There is such a thing as seeing all beautiful around you – pleasant woods, winding white paths, green lawns and blue sunshiny sky – and not having a free moment or a free thought left to enjoy them in. The children are constantly with me, and more riotous, perverse cubs never grew. .. I said in my last letter that Mrs Sidgwick did not know me. I now begin to find she does not intend to know me, that she cares nothing in the world about me except to contrive how the greatest quantity of labour may be squeezed out of me, and to that end she overwhelms me with oceans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslin nightcaps to make, and above all, dolls to dress. I do not think she likes me at all.
[Charlotte Bronte, letter to Emily Jane Bronte, June 8th, 1839].
Just published, in ‘Piecework’, July/August, 2017 – I have a piece about Charlotte Bronte and – possibly – her ‘dolls to dress’.
In 1839, Charlotte Bronte was 23 and embarking on life as a governess. She took a temporary job with the Sidgwicks of Stone Gappe Hall, in Lothersdale. Mr Sidgwick was a mill owner in Skipton. Her time at Stone Gappe was miserable.
Some time ago, a dolls’ house from Stone Gappe was acquired at auction by Temple Newsam House, in Leeds. The house itself is an eighteenth century ‘Baby House’ (essentially a sort of cupboard-as-dolls’-house). I haven’t permission to put up an image of the house or dolls, so you will need to check it out in ‘Piecework’. We took photos for our own reference, which we can’t publish, but I will use these as the basis for working out an 1830s’ dolls’ dress pattern for anyone interested, like those possibly made by poor Charlotte.
We went to Temple Newsam to look at the Baby House and dolls, with the help of one of their lovely curators. I hoped to use all my clothing historian fu, to try and figure out whether one or both of the dolls, may have been contemporaneous with 1839, so possibly, have been one of Charlotte’s loathed ‘dolls to dress’. Looking at the fashions worn by the dolls – I came to an interesting conclusion.
The two dolls themselves are handmade, but have some features in common with European – particularly the wooden Grodnertal – dolls of that era. If you search online for ‘wooden tuck comb dolls’ or ‘Grodnertal dolls’, you will get some idea of how dolls of the 1830s looked. The dolls’ clothes were made from cotton and linen prints, and wool fabric – their facial features embroidered in Berlin wool. They seem to have human hair – not uncommon for 19thC home-made dolls. One doll appears to be a cruder approximation of the other, and the style of their clothing is rather fanciful. Rather than entire gowns, both dolls wore a skirt and corset-like tops.
The dolls piece was my own little tribute to my dear friend, Caro, who died nearly two years ago. I inherited a few of Caro’s Hitty dolls, and have fond memories of an evening spent learning all about them, from her. Caro had a love of carved wooden dolls of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, as you can see from her Pinterest board.
I missed her riding shot-gun on this one – she would have loved behind the scenes at Temple Newsam, and getting to hold the 19thC dolls in her hand. She would have been far more knowledgeable about the Baby House itself, than I ever could be – and would have loved the little kitchen with all its miniature eighteenth and nineteenth century accoutrements. Then we’d have gone to the cafe and she’d have driven me mad by being her inimitable self; chatting to all and sundry. She had a marvellous way with curators. And would keep them deep in mesmerising chat so I could concentrate with documenting whatever it was I was there to document, without having the distraction of having to be make smalltalk, myself. (Useful as time can be limited when you are in somewhere, documenting an item, and those dealing with you have other places to be and other things to do).
There is always an absence beside me now, when I research. But this is one I’d never have done without her influence.
I will put up a pattern for an 1830s’ doll’s dress, just as soon as I can make one. I was hoping to accompany the publication with a pattern here, but have been ill since April so nothing got done. Starting to be on the mend (thanks NHS!) so will be back with an 1830s’ style dress for a 6″ doll very soon.
I must have been busy going back and forth with my time machine as also out last week – a piece in ‘The Knitter’ about the Land Girls of WW2, and also a pattern for a Land Girl jumper. It’s quite a leap from 1839 to 1939, but somehow I made it. If you’d like to read more about the life of Land Army or Timber Corps women – or make a 1940s’ style jumper handy for a spot of gardening – check out The Knitter, Issue 112.
A quick heads-up. I have two pieces out this month. One for the knitters and one for the genealogists.
For the knitters, there’s something about reverse engineering knitting from old photographs (‘The Knitter’, Issue 107). Probably something I should go into more depth with here on the blog, some time soon. Over the few years I’ve been figuring out ‘old knitting’ from images, I’ve developed a few tricks of the trade, and thought I’d share some insight into the process.
I think a lot of it is down to confidence. But also, simply by getting on and doing it, you develop an armoury of tools to do the job. Although with the caveat – any one person’s reverse engineered version of a piece of vintage knitting is only their interpretation and other interpretations are equally valid.
One other limitation is the extent of your own memory bank of techniques. And also, your hands-on experience of observing and recording similar items from similar dates.
As well as writing about reverse engineering from images, I looked at the pragmatic approach to reverse engineering – how to go about working from actual artefacts in museums, etc.
Talking of which…. Earlier this week, researching for an upcoming piece in a US magazine, I went behind the scenes at Temple Newsam House, in Leeds, and documented items from a dolls’ house, the very one Charlotte Bronte made dolls’ clothes for, in 1839. * Although this was looking at sewing, not knitting – the process for the reverse engineer is precisely the same.
You do need some other background knowledge to shed more light on extant items as well as reverse engineer and re-create from them. But the bottom line is still – observe and record. Think, research, observe and record some more! Whilst observing and recording, I found something really cool – and previously unrecorded elsewhere. This is where reverse engineering can add to our existing knowledge of the past, and how things were done or perceived, there.
I have written about my own process for reconstructing knitted textiles in ‘The Knitter’. But am fascinated by other textiles too – especially Georgian and Early Victorian clothing.
The second piece in the shops right now is in ‘Family Tree Magazine’ (February 2017). I go on about how to trace your farming ancestors – both farmers and labourers and ancestors who followed other rural occupations. Take a look if it’s your thing. And let’s face it, anyone who does their family tree will eventually hit an Ag Lab or seventy.
The vast majority of my ancestors were yeoman farmers, and dairy farmers with a few other vital rural occupations – wheelwrights, shoemakers, and of course, West Riding clothiers – thrown in. So I have tried to share some of my experience of finding farmers – and Ag Labs – there. They can leave quite a paper trail – and as ever, with genealogy, your search is enhanced if you think laterally.
I’m off back to my current projects, now. Exciting news… there’s a new book in the pipeline and some historically-based projects will be coming out over the next few months so keep your eyes peeled! I’ll be back with how to knit Lancashire squares, soon – and another wartime letter from a child to her dad in the Forces.
“…Mrs Sidgwick…cares nothing in the world about me except to contrive how the greatest possible quantity of labour may be squeezed out of me, and to that end she overwhelms me with oceans of needlework, yards of cambric to hem, muslin nightcaps to make, and, above all things, dolls to dress…”
[Charlotte Bronte, letter to Emily Bronte, 8th June, 1839].
‘The Knitter’, Issue 100, is out now and in the shops. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth, this year, I’ve contributed an article about a fascinating and previously unknown piece of knitting; a pair of baby socks, made for Charlotte’s baby, which were destined never to be worn.
They were found sewn into a book of Charlotte Bronte’s correspondence with Mrs Elizabeth Smith, mother of her publisher and friend, George Smith. So far as I’m aware, ‘The Knitter’ is the first publication ever to publish a photo of these poignant items.
Charlotte was pregnant when she died in 1855 of hyperemesis gravidarum. I had that with one of my pregnancies – for 20 weeks; all day, every day. It is not the way anyone deserves to die. Charlotte was already weakened, and possibly had incipient TB. Her friends had expected her to rally – more than one, was busy making baby items. Miss Margaret Wooler, Charlotte’s old teacher, colleague and friend, made an exquisite (not knitted) baby bonnet. These are possibly amongst the most poignant items in the entire Bronte Society Collection.
I won’t reprise the piece here (buy ‘The Knitter’, gentle Reader!) But I will give you something we couldn’t fit into the article as a bonus for my brilliant blog readers – some of whom I met at Baa Ram Ewe’s season launch, last week. More of that in an upcoming post.
A caveat. This isn’t a true reverse engineered version. I am not a sock knitter – apart from the occasional recreation of a stocking for Living History. There are things going on in this sock – the toe treatment for one – that I can’t pin down. So I looked at a contemporary published sock pattern, and I looked at the notes I took from looking at the sock in person.
I ended up knitting a version of ‘Child’s Sock’ from Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s ‘First Series of The Knitter’s Companion’, available here in a very late edition. Cornelia Mee (1815 – 1875) wrote a number of successful knitting manuals from around the 1840s onwards and often reprised her recipes for children’s socks, so this appears in one form or another, across more than one of her books.
In the 1841 Census, Cornelia, 25, was married to Charles Mee, ‘Berlin Wool Warehouseman’, and a teenaged Miss Mary Austin appears to have lived with them, working as their “shopwoman”, on Milsom St, in fashionable Bath. Like Jane Gaugain and Elizabeth Jackson; a wool shop owner, publishing her own books. Mary Austin was no doubt her co-author, “Miss Austin”. In 1851, she was mistranscribed as “Amelia” Mee, and now at 18, Daniel St, Bath. The 1851 Census is the first to give birthplaces, and so we learn Cornelia was a native of Bath, and Mary Austin, now 25, is listed as “sister in law” which means she was Cornelia’s sister so the books are co-authored by the sisters; Mary, as eldest unmarried sister, being addressed as “Miss” on the book’s title cover. Charles was still a “Berlin Wool Dealer”. The household have three servants. In 1871, Cornelia was visiting a family called the Fishers, in Liverpool and Charles and their family can be found at Brook St, in the parish of St George Hanover Square, London. Mary Austin still lives with them, and is listed as “Berlin Wool worker”.
The blue silk sock was made with YarnAddictAnni‘s Pure Silk Laceweight. And then a version of the sock, based on the original, using Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour 0397 (discontinued) – Ecru. I bought the Sublime on my way home from Haworth, the day I looked at the sock, whilst the precise shade of parchment/ecru of the sock, was still fresh in my mind; dropping in at the fabulous treasure trove that is Coldspring Mill.
Any laceweight would do for these (highly impractical) socks. But I should point out the originals are neither silk, nor merino; but cotton. They photograph with a fair bit of lustre so look to be silk in the images but they handled and looked, in reality, like cotton. It looked to be millspun, but with no loose ends it was hard to tell. Anyone who wants to Comment below on the skewing that’s going on – I’d be grateful for your opinion.
There were limitations to documenting the socks. They are sewn flat, into a book of priceless letters. So no turning inside out, and barely possible even to see the wrong side of the knitting.
The socks were probably not knitted by Charlotte Bronte herself – Charlotte was 5 when her mother died so it is feasible she was the only one of the three surviving Bronte sisters, who may have been taught to knit by her Cornish mother. But the socks came to The Bronte Society via a donation – the Seton-Gordon Collection, donated by Elizabeth Smith’s grand-daughter. Elizabeth Smith was born in Regency times – before published knitting patterns. So it’s likely this was a sock formula she had in her head. I looked at commercial patterns of the 1840s and slightly later as well, to get an insight into the heel and toe treatments but what we’re looking at here is, essentially, a Regency sock!
Cornelia Mee and Miss Austin’s baby socks, had a slightly smaller number of cast on stitches: 53, as opposed to the 60 or 62 on Charlotte’s baby sock. Misses Austin and Mee recommended the knitter use “the finest Shetland wool” or “No.30 Knitting Cotton” and size 17 (1.5mm) needles. To put that in perspective, most modern knitting needle conversion charts only go down to size 14 – 2mm – needles.
In fact, I couldn’t have knitted these sans tishie, somehow – it made the whole process of knitting laceweight on 1.5mm needles not quite unbearable. (You don’t want to hear what I was saying when I did the 3 needle cast off, put it that way).
I decided to work a Dutch Heel and a Flat Toe. I’m not positive these are the treatments used in the original, but they are close. In fact, the original sock’s toe has something unaccountable going on, if you look closely, with some crazy and weird decreasing.
There are a number of recipes for what we’d now call babies’ bootees, in the Victorian knitting manuals – but comparatively few straightforward socks, like these.
NB: The originals had a much more rapid (every round?) decrease for the foot, after the instep and heel flap stitches were joined back in the round, than my Ecru version has. There is also a bit more shaping on the legs of the originals (Possibly one or two more shaping rounds than I did). These are most definitely not an accurate reverse engineered version, just an approximation for fun.
So, with no further ado, here’s the pattern for the white socks. (Not tech edited, so proceed with due caution). I just wanted to have a go to see if I could. Neither sock will be getting a companion, any time soon.
Charlotte Bronte’s Baby Socks
Tension: 12 sts and 16 rounds to 2.5cm
1 ball laceweight yarn. I used Sublime Lace Extra Fine Merino Wool, 25g, 100% wool in Colour 0397 (discontinued) – Ecru
CO 60 sts.
Work in K2 P2 ribbing, for 12mm [60sts]
Now, to work the plain stocking stitch leg section:
* Rd 1 -14: P1, K59
Rd 15: P1, K2tog, K55, K2 tog [58sts]
Rep from * once [56 sts]
Now commence the heel.
Divide the sts so you have 27 sts for instep on waste yarn, and 29 sts still live, on which you’ll make a heel. Continue to Purl the purl centre stitch (now centre of heel). Cont to work heel on these remaining 29 sts (centred on P seam st).
Work heel like this:
* Row 1: K1, Sl 1 rep from * to end row
**Row 2: Sl1, P1, rep from ** to end row
Or conversely, simply work in stocking stitch.
Rep these two rows – or work in stocking st – til you have made roughly 20 rows, ending with a P row.
Start Shaping Heel:
Row 1: (RS): K22, turn
Row 2: (WS): Sl 1, P to seam st, P7, turn
Row 3: Sl 1, Knit to seam st, P seam st, Knit to end
Today (April 21st) is the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.
To celebrate, here is the text of a piece I wrote for a magazine, in 2012. This piece concentrates on the knitting sticks in the Bronte Parsonage Museum’s collection.
As well as sticks, there are extant Bronte textiles, including knitted items. Recently, I was back behind the scenes at the Parsonage, with a new and very exciting – if poignant – piece of research, that takes a look at a piece of knitting done for Charlotte’s unborn baby, in 1855. This will be published very soon in ‘The Knitter’ – so keep an eye out for it!
In the meantime, here is an article on some of the Brontes’ knitting sticks.
…A knitting sheath, &c., to be fastened on the waist of the knitter, towards the right hand, for the purpose of keeping the needle in a steady and proper position….
From a list of ‘necessary implements for knitting’
‘Ladies’ Handbook Of Knitting Netting And Crochet’, London, 1843, Jane Gaugain .
For the past few years, I have been privileged to be let loose amongst the collections of knitted items and knitting paraphernalia of a number of museums. Nothing I have seen was quite so exciting to me, as the items I saw recently at the Bronte Parsonage Museum. I grew up about thirty miles away in another part of the old West Riding. ‘Jane Eyre’ is the first novel I remember reading, cover to cover, aged eight. By the time I sat O Level English – ‘Wuthering Heights’ was a set text – I had read every Bronte novel, and just about every book in print at that time, about the Brontes. (Not that my English teachers would have known it, as I was wordless in class).
I was especially enthralled by Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ and Winifred Gerin’s biographies of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell. One figure in the story intrigued me, in particular, as she remained in the shadows. The Brontes’ mother, Maria. She died when the children ranged between seven to one years of age and having grown up motherless myself, I understood that.
Almost everything the family owned – from Charlotte’s going away dress to the contents of the women’s work-baskets, was preserved and kept.
Searching the Bronte Parsonage Museum’s online collection catalogue, I spotted several knitting sticks. And knew I had to see these in person. (ETA: Check out the catalogue with a search for ‘knitting sticks’, and you wil find them! I don’t have permissions to share the images here, but most are catalogued online).
The most interesting stick in the collection, is the one that looks superficially, the least exciting, numbered H201:2. It is a simple stick of a coarser grained wood, like oak, that is 16.5cm long and has a comparatively deep hole for the knitting needle, which is 6cm deep. “Interesting” because it is marked “M.B”. It is likely this was “M.B” for “Maria Bronte” or “Maria Branwell” (Mrs Bronte’s maiden name). Sadly, as her initial didn’t change on marriage, that was no help with dating it, but I’d put it around 1800, looking hand turned, not machined. It’s provenance could be Penzance or Keighley – impossible to tell, but I’d lean towards it being from Maria’s native Cornwall, as the Yorkshire sticks, even ‘primitive’ home-made ones, tended towards the elaborate. Carved sticks – often initialled and/or dated – sometimes were a lover’s token. But might also be made by a brother, or friend. We have no idea if Patrick whittled this stick – but it is possible. We should also bear in mind “M.B” could refer to Maria’s eldest daughter, another Maria, model for the virtuous but fated Helen Burns in “Jane Eyre”.
This stick is also interesting because it is so simple. Compared to most sticks in collections, it is almost unusually plain. No doubt it only survived as Patrick and the children would have treasured it, as something so personal to Maria and possibly in daily use; a familiar symbol of childhood.
Maria Branwell was born in 1785, eighth of eleven children; daughter of grocer, property owner and tea-merchant Thomas Branwell of Chapel St, Penzance, and Anne Carne, a silversmith’s daughter. Branwell family names were to be recycled for the entire brood of Bronte children; Maria, Elizabeth and Charlotte being the three Branwell sisters’ names, and later the three Bronte sisters’. Penzance was a small but busy port with bonded warehouses and custom houses, concert and Assembly Rooms, bustling and lively. In Maria’s childhood, knitting would not yet be “the thing” for wealthy and middle class women; but the Branwells and Carnes were pragmatic Methodists; the young Maria and Elizabeth may well have heard Wesley preach in the 1780s when he was in Penzance.
Later in life, Charlotte’s friend Mary Taylor noted Elizabeth Branwell’s gruelling charity sewing, and challenged her about it. Elizabeth Branwell said she “made her nieces sew, with purpose or without…it was not for the good of the recipients, but of the sewers. ‘It was proper for them to do it’, she said.” [Gaskell, 577].
Knitting was not mentioned, but we can infer it went on in the Parsonage, from the knitting sticks at the Parsonage Museum, and the two knitting needles from a “work-basket belonging to one of the Bronte sisters”. [HAOBP: H176:2 and 3]. The needles I examined had fine gauges, around 1mm-1.5mm, and one had a slight curve which would suggest it was used with a knitting stick. (Roughly old UK size 17 or 18).
Middle class girls like Maria Branwell, in the 1790s would spend their knitting time making stockings – with a cast on of around 150 stitches on 1mm or finer needles. I have found mentions of the Retreat Lunatics’ Asylum in York at these dates, buying in “patent knitting needles” at 3d., for the patients to knit stockings. The Parsonage Museum needles have a slight sheen to them, the colour of oil on water, and it occurred to me these might be “patent”. The fact the faintly curved needle came from a work basket belonging to one of Maria’s daughters, suggests that the Bronte sisters knitted the old Cornish way, like their mother, using a knitting stick. Patrick’s own family in Ireland may well have knitted, too. Ditto Tabby Ackroyd, their Yorkshire servant.
Knitting sticks aided speed, and also helped make knitting portable. It would be wrong to assume sticks were only used by production knitters and the working classes. Some very elegant sticks survive; silver and ivory. In fact, Maria’s silversmithing grandfather might well have made a few sticks in his time.
Amongst the Parsonage knitting sticks are some finer ones H200 and H201; one made from a fine fruitwood, the other most likely oak; the first one’s hole would take a needle of upto 5.5mm in gauge, and was 5.5 cm deep; the second one had a pretty acorn turning, looked machine turned and had a shallower hole, only 2.5mm deep – ideal for smaller socks and stockings, and glove knitting. The relatively deep holes in three of the sticks suggest they may have been used with longer needles; anything between 8” and 14”; the dates are too early for any type of pullover knitting; so stocking knitting would be the most likely activity with slightly longer needles.
In 1790, Maria’s aunt, Jane Branwell married John Fennell, headmaster at the Wesleyan Methodist School in Penzance. Thomas Branwell died in 1808, and daughters Maria, Charlotte and Elizabeth were left an annual income of £50 each; brother Richard was left the property. In 1811, Richard also died, and this left the women in limbo. Charlotte Branwell married; Maria decided to go North and live with her aunt and uncle Fennell who were now running the new school for Methodist Ministers’ Sons at Woodhouse Grove, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. At this point, it is not known where Elizabeth went.
It would be a mistake to think of 19thC Penzance as just a tourist spot. Cornwall was at the heart of some of the most intensive tin mining in the world. Amongst the more sedate ‘drawing room’ style wooden knitting sticks at the Parsonage Museum, are two tin heart shaped sticks. These heart shaped sticks were not unknown in Yorkshire – one can just about be seen on the little girl in George Walker’s 1814 engraving of Hawes knitters, in the Dales. Most of the Yorkshire ones I have seen are brass, not tin. It is entirely possible these two heart shaped sticks came from Cornwall, with Maria or, later, Elizabeth Branwell.
Extant heart shaped sticks are often of a fancier design, than the two preserved at Haworth H210:2 has seven tie holes punched through it and traces remain of a tabby weave tape, 16mm width, that once held it on to the knitter’s belt. The hole depth of 5.5 cm is consistent with the wooden sticks’ holes. H210:1 is 11.5cm long, and the brass-necked hole has a depth of 6.5cm which would fit needles upto 5mm diameter. It has to remains of a brown tabby weave tape tie, only 8mm wide. Both tin hearts are considerably more workaday style knitting sticks than the wooden ones. It is very likely they have an earlier 19thC date; and given that they are tin, more than likely they belonged to Maria and or Elizabeth Branwell. Although it is an intriguing thought that when the Bronte sisters sat down to knit, they may well have used any or all of the older generation’s sticks – very likely given the bent knitting needle in one of the younger women’s work-baskets.
It is possible that when Maria – or later, Elizabeth Branwell – travelled to the West Riding, they had a knitting stick or two amongst their luggage.
“From the softness of the Cornish climate and the comfortable, close-knit social world of Penzance, Maria travelled over 400 miles to the comparative austerity and friendlessness of a boys’ boarding school in the heart of a depressed and restless industrial West Riding…”
In 1812, the West Riding was in turmoil; Luddites had been hung at York, for breaking up textile machinery that was putting them out of work. Patrick Bronte was to carry a gun for the rest of his life, and occasionally – along with Emily, it is said – honed his skills with a bit of target practice. We shouldn’t underestimate the enormity of Maria Branwell’s move North, at the precise time the West Riding was at the epicentre of what looked like Revolution. Maria’s annual legacy would have given her some independence, but like many unmarried women, she still would have had a degree of dependency on male relatives. Helping with the domestic side of the school at Woodhouse Grove, would strike the right balance for her. It is interesting that she took this more pro-active role than sisters Charlotte and Elizabeth.
Within weeks of her move to Woodhouse Grove, Maria had met Patrick Bronte, minister at Hartshead – then 35, at that time considered positively middle aged. Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ (1817) describes a world where an unmarried woman of twenty-nine considered herself on the shelf. So the marriage would have been regarded as a ‘late in life’ one – as such, there was no real reason for a lengthy courtship. Patrick proposed on a day-trip to Kirkstall Abbey and he and Maria were married within months of meeting.
Late in 1812, Maria had sent for her belongings to come, by ship, from Penzance. They represented the sum total of her life’s possessions. Disaster struck. Maria wrote to Patrick:
“I suppose you never expected to be much the richer for me but I am sorry to inform you that I am still poorer than I thought myself – I mentioned having sent for my books, clothes, &c On Saturday evg about the time when you were writing the description of your imaginary shipwreck, I was …feeling the effects of a real one, having then received a letter from my sister giving me an account of the vessel in which she had sent my box, being stranded on the coast of Devonshire, in consequence of which the box was dashed to pieces with the violence of the sea & all my little property, with the exception of a very few articles, swallowed up in the mighty deep…” [Barker, 55-6].
It is a poignant thought, that, if Maria’s “M.B” knitting stick is from her Penzance days, it must have been precious enough to have been with her, amongst the few possessions she’d been able to take to Woodhouse Grove, or else it was amongst the ”very few articles” salvaged from the wreck. Many Georgian women kept a huswife (container for threads, needles, scissors) and knitting stick with them. One or more of the extant knitting sticks may, or may not, have been with Maria already, in Yorkshire. Certainly the tin hearts and the simple stick marked “M.B” seem likely to have a Cornish provenance, to me – but they may also have travelled up later, when Maria’s sister, Elizabeth, came North.
Knitting sticks weren’t immune to accidents. There is another wooden stick, H.211 which appears to have some damage (a small burn?) half a cm from its base. If a stick fell from your belt when knitting by the light of the fire, it might get that kind of damage.
Maria’s letters to Patrick survive, and they betray a lively, engaging, active mind; but still Maria evades us and remains a shadowy figure; who had a Georgian kind of grace and wit , combining arch flirtation with piety. Writing to Patrick: “‘I firmly believe the Almighty has set us apart for eachother….may we, by earnest, frequent prayer, & every possible exertion, endeavour to fulfil his will in all things!’” [Barker, 55].
On the 29th December, 1812, Maria Branwell married Patrick Bronte, in a joint wedding ceremony with her cousin, Jane Fennell, who married a colleague of Patrick’s, Dr. William Morgan. The two ordained ministers took turns to be bridegroom, and officiating minister.
Patrick Bronte was a remarkable man; unique in the 19thC, even. His life had taken an amazing trajectory, from birth in a two roomed cottage in County Down, to becoming a sizar at St John’s College, Cambridge; eventually becoming ordained.
From Hartshead, the Brontes moved to Thornton, near Bradford, in 1815. Maria’s sister, Elizabeth, came to stay with her; a second daughter born that Spring, was named Elizabeth after her. In the six years 1814-1820, Maria gave birth to six children; Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne. The rigours of this took a toll on her health. The little family were not wealthy; Patrick’s living was a small one, and Maria’s annuity of £50 possibly kept them afloat. No doubt, Elizabeth and Maria put their knitting sticks to good use, as there would be endless baby stockings, caps and bed-covers to knit. Maria, who some biographers describe as a “bluestocking”, wrote “The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns”, concluding that charity to the poor, their “instruction and conversion” should be the primary goal of the more privileged. We see echoes of sister Elizabeth’s zealous charity-basket, here.
Not long after the birth of Charlotte, Aunt Elizabeth returned to Penzance and her place was filled by the charity school girl, servant Nancy Garrs. Nancy came from the Bradford School of Industry which, like most Yorkshire charity schools at that date, concentrated on giving girls the skills to be servants. Knitting and sewing would have been on the curriculum. Charity school girls were issued one huswif and one knitting stick per year, and paid for breakages. Left motherless, the Bronte girls would still have seen servants knitting in their down-time. (Nelly Dean brings along her sewing so her hands are busy whilst she narrates the goings-on at Wuthering Heights to Mr Lockwood). Living “a useful life” was a very Methodist concept, and Methodism continued to exert its influence in the Bronte children’s lives, long after Maria was gone, via Aunt Branwell.
In April 1820, the family moved to Haworth. By January, 1821, Maria was seriously ill, probably with uterine cancer. Elizabeth Branwell arrived from Cornwall, to take care of her sister and the six children and on 15th September, 1821, Maria died. Years later, Nancy Garrs remarked that in the final months of her life, Maria was deeply concerned with the fate of her children, but could only see them one at a time, or was overcome with grief. Patrick did the usual thing for a widowed man with young children, and after a respectable amount of time had elapsed, proposed to three women in short succession. All three turned him down. Elizabeth Branwell had intended to step into the breach temporarily – fully intending to return to Penzance in due course. When it became clear Patrick wasn’t going to find a new wife, ‘Aunt Branwell’ stayed, albeit reluctantly. It’s rather like a character from a lively town in a Jane Austen novel had stepped into the bleak landscape of ‘Wuthering Heights’.
If Maria’s influence remained, it was a vicarious one, played out via her sister. Elizabeth Branwell is usually described by people who knew her in later life; eccentric, clinging to the Regency fashions of her youth; and her idea of the “education” of girls consisting of little more than the relentless charity sewing basket and “good works”.
Four years after Maria’s death, her elder daughters Maria and Elizabeth died. Charlotte was now the oldest surviving Bronte sibling.
Aunt Branwell’s stern domestic influence was counterpointed by the constant presence in the small house of the Brontes’ servants, Nancy and Sarah Garrs and later, Tabitha Ackroyd. Tabby’s stock of local stories and tales of the supernatural bled into the women’s writing; most especially ‘Wuthering Heights’ where the farm’s kitchen in its heyday reminds us of Emily’s 1834 Diary Paper, that reads like a Tweet from her kitchen, the heart of her home:
“…. Taby said on my putting a pen in her face Ya pitter pottering there instead of pilling a potate I answered O Dear, O Dear, O dear I will directly with that I get up, take a knife and begin pilling (finished) pilling the potatoes…”
For Emily, in adult life, home was to become the only place she could function, and Tabby was at the heart of it. Of the surviving Bronte children, only Charlotte and Branwell had vague memories of their mother, so Maria’s knitting stick, like memories of Tabby sitting knitting by the kitchen fire, may well have been a symbol of love, affection and that very 19thC icon; home.
I imagine Tabby, of an evening, sitting in the kitchen with her knitting stick, working a stocking as she told the girls stories, like the elderly lady in Charlotte’s juvenilia “An Adventure In Ireland”:
“…When we arrived at the castle I was shown into a large parlour, in which was an old lady sitting in an armchair by the fireside, knitting. On the rug lay a very pretty tortoise-shell cat….”
For Charlotte, knitting was at the heart of domestic safety. Knitting was home.
The Brontes, Juliet Barker, Phoenix Press, 1994
The Brontes: Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal, Ed. Christine Alexander, Oxford World Classics, 2010.
The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Penguin, 1998 (originally published 1857). http://www.bronte.org.uk/
Here is my first knitting stick, and the only one I currently use.
At some point, I was sent some kind of knitting stick by a hobbyist, thinking of making them for sale, I guess – but it did not look like any stick I have ever seen – and I’ve seen hundreds. Nor did it work well enough for me to endorse. I’m sure I was polite, and no doubt touched by the kindness of the would-be knitting stick maker, but this wasn’t a Road to Damascus for me. I wouldn’t write so much about these things if I couldn’t use them but they are not the way I choose to knit, except for Living History when, I think, anyone ‘doing’ 18thC onwards and thinking of knitting in front of the public, should have one.
For Living History, we can only use things that are documented, and provably existed. It had a sort of neolithic look to it. So no practical use. It’s not hard to get hold of 19thC knitting sticks in the antique shops round here, but I have never had the money so am happy with my lone repro. Around the same time, a couple of spindle makers sent me prototypes for feedback – both were starting out but have since become well-established, and sadly don’t need my input anymore! – and so I thought nothing more about it and used my own Wensleydale stick.
My beautiful stick is a goose-wing style, from The Wensleydale Longwool Sheepshop near Leyburn, in the Dales. I heard the gentleman who used to make these, stopped quite a while back, so if you’re interested in getting a proper, UK made knitting stick, you could try Alison and Hugh’s Handmade Things, who make repros for living history folk and come highly recommended by people whose judgement I trust.
These goose-wings in the image here, come from the Dales Museum of the Countryside, in Hawes. As you can see, the sizes and styles vary but not greatly. Workaday knitting sticks were seen as replaceable items; charity school children were given a new stick every year but could pay for another if they broke one, inbetween times.
Incidentally, fine ladies doing ‘parlour’ knitting, did indeed use sticks – here is a definition of what they are, from the most influential knitting writer of the early Victorian age, Jane Gaugain:
“…A knitting sheath, &c., to be fastened on the waist of the knitter, towards the right hand, for the purpose of keeping the needle in a steady and proper position….
From a list of ‘necessary implements for knitting’ in the ‘Ladies’ Handbook Of Knitting Netting And Crochet’, London, 1843.
A couple of the knitting sticks at the Bronte Parsonage Museum looked to be quite elegant and well-made. The two heart-shaped tin sticks were cruder than equivalent brass hearts I have seen all over Yorkshire.
Knitting sticks were used in Yorkshire, at least, well into the 20thC and probably only died out when feasible circular needles came about. So it is a fallacy to believe they were given the coup de grace by the fancy parlour knitters.
I am not a Dales knitter – my family moved to the West Riding and then down into the Vale of York by the 1890s. But many were Dales knitters before that, presumably, having the surnames mentioned in ‘Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, and being up in Westmorland and Wensleydale – up til the late 19thC. One ancestor is described as ‘spinner’ on an impromptu 18thC census! Use of knitting sticks cut across classes and borders.
Maria Bronte was born in Cornwall but into a wealthy mercantile family – not a fisherman’s gansey in sight. Incidentally, the fancier knitting sticks are often identical in overall size, hole depth, gauge of hole, etc to the proper workaday ones. As posted previously, there is only evidence for ‘swaving’ as a Yorkshire inland technique (not a Cornish one, and not a coastal one even in Yorkshire) – something that came out of the 18thC INLAND farm based knitting schools. So to say knitting sticks were ‘for’ swaving is ridiculous – they were also for Jane Gaugain’s refined readers, working on the latest pineapple reticule in pretty Berlin wools. If they weren’t, Jane wouldn’t mention them.
Recently, I was asked about the depth of holes in knitting sticks, and rather than have to write this up several times on forums, I thought I’d put some info here, to make it more accessible for folk. Any wood-workers reading this, who’d like to knock out a repro, do feel free to give me a sample to road-test! I will be honest, rather than polite as restraint seems to have been my downfall last time…
Here is a whistle-stop tour round the sticks in the collection of the Bronte Parsonage Museum (yet more evidence that parlour-dwelling middle class ladies did indeed knit with knitting sticks!) These are currently in the reserve collection, so not on view to the public, although I believe the stick marked “M.B” is going on display this year, if it hasn’t already. It is rare we can tie an initialled stick to an owner – museums have tens of knitting sticks, and rarely provenance for a single one of them. So it was nice there is one stick at Haworth we can say was very likely Maria Bronte’s. Or Branwell’s if she had it when she had her maiden name.
The Brontes’ sticks could have Yorkshire or Cornish provenance – looking at them, I strongly suspected they had both; some coming up fro Cornwall with Maria and later, Elizabeth Bronte and some originating in the West Riding parishes where Patrick Bronte was incumbent. Maria came to Yorkshire the same year as the Luddite riots. It is a strong piece of Yorkshire lore that Patrick may have secretly buried some of the Luddites who died of their wounds, in Hartshead churchyard.
Here is a write-up of some of my notes, re. the Bronte knitting sticks:
Two tin heart-shaped sticks are in the museum’s collection, along with several fairly fancy wooden sticks. I’ll look at the tin hearts first. H210:2 had a hole depth of 5.5 cm was consistent with the wooden sticks’ holes, and traces of the remains of a tabby-woven taupe tape attached. H210:1 is 11.5cm long, and the brass-necked hole has a depth of 6.5cm which would fit needles upto 5mm diameter. It had the remains of a brown tabby weave tape tie, only 8mm wide. ie: the small metal knitting sticks were used with woven tapes, as opposed to leather belts or tucked into aprons.
H.211 is a wooden stick, which appears to have some damage (a small burn?) half a cm from its base. I reckoned, if a stick fell from your belt when knitting by the light of the fire, it might get that kind of damage. Both Anne and Charlotte often wrote of house-keepers knitting by firelight, in the evening. Its hole was 4 cm deep and the hole’s gauge 5.5.mm. This indicates how much give there would be for a needle – it’s not to say it was used with 5mm needles; but it certainly couldn’t be used with needles bigger than 5.5mm!
H200 is a fancy knitting stick made from fruit-wood, with a 6cm deep hole, and looked to be machine turned.
H201.2 looks like oak and was marked ‘MB’ – presumably for ‘Maria Bronte, or her maiden name, Maria Branwell, the Brontes’ mother – although an elder sister who didn’t survive childhood was also a Maria. Again, the hole was 6cm. This and the tin hearts, I suspect, were amongst the few possessions of Maria’s that survived the shipwreck where she lost most of her possessions from Cornwall. No doubt the sticks were personal (and small) enough to travel with her, when she moved up to Yorkshire.
H2011 also looked like oak, and had an end with an acorn turning. The hole’s gauge was 3.75mm and it’s depth a mere 2.5 cm.
In other words, the knitting sticks’ holes looked to be generally around 5-6cm deep, and the sticks around 16.5cm long – some less. The sturdy goose-wings like my own, are bigger than this. Sticks used for knitting bump yarn – according to accounts – were considerably larger. Extant Bronte knitting needles I saw – both in the reserve collection and on display – were around the 1.5mm mark.
For much more meaty info about the knitting related items in the Bronte Parsonage Museum, and some great images of them, do track down my piece in Spring 2013’s Knitting Traditions.
It might be an appropriate point to thank the Knitting Traditions readers for their lovely feedback and comments. I’m hoping to do much more about West Riding knitting history, in the future and hopefully will be back up to Haworth in the next month or two, rooting about in the Brontes’ underwear drawer (well, looking at the extant frame knitted stockings), amongst other stuff, to see what can be brought to light!
And look out for another Yorkshire piece in Knitting Traditions, next Spring, where I will bring to you some rather cool if not slightly freaky 18thC Yorkshire knitting, which I have been busily working on for the past fortnight or so.
I’ll leave you with the order of the boot, from Beamish Museum’s People’s Collection, IRN62770.