The Brontes’ Knitting Sticks

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.
Knitting sheathsI 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.


Original Regency fashion plates I picked up at a car boot – thinking they were nice repros! The fashionable young ladies of Penzance may well have looked like this…

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.

Knitting sheaths 2Amongst 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…”

[Barker, 51].


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.

Knitting manual writer, Elizabeth Jackson of York’s 1846 stockings. ©Interweave Press. Knitting Traditions, Spring, 2013



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).


Illustrations: David Hunt

Photos: Alfi Lister, Penelope Hemingway


Anne Bronte’s grave, Scarborough, April 2016




Wheer Theer's Muck

Knitting Sheath From the Hull Maritime Museum

The myths around traditional knitting are worth exploring.  One new one seems to be the idea that Tudor, even medieval, sailors or fishermen wore a forerunner of the gansey.  I’m going to explode a few myths in a forthcoming book, so should keep my powder dry  – but here’s a few thoughts and woolgatherings that are accruing alongside the tumbleweed that is generally between my ears.

Years ago, when we ran Foxe’s in The English Civil War Society, we had a couple of new members we called ‘The Leicester Lads’. The Leicester Lads were not your usual 1980s Foxe’s re-enactor – not historians, not archaeologists… they were Leicester Lads.  And when we were helping them kit themselves out, as we did with all the new recruits, their constant refrain was:

“Why didn’t they have jumpers in the 17thC?”

To which our stock reply was:

“They didn’t.”

“Well why not?  They could knit, couldn’t they?  They could knit tubes couldn’t they?  They could join tubes together, couldn’t they?  Why couldn’t they knit jumpers?”

“They just didn’t, OK?”

“But how do you know they didn’t?”

“They just didn’t.  Alright?”

And no, they didn’t.  And here I am 30 years on still having this dialogue.

The danger with reconstructing historical costume is – we have the benefit of hindsight.  The trouble is, we expect clothes to perform and to be weatherproof.  Fishermen in the past? They didn’t need a gansey to be equivalent to Superman’s high tech outfit.  They wanted waterproof… the put an oilskin over it.  There is a danger with all the myths flying around, we’re turning the gansey into some super-garment that it never was.  It’d be great if it was this paragon of wind-cheating, water-turning, preternatural super-powers. But what we see as ‘great’ is again, with the benefit of 20/20 vision in hindsight.

If they had jumpers in the 17thC – so by inference, earlier than that date, too –  there’d be at least one scrap of evidence for them. Somewhere.  Not an entire garment maybe but a hard to ascribe fragment of knitting.  A portrait. A reference in one, just one of the millions of Wills and Probate Inventories. I’ve read many hundreds of these on Microfilm, even coming from these villages along the river here, where there were always fishermen. Nope. No such thing as a 16thC, 17thC or even 18thC jumper.  Nil. Zero. Zilch. Pas un sausage.

Medieval Spinlde Whorls, from PH's collection

And I don’t think there’s any evidence whatsoever for knitting in England prior to the 1460s.  No hard evidence.  Which means – no evidence.  Which is not the same as saying – no jumpers.  But as good as.

OK…Certain things it would be nice to find. It would confirm what we like to think.  But the hard truth is, you can only reconstruct what is provably there.  And we can look at the entire period of history right up til the 15thC to say, we can’t prove knitting was even here in these islands. Post that kind of date, it was done here but only specific items of clothing – caps, hose, scoggers (sleeves), and at the high end, ecclesastical adornments like fancy silk and metal thread cushions. No jumpers.

Alright, what about the archaeology then?  Let’s find some hard evidence of knitting in England prior to the 1460s.

Look at the textiles found in digs. Let’s look here. In the anaerobic muck of York. Wheer there’s muck there’s brass . And maybe some fragmentary textiles. I bet if they knitted jumpers in Viking times, say – there’d be fragments of knitted fabric. Let’s see if there are.

I have in front of me ‘Anglo-Scandinavian Finds From Lloyds Bank, Pavement, and Other Sites’ (Arthur McGregor, Council for British Archaeology, 1982).  32 fragments of textile were found at the Anglo Scandinavian levels of the Lloyds Bank site due to our “exceptional soil conditions”; 13 pieces of textile from 5, Coppergate and 21 more from Lloyds Bank in 1974.

Most textiles from this period survive on the back of metal artefacts in graves.   Many of the fragments were light brown, sophisticated twills, remarkably like those found at Birka. The twills vary in sophistication but let’s just say we know the vikings had weaving down to a fine art. Witness the silk coif in The Yorkshire Museum. Two of the fragments were fine worsted (wools) and one, mulberry silk.  It is thought that they have “professional homogeneity” (ie: look manufactured). All the fabrics are woven. No knitting.

Fragments of fabric survive – even when comparatively discrete sites are dug. No fragments of knitting, though. Given that the wool used to knit with is identical chemically to the wool used to weave with – had large, knitted upper body garments existed – we’d have a square inch of one.  We have a sprang Roman stocking, after all.

The fabrics from 5, Coppergate were also broadly the same kind of thing – “woolly medium coarse repp twill”. [124]. Woven.   There was also a piece of plain woven golden coloured silk.

I venture so far back as a thousand years to prove that fragments of textile can and do survive in our mud.  It has been said they would be as rare as ‘finding a Rolls Royce’ in the mud. Tell that to the archaeologists who found this, equivalent to maybe a fleet of Rollers a few miles from here. In the mud.

If 1000-1300 year old fragments of textile are there…

How about going into medieval times, now?  Let’s sample the mud for the later period.  How about a quick look at ‘Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds From Medieval York’, [YAT, pub. Council for British Archaeology, 2002, Patrick Ottaway and Nicola Rogers].

We turn to the Textile Production section, written by the foremost expert, Penelope Walton Rogers.

This book has a very useful summary of the hard evidence for the introduction of knitting to England.  Why?  Because amongst the finds, were 3 copper alloy rods, two of 2.6mm and one of 1.9mm diameter.  They have been designated ‘knitting needles’ but no-one’s entirely sure what they are.

The two larger ones were found in the floor of 2, Aldwark.  The other one which is thought to be post-medieval, was found  at the Foundary site. At first that looks like an early date – but in all probability, the needles were deposited at some later date. Not everything found on the floor of a lost building, is contemporaneous with the day that building was raised.

The earliest samples of knitting in England are of a similar date – late 14thC. London, and early 15thC Newcastle.  Penelope Walton Rogers points out both are port towns and, for this kind of date, “there are records of knitted garments being imported in Italian galleys...” She cites Crowfoot.  Analysis of the Newcastle fragment did indeed prove it to be not English at all – but using woo and a dye from Southern Europe.

Penelope Walton Rogers cites Kirsty Buckland’s citation of the City of the Ripon Chapter Acts for the first HARD evidence of an English knitter – one Marjory Clayton of Ripon, referred to as ‘cappeknitter’ in 1465.  Until that date, there is no hard evidence for knitting.  No doubt it existed.  But the earliest evidence we have is 1465 and that is for a cap knitter.  Which is in line with everything else we know about the history of knitting in England – caps, hose, and ecclesiastical fripperies came first.

We have sumptuary laws for this kind of date and no mention of a knitted body garment ever appears in 15thC sumptuary laws.  Again – had jumpers or something analogous existed – we’d find documentary evidence of it even if we lacked archaeological/ visual arts recording it. And as you can see, we have no reason to lack the archaeological samples.  Old textile fragments survive.

Tellingly, almost as soon as we get the first reference to a knitter here, the references start to come thick and fast – knitting spread fast as references to cap knitters and hose knitters start to appear.  Yorkshire was always at the centre of this industry, so no surprise maybe the first reference to it is from here and that within 100 years or so of Marjory Clayton, references to it become numerous.  All of those references, however, are to caps, hats, hose, and later, petticoats.  Which is in  line with the archaeological finds.  Had something like a jumper existed – there would be one painting showing it, one woodcut, one find, and – easiest of all these things to find – a myriad of written sources referring to it.  We have port records of imports and exports.  We have personal journals.  We have estate records – often detailing things like the selling of a wool clip, getting things woven up/dyed by journeymen, etc. We have, of course, the literary sources. I remember seeing the Concordances for Shakespeare’s works alone in my University stacks.  They were vast.  Let alone all the surviving other literary stuff – endless writers but not one reference.

Something we do find in the muck with monotonous regularity are spindle whorls.  These can be hard to date. But most of those in my collection are, broadly speaking, ‘medieval’ or not a lot post medieval (the exceptions being some Roman ones and 17thC Bellarmine ones).  Years ago we weighed a random sample of them, well over 100.  Many of them had provenances if not dates and came from all over England – London as well as here in the North East and pretty well everywhere inbetween.  They had a surprising consistency – around 1oz in weight.  To knit a gansey you need worsted spun wool, not woollen spun.  This is made from long, fine fibres (the best of which were only developed post 1750 – another argument for no ganseys prior to Industrial/Agrarian Revolution dates!)  You also need a minimum of 3 plies to make it more perfectly circular in cross section, so giving you the crisp stitch defintition. No point in elaborate patterns from fuzzy wool!  Of course longwools existed prior to this date – Cotswold, for example, was developed from a Roman type of sheep. But ever tried to ply on a spindle?  Ever tried to 3 ply or more on a spindle? (Pre Navajo plying which was only known in England in the 20thC). You’d quickly realise that you’d need a wider variety of whorl weights if you were making ‘gansey’ style yarn at a time in history when we only had spindles. We don’t see that variety.

17thC Bellarmine spindle whorls, from PH's collection.

Back to those 3 putative ‘knitting needles’ in York…. That still leaves us with what are possibly knitting needles in a late 14thC context, but no proof of knitting for another 60 years or so.  And all of that of course, leaves us with no ganseys/jumpers/knit frocks, call em what you will. (These needles are the equivalent in size to standard sock needles, so look like they’d most likely be used for hosiery – and finer caps, possibly.

All the textile fragments from medieval York are of woven, not knitted, cloth.

There is no evidence for a sleeved upper body garment til the 17thC knitted silk damask undershirts (that’s vests) for adults, and the child’s vest from the 17thC in the Museum of London I think it is.  And no evidence that undergarment migrated to becoming an outer garment til the 19thC.  The liklihood being, therefore, it made that transition – in England – at some point in the 18thC.  There are high status knitted silk waistcoats from the 18thC.  No jumpers.  And no record of them as a woolly, lower status garment, even here in the fishing community along the river for any 18thC date.


The lovely Polperro Press allowed us to use some of these iconic photos in an article in Yarn Forward 18, last year – Harding’s images thought to be the first ever of ganseys – taken by Lewis Harding in Polperro, Cornwall, around 1850.  Mary Wright’s classic little book, Cornish Guernseys & Knitfrocks is back in print, thanks to them.  Well worth buying for you gansey fans!

Yorkshire Inland Waterways Museum, Goole

The earliest printed pattern for a gansey is as late as the 1880s. A survey of the 19thC newspapers picks up nothing for ‘knit shirt’ or ‘knitted shirt’, but a few references for ‘knit frock’ concentrated around the 1850s onwards, and that word yields to ‘gansey’ by around the 1870s.  Curiously, the word gansey even then often appears in inverted commas, as if they thought it was a vulgar word.  The gansey is very firmly post Industrial Revolution – the crisp stitch definition etc only an option once most gansey worsted can be machine spun and, post 1860, chemically dyed, if necessary.  It is a product of the mechanised age even when it is handmade, so sadly, no spinning ladies in the picturesque doorways of cottages with roses round them. It’s an occupational costume, maybe ground out as often by Dales contract knitters doing generic garments, as made by loved ones for loved ones.  It cannot predate the 18thC and very likely does not predate say the 1790s.  By the time Lewis Harding took the first photos of ganseys in Polperro,  Cornwall in 1850 – it is clearly an evolved art.  But that’s an evolution that may only have taken one or two generations.

So whilst it would be lovely to give the Leicester Lads their fantasy and say yes there were Tudor/17thC jumpers – hard truth is – sorry lads.  There just weren’t.

To see images of earlier knitting, look at the V & A Collection,  here.

Museum of London Collections here.

Shetland Museum (Gunnister and others) here.

Also, some old links but maybe you’ll find something here.