have powered the looms). When Keats wrote to Tom:
“… I cannot conceive how a mind ‘with child’ of Philanthropy could gra[s]p at possibility – with me it is absolute despair…”
He was expressing anguish about the effects of industrialisation and how it might be impossible to reverse – a catastrophe for the environment and the human beings who worked in it. Philanthropy had been grappling with industry since the 1770s (see https://theknittinggenie.com/2015/06/09/inside-the-wool-spinning-mistresss-closet/, where I discuss the Unitarian Catharine Cappe’s attempts to help York child prostitutes and child workers in a hemp manufactory, in the 1770s and 80s). Philanthropy was still grappling in 1818.
Keats’ reaction to the weaver he met, could be taken on face level as a sort of snobbish alarm of the effete “dandy” poet encountering working class men. It is not like Wordsworth’s “romantic” reaction to leech gatherers and beggars (both, arguably, more rural and picturesque), who became grist for the mill that transformed the indigent into the poetry of ‘Lyrical Ballads’. I don’t read Keats’ reaction to the cotton industry that way. To understand Keats’ mindset, we have to understand a little more about him.
Keats came from a middle class background, unlike the distinctly aristocratic Shelley and Byron. He had completed his formal training as a surgeon (not apothecary), when he decided to take the plunge and be a poet, not a medic.
Keats had attended the liberal and progressive Clarke’s School, in Enfield. Keats first read Leigh Hunt’s Examiner, there. It was where Keats’ radical spirit was forged – as a boy, long before he moved in radical circles or published in its pages.
From the start, Keats’ literary friends were a radical circle, most notably, Leigh Hunt, editor of The Examiner, friend of Shelley, and recently, inmate for two years for supposed sedition. “… For the reviewers Keats was guilty by association, and the damning association was with Hunt…” [Cronin, Richard. “Keats and the Politics of Cockney Style.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 4, 1996, pp. 785–806. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/450976. Accessed 23 July 2021].
Tory reviewers made brutal attacks on Keats, during his lifetime. The most vicious, came from John Gibson Lockhart. It was published in Edinburgh the very month Keats was walking North and came out in London only days after his return home.
During the summer walking tour, Keats already had the Tory reviewers’ target pinned on his back. And even as he spoke with the weaver and labourer, he was aware that he’d been associated with the Cockney School, and was seen as “lesser” by many in the literary establishment. Lockhart was about to belittle Keats as “plebeian” in his most vituperative, malevolent article mocking him for being “plebeian”. Lockhart snobbishly put Keats in the class of governesses and footmen who were would-be writers.
Keats’ latest published poem,’ Endymion’, was dismissed as “drivelling idiocy” – words so strong, you can’t help thinking of today’s far-right shock-jocks, out to get a reaction for attention and follows – and in Lockhart’s case, sales of the then-flagging ‘Blackwood’s’. Whilst Keats was touring, Lockhart had got the poet’s life story from one of Keats’ friends, who was defending him, and fatally, gave enough backstory for Lockhart to weaponise:
“… it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John.”
Keats – dismissed as a mere “apothecary” and “plebeian” by the Oxford-educated elite who could stomach their contemporaries Byron and Shelley, and the now safely staid and Tory Wordsworth, but had no time for this “Cockney” upstart. Deep down, in his reaction to the Belfast weaver and encounter with the city’s cotton mills, I suspect there was also shame and anger at his Blackwood’s disdain for the “Cockney School”. His brief encounter with industry foreshadowed the dark, satanic times ahead as the reviewers’ perception of his social class, hinted at in previous reviews, was about to take centrestage.
At the end of his tour, Keats decided to sail home without Brown, on a small vessel called The George, which as well as passengers carried cargo, such as the Edinburgh journals, down South.
It’s likely that amongst its holds were copies of the Blackwood’s magazine, with Lockhart’s latest excoriating piece, responding to ‘Endymion’. Keats wouldn’t have been aware of it, yet. But returning from his walking tour, he was literally sitting on top of the powder keg that was about to blow his literary life apart. His life would never be the same again.
Cronin, Richard. “Keats and the Politics of Cockney Style.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 4, 1996, pp. 785–806. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/450976. Accessed 23 July 2021
Geary, Frank. ‘The Belfast Cotton Industry Revisited’. Irish Historical Studies, vol. 26, no. 103, 1989, pp. 250–267. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30008599. Accessed 23 July 2021
Gittings, Robert, ‘John Keats’, Little Brown & Co, 1968
Hansard, Debate, 19th February 1818, Vol 37 cc.559-66
Last October, I managed to find one of the proverbial hen’s teeth – a Griswold CSM (circular sock machine).
It’s been a hell of a learning curve but everybody who has ever learned CSMs warns you it will be. Now, several months in, I can make a sock. Just about!
My machine came from a factory in Leicestershire, that started in 1930. I thought it was possible my machine was slightly older than that – but only yesterday an expert who has seen many of these machines tells me it is a later incarnation Griswold, and totally consistent with 1930 – but still as well made and almost identical to, a much earlier Griswold or Berridhe Griswold. It doesn’t have the pretty decals of some of the machines originally intended for home use. In fact it was so heavily used in the factory that it was almost down to bare metal when I got it – with traces of a hideous, plasticky, industrial grey paint on it. When we removed the last vestiges of that, underneath were flecks of its original black paint. That turned out to be entirely intact on the wheel that drives the crank. So we repainted it with Hammerite (no fancy powder coating for us but just a quick protective coat of Hammerite on the principle there was nothing to lose, as it barely had paint on it to start off with).
A few years back, I documented some knitted items at the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth. I was disappointed to spot the Bronte sisters’ stockings were machine made, and put them aside, as I had limited time, to document something else instead. The same thing has happened to me at several museums since – the curator or somebody else will proudly pass you something they assure you was hand knitted by Thomas Carlisle’s mother, or similar, and one look at it tells you it was in fact machine made.
Machine knitted items will no longer bore or disappoint me now I know a little more of their history.
In our period of interest (late 18thc – early 19thc), machine stockings were still knitted flat and seamed up the back when finished. There were a number of machine (frame) knitted stockings in the items from the wreck of the General Carleton, for example (1780s). Machines were useful when vertical striped stockings were fashionable at points in the late 18thc. This could be achieved more easily with a machine than a hand knitter working in the round.
It was only when machine needles with latches were invented, that the circular sock machine really took off. And understanding a little more about them has helped me really, truly, for the first time, properly appreciate the feat of the Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales – because by the time some of the extant Yorkshire hand knitted stockings were rolling off needles, the csm existed, and would almost certainly have been a better option for these hand knitters. You can knit a sock (or stocking) in a couple of hours (in my case, as I’m going slowly and still learning) but someone competent could probably knit a pair of socks or stockings in little more than an hour. Even if a hand knitter was going at Shetland style rates of 200 stitches per minute, it would still take way longer to hand knit than to crank a pair out.
In 1816, Marc Brunel (father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel) invented a circular knitting machine – although it had its limitations. Leicestershire man, Matthew Townsend developed the latch needle in 1849 – this worked well with the csm and combining the two things led to the more widespread adoption of these machines that could knit a stocking in the round. These machines caught on faster in the US than the UK as a technology. Connecticut born Henry Josiah Griswold (born 1837) was the first to develop the ribber as it is known now, adding the horizontal ribber needles in 1878. Like Isaac Singer, Griswold travelled to and for a time, lived in the UK where his machines, the Griswolds, developed a great reputation. He later returned to the US and his firm was sold to a Leicester company, Berridges, who continued to brand them as Griswolds. I managed to get a Berridge Griswold manual on eBay, for my machine, which still has some of the original owner’s pencilled notes in.
For a while these machines could only do a plain stocking stitch. We know that professional frame knitters would also have to be competent hand-knitters – in ‘Their Darkest Materials’ I wrote about the stocking knitter Jeremiah Brandreth, who was executed for treason in 1817. Jeremiah whiled away his last days in his prison cell, hand knitting a purse for his wife. In other words – the frame knitter stockinger might have to hand knit the ribbing, if there was any, on the welt of the stockings.
This was a game changer. A 1×1 ribbed cast on could also be used as a selvedge (in stocking stitch, the csms require some manipulation for a selvedge that doesn’t unravel – the hung hem being one basic way of doing it). Seeing the ribber in action on a csm is a thing of beauty.
The csm reached its apogee during WW1 when good socks that didn’t have knots or cause blisters, were in high demand, to prevent trench foot. The Red Cross gave women a csm and 30lb of wool – if you made that yarn into socks for the troops, you got to keep the machine.
For a time, csms were marketed alongside sewing machines – at one point, Griswolds and Singers were sold together. (Hence the black shellac and gold decals, no doubt). After the War, csms were heavily marketed to women as a key to economic independence – anyone with a csm could make a living. But by WW2, the machines were of more use to the war effort as scrap metal – and thousands were donated to be melted down for ordnance. This is why antique and vintage machines are now rare as hen’s teeth. This is why they sell for a lot of money when they do turn up.
In the UK, “Griswold” became the generic name for csms a bit like we still say “Hoover” for all vacuums. This means not all Griswolds are Griswolds. Csms were also popular in the US and Canada. Makes of other vintage csms available include – and this is by no means a comprehensive list – Harrison, Legare and The Automatic Knitter.
There are several manufacturers of new machines (see below) and these may be a safer bet for the beginner although if you’re on this blog, you’re probably like me and would prefer an “old” one. The problem then is, you have the not inconsiderable learning curve ahead of you yet at the point you’re searching for a csm, have no real working knowledge of them. You could buy a lemon. They turn up sporadically on eBay but often sold by a person who can’t work it – bought it on impulse and gave up on it, inherited it, found it in an attic… they will say things like “the crank handle goes round so I assume it’s working”. Be very aware that, as with a sewing machine, the fact the obvious moving bits kind of move doesn’t mean you have a working machine. Parts may not be available. You could get a “cut n shut” of the csm world – ie: a Frankenstein made to look like a csm, assembled from various patched together corpses of csms. Best advice if you want to buy vintage is – go on one of the established csm FB Groups, put a link up, and ASK. Someone may be able to advise whether the machine looks dodgy or sound. You will almost definitely have to buy a set of new needles – cylinder and ribber and these currently, are mainly supplied in the US (see below).
Some machines come with all kinds of original accessories like a brass cast on “spider”, maybe some wooden cone holders, in some rare cases, the original wooden box. A machine with several cylinders and dials is worth much more than a machine with only one cylinder. The dials are the ribber attachments (the lid that looks like flower petals in the case of the exquisitely made Griswolds). Bear in mind the cylinder you get is what you’re stuck with. An 84 cylinder holds 84 needles so for a woman’s sock you might have to use much finer yarn than you would to hand-knit a sock. If you typically make yourself socks with say 64 stitches cast on, then a 64 cylinder would work better for you or a 60. Dials in older machines typically have half the slots of the cylinder – ribber needles are shorter and different. So an 84 cylinder would have a 42 dial. Hopefully that eBay listing has clear shots of the cylinders and accessories. I wanted an 84 cylinder machine because I knew I wanted to make living history stockings and they need to get over folks’ thighs. Luckily, 84 cylinders are the ones more commonly found with Griswolds in the UK.
Even if the entire thing was intact and worked, you WILL still have to adjust the yarn carrier to time the machine – easy once you understand what is going on but it takes a while to get there and you can’t risk £100 worth of needles – and you will still have to make other small adjustments – you learn by your mistakes, and you will fully understand the quirks of your machine when you’re done. (And maybe buy a set of needles and a set of ribber needles too if your machine is old). I thought challenging myself to learn nalbinding in a few days was a big ask but this has truly been the “hardest” thing I ever learned. I took it slowly and can now make a sock and even a ribbed sock.
I had the added complication of trying to learn during a pandemic. Normally, the person I bought it from could have given me a quick lesson; in Before Times, I could have gone to the Framework Knitters Museum and got some tips and information. As it was, I managed by heavy reliance on asking stupid questions on Facebook Groups, Ravelry Groups and watching YouTube til I was sock machined out. I also joined Sock TV for a couple of months.
Peak difficulty for many new csm knitters is learning to use the ribber attachment. (The bit that looks like the lid on a tin can). If I had had a brand new machine, tuned and adjusted I may have learned to rib from the start but as my machine was a vintage one, I felt I’d need to thoroughly understand all the processes, and be able to confidently make heels and toes, before I risked messing about with the ribber – and in my case, it was a wise decision. Some knitters have been known to put that stage off for a long time or forever. You can make a mock rib by removing, say, every 4th needle – and can start with a hung hem indefinitely, if that’s your preference but I love using the ribber, even if it can be a challenge. You need the yarn carrier adjusted perfectly for the ribber to work, and it would be daunting, knowing nothing, and if you have an old machine, possibly having no manual or much help to do that. (PDFs of manuals are available in various places online). But historical knitters now the perils of 19thC manuals.
If there’s enough interest I will come back and post some CSM tips to help get you started.
As a recent virgin myself, I can still recall vividly all those things which cause heartache, stress and frustration. I do love my machine so much. I kicked myself for years that I didn’t get one in 2000 on eBay when they could still be got for £20… We put out feelers a long time before, and when one came up, were lucky enough to pounce and get it for what we felt was a reasonable price. They are the proverbial hens’ teeth.
Suppliers of new CSMs:
Makers include Erlbacher Gearhart (US), Chambord (Canada) and Autoknitter (NZ).
Vintage/antique CSMs can be found on eBay – but it’s advisable to run a listing past one of the Facebook CSM groups for advice, before you bid, or buy from one of the few established sellers who recondition. Again, ask on CSM groups, for advice and recommendations.
Please, if you can, dear Reader, follow this link and share as widely as you can. Sort of explains why my input here has been sporadic in the past year:
Love to all my Readers – older and newer. I will be back with more historical textile content (or horrible history of a textile nature) very soon, now.
In the meantime, I have a couple pieces in the current issue of “The Knitter”, if you want to learn nalbinding or you feel like learning about the glorious Welsh Wig (originally often made in Yorkshire!) Subscribe here:
I gave the writer, Cassidy George, some historical background for the piece and it was fabulous to see it quoted.
You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get. I just get more political, more left wing, and more interested in the interplay between all the “-isms” and craft.
This has interested me for a long time – perceptions of gender and knitting; the way knitting became a shorthand for “feminine”, therefore somehow “lesser”; and also the ageism that infused itself into public perception of knitting and knitters. Also knitting and social class, crime, punishment, slavery and servitude. I have traced the roots of some of this in my research and how the perception of the craft has changed; filtered via sexism, ageism and all the -isms there are.
Knitting started off as a craft with little or no perceived gender to it. It became increasingly perceived as “female” and so became a base coin that was devalued. By the nineteenth century was seen in negative terms – on the one hand, “feminine” and “frivolous” and on the other – work for slaves, prisoners, and the “idle” poor – either ridiculous and silly or punishing hard labour. Neither of those things were viewed as “cool”.
“Coolness” is inferred when the craft can be seen to be less gendered, and the demographic less… old. So sexism and ageism are wound into the same ball of metaphorical yarn as perception of the craft itself. And, as I wrote in the previous blog piece, Kirsty Buckland cited the City of the Ripon Chapter Acts for the first hard evidence of an English knitter – one Marjory Clayton of Ripon, referred to as ‘cappeknitter’ in 1465. Which is also hard evidence for medieval professional knitters being female.
Yet, knitting wasn’t always historically perceived as a “female” craft. From late medieval times, some men knitted as a trade or ‘mystery’; serving apprenticeships. Both women and men knitted professionally and knitting was a valued skill. Textiles had been woven for centuries and here, suddenly, was an elastic fabric you could shape to fit a leg perfectly, rather than make imperfectly fitting and uncomfortable hose cut on the bias from woven cloth. Who wouldn’t think that was a brilliant invention? Who wouldn’t think being a knitter wasn’t an edgy, exciting occupation? So it was, at first, colonised by men with apprenticeships and freedoms of the city and technical “mastery” – that very masculine concept – to be gained. Crafts were, in medieval and early modern times, still “mysteries”. (as in the Mystery Plays, each one staged by a different trade guild). And mystery traditions in the UK, from the old Guilds to the later Freemasons, were exclusively male domains. Yet women continued to knit professionally, beyond those closed doors.
By the eighteenth century, boys and girls were sent to Knitting Schools on remote farms, where they learned to work at commercial speeds. [‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’]. The sites of these are now lost in time. Although I’m working on that. Male and female children in charity schools knitted.
In ‘Their Darkest Materials’ I traced the story of Nathaniel Smith, who was incarcerated in York Debtors’ Jail in 1841 and in old age in the 1860s, became the Knitting School master at Bridlington. I found 18thC and early 19thC newspaper accounts of men knitting in prison: Jeremiah Brandreth knitted his wife a workbag whilst he awaited his death sentence for treason in 1817.
The stereotype of knitting as ‘feminine’ therefore less valued, even ridiculed, seems to have developed in the mid-later nineteenth century. As the roads into remoter parts of the UK improved, in areas where men had previously knitted, they became embarrassed to be seen knitting by outsiders.
For the middle classes, it became a parlour hobby, consigned to the part of women’s lives lived in the interstices between men’s more public-facing lives. This ‘feminising’ led to knitting being perceived as an ‘idle’ waste of time; an amateur feminine pursuit to be followed safely from within the cage of domesticity; a belittling of both craft and women. “The Little Women” of nineteenth century novels, were kept quiet – and in a back room – by the needle; patronised and diminished into being “small”; their concerns and their Art, also perceived as insignificant. Now behind closed doors; increasingly for the middle classes the craft was perceived as female. Although working class knitters still knitted for a living, or part of it.
For ‘Their Darkest Materials’ I researched the trope of the virtuous elderly knitter. Newspapers abounded with accounts of women even past 100, knitting usefully to within days or hours, of death. In an era before the welfare state and pensions, it was one way the elderly could stay economically active. But I suspect this fed the stereotype of knitting being both feminine and for the old. Ageism became intertwined with how knitting was perceived; its brand message. Being seen as something for the old, it was sidelined – derided, even.
As the craft was dumbed down for professionals and became a pastime for others, it was also regarded as being less skilled – neither high Art nor virtuous Craft. In February 1822, , Joseph Dover, a Dales millowner who commissioned hand knitting wrote in a letter:
… the knitters with us are mostly accostomed to one sort of woork, it is only a few of the old Knitters that can manage all sorts of caps and these is not good to meet with at present… I do not know of aney one of that sort that I could recomend to you…
‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, p.124
Maybe another reason knitting was devalued was its long association with poverty and crime. In prison, men did stonebreaking.; women knitted. The poorest children in charity schools learned to knit. It was no longer seen as a skilled trade with an apprenticeship.
Knitting has always been political; its history intertwined with class and race; poverty and servitude or slavery. And so, heartbreaking. I studied notices for the retrieval of escaped slaves and discovered that many escaped female slaves were described in terms of their skills with the needle just as much as described by their physical appearance and clothing. Middle class white women knitted pincushions and doilies to sell at bazaars raising money for the abolition of slavery. Simultaneously, slaves were compelled to knit.
George Washington ordered a number of his slaves to knit his household hosiery – to be seen in homespun and hand knit was a political statement. One slave, “Lame Peter” was inventorised as “Knitter”. Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1807, but the Northern English hand knitting trade still profited, knitting coarse “bump” caps and selling them to the US slave trade.
Every knitted stitch was political. For some it was a frivolous hobby; for others a matter of whether they ate and had a roof over their heads next week. For some, employment. For others – slavery, imprisonment, punishment; an imposition of “morality”. Death was the only escape from the relentlessness of knitting.
Poverty, or the avoidance of extreme poverty, led hand-knitters to work long hours for little money, right from early childhood. And if the trope of the ancient knitter was anything to go by, you’d still be knitting if you lived to one hundred. For some, death was a welcome release from the needles. In the Yorkshire Dales, where genderless knitting existed for far longer – due to the remoteness of some Dales – a little boy was overheard talking to himself”. “‘Whar’s Willie?’ ‘Nay, Willie has gone to where it’s all Sundays and no knitting.’” [‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, p.61]. “Lame Peter” would have understood how he felt.
Last week we visited Ivelet Bridge, in Swaledale. We’re hoping to slowly document as many packhorse bridges as we can and Ivelet seemed the best place to start.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been up to the Dales to start gathering images for the blog and future writing. It seemed as good a time as any – if we picked out of the way places, not the obvious tourist trap beauty spots, and only got out of the car if there was nobody about.
A couple of weeks back, I had the absolutely surreal experience of being able to stop the car in the middle of the road, in June, in Aysgarth, to photograph Yore Mills and the river. There’d be almost bumper to bumper traffic there, usually, this time of year. And we managed to park in empty lay-bys and explore some river banks etc we normally wouldn’t think of. Although there are people about, if you pick your place and time you can have somewhere to yourself. This might be the last June ever we could do this, so we went for it. We kept off the trails and car parks – there were plenty of walkers about so we chose to avoid anywhere we saw people. Unless they were at a safe distance as the two wild swimmers we had a conversation with, well a shouted conversation, when they were leaving the Swale and we were about to photo the bridge. Nice to speak to/shout at different people after three months in lockdown.
Ivelet’s bridge is particularly interesting as it is an early one (16thc). It has a coffin stone, where pall-bearers could rest a coffin on its final journey to a local church. The bridge has a single arch, spanning the River Swale. It is larger than many packhorses bridges.
Different breeds of pony were used as packhorses. In 1814, Walker mentioned Galloways, but in Westmorland, Cumbria and Yorkshire, other horses were also used like the Fell Ponies. I first read about these ponies doing genealogy research, when I found out my Westmorland ancestors, the Bellas family, had raised Fell Ponies as well as been farmers and lead miners at Knock, on the edge of the Pennines.
A wool pack was made of jute, and in the Dales transported wool across difficult terrain and indifferent, or positively awful, roads. The ponies had panniers on each side. They were also used in other industries in the Dales, like lead-mining. Most Dales’ rivers were not navigable; shallow, rocky and often treacherous. Fine for turning a mill-wheel, though. This meant that whilst the lower reaches of the rivers joined with a network of canals by the 18th century; the only way for goods to get to the markets at Reeth, Kendal, Kirky Stephen, Richmond and further afield, was by pony.
George Walker, with characteristic hauteur, wrote:
The manufacture of cloth affords employment to the major part of the lower class people in the north-west districts of the West Riding of Yorkshire. These cloth-makers reside almost entirely in the villages, and bring their cloth on market-days for sale in the great halls erected for that purpose at Leeds and Huddersfield. These men have a decided provincial character; and their galloways also, which are always overloaded, have a manner of going peculiarly their own…
The Costume of Yorkshire, George Walker, 1814
The patrician Walker mentioned Galloways which were a common breed used for hauling stuff. But he may well have been more conversant with the breeds of horse more usually found on the race course or the farm and may not have realised Dalesfolk had their own breeds, too. It could also be the “Galloways” was a generic term for packhorses. Dales ponies and Fell ponies share characteristics and no doubt these were used in Westmorland, Cumberland, Yorkshire and Teesdale.
An individual clothier might have a single pony. Until mechanisation and the factory system, small weavers aimed at producing one piece (18 – 30 odd yards in length, depending on the type of cloth, and 20lbs to around 100lbs per piece in weight, also depending on cloth type) per week. If you had one horse with two panniers, feasibly that was going to market every fortnight. Some will have gone more often; some, less. The distances and poor roads involved meant this might be at least a day or two out. It’s possible weavers’ families made the next warp if the clothier was away transacting business. Weavers preferred to be paid cash. Sometimes, raw wool and finished cloth was transported by a train of ponies; the leader, having a bell round its neck. The bell was to warn unsuspecting folk on the road of the train’s approach. Pack horse trains were notoriously dangerous and difficult to encounter as a fellow road-user. And of course, the pack horses would be moving all year round so in low visibility conditions like heavy rain or fog, at dawn or dusk – the approaching train could be heard.
Hosiers also needed finished goods carrying to market so those panniers would sometimes be filled with knitted goods. The packhorse bridges connected Dales knitters to the world beyond as well as one Dale to the next, if the roads went through passes at their highest points.
Packhorses shifted both raw wool and finished product; woven cloth as well as knitted goods. A medieval sack of raw wool weighed 364lbs (26 stone). That was still the standard weight in the 16th century when Ivelet was built. It may have been that each pack of raw wool had to be divided into two or more panniers for the horses to be able to carry it. The weight of finished cloth pieces were prescribed by law. For example, at the time Ivelet Bridge was built, a Yorkshire narrow cloth had to weigh 21.25 – 21.6 lbs – a piece of Narrow Cloth was 18 yards long [ [Textiles and Materials of the Common Man and Woman 1580-1660, ed. Stuart Peachey, Stuart Press, 2001]. So whilst a wool pack of raw wool might need to be split into panniers and take up a couple of horses as cargo, a single pony would be able to carry maybe 8 – 10 finished pieces of woven cloth – or as few as 2 pieces, one each side, if the pieces were longer than that (most were), or a broadcloth (many were).
Small cloth mills were established across the Dales, when machinery was water powered in the latter end of the eighteenth century, although as Hartley and Ingilby outline, few of these mills had any longevity. Even so, their establishment depended on there being these bridges and ponies.
Without the packhorses and the network of packhorse bridges, there would be no Dales industries and the landscape of which we are but temporary custodians, would be a very different place.
Thanks are due to Jay Derry-Greene for her help with this post, and her lovely picture of her Dales pony foal.
The textile industry had its ups and downs. You can see this clearly if you look at census returns for workhouses in industrial cities and towns. During times when trade was bad, workhouses filled up with textile workers.
In ‘Progress in Pudsey’ (1886), Joseph Lawson described weavers at times being given work only in return for doing the boring and arduous task of sorting and scouring raw wool. They did this without pay, just to secure the work of weaving it, later. In other words: in slump times, manufacturers exploited workers’ desperation for employment by extracting free labour from them.
In ‘Their Darkest Materials’ I wrote about the Scottish Paisley weavers often being forced to pawn their loom harnesses and other loom parts, simply to stay alive. Hopefully with an eye to retrieving them when things picked up. This would have been the same in any textile producing area in the UK and Ireland. Textile production often depended on lengthy chains of credit – as ever, the poorer you were, the more expensive the credit. Lawson’s book, late in the century, gave some insight into the trials and difficulties of hand loom weavers of the past.
It was quite common when trade was bad to see weavers and spinners going from place to place seeking work, or to get a piece of cloth to make. If they succeeded, it was mostly on the condition that they helped the break the wool for it; that is, opened the bales, then the fleeces, taking off the coarse parts called the ‘britch’, put it in sheets, then go to the mill and help to scour it, then ‘lit’ or dyed it, and the morning after take it out of the dye-pans into sheets ready for the dryhouse. If to dye black, then the wool had to be scoured… All this was for nothing, except in some cases a small allowance for a little ale, or cheese and bread. If the wool was taken to Leeds to dye indigo blue, then it was only to open and to britch, and to be looked over… when it came from the dyehouse…. The small manufacturers sometimes put all the blend out in single pieces, that is, single webs (a web is a piece) but mostly in ‘cloaths’, two web lots, as he wanted to have the cloth as soon as possible to market.
As so many of us have been starved of our usual fix of medieval, I thought I’d travel back further in wool trade time than I usually do, and share with you some photos we got last year at Mount Grace. And whilst doing it will give you a superficial skinny-dip in the waters of monastic woolly history.
Mount Grace in the Cleveland Hills of North Yorkshire, is the most complete Carthusian monastery site in the U.K.
We’ve been English Heritage members for many years and forget castles – my favourite sites are the monasteries – especially those in Yorkshire, Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland. Some we have visited repeatedly. Most of my favourites belonged to the Cistercian or Premonstratensian orders but one of my absolute favourites is Mount Grace, in the Cleveland Hills of North Yorkshire, which was Carthusian.
It was the most wealthy religious order in England, at points. Mount Grace is comparatively intact (advise caution with that “comparatively” – not many abbeys apart from those in built up areas that might get converted to churches, or rather, whose churches were converted to parish churches, survived the lead, money and gold grabbing propensities of Henry VIII). These monks did not live communally, like their more well known brothers, the Cistercians, but each monk lived in a cell, his food delivered to him wordlessly, through a hatch. He tended a small garden, and laboured every day as well as studied and spent time in prayer and contemplation. The labour was sometimes, the spinning or weaving of woollen cloth.
One monk, who entered the order as Sir Thomas Goldwynne, was a weaver and brought with him his loom and possessions in 1519, so there is record of at least one loom, at one point, in the cells! The English Heritage recreation of a cell is not fanciful.
Carthusians were known as “the white monks”; vows of poverty meant no “sinful” dyed clothing. Undyed was the ideal; white symbolising purity and an absence of colour which spoke of abstention from worldliness and vanity. Monks who left the order were sometimes disciplined with rulings from Rome to continue to wear the white under their everyday clothes…
Like other orders, the Carthusians owned land – sometimes many miles from the monastery. The faithful willed property to them, to secure their prayers and a place in heaven. The monasteries’ tenant farmers would agree to run large flocks of sheep alongside their own flocks, to raise the wool needed by the monks; or monastery owned sheep would be grazed on common land. And of course, the church was an early version of the EU; a joined-up economy, where trade was done easily across borders, often facilitated by religious orders, as UK monks travelled freely across Europe, and European monks came to the UK, oiling the wheels of commerce as well as more godly concerns. Some monasteries owned over a thousand sheep. Or thousands, like Bruern which before the dissolution of the monasteries had over 3,200 sheep and 300 head of cattle. [The Tudor Cistercians, David H. Williams, 2014, p. 242].
Yet wool was only one aspect of monastic economies; tanneries and corn mills were also common, as were raising other livestock, rabbit warrens and fishponds – monasteries also owned lead mines. Whilst it’s hard to overstate the importance of wool to the monastic economy, it’s worth remembering that there were also other ventures.
Monasteries were self sustaining micro-economies. At the same time, they were part of a wide-ranging, international trade.
The silent life of a Carthusian monk seems appealing, to me. All day reading, spinning, weaving, a little light gardening… I always imagine myself the nun version of Cadfael – messing about with herbs and beehives, in golden sunlight and maybe solving the odd murder. I’m sure the reality was more unrelenting but it has often occurred to me that the monastic life was probably life as good as it got in medieval times – books, food, hospital – all laid on.
The order started out in Chartreuse, Grenoble, as an attempt to live an austere life; the monks would be hermits; rejecting the soft, and as they saw it, corrupt life of other orders. Carthusian monasteries were called “charterhouses” after Chartreuse. There’s some great info about the monks’ everyday life here:
I’m writing here today about a smaller order, but will stray briefly into discussing the Cistercians – which I can do another time at greater length. But I did just want to touch on them here, while we’re lurking in the cloisters as they are synonymous with the medieval wool trade. I want to mention the woolhouse at Fountains Abbey, which used water power to work fulling mills. A reproduction great wheel is on display at Fountains. This abbey and other Cistercian ones like Byland, Rievaulx and Jervaulx, also had wool houses in Clifton, York which warehoused the order’s wool.
In 1276, Florentine merchants agreed to buy 62 sacks of wool for 697 1/2 marks, on condition it came “without clack, lok, cot and breech wool or black grey or inferior fleece and without pelt wool”. Clacked wool had the marks cut off, to avoid paying duties as it weighed less (duties were levied on wool including the coloured marks). “Lok” was probably daggy wool – ie: wool from the sheep’s rear end with poo on. Cot was coated (tangled) and breech the low quality stuff from the haunches, sometimes. That black or grey was undesirable probably implies this was destined to be dyed. And finally, “pelt” wool is the wool from dead sheep – which the unscrupulous might mix in to make weight. The monks were contracted to sort and weigh the wool and deliver at Clifton 14 – 17 sacks a year for the Florence trade. Each sack was 26 stones (364 lb of wool). This was just one of many transactions.
The Flemish wool industry had such an appetite for English wool that Richard I’s ransom was raised by confiscating the wool clip of the Cistercians (Henry VIII wasn’t the first king to rob the monks). Monasteries borrowed money against the sale of future wool clips – which wasn’t always wise. There were years when the entire flock might be wiped out by a disease, leaving the monks in debt with no product to sell. Despite the church’s disapproval of usury, the entire wool trade depended on a chain of credit and these debts stretched across Europe. In 1281-2 Byland lost its flocks and had to petition the King to get the Italians to reduce their debt. The York wool houses had to pay tolls at the city Bars (gates) to move wool about and also tolls were levied at the staithes (quays) on the river.
Various abbeys owned inns in York and on the routes between woolhouses and abbeys, where trade could be conducted, and hospitality shown to customers and potential customers.
Back to the Carthusians.
For a long time, there were only two Carthusian monasteries in England – living alone, silently, in a cell had less appeal than the communal life of other orders. The Carthusians had been waning until the Black Death (1348-9) when folk were once more drawn to the idea of a life of austere, lonely contemplation (lockdown, anyone?) The London charterhouse was built on the site of a plague burial ground. Several charter houses followed – Mount Grace was comparatively late to the non-party, in 1398. As in most orders, monks were drawn from the ranks of the wealthy (who else would have land to donate to the church after their deaths?) They would usually be literate and educated men – not always true of Cistercian monks whose abbots often got a university education after their promotion.
Carthusians refused to go along with Henry VIII’s shenanigans and as a result were kicked the first and the hardest, by the Dissolution. The order refused to acknowledge Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn or disavow the Pope. They were sitting targets for Henry’s coming, Brexity, storm.
Much of the wool exported in medieval times came from two long wool breeds; the Cotswold and the Lincoln – and to a lesser extent, the Leicester.
Mount Grace reconstructed a monk’s cell. Each cell was each monk’s private monastery – you can see how this model wouldn’t be sustainable on a large scale. His spinning wheel would be a constant companion. I’m not sure who made the reproduction wheel above, but they got it about right. Extant 14th century illustrations of wheels come from illuminated manuscripts and by the time Mount Grace was built, wheels seem to be typically hoop-rimmed, with a flat bed and four legs (later wheels often have a sloping bed and three legs for more stability). There are illustrations of nuns spinning on hand spindles but I feel fairly certain that a wealthy monastery founded as late as Mount Grace, would be more likely to use wheels than hand-spindles; (for the spinning nun search for “Stowe MS, 17” as I seem to be pulling up a plethora of Pinterest images and don’t really want to link to them) faster production and an easily affordable technology for a wealthy religious order.
One of the best known illustrations comes from a French manuscript, Raymond of Penafort’s ‘Decretals of Gregory IX’, (some time early 14th century), often called the Smithfield Decretals as the illustrations were done in England. We are working on some illustrations “after” the style of these medieval MS, so those will be up here, soon but you can search this online, again if you want to be bombarded with Pinterest suggestions.
Here, a woman spins on a great wheel just like the one you can see at Mount Grace (which is reopening in July, but limiting numbers of people on site, so you have to pre-book online). You can see the even cop of spun yarn on the spindle shaft of the wheel. Another famous 14th century illustration of a great wheel is in the Luttrell Psalter (1338). Both these illustrations predate the monastery at Mount Grace, but only by a few decades and there were no substantial changes in this technology right through to the early 19th century. So we can safely say the spinning wheels in the Smithfield Decretals and Luttrell Psalter are likely very close, if not the same, as the wheels monks would have.
I know of no extant great wheel with any more age to it than the 18th century. A wheel was a tool like any other – used, repaired, used some more – then, eventually – on the fire back when its useful life was done. So illustrations are our only reference.
In the still definitive ‘Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning’ (Batsford, 1977), Patricia Baines remarked:
…One could guess that the roles were made to such an exact size that the spinner could use a complete roll each time…
This is a point you don’t often see made, yet I think an interesting one. The monks will have had to card their wool into rolls, first, to make them spinnable. A rolag is like a little sausage of wool. Whether the Mount Grace brothers did their own wool preparation, or relied on others to do it, is something I don’t know. Whilst I can read Middle English, not in translation, I have no Latin whatsoever, so can’t do the requisite poking around in primary sources I’d love to do for this subject. I suspect the lay brothers did the real wool preparation donkeywork, at Mount Grace. And not every Carthusian monk would weave and spin; some came with or would have learned other trades, like bookbinding for the monastery’s manuscripts. Those of us who spin or weave can understand why these activities would complement the contemplative life.
These monks followed the same eight daily devotional offices (services) as other orders but unlike the others, observed them all alone, each man in his cell. They did join together for Vespers (afternoon) and the night offices together and attended Mass rarely but generally did Mass alone in the cell, as well. They dined together only on Feast days – saints’ days and the like. Any business dealings about the wool – which was spun and woven for their own use but also traded in further afield – could only be dealt with on these special days when the monks could communicate with eachother.
Pegolotti, a Florentine merchant, wrote Pratica della Mercatura (The Practice of Commerce), a commercial handbook in the early 14th century which listed the most famous English wool-producing monasteries. Yorkshire and Lincolnshire attracted wool merchants from across the continent. Welsh border shortwools were also in demand, as Pegolotti mentioned Tintern and Abbey Dore. (this latter, another haunt of our’s when we lived in the Midlands). This wool was priced at 28 marks per sack on the Flemish market (1 mark was 13s and 4d – a sack weighed 26 stone). The cheapest wool Pegolotti listed was only 7 marks. Italian and Flemish merchants were the most active in England as well as the French and the Dutch, There is also evidence of English trade with Norway in the 12thC. At some points, English wool almost had a monopoly.
All this pan-European trade led to some monasteries being very wealthy indeed at some points in their history. A wealth built on various commercial enterprises but mainly… on wool.
One rich wool merchant carved the window of his fancy new house:
I praise God, and ever shall
It is the sheep have paid for all.
Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines, Batsford, 1977
Clifton and Medieval Woolhouses, Jennifer Kaner, York Historian, Vol 8, 1988
The Wonder of the North: Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, Mark Newman, National Trust, 2015
The Wool Trade in English Medieval History, Eileen Power, OUP, 1941
The Tudor Cistercians, David H. Williams, Gracewing, 2014