Mudags, aka:  muirlags, Crealagh and craidhleag (creels) were egg-shaped baskets with a ‘post hole’, used for holding wool ready to spin. They are known to have been a thing in Scotland – and so, hopefully, Ireland, Wales and England too.

You placed your mudag close to the fire, for the wool’s lanolin to melt a little, and make fibre  easier to spin.

This probably went hand in hand with the old Northern superstition mentioned by Wordsworth in ‘Song Of The Spinning Wheel’ –  that wool spun more easily when the sheep were asleep:


Now, beneath the starry sky,

Couch the widely-scattered sheep;—

Ply the pleasant labour, ply!

For the spindle, while they sleep,    

Runs with speed more smooth and fine,

Gathering up a trustier line.

Baskets are perishable.  This kind of basket was probably made from willow; maybe sometimes, hazel.  I think the mudag at the National Museum of Scotland is thought to possibly date ‘only’ from the 1920s or 30s.  As the mudags were often kept close to the fire, the willow would dry out and sometimes old ones are scorched on one side.

We are lucky enough to live close to the river, and there are basketmakers of great skill in our village.  I know they’re good because when I have taken their work to living history events or wool shows, other experience basket weavers often come up and comment how they’ve used a really unusual or old technique.

So we took a description and dimensions to them and they attempted to make a mudag but weren’t quite happy with how it turned out. I’m sure they were just perfectionists!   Meantime, I had started a thread on Ravelry, asking the knowledgeable folk there about mudags and a kind Raveller in Scotland offered to sell me a mudag she had and wasn’t using.  The parcel duly arrived – looking like a bubble-wrapped dinosaur egg! I didn’t give up the Quest to find a local maker, however, because I thought these would be a great thing to sell at wool shows, and in keeping with our demos on traditional spinning.  Also the mudag is highly practical as a way to keep ready to spin wool in an airy condition – and will keep enquiring hands from rolags or tops. Useful for shows.

I thought briefly about making one myself but decided it’s a craft too far and besides, what with getting stock ready to sell over the winter, and writing my next book, and commissions,  I knew that was unrealistic to find the time.

My local basket-weavers recommended a basketmaker in another village – and so I emailed him various links to pictures and descriptions and he said thought he could make one.  And he did.

TOP: Yorkshire made mudag  BOTTOM: Scottish mudag VERY BOTTOM: son’s toe

We went to pick up the mudag after a couple of weeks. The lovely basketmaker was concerned it looks a bit elongated but that is actually perfect for the table of our Great Wheel. He has been making baskets all his life – his family have been basketmakers since the mid nineteenth century in this area – and he said, he had never made anything quite like this.  He had to make a former specially for this first mudag (which we have asked him to keep as we’re ordering more from him).  He is confident that now he has made one, the next ones will be a bit less elongated.

He said his first ever baskets were for the local farmers’ potatoes. I realised that his father probably knew and did business with my grandad and great grandad as the farm where my mum was born is not far away.    We have found what look like deliberately planted small stands of willow here, along the river – no longer harvested. Often the willow seems to be in little inlets or ‘ings’, some of which may have been dug out from the river bank.   The basketmaker told us that until the 1950s, basketmakers here would pay the farmers who owned land abutting the river, a small fee to collect the willow every year. I know from an 1830s’ tithe map that my family owned a field or two in the ings here, and presumably this would have been a nice extra earner for the farmers, alongside renting out horses and ‘horse marines’ to tow the keels and sloops when the tow path ran along their land.

We forget there was once a world before cardboard boxes. With many small docks here along the rivers, as well as fishermen, and also so much good arable land and farming going on – there would have been a huge demand for baskets. Apparently, in the nineteenth century there were seven basketmakers in this small village alone.

The basketmaker’s family started in the same village as mine, and moved out roughly in the same direction as the years passed. We will, no doubt, have had ancestors who were friends, if not relatives (He mentioned one local surname I have seen was a witness, several times in the eighteenth century, to family weddings so we were at the very least, family friends). My uncle lived for around 60 years in the same village as the basketmaker – as he was a jockey, and left the village where mum and my aunty remained, a few miles away.

The baskets are still made in a workshop which is part of the now uninhabited cottage.  I have long been fascinated by abandoned and empty cottages in this area, and would give my right arm for one like this. (If you have an abandoned croft going spare, you know who to give it to!) From the old, bricked-in doorway you can see it was two cottages knocked into one – still unspoilt by the hand of gentrification:

Original basketmaker’s cottage

I’m not sure if mudags were even used in England, and if so, what they were called or how they were shaped. Sometimes Great Wheels had inbuilt boxes on the table.  In the Walker engraving, the spinning woman has simply draped rolags over the table but of course, those being stored ready to go may well have been in some sort of container on the hearth.

All being well we hope to have some of our basketmaker’s mudags at Masham Sheep Fair, for anyone who wants to buy one, made by a professional basket-maker from a long line of Yorkshire basketmakers. And over the winter will be making an Etsy or Folksy shop to sell these and some other handmade goods.

Wintry Today
Near the river Ouse (abandoned willow stand about half a mile from here!) CREDIT: Nat Hunt






Making a mudag


National Museum of Scotland Isle of Skye mudag



Walking Wheel – How Many Miles A Month?

spinning wheel
Illustration by Marie Hartley, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, 1951.

So how many miles could a Great Wheel spinner walk in a month? 120 miles?

To reprise; in “Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning”, Patricia Baines wrote:

…It is said that spinners who worked in the textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire walked the equivalent of 30 miles a week spinning wool…


[Baines,  Batsford 1977 Edition, p.61]


I wanted to see if that was even remotely accurate. Not that I doubt Patricia Baines – have learned and continue to learn so much from her book. But you know how these things get currency, without ever quite being tested out.

At the British Wool Show, on the Saturday I tried to use a pedometer.  Only to realise my highly accurate 3D pedometer is highly accurate because – it only starts counting after ten consecutive steps. It wants to accurately measure your average stride length over those ten first steps, I think.  And I was doing less than ten, per length of yarn spun!  So it was barely counting my steps at all.

So, on Sunday, we measured the average distance I walked in spinning one length of yarn; firstly, walking backwards whilst spinning and then back towards the wheel’s head, placing the newly spun yarn onto the spindle.  In making each length of yarn, I walked about two metres – half of it backwards. Slightly more than 2m, but I settled on 2m to make my final figure a conservative estimate.

We then measured, several times, how many lengths like this were spun over a period of five minutes.  And then figured out an average.

So we knew that in 5 minutes, on average,  I walked a given distance (roughly).  Bear in mind I’m mathematically challenged.

We then figured out how many metres I’d walk in ten minutes, then 60 minutes.  Then one working day (which in the late eighteenth century might typically be around 12 hours, but we took two hours off that for other household tasks/eating, child wrangling etc).  Then we assumed a six day week.


In all, we ended up with a figure of around 57600m in a month. Which comes in at…  35.79 miles.

Obviously, that’s just a rough figure.  But does indeed verify that 30 miles a month is possible, assuming a 10 hour day and 6 day week.

30 miles a week?  I’d have to be spinning four times faster.  (To be fair, my ‘fastest’ spinning yielded a much higher figure than this, but I was very inconsistent and usually at the slower end of the spectrum, so I made everything my most conservative estimate). A show probably isn’t a fair test of distance – home, uninterrupted, (see the child is doing the cooking in the 1814 George Walker engraving?) – would give a more accurate figure.  The difference between the amount spun in 5 minutes – ie: walking backwards and forwards – at the start of the day, and once ‘warmed up’ was significantly different.

I think all this proves, rather than disproves, Baines’ assertion.  A speed considerably faster than mine (ie: the number of times the spinner walks backwards from then back towards the spindle) would be entirely possible for someone younger, fitter, who had been GW spinning since a young age, and who wasn’t at a show stopping to chat to people!

But the uncontested highlight of my weekend was spinning on the Great Wheel whilst being told a (very apt) Yorkshire folk story by none other than Ann Kingstone.   It’s always a joy to bump into Ann and Marie. Knitting people are the best kind of people anyway. Ann is, of course, a designer of great renown – but she also is a passionate enthusiast and expert about Yorkshire lore and Yorkshire knitting history.  Ann told me about The Thrangness of Keziah Throp which was fascinating.  And I told her about the weasel – the reeling device that was used to measure the length of spinners’ skeins.

womanspinning - Copy
Grandma has a weasel (on the left).    Image from ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’, George Walker. Courtesy: Yorkshire Ancestors.

I will be making a quick appearance at Ann’s Yorkshire Knitting Tour, with a talk on the history of Yorkshire Ganseys.  We’ll demonstrate knitting sticks, and all the paraphernalia of 19thC gansey knitting, etc (But not a weasel – unless I stumble on one in a junk shop in the next few months).

There were some interesting exhibitors at The British Wool Show.  My favourites included Margaret L. Glackin and Catherine Faley, who make ceramics and crafts fantastic boxes, and other things from reclaimed wood.  Some of the wood comes from demolished buildings in North Leeds, my dad’s old stamping ground – so I found the boxes fascinating as well as beautiful. I am now plotting to get to Leeds, to treat myself to one of the boxes as I regretted not buying one at the weekend!

Their ‘Craft Boxes’ look like boxes I have seen stood on the tables of old Great Wheels in pictures. I have just had a basket-maker in my village make me a mudag (well, he’s making it as we speak), so I will soon have a way to store rolags on my wheel. Otherwise one of the Craft Boxes would be perfect.  But my current Object Of Desire is one of Margaret and Catherine’s lidded boxes.  The yarn bowls look stunning too, but I can’t justify one after recently buying my fab one with a crow painted on it.

Another intriguing exhibit was the Zwirnzwerg e-spinner made by Schwabenlaud Supplies. Silent! It has a Bosch engine, apparently.

And of course, my fellow Great Wheel Spinning folk, Mad About Wool.  It makes me proud that at a wool show in Yorkshire, once the epicentre of Great Wheel spinning, you can still find not one but two Great Wheels in action. I noticed Chris was spinning from tops, worsted-style, when I wandered past. And I’d been demonstrating with rolags, woollen-style. So anyone who walked round that show, potentially got to see two very different sorts of spinning going on, on these beautiful wheels. That’s a rare thing, under one roof!

If you’re in the area, we’re doing an Old Hand knitters of the Dales talk at Tynedale Guild of Spinners, Weavers & Dyers, on Saturday morning. We won’t be in costume  (I find it hard to ‘sissy that walk’ effectively in clogs!)

Talking of which, honourable mention should also go to the lovely people from Baavet. I met the lovely gent last year, who couldn’t resist asking me about my clogs, when he heard me clomping past from a mile away, when we were demo-ing.  He used to wear clogs, he said.

He wore his clogs on Saturday this year, just to show me them.  Impressive, they were, too. Much fancier than mine.  Mine came from a farm, somewhere near Haworth and were from the 1950s or 60s, but essentially are identical to 19thC clogs.

Mr Baavet had to revert to normal shoes at some point in the afternoon of the first day of the show.  But I carried on. Because I had research to do!

So yes, we can confirm, you would be walking possibly over 30 miles a week, if Great Wheel spinning all day – if you were fast. A lot faster than me!  (I do think it is feasible as in some outlying 5 minute sections, I was much faster than others – just not feasible for me).  And I did my challenge in 1800 kit (well, no head gear – which would make me essentially a nudist in 1800). But yes – uncomfortable stays and heavy clogs.  (I did wear a dress as well…)



Image Courtesy The Wordsworth Trust.  “G.Walton, 1846”. The finest extant pair of Dales gloves. They appear to be handspun, unlike the later millspun gloves.

Fabulous Hats!


york rowing
York City Rowing Club?  1920s?



Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the  pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing around the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child’s song that it has sung so many thousand years…


Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog), Jerome K. Jerome, 1889.


I found this photo along with some others that were definitely from York, at a car boot sale.

Fabulous hats, either knitted and felted or woven. Also ‘sporting’ jumpers, V, polo and crew necked.  The jumpers look to be cream, natural colour wool – and are more likely to be machine-knitted although it’s possible one or two were hand-knitted.  The hats look to be different colours; some with darker brims than their main bodies.  Although the gent front left’s hat is all one colour.

The men’s collars make me think we are looking somewhere between 1910 – early 1920s. It’s clearly a studio photo.  I can’t be sure whether they were the rowing club, or participants in a special event on the river.  But anyway – some documentation of early 20thC sporting clothing that would otherwise have been lost to us forever.

Have A Go On A Great Wheel Weekend!

The lovely Emma spinning on my Great Wheel at Bolton Castle. Wheel custom built by Jack Greene. CREDIT: Nate Hunt

Tomorrow (5th August) and Saturday, we’ll be demonstrating the Great Wheel, at the British Wool Show, Murton, York.

If you fancy some ‘Have A Go’ great wheel spinning, come along and try your hand at it.  Very few spinners are left who can spin on the Great Wheel – we’re hoping to change that!  You can also book a half hour workshop session, on either day, for a small charge to cover materials, wool preparation, etc.

We have spent much of this week carding wool on the drum carder and will be bringing along some interesting British breeds of wool, including Whitefaced Woodland and some of our Badger-Faced Balwen for folk to try.  We will also have a bit of raw wool available for sale, from the sheep at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, next door to the livestock centre – money raised contributes to paying for the sheep to be sheared.  (Below: One of the Museum’s Badger-faceds, from prize-winning stock and a close up to show you the quality of the fleece).

On Sunday, we’ll be at the National Trust’s Nunnington Hall’s Traditional Skills day, with either the Great Wheel or the Chair Wheel or both if we can fit them in the car!  Spinners and knitters please come along, and ask all your Great Wheel/spinning questions – and the braver amongst you; have a go on our wheel!


Nunnington Hall. By Wehha (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Shepherd’s Hut & Other News

This year, I’m Writer/Crafter in Residence at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming.  So I’m starting a separate blog – we’ll have old farmhouse  recipes from my farming families’ handwritten books (I have a couple of these); fascinating delvings into the archives of the Museum, and the occasional wander round the Museum’s exhibits, reserve collection, the  hedgerows, and our little dye garden.

The first post on Yorkshire Farming History might interest folk here as it’s about our Shepherd’s Hut. Rather than me re-hash it here, follow the link to find out more.  And please do follow the new blog if you’re a fan of farming history anywhere, not just here in Yorkshire, as this is our shared heritage!


Uncle Walt Ledger, labourers and traction engine, North Duffield, East Riding


“Parthenope”. Image copyright Nick Murway

Today I’ll continue putting up some pictures of the patterns from ‘River Ganseys’. 

And also hopefully give an insight into how a pattern evolves.  This design was eventually published as “Parthenope”. I wanted to name the ganseys in the book after actual river vessels. Here’s one I called “Parthenope” (p.175ff). But in an earlier incarnation, as I was developing the design, it was simply called ‘The Gansey of Pinkness’.

“Parthenope” was a ketch (two masted ship) built on the river, at Howdendyke, in 1885. She was owned by John Holmes who lived on Neptune St, Hull.  She was named after one of the sirens of Greek myth. The gansey has the hearts pattern sometimes found on the rivers and along the coast in Yorkshire.

Initials knitted above welt

I first got the idea for this gansey, a few years back and a very early prototype of it was ‘The Gansey Of Pinkness’. 

If you fancy knitting a version of The Gansey of Pinkness, then ‘Parthenope’ is fairly close. Although like all patterns, it evolved. I will put a couple of the prototype’s pics up here simply because the motifs pop better in the paler colour.

The greatest difference between the prototype and later version, are the sleeves. My favourite shoulder and sleeve treatment, is to knit at right angles to the front and back, starting at the neck edge, and knit down, usually with a central cable which can then continue uninterrupted the whole way down the arm. I wanted to offer some different options with ‘Parthenope’ so that ended up with a simpler shoulder and sleeve. I like to go off piste when knitting other people’s patterns, so hope anyone knitting mine will totally ignore my suggestions and do the shoulders and sleeves another way to that suggested, if they prefer.

In the book, for technical reasons, we had to present the ganseys’ body charts as a series of small, separate charts but when I work, I always make a big master chart that incorporates all the vertical motif patterns, in one go and work from that.

Often traditional gansey motifs have varying depths and the challenge for me is usually to even things out so that all my different vertical panels have the same number of rounds’ repeat, or smaller motifs are in multiples of larger.  This obviates the need for the knitter to keep different round counters for different pattern panels.

Charting the old-fashioned way


And although I chart on Envisioknit, and export that as a .PDF to whatever machine I’m using – iPad or laptop – I also usually draw out a chart the old-fashioned way, by hand, even if it involves sellotaping several widths of graph paper together – knowing from long experience that my laptop gets hijacked by teenagers who want to play ‘Football Manager’ and my iPad usually ends up being  commandeered, at some point, too!

I have knitted fern motifs on several ganseys and they do seem to be a motif I re-visit – diamonds and stars also re-cured during ‘River Ganseys’ – largely because they actually do recur on extant inland mariners’ ganseys.  The ferns not so much – but they remind me of the fir trees in the little plantations here, along the river.



The alternate open and closed hearts are a bit of a trademark of my knitting. The closed hearts I always think of as kind of memorials, to the loved ones I’ve lost. As I was knitting a child’s gansey with hearts when my late dad fell ill and segued into closed hearts then.  I can never quite make all the hearts closed, though.

Even old motifs can change their meaning, and I think people’s own choices are what makes gansey knitting so unique and personal.

I wrote a ‘Ganseys 101’ chapter in ‘River Ganseys’ to support readers in developing their own designs and patterns. So I saw the gansey patterns in ‘River Ganseys’ as a handy introduction, maybe for someone knitting their first gansey who felt like a bit of hand-holding was in order. But even so, if knitting one of these feel free to substitute out motifs for others of a similar stitch count you prefer. (Knit a tension square of your planned substition motif first, maybe!)  They are just a starting point and there are other options and different ways to do things as I hope to show you with some of the other river ganseys.

I’ll be doing a couple of gansey workshops this year at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming and in the summer, a Yorkshire ganseys workshop at Baa Ram Ewe in Leeds.  So check out my Talks & Workshops pages for those!

Alternate open & closed hearts. Also, check out the different sleeve treatment to the final version that became ‘Parthenope’.






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

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…”



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…


“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.


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.


Fearnought (But the Captain)

Crime reports have to be used with caution but often they give valuable context for and insights into, clothing history.

hull maritime2
Courtesy Hull Maritime Museum. Victim William Papper (centre) and suspects; Rycroft, Brand, Yates and Blackburn, in a similar case.

In next month’s The Knitter magazine, (Issue 93), I’ve written an article about how I used crime reports to gather information about nineteenth century clothing.

Here’s a news story that is not in the article, but still interesting – as it explodes the myth promulgated in recent years, that ganseys were incredibly warm, waterproof; basically all you needed to wear at sea to keep warm.

Clothes got mentioned in newspaper stories often in the context of harrowing events like murder, suicide, and on the inland waterways, the frequent ‘Found Drowneds’. Sometimes, clothes were mentioned to identify bodies; sometimes, because clothing – or the lack of it – part of the reason for death.

From The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, September 26th, 1842:


[Phillip Partridge, a sea Captain of Jarrow, was accused of murdering a Spanish seaman, Jose Maria Balager. The day before, he had been cleared of killing another sailor, called Mariani. Witness John Fisher describes  the captain beating Mariani. Fisher was relieved by Mariani at the ship’s wheel]:


…the weather was very cold, and he had a pea-jacket on him, and some old rags over it to keep him warm…Partridge ordered him to take off his jacket … and [the captain] threw it overboard…


[Witness Henry Allen described how the Captain made Mariano stand, almost naked, in the rigging for hours, flogging him if he tried to come down]:


 He had only a little Guernsey frock on him….The weather was too cold for a man to be without his jacket.


The ‘jacket’ , here a ‘pea jacket’, was often the ‘Fearnought’ – made from heavy, woven wool. (Fearnought trousers were also worn so it appears to be a name for the heavy duty woollen fabric used). Pea-jackets may or may not have been made from Fearnought type fabric. The Fearnought jacket pictured in the link, is from a Yorkshire ship of the 1780s – and so the wool was very likely to have been manufactured in Leeds or thereabouts.

The use of Fearnought also, of course, belies the myth that somehow ganseys were magical garments, impervious to the elements. As does this news story.

Crime reports have to be used with caution but often they give valuable context for and insights into, clothing history.


October Workshops – Cancelled

Sadly, due to unforeseen circs, (a race closing off part of the road) the Museum of Farming has cancelled their Harvest event, this coming weekend (10th-11th Oct), so we have decided to re-schedule the workshops for later in the year. Keep your eyes peeled for further info.

Hope this hasn’t inconvenienced anyone, as I know it’s short notice.

If anyone wants one-to-one spinning tuition in the meantime, message me here or email and I’ll be happy to help!


Desperately Seeking E. Shoppee

When I’m not knitting or genealogy-ing, I like to fix up vintage sewing machines and sew with them.

I spent some time, earlier this year, fixing up Victorian/Edwardian hand crank machines; £11 – £15 car-boot bargains;  a Singer 28K and a couple of Jones Family C.S machines.

Singer 66K
My 1910 Singer 66K

Vintage, metal machines have none of the built-in obsolescence of modern, electronic machines with their dodgy plastic gears and starting-frying-the-day-you-pick-it-up circuitry. In fact, they were intended to be serviced and even fixed by the owners if anything dropped off or went wrong. Mechanically, they are so well built, there is very little to drop off or go wrong. Most I have seen have just needed a new needle, a clean and oiling. My own old treadle machine which was stored badly, was another story. That took 18 months of jiggling, threatening, and soaking in a rust-freeing agent, to bring it back to life.

Our car boot machines were pretty, had no sentimental value, so were good to learn on. Now they’re cleaned and fixed, I’ve passed them on to my adult sons and one of my son’s friends.

1956 Singer 221K
1956 Singer 221K

Once I got the hang of how to strip down, clean and fix up machines, I started looking round for an ‘interesting’ and older machine to play with. Funds are limited – that’s a polite way of putting it – but I sold a couple of things on eBay to finance it and the same week, along came a 1956 Singer 221K and a 1885 Singer 12K. Sewing machine afficionados will know a 221K (“Featherweight”) is a much prized thing. They were made in several Singer factories from the 1930s-1960s. British ones were made in Kilbowie, Scotland. As was my 1885 Singer 12K.

Sewing machines were developed from around 1851. But the first truly popular Singer was the 12. Those made in Scotland are designated “12K”; the “K” for “Kilbowie”.

The 12K was patented in 1861, so although mine dates from 1885 it is essentially the same as one made during the American Civil War.

1885 Singer 12K BEFORE
1885 Singer 12K BEFORE
1885 Singer 12K AFTER

I got mine for a stupidly cheap price.

I thought if I could fix this machine up, I could even make some later 19thC living history kit, using it. Research online told me it took an unusual – and expensive at £5 a pop – needle. Also the shuttle is odd – you have to tension it by snaking the bobbin thread in and out through a series of holes and it’s very much trial and error which threading pattern works.

Manuals for old Singers can be downloaded online for free. The 12K manual is here.

The seller was not into sewing, so couldn’t even tell me if there was a bobbin in so he thought not. He said he couldn’t open the slide plates, to see. I just wanted a fiddle-base old sewing machine.   I knew a replacement shuttle and one bobbin might set me back almost as much as I paid for the machine, and the bobbin winder in the picture looked bizarre, so that might need replacing too… but I was happy with that bargain price.  It came in its original case with two rusty, ancient keys attached. The case alone is a piece of cabinet maker’s art; the machine, when it’s unlocked, slides out from the case. I was thrilled to get the case too, as research online told me it was original.

Mechanism inside face-plate

I expected this machine to have some bits missing and maybe the mechanics would be seized like this 12K’s. It looks distinctive compared to the later, more common vintage machines with its japanned face plate and balance wheel.

When it came, it took very little brute force to free up the throat plate and discover it not only had an immaculate shuttle inside, but one lone bobbin as well.  That was a few quid saved! I bought a spare needle and bobbin from Helen Howes , who sells old sewing machine parts at a very reasonable price and gives excellent advice, too.

All the bright-work was rusted – as you can see in the Before and After shots, I managed to get the worst of it off.

On the day the machine came, with a pair of keys tied to its rusty handle with a nasty piece of nylon twine, I wondered if the ancient lock would even work, and whether we’d even be able to get it out of the case. Even though the seller on eBay must have, as he’d photographed it. But with one turn of the key, it slid out of the box no problem.

Behind the faceplate...
Behind the faceplate…

Amazingly, the machine was not seized – just a bit sluggish. The feed dogs still moved; the presser bar still worked; the needlebar was not frozen in time like my own 66K had been. This is a machine so ‘obsolete’ – and ‘ugly’ by mid twentieth century standards if beautiful by our’s – that you can bet it has spent most of the past 70 years or so in an attic.  It was dirty, sure, and full of dusty cobwebs underneath – but the decals were in better condition than we’d expected, and a bit of mild, soapy water and some cotton wool buds followed by a gentle polish on the paintwork with sewing machine oil, soon had it looking clean again. I carefully dismantled enough of it to clean inside.

I always think of the people who used a machine decades ago, when I find the lint in the bobbin race, and the few remaining threads on the bobbin. In this case a rather fetching vivid purple silk seems to be the last thread ever used. I wonder what it made? This machine may have been quietly put aside as long ago as pre WW2.

I have cleaned up several old machines now and never had a receipt forgotten in a drawer, or any provenance so expected nothing to get my genealogical teeth into, with this.

But when we looked at the old case, with a view to cleaning up the wood, there was some writing, so heavily scored out we could barely decypher it, in black ink or paint on the back side of the case. It hadn’t shown up in the eBay photos. It appeared to be a name.

1885 case
1885 case

I used Maas metal polish on the machine’s bright-work and  Parker & Bailey’s Orange Oil Polish to clean up the wood. Both are US products, available for an arm and a leg at Lakeland, in the UK. I cleaned very gently over that writing, in case I damaged it. I didn’t. And out in the daylight there we saw, under all the crossing out, the name “E. SHOPPEE”. It took a while to figure it out. I wasn’t even sure “Shoppee” was a name.

“E. Shoppee”

Maybe s/he wasn’t the first owner, but the chances were, an “E Shoppee” owned the little 12K somewhere round the back end of the nineteenth century, as the machine was still new and valuable enough for her to want to emblazon her name all over it.  I will assume ‘her’ as professional tailors and seamstresses generally used other, more industrial machines like the Singer 13K: the 12K was the first big household sewing machine. The 12K remained in production for a long time, even though later, better machines superceded it. By 1910, a tailor  or seamstress might well want a Singer 66K with its larger harp space, but not the little 12K. So the chances are its earlier owner is likely to have been female, subsequent owners even more likely to have been women. The 12K was originally known as “The New Family” machine, because it was intended for domestic use.  Jones had the similarly named “Family C.S” (Cylindrical Shuttle) which was aimed at the same market.

A search of Ancestry brings up almost only one family group of people called “Shoppee” in and around London in the late 19thC. Thank the gods the owner wasn’t Elizabeth Smith! An obit in The Daily News for 1897, said that the family’s great grandfather was a Huguenot called “Chapuis”, which may explain the fact I could only find one family group with this name.

I can’t be sure which of the female Elizabeth, Emma or Emily Shoppees, over several generations, owned the 1885 Singer but there is a stronger candidate, given the ages and family occupations of some Shoppees, compared to others.  If I’m right she is unlikely to have been the first owner, but was an early one.

“My” E Shoppee could be a Shoppee by birth or by marriage.

Which begs the question – who would be likely to own a Singer 12K made in 1885?

The 12K hit the British market around 1866. It has been described as:

…the finest sewing machine the world had ever seen at the time and the pinnacle of inventive genius from the design team at Singers.

It became the world’s best selling sewing machine and kept that predominance til production ended in 1902.

In the early years, a 12K would cost an average year’s wages. Singer pioneered the Hire Purchase model of trading, so many people bought their 12K over a period of years. Which democratised the sewing machine as a household item but it still would have been out of the reach, financially, of many people.   A charwoman would have been less likely to own a sewing machine, in the early days, than a school teacher. For decades, the sewing machine was the single most expensive item in many a home. These old hand-cranks we can pick up for a tenner at a car boot were once someone’s most treasured possession – it’s easy to forget that. They revolutionised women’s lives, a bit like the washing machine was to do.

You can date your Singer machine using its serial number  here.   Singer numbered every part so if a part of your machine is shot, the chances are you will be able to replace it – and much more cheaply than a modern machine part would cost. The eBay seller had shown the serial number in close up, so I had known the date of the machine before I bought it. Mine has the most common Acanthus Leaves decals but some later ones have the spectacular, and more rare, Ottoman Carnations – which are probably my favourite Singer decals ever. There was also a gilt and mother of pearl  roses 12K. Identify your Singer decals here.

The Shoppees seem to have been exemplars of that mid nineteenth century urban phenomenon – social mobility. In the early part of the century, they were builders but by the latter end of the century, it was a family of architects and surveyors, doctors and other professionals. London offered more scope for this than most British cities.

My favourite candidate for “my” E Shoppee is Emma E. Shoppee, who on the 1901 Census was 26 and living in Hornsey, London with her husband, Joseph W. Shoppee, a London-born Commission Merchant’s Clerk.  As the machine dates to 1885, she would not be its first owner but maybe it was passed on to her. It may even have come from her family in York, or the Shoppees in London. As a hand-crank, she’d be able to travel with it. You would certainly want to pass on your sewing machine to a relative or friend. So this one may have come from either her York or her London family, if Emma was the owner.

Free BMD told me that Emma Elizabeth Hawkswell married Joseph W Shoppee in the second quarter of 1899 in York.

The 1881 Census found Emma E Hawkswell living down the road from me, at 19, Stonegate, York – somewhere in the centre of Stonegate – it must have been re-numbered since – as the Census enumerator veers off down Coffee Yard straight after visiting the Hawkswells’ house.  In 1881, Emma lived with her parents, Ralph and Emma. Ralph was a lithographic printer with 3 employees.  The Hawkswells, like the Shoppees, were firmly middle class. In 1891, she was still at 19, Stonegate and now a Pupil Teacher, aged 16.

Emma married Joseph Shoppee at the Salem Congregational Church in York, June 14th, 1899.

On the last available census, 1911, Emma had two children and was living at 38 Womersley Rd with Joseph and her younger brother, Stanley, a jeweller’s shop assistant; still in Hornsey. By 1911, Emma’s father, Ralph was now retired from lithography, now working as an Antiques Dealer, still at 19, Stonegate.

It might be that my machine had an early owner who was a York woman, and it has ended up, 130 years later, very close to York! She won’t have been its original owner, though, as the machine was already 14 years old by the time Emma Hawkswell was Emma Shoppee…

I did find several other possible E. Shoppees but they looked less likely than Emma; elderly by 1885, or too young, or had married and lost the Shoppee surname prior to 1885…  It is very likely the machine belonged to one of this family. One of the better bets was Elsie Shoppee, a doctor’s daughter, who married Stacey Hammond in 1895. Which would mean she had ten years as E Shoppee from 1885 on. But she was only 6 when the machine was made.  Other E Shoppees seem to have been out of the country in the 1880s/90s.  One Elizabeth Shoppee died in 1886 – a year after the machine was made – in Uxbridge, aged 63.  She was another possibility but a remote one.

The machine is almost restored. I really have to bite the bullet now and try and thread up the shuttle and get the needle in the right position. Both of these variables will throw a machine out, so it may need a few hours’ experimentation to get it right. But I will post pictures if and when  I get it sewing!


This post is in memory of my very dear friend, the supreme living history needlewoman, and Dove Cottage’s own Dorothy Wordsworth,  Caro.  I never got to tell her the tale of E Shoppee and the Singer 12K. She’d have loved it, though, so this one is for you, Pretty Lady.

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