I Was Too Far Out All My Life; Not Swaving But Drowning II.

CourtesyYorkshireWaterwaysMuseum,Goole
Courtesy Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole

 

That title’s with apologies to Stevie Smith.

Today, an interruption in putting up photos of the gansey patterns in ‘River Ganseys’.

Thought I’d put everything I have about swaving here, in one post.

This is ongoing research and by no means complete so not the last word on the subject- just the first few tentative words. But it may be easier to have this in one place as a jumping off point for other researchers.

 

 

Striking t’loop is simply another term for swaving. But what was swaving?

 

All this time, their knitting goes on with unremitting speed. They sit rocking to and fro, like so many weird wizards. They burn no candle, but knit by the light of the peat fire. And this rocking motion is connected with a mode of knitting peculiar to the place, called swaving; which is difficult to describe.  Ordinary knitting is performed by a variety of little motions, but this is a single uniform tossing motion of both hands at once, and the body often accompanying it, with a sympathetic action…

William Howitt, The Rural Life of England, Volume 1

 

Howitt’s 1838 account of swaving remains the only contemporaneous one – and so is often quoted.  Yet even experienced knitters find it hard to figure out exactly what swaving would look like. Here’s where a 1956 Dalesman article comes in handy:

 

“Mrs Cornthwaite, of Sedbergh, was taught to knit by her grandmother, Mrs Dinsdale, who as a child attended a knitting school at Blandses Farm, Frostrow, now in ruins. Mrs Cornthwaite showed me how, with knitting stick and curved needles, the ‘swaving’ movement, called ‘strikin’ t’loop’, was done.

“The skillful downward turn of the curved needle-ends, with the index finger of the right hand ready with the ‘wosset’ (worsted) for them to catch and carry as they turned upwards, reduced the movements to two. This upward and downward movement appears to be merely a sort of shaking of the knitting. ‘Strikin’ t’loop’ was possible only when the knitting was plain. not ribbed pattern. Clever knitters could ‘strike t’loop’ in reverse, producing purl stitch…”

 

humber k & s
Image Courtesy Humber Keel & Sloop Society. River ganseys often have unpatterned lower halves which would lend themselves to a quick swave!

 

In one paragraph, Mrs Cornthwaite tells us what William Howitt, the non-knitter, couldn’t: that swaving was only possible for plain stocking stitch fabrics and most easily on knit rounds so less easy for knitters like me, who knit inside out/prefer to purl.

 

Presumably, when they got to the ribs or any patterns, the swavers stopped still. Some contemporary traditional knitters have tried to recapture swaving as an art, but with only Howitt’s words for reference, have missed this essential piece of information – that swaving was only used for plain (stockinette) knitting.

 

Swaving appears to have broken knitting down into two actions. This also neatly tells us that the curved needles pointed downwards – and these, in particular, were the ones referred to as ‘pricks’ although just to be confusing the term was sometimes used for any needles. Another fact that has never been made clear, before. So the yarn was tensioned in the right hand, and the curved needles angled in such a way that they struck the loop.

 

Writing in 1970, Marie Hartley said in researching the book she only met and saw one knitter in action:

 

“‘… We found and saw one person knitting in the old way, Mrs Crabtree of Flintergill, Dent, then in her 79th year. We were told to go and see her, and when we knocked at her door she opened it with her knitting in her hand and a knitting stick tucked in her apron band.

“We regret that we did not meet her sister, Polly Stephenson, who also used the ‘swaving’ action in knitting…The swift execution in knitting was achieved by the exponent being taught as a child, often by her father. We wish that we had borrowed a cine camera and recorded Mrs Crabtree in action, for this skill is something which has gone, never to be seen again in the Yorkshire Dales…’”

Quest for the Hand-Knitters, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby

 

More than once, years after their research in the late 1940s, Marie and Joan wished they’d filmed the swaving.

 

Swaving or strikin’ t’loop – would also only be possible when sitting down. It was called ‘weaving’ in Swaledale [Old Hand-knitters of the Dales].

 

“…Mrs Crabtree, who is seventy-nine, is one of the very few people who can still knit in the old way. This in Dent is called ‘swaving’, meaning the up and down motion of the arms and body. We were shown how to do it; but it was not easy even to see the loops as they slipped from one needle to another. When we complimented her on the speed of her knitting, she only shook her head, and said that she was always one of the lazy ones, but that ‘My mother’s needles fair made music.’”

The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby,  p.82].

 

In 1981, Kathleen Kinder and the Editor of Dalesman magazine, watched Clara Sedgwick at work, hoping she could work up enough speed to swave:

 

…It was quite a thrill to watch Mrs Sedgwick knit in the old way. Had she got up speed, she would have had to have ‘swayed’ [sic] backwards and forwards, to knock the formed stitches off the needle held in the left hand, on to the one supported by the stick…”

 

filey1

Credit: P Hunt.  Snapshot taken at Filey Museum. “She used a knitting ‘shear’ (sheath), the case of which was made of print about 9 inches long and filled with little sticks…”  Gladys Thompson,  ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’, 1955, p33. Describing a Flamborough knitter. The leather shear in this picture, would simply be more robust than ‘print’ (cotton). This is filled with goose quills.

 

Swaving With Knitting Sticks

The sticks used along with short, curved needles for swaving, were standard sized (generally around 8”) sticks. Larger, plainer sticks were reserved for knitting with bump yarn. Knitting with bump was common amongst the navvies’ and miners’ wives up in the Dales and further afield, across Yorkshire:

 

“..A large, clumsy-looking stick, usually plain, was used for bump knitting ..”

 

That said, it appears you could swave without a knitting stick. No special ‘tools’ were needed. A comment on my blog a while back, from someone who saw swaving in Pateley Bridge, mentioned the fact the lady had no knitting stick. Gladys Thompson describes a particularly fast knitter as knitting with the working needle tucked under one arm. For the convulsive, simultaneously both arms kind of movement  – striking the loop at the right angle for it to fell easily from the needle – a stick would still be a matter of choice.

A curved needle pivots in the hole inside a knitting stick and this would make swaving easier but at least one eye witness tells us they have seen swaving with no knitting stick. With the working needle anchored somehow – even just braced against the knitter’s body – it would work.

Whilst long needles were usually (not always) used for knitting larger objects like jumpers – several of the 1950s’ knitters interviewed in various editions of Dalesman magazine, seem to have implied that swaving was usually done on shorter needles. It would be ideal for lengthy sections of stocking, for example.

As you could only swave when knitting a plain section, it is clearly out of the question for many ganseys with their relief patterns of plain and purls.  I think we can forget it, in the context of ganseys – except for those with stocking stitch lower bodies and arms.  It also may explain why some ganseys are only half-patterned. You could knit the plain section faster!  Also, it may be no coincidence that swaving was taught in the inland Yorkshire knitting schools and that inland (river) ganseys more commonly have a plain section in the lower half of the body…

Etymology

“Striking t’loop” merely seems to have been a phrase interchangeable with ‘swaving’. It makes sense as anyone who’s used a knitting stick knows, if you hit the next stitch at the right angle/speed, it almost flies itself off the left needle and onto the working needle.

“Swave” is a lost Yorkshire dialect word; so obscure that even the more obscure reaches of the ‘Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society’ couldn’t give many clues. When I couldn’t find anything cognate in the most definitive Anglo Saxon dictionaries, I knew it was probably a medieval (later) word.  If it was interchangeable with “weaving” then that points to a possible cognate.

 

decmneed4
Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum. Notice needles were blunt and pointier; various gauges. No One True Way of doing things.  1950s’ Dales knitters reported that sometimes they changed from curved to straights mid-project which might imply swaving for a bit, then… not!

 

I have looked for “swave” in all kinds of obscure books and journals on Yorkshire dialect. Including Specimens of the Yorkshire Dialect To which is added a GLOSSARY of Such of the Yorkshire words As Are Likely not to be understood by those UNACQUAINTED with the Dialect (Anon, Published Knaresborough, 1810, Price 6d). With no luck. Although I passed a very pleasant afternoon at York Reference Library, distracted by that tiny book and it’s always a joy to hold the actual book in your hand.

 

I finally struck gold in “Yorkshire Words Today. A Glossary of Regional Dialect” David Paynter, Clive Upton & J.D.A Widdowson [Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1997].

Sway-pole  n. see-saw. West Riding.

Sway, various dialects use in Scotland, England…also Lakeland. ‘a see-saw’.

I am taking a leap and betting money that ‘swave’ comes from the late Middle English “sway”, “To cause to move back and forward, side to side” [Shorter OED]. In our context, it means “to rock” like a see-saw. Which is supported by Howitt’s famous observation of the “weird wizards” who were “rocking to and fro”.  Given that definition, it may have had a more scatalogical implication, too.

To sum up, we can say:

  1. “Swaving” means “rocking back and forth”
  2. Swaving was only done on plain stocking stitch (stockinette) rounds/rows
  3. Swaving with usually – not necessarily always – done with curved needles.
  4. Swaving was usually – but not always –  done with a knitting stick. The knitter might also anchor the working needle under their arm, for example.
  5. The phrase “striking t’loop” (striking the loop) was another term for ‘swaving’.
  6. Swaving was done to pick up speed
  7. Swaving was usually – not always – done with shorter needles
  8. Swaving appears to have been a standard technique taught at the Yorkshire ‘Knitting schools’ – most of which were inland, on farms. We have no hard proof that as a technique it ever migrated to the coast. Although it is likely it did, given that we’re uncovering links between the inland knitting schools and coastal knitting schools.

 

Knitting the Old Dales Way – Talks & Workshops

ohkd

This weekend, I’ll be mostly going on about the history of Dales knitting. So just a reminder to anyone who fancies a day out at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. It’s Country Crafts weekend, so there will be various living history folk, and craftspeople in costume, around the museum. I will be there in full 1800 period kit.

Talk  A.M., workshops P.M both days of this coming weekend. Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th April.

Just turn up for the talk (morning). If you’re interested in the workshop (afternoon), let me know by email (below) so we can pencil you in.

Talk (Mornings): The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales

I’ll be going on (and on) about Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby’s book, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’. How it was researched and  written in 1949.  And how we have put together the new edition. And also generally, the history of knitting in Yorkshire, and how as a genealogist, I went about putting names, faces and life stories to the forgotten knitters of Yorkshire. I will also cover techniques of the old hand knitters like swaving and using a knitting stick. But of course, if you read this blog you might have other questions about knitting/genealogy stuff and I’d love to have a go at answering them!

Time: 10:30 to 12:00 am.

Price: £10 including museum entry. If you’re interested in attending the talk, either day – just turn up.  I will go on (and show you pictures and actual Things) for some of the time, and  then you can throw questions at me.

April 5th and 6th is the 2014 opening weekend at the museum, and my talks/workshops are just a small part of Murton Park’s Country Crafts weekend. So there will be other things to see and do.

 

Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum
Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum

Workshop (Afternoons): Knitting The Old Dales Way ~ How To Use a Knitting Stick or Shetland Knitting Belt (Beginners)

A rare chance to learn this brilliant, simple but obscure method of knitting.

This workshop will show you how to knit like the old Dales knitters! I can’t promise to make you into a ‘terrible knitter of Dent’ in a couple of hours. But you will learn how to use a knitting stick and be part of the revival of this almost-lost art.

There are very limited places on these workshops – mainly so everyone gets as much one-to-one as they need. There has been a bit of interest though so don’t despair if you can’t make this weekend, I will be offering this workshop again soon.

Time: 1:30pm – 3:30pm

Price: £12.50 (includes Museum admission). If you already paid admission earlier,  workshop price is minus admission price.

Suitable for: knitters who know how to cast on!

Bring: yourself, and a belt (or apron with a waistband). You’ll tuck your stick into this. Materials will be provided at workshop. We will loan you a stick, and needles, on the day, for you to learn with.  But feel free to acquire your own and bring them along. Needles: if bringing your own, 8” or longer stainless steel dpns are best.

Saturday workshop is now FULL but there are still a couple of places left for Sunday. If you’re interested, email me: penelopehemingwayATgmail.com and I will add your name to the list.

 

 

 

Knit Like a Victorian Lady! (Or Gent).

Victorian ladies. (They left their ivory knitting sticks at home)

Ever wanted to know how the writers went about researching and writing ‘The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales’? Or do you want to know more about ‘the terrible knitters of Dent’?  How people knitted at commercial speeds in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the Yorkshire Dales? And what did they knit? What is ‘swaving’? Who were the hand knitters of the Dales? Wonder no more.

I’ll be ‘doing a talk’ about The Old Hand Knitters of the Dales on both Saturday 5th and Sunday 6th April  at the Yorkshire Farming Museum. Time: 10 30 to 12 00 am. Price: £10 including museum entry. If you’re interested in attending the talk, either day – just turn up.  I will go on (and show you pictures and actual Things) for some of the time, and  then you can throw questions at me.

April 5th and 6th is the 2014 opening weekend at the museum, and my talks/workshops are just a small part of Murton Park’s Country Crafts weekend. So there will be other things to see and do at the Farming Museum on the day!

There are still just a few places left on the afternoon workshops, both days, ‘Knitting The Old Dales Way’.  A rare opportunity to learn how to knit with a knitting stick. Details here. 

The workshop (same both days) is to teach and practice the dying Yorkshire art, knitting with a knitting stick. I will also go into more detail about the other paraphernalia Dales knitters used. If you’d like to book a workshop place, email penelopehemingway@gmail.com and I’ll pencil you in.

Image courtesy Dales Countryside Museum (stick from Marie Hartley's personal collection).
Image courtesy Dales Countryside Museum (stick from Marie Hartley’s personal collection).

Knitting The Old Dales Way: Workshops

ohkdKnitting the Old Dales Way. How To Use a Knitting Stick or Shetland Knitting Belt: workshop

A rare chance to learn this brilliant, simple but obscure method of knitting. Let’s keep this old Yorkshire craft alive! For its opening weekend, the Yorkshire Museum of Farming is holding a Country Crafts event, and I’ll be doing talks (more of that down the week) and two workshops, one on each day.

This workshop will show you how to knit like the old Dales knitters! I can’t promise to make you into a ‘terrible knitter of Dent’ in a couple of hours. But you will learn how to use a knitting stick and be part of the revival of this almost-lost art.

What is this thing, a ‘knitting stick’?

Knitting sticks were widely used by Yorkshire knitters from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. It was usually a piece of wood with a hole drilled in it, used to anchor the working needle. This made knitting faster and less strain on the wrists. There is a knack to using a knitting stick. It is useful for folk who do living history, also people with some disabilities, or who are prone to repetitive strain injuries, can benefit from using a knitting stick. They’re great for traditional knitting – Arans,  gansies or Fair Isle but also fantastic for knitting contemporary designs ~ jumpers, socks, hats or gloves. Whether you knit in the round or on two needles,  learning to use a knitting stick will speed up your knitting and improve your tension.

Place:

The Yorkshire Museum of Farming

Murton Park

Murton

York

YO19 5UF

http://www.murtonpark.co.uk/

Date & Time

Saturday April 5th, and Sunday April 6th. Workshops are part of the museum’s Country Crafts weekend, so plenty of other things to see and do at the Museum.

Time: 1:30pm – 3:30pm

Price: £12.50 (includes Museum admission)

Suitable for: knitters who know how to cast on!

Bring: yourself, and a belt (or apron with a waistband). You’ll tuck your stick into this. Materials will be provided at workshop. We will loan you a stick, and needles, on the day, for you to learn with.  But feel free to acquire your own and bring them along. Needles: if bringing your own, 8” or longer stainless steel dpns are best. We will loan on the day though.

NB: We won’t be knitting a set project, just learning the technique – so you can bring along something you’re already working on (if you have dpns for it, 2 or 4 as appropriate) or just bring yourself and a belt! So long as you can cast on and knit, you can do this workshop.

If You Want Your Own Knitting Stick/Belt, You Can Get One From…

You can buy knitting sticks or belts from Handmade Things.

Shetland knitting belts are also available from Jamieson & Smith, the Shetland Wool Brokers.

What You’ll Learn:

You’ll leave this workshop knowing how to knit using a knitting stick (sheath) or belt, so you can then take this useful technique and run with it… (Don’t run with needles, though! Not very sensible) .

Workshop places are limited, so pre-book to avoid disappointment.

To book, email penelopehemingwayATgmail.com or phone the Museum on 01904 489966

Swaving – A Load of Old Pony

By Gervase Markham (Cavalarice, or the English Horseman) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I prefer to take my information from the horse’s mouth. Other folk go to the opposite end.

And some of the misinformation coming out re. ‘swaving’ is, frankly, a load of old pony.

Let’s see what Dalesfolk – who saw it – said ‘swaving’ was.  Then see if you can find any reliable/accurate demo of it online. I guarantee you – you won’t. No-one is currently doing it, as defined by – well, people who saw it. Or rather; someone may be quietly, modestly swaving away, somewhere but they are not online telling us about it!

Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby saw swaving with their own eyes. ‘Swaving’ is also known as ‘strikin’ t’loop’ (please gods, let no-one appropriate that one) and apparently, in Swaledale, it was known as ‘weaving’. As discussed in a previous post, the etymology is uncertain but it looks to mean “see-sawing” or “rocking”.

Certain would-be ‘swavers’ have decided swaving is all happening out of view,  somewhere at the end of the needle in the socket of the knitting stick. They claim that enthralled bystanders see nothing different, from a distance, when they see them ‘swave’. And right there, you have it.  If the casual bystanders are seeing nothing weird – you are not swaving.  In fact, you’re knitting sedately.

Swaving was a whole upper body, rocking movement.  Hartley and Ingilby noted:

… the secret of the method is the rhythmic up and down movements of the arms performed so that the right needle ‘strikes the loop’ without the least hesitation. The body sways up and down in sympathy with this action which is something like the beating of a drum

[Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, Hartley & Ingilby, p.18, 1991 edition].

They add:

… It is impossible to do it in slow motion; and the loops fly off quicker than the eye can see….

The fact the very word means “rocking” in dialect, added to the Misses Hartley and Ingilby’s account of it, is compelling evidence.

And brings us back to Howitt’s famous 19thC description of swavers:

….They sit rocking to and fro like so many weird wizards…. this rocking motion is connected with a mode of knitting peculiar to the place, called swaving, which is difficult to describe… Ordinary knitting is performed by  a variety of little motions, but this is a single uniform tossing motion of both the hands at once, and the body often accompanying it with a sort of sympathetic action

[Howitt, quoted in ‘The Old hand-Knitters of the Dales’, p. 79]

From this we can conclude: no rocking motion – no swaving.

I have been unable to find video footage (so far) as anyone contemporary or in the archives, swaving. Knitting in a ponderous manner with no see-sawing/rocking motion, or simultaneous movement of both hands – well, you can find that.  It isn’t ‘swaving’. That is absolutely crystal clear from Howitt and the Misses Hartley and Ingilby’s descriptions.  It is unfortunate when dialect terms are being appropriated by folk who don’t even understand them.

No special ‘tools’ are needed. A recent comment on my blog from someone who saw swaving in Pateley Bridge, mentions the fact the lady had no knitting stick.  For the convulsive, simultaneously both arms kind of movement – a stick would be a matter of choice. Neither do you need ‘special’ needles. The needles in various museums are often curved, but  sometimes, not. You can do it with Hiya Hiya small gauge steel needles. Having seen (and handled) needles from various museums across the North of England, it was evident to me that the needles used in the past by commercial or gansey knitters had no special magic.

So I hope no-one spends any money in the quest to swave. Simply read the accounts, and have a go!  Yorkshire folk are known for their directness – but also for our thriftiness. “Owt fer nowt” was one of my dad’s favourite sayings.  If folk out there want to knit in the spirit of the old Dalesfolk – just do it how it pleases thee, and tha’ll be reet. And don’t part wi’ thi brass to do it.

Swaving in the context of ganseys is a load of rubbish too, as the surviving swavers in the mid 19thC told the Misses Hartley and Ingilby that it could only be done for sections of plain stocking stitch. Ganseys of course, rely on purl and plain alternating for their patterning.  Stocking stitch jumpers were knitted in the Dales.  Howitt specifically says it was ‘peculiar’ to the Dales.

Living Historians are going to have to reclaim this one, before its meaning is distorted. Call to arms! (Well, needles). If anyone reading this finds a video of someone swaving (either now or in the past), do give us the link and we can all share it. In the meantime, please be assured no-one alive is doing it. Yet. Or if they are, they are not putting videos up on the internet.

When you swave but the casual onlooker can’t see any difference between that and your usual knitting style – you’re not swaving. You’re just knitting.

Not Swaving, But Drooning

Manchester Art Galleries, ‘Dales Knitter’ doll. 1830-40

“I was too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.”
Stevie Smith, Not Waving But Drowning

So, what is “swaving”?

In the words of the oft-quoted passage from William Howitt’s ‘The Rural Life of England’ (1838):

“…As soon as it becomes dark, and the usual business of the day is over, and the young children are put to bed, they rake or put out the fire; take their cloaks and lanterns, and set out with their knitting to the house of the neighbour where the sitting falls in rotation…The whole troop of neighbours being collected, they sit and knit, singing knitting-songs, and tell knitting stories… All this time their knitting goes on with unremitting speed. They sit rocking to and fro like so many weird wizards. They burn no candle, but knit by the light of the peat fire. And this rocking motion is connected with a mode of knitting peculiar to the place, called swaving, which is difficult to describe. Ordinary knitting is performed by a variety of little motions, but this is a single uniform tossing motion of both the hands at once, and the body often accompanying it with a sort of sympathetic action… They knit with crooked pins called pricks.; and use a knitting-sheath consisting commonly of a hollow piece of wood….”

Howitt’s account is taken by some as Holy Writ simply because it is one of the few accounts in print (or rather, widely circulated), to describe swaving. However, we should not get too OCD about Howitt’s every word. He was not a knitter. This is about as good as it gets, if you want a description, though.

“Swave” is a lost Yorkshire dialect word; so obscure that even the more obscure reaches of the ‘Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society’ couldn’t give us many clues. When I couldn’t find anything cognate in the most definitive Anglo Saxon dictionaries, I knew it was probably a medieval (later) word.

I have looked in all kinds of obscure books and journals on Yorkshire dialect. Including one exquisite little book from 1810, with the catchy title: “Specimens of the Yorkshire Dialect To which is added a GLOSSARY of Such of the Yorkshire words As Are Likely not to be understood by those UNACQUAINTED with the Dialect” (Anon, Published Knaresborough, Price 6d).

Distracted by this glorious book, I did find a gem for the hand-spinners here – in a poem called “T’deeath of Owd Deeasy An Eclogue”, which is a lengthy poem about the tragic death of Georgy’s old mare. Georgy, a practical Yorkshireman, mourns the death of his faithful horse but simultaneously calculates how much value he can get out of her body:

“Thy hide poor lass! Ah’ll hay it tann’d wi’ care,

‘T’ull mak’ a cover to my owd arm-chair.

An pairt – an appron for my wife to wear,

When cardin’ woul, or weshin’ t’parlour fleer….”

In another poem, a girl thinks of her dull and not very wealthy paramour, and hopes at the coming Fair, she can swap him for a rich farmer’s son:

Why sud Ah nut succeed as weel,

And get a man full out genteel

As awd John Darby’s daughter Nelly;

Ah think mysen as good as she

She can’t mak cheese or spin like me….”

In the poems that make up the book and the glossary – no mention of the verb “to swave”.

However, I finally struck gold in “Yorkshire Words Today. A Glossary of Regional Dialect” David Paynter, Clive Upton & J.D.A Widdowson [Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1997].

Sway-pole  n. see-saw. West Riding.

Sway, various dialects use in Scotland, England…also Lakeland. ‘a see-saw’.

I am taking a leap and betting money that ‘swave’ comes from the late Middle English “sway”, “To cause to move back and forward, side to side” [Shorter OED]. In our context, it means “to rock” like a see-saw.

Howitt described just this kind of motion. What is problematic is when his words are taken so literally, it is pronounced by Authority that ALL swaving used special needles (no – just needles)  and ALL swaving needles were called ‘pricks’ (snigger, but yes that is just a Yorkshire dialect word meaning ‘needle’ generally – not specifically any one kind of needle), and that ALL swaving happened with a special knitting stick. (In Yorkshire dialect it was more often ‘stick’ than ‘sheath’). Don’t waste your time making the more puerile amongst us laugh by insisting your ‘swaving’ needles are now ‘pricks’. That is just the defunct, catch-all word for ‘needles’, and not something arcane or specific to this one technique.

Swaving happened with a stick or wisk – Howitt mentions both and we have no reason to disbelieve him, as both survive as extant artefacts in Yorkshire.  Folk swaved with curved needles.  But there is no reason to believe these are ‘special’ or magically ‘different’ in any way to the usual curved needles. What Howitt described was a group of people all of whom happened to have curved needles.  Some 20thC Dales knitters said they knew people who preferred straight needles, and others who preferred curved; and there were those folk who swapped between the two, depending on mood.  A curved needle would help the knitter ‘strike t’loop’ if held at the right angle.

Researching my forthcoming book ‘River Ganseys’ I took a few other peregrinations into Yorkshire knitting history – ah come on, it’s me. I never stick to the point!  And one thing I researched was… swaving.

Interviewed in the 1970s, Marie Hartley said:

“… We found and saw one person knitting in the old way, Mrs Crabtree of Flintergill, Dent, then in her 79th year. We were told to go and see her, and when we knocked at her door she opened it with her knitting in her hand and a knitting sheath tucked in her apron band.
“We regret that we did not meet her sister, Polly Stephenson, who also used the ‘swaving’ action in knitting…

“…The swift execution in knitting was achieved by the exponent being taught as a child, often by her father. We wish that we had borrowed a cine camera and recorded Mrs Crabtree in action, for this skill is something which has gone, never to be seen again in the Yorkshire Dales…

Had Misses Hartley and Ingilby been able to borrow a cine camera, we’d be in less doubt about the precise nature of swaving, today. I’ve been checking out archive footage for the past couple of years now, in the hope of finding swaving as someone else may have caught it on film, intentionally or not. Still haven’t found it.

Numerous Dales knitters interviewed in the 1950s-70s did remark that swaving could only be practised fast on straightforward sections of stocking stitch – not on ribbing, or lace, or anything else at all. Some said it was faster to use bent needles, others said they preferred straights. Knitters did not routinely ‘swave’ everything in sight, as some would have you believe – because whole sections of work were not suitable for this technique. They’d swave down a plain bit, then revert to their ‘normal’ way of knitting if there were a lot of purls, or swave but swave much slower. I suspect swaving was not much use for two colour knitting either, given the fact they said they couldn’t use it much for Knit and Purl. Swaving would work great for that endless Forth Bridge for 18thC and 19thC knitters – the vanilla plain stocking, in other words.

So far as I know – to date – we only have reference to this as a Yorkshire, inland technique. That may change as other information comes to light.

The misguided would have you believe there is barely a discernible difference for the onlooker,  between swaving and ‘normal’ knitting. Not true. Swaving was a very visible rocking motion of the whole upper body, not a tiny fine motor thing happening at the tip of the needles. No-one was in any doubt when they saw swaving – either Howitt in the 1830s, or Marie Hartley in the 1940s. It looked so different, Marie Hartley wished she’d filmed it. The technique would not be called the dialect word for ‘see-sawing’ if all the see-sawing was happening inside the knitting stick!

Ganseys do not lend themselves to a crafty swave – because so much of them is Purl and Knit relief patterning – a total no-go for swaving, according to those surviving into the mid 20thC who were taught to knit by habitual swavers. We can’t reconstruct everything there is to know about swaving, but there is no reason to believe a special or different stick was used for it – and certainly no special adaptations or attachments would be needed. The movement appears to have been an almost convulsive rocking of the whole (upper?) body thing, not a tiny swivel located somewhere in the knitting stick.

Less often quoted, is Mary Howitt’s novel, ‘Hope On, Hope Ever!’  (1840), which also describes Dales knitters, but not swaving:

… the dales-people have another employment…. this is knitting. Old men and young;  women and children, all knit…. There still is a demand, at Kendal, for their goods – caps, stockings, jackets and shirts; and, though everyone says the trade was better in their father’s time, they still go on knitting, contented in the belief that, while the world stands, stockings and caps will be wanted, and consequently, dales people will always be knitters…

Stockings and caps would of course, be prime swaving material, with all those acres of stocking stitch.

There are several passages in Mary Howitt’s book describing various characters knitting stockings; no doubt this reflects the reality of the vast majority of the Dales people’s work. At one point, a character mentions giving someone a dozen pairs of stockings of her own knitting, as a gift. Swaving would make this work go faster – where purl stitches are only used at the faux seam and, possibly, clocks (patterns) at the ankles.

One 1950s’ source interviewed a Sedburgh woman, who was taught to swave as a child. She said they called it “strikin t’loop”, which is rather more suggestive of the motion – presumably if you hit at the right speed or angle, what you will get is a loop straight on the needle. This lady was taught to knit by her grandma who learned to knit at a knitting school in the Dales – as many, many Yorkshire children learned to knit. Not the romantic ‘at grandma’s knee’ stuff – this was an industrial technique. And again, rather than a ‘fisherman’ thing – the only evidence we have for swaving suggests it was an inland phenomenon. Sedburgh, or ‘Sedbusk’ as it was often called, was known for its fine glove knitting tradition.

Knitting schools were run by farmers or their families. Some coastal towns also had their knitting schools. Sometimes the masters or mistresses even of coastal knitting schools are also traceable to inland farms.  It was at the knitting schools that children learned to swave. This lady remarked that only ‘clever’ knitters could swave a purl stitch but even then, that would work for garter stitch – not alternating purl and knit, as in a gansey. Top speed she called ‘gallopin’. She said you slowed down to canterin’ when it wasn’t just knit stitch.

This puts swaving fairly firmly in the stocking knitter’s armoury of techniques and out of the romantic gansey knitting fisher families, although those children on the coast who attended a Knitting School will quite likely, have learned to swave.  Not what some ‘experts’ want to hear.

If you want sources and references and much more detail about ‘swaving’  or ‘strikin’ t’loop’, – do get on our mailing list at Cooperative Press, and you will be amongst the first to know when my more in-depth look at the art of swaving, is published. I will have much more info there, and everything is referenced for your delectation.  Soon now!

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