Needled

Gansey needles, Filey Museum. CREDIT: David Hunt

From the Patients’ Disbursement Books, The Retreat, York. Ref: Ret  3/10/1/1  

Judith Robertson

1799 10 Sept, 1799

Knitting needle  3d

1800 8 June

Patent knitting needles  3d  Pasteboard 4d  – 7d

22 Sept

shrowd – 7-/ 6d coffin 42 -/

(Pasteboard = cardboard, used to make bonnet brims).

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Straights. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May. CLICK on any of these to enlarge.

The casual – and all too frequent – “coffin” and “shrowd” at the end of the Retreat asylum patients’ accounts, gets me every time.

The patients’ private accounts for their personal, needful things,  are a brilliant resource for the clothing/textile historian. From them, we can see that ‘Patent’ (shiny steel?) needles cost 3d in 1799. This was probably a set of 4 or 5.

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Needles, curved and straight. Dales Countryside Museum, Hawes. CREDIT: Belinda May

What were nineteenth century needles like? Blunt? Pointy? Both? Neither? Or even – as has been mooted – “flat-ended”..? The answer is – knitters, as ever, had their personal preferences.

Surviving needles in museums across the North of England, show every variation; blunt and pointy, curved and straight. Although rarely, of course, flat ended.

In 1981, Kathleen Kinder interviewed Mrs Clara Sedgwick of Settle, who grew up in Dentdale; maiden name Clara Middleton. Aged 82 in 1981: “…. She still uses the steel needles, size 13, which she brought out of Dent…What is more, the Editor of The Dalesman and I were shown and allowed to handle the knitting stick, carved in the traditional goose-quill shape, which her grandfather, Thomas Allen, had made for her mother. The needles the Dales knitter used were often finer  than size 13. They were known as ‘wires’ and were frequently bent with usage…”

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Curved needles. Blunter and pointier. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Some were bent with usage and some deliberately bent by the knitters who preferred them like this. Betty Hartley told interviewer Maurice Colbeck: “…I used to wonder how they found needles fine enough to make them. [Dales gloves] Then somebody told me that they used to knit them on the old long hatpins!”

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Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

ycm1Knitting sticks were used by knitters of all social classes and backgrounds – witnessed by the sticks in the collection at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth. A couple of years ago, we documented some of the sticks in their reserve collection, and saw two knitting needles from a “work-basket belonging to one of the Bronte sisters”. [Ref #: HAOBP: H176:2 and 3]. The needles I examined had fine gauges, around 1mm, and one had a slight curve which would suggest it was used with a knitting stick.

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Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Anyone who believes all needles used commercially – or by genteel ladies – were ‘blunt’ or, ‘flat ended’, only has to actually see the extant needles, to realise the error of their ways.

I leave you, Gentle reader, with these images of nineteenth century needles, to refute the bizarre theory that is playing out elsewhere on the internet.

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Straights – nothing ‘flat-ended’ but again, a mix of blunter and pointier; glove/stocking size. Dales Countryside Museum. CREDIT: Belinda May

Sarah Impey 31 March 1808 2/6 Lambswool Yarn for Stockings’ Needles and [fillet?] 8d, … 3/3 shifts making 2-/

[Patients’ Disbursements, 1807 -16] Various Patients’ Disbursement Books, The Retreat, The Borthwick Institute, University of York

Gran Taught Her To Knit at the Age of Three, Maurice Colbeck, The Dalesman, Vol. 57, January 1996.

Knitting in the Dales Way, Kathleen Kinder, The Dalesman, Vol 42, February 1981 p.908

The Old Hand Knitters of The Dales, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby.

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“Primarily Drinking British Gin”

The Retreat. By Gemälde von Carve [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
This week I’ve mostly been writing articles, including one about a Dent-dale knitter who was confined to The Retreat, a progressive asylum in York, opened in the 1790s. I stumbled on this terrible knitter of Dent accidentally, when researching the textiles and clothing, spinning and knitting going on at The Retreat in the late 18thC/early 19thC.

The ‘Terrible Knitter of Dent’ article will be in a forthcoming issue of ‘Knit Edge’.  So I will keep my powder dry and say no more about it here. It’s a gripping story and a rarity to be able to put a name, a description and an entire life story to that usually anonymous body of people; knitters. I hope folk will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it.

Whilst researching, I was fascinated by the reasons people were certified and admitted to the asylum. I started collecting some of the reasons people found themselves there. On admission, patients had already been ‘certified’ and these certificates were placed in the Admission records. Question 4 on the certificate, was: “Supposed Cause of the insanity?”

Sometimes, doctors left this blank or said words to the effect “Search me!” A common reason for admission was “Religious melancholy” or simply “Religion”. At the start, most patients were Quakers but as time went on, they admitted on much wider criteria.

Here are just a handful of the most interesting answers, from the 1820s:

“A violent attachment to a female not approved by his friends.”

“Perhaps attending overmuch to business.”

“1st, an accident, which caused a severe contusion of the Brain.
2nd. By fright, caused by a man (unknown) getting into his Lodging room, secreting himself under some Linen in a corner of the room, and after about five weeks after this he was attacked with the first fit…”

“Uncertain; he thinks he has not been as humble as he ought to have been”.

“Hipochondriac [sic]”.

“A tedious confinement with an affected family”.

“Intemperate drinking”.

“Religious melancholy”.

“Suppose a fear of not being able to pay his just debts owing to the depression of the times”. (1826)

“Disappointments from a long attachment to a man” . (28 yr old woman)

“Intemperate use of Opium”.  (A woman of 43 or 4)

“Perhaps anxiety”! (A 29 yr old woman had three kids the youngest 17 Days).

“Suppressed or irregular menstruation”.  (A 33 year old woman).

And finally, my favourite:

“Primarily drinking British Gin”.