She Prevailed

Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse. This will be Jane in old age. Image sent to me by the late Martha MacDonald.

International Women’s Day today, so I thought I’d write a little about a pioneer woman in my family tree, Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse.

Few letters home or journals survive from women pioneers – so it is interesting to know anything  about the day to day lives of those women who upped sticks, crossed oceans, then hit the trail. And Jane left a narrative, currently lost – but which inspired Nelle Greene Strang’s journal-form book,  ‘Prairie Smoke’, published by Jane’s family in 1985, a copy originally sent to me by local history researcher, Martha MacDonald. Martha also put me in touch with my Roodhouse relatives.

Jane Moses Wood Roodhouse (1791-1860) was the daughter of my great grandfather x 5, Isaac  Moses, of Cawood, Yorkshire.  When widowed, she married a widower, Ben Roodhouse – a local farmer who had started life as Cawood’s butcher.

I’m related to both Jane and Ben, descending directly from her brother and his sister as well being related to her first husband, Abraham Wood.

Back in 1820, a Peter Roodhouse  bought a grist mill in the newly settled Belltown, Illinois.  He seems to have returned to England, where he died ten years later, but maybe his tall tales of life in America inspired his nephews, as they started pestering their parents, Jane and Ben Roodhouse, to emigrate.  In 1830, Jane and Ben duly emigrated to America with their nine children; Abraham, William, Isaac and Mary Wood and Jane, John, twins Peter and Ben and James Roodhouse.

The journey was not uneventful. One of the twins fell into the sea when the ship was still docked, in London. He was rescued by older brother, Isaac Wood.  Bearing in mind Isaac’s father, Jane’s first husband, had drowned – this must have been a terrifying moment, for Jane.

After the usual terrifying voyage, the family did what many immigrants did, and left their furniture in storage at the Great Lakes.  They travelled to Illinois, meaning to go back and retrieve their possessions later.  Only to find everything they had in storage had been stolen and the storage hut burned down.

They bought a large farm in White Hall, Greene County, from a fellow English settler, and settled down to farm. Land Tax records show that even after they were established in America, Jane still owned property back home in Cawood, Yorkshire. And this is something historians often don’t write about; the cliche is that women weren’t allowed to own land or property – but of course they could and did. Women were entrepreneurs in the nineteenth century (see current issue of ‘The Knitter’ for my piece on one such York woman).

The family’s first Illinois winter was harsh; a certain Abraham Lincoln also moved to Illinois that year and like the Roodhouses, was later honoured  with the name ‘snowbird’ – like everyone who lived through that viciously cold winter of 1830.  This winter tested the fortitude of the new immigrants.  For over two months, there were furious snowstorms and the wind blew the snow into cabins, between the logs in the walls, so much that people shovelled snow indoors.  Jane had lived a comfortable existence – educated privately in York, as a child, and brought up by affectionate but sometimes stern, Methodist principles.

In 1831, only months after they settled, Ben died of a fever, leaving Jane and the children to run the farm “without a helping hand” as ‘The History of Greene County, Illinois’ (1879) put it. It must have been incredibly tough in the early years and maybe more than once, Jane was tempted to return home to her undemanding life in Yorkshire.  But she persisted, like thousands of other immigrants, the world over – invested in new lives, making a better future for loved ones.

I won’t write at too much length about Jane here – her sons Ben and John went on to found the town of Roodhouse, Illinois, so the family history is well covered, elsewhere.

On International Women’s Day, I just wanted to share a few quotes from a book written by Jane’s relative, Nelle Greene Strang, ‘Prairie Smoke’ which describes Jane’s early days as an English pioneer in Illinois.  Nelle’s unpublished manuscript was found in an attic after her death in 1968. Nelle was Jane’s great x 2 grand-daughter.  

Jane’s journal is known to have still been extant into the 20th century, but is now lost.  It’s thought Nelle Strang may well have been very conversant with it.

It is written in a curious, archaic, not-quite-right for the 1830s, cod British-English; no doubt Miss Strang’s romantic, twentieth century idea of how English people might have sounded.  Yet some passages in it seem to be authentic, including many describing knitting, spinning and dyeing. And they are of interest both to the textile historian and those of us who want to read about women’s documented experiences, throughout history. 

Most nineteenth century women of most social classes, spent time knitting endless stockings, if nothing else. To have a stocking on the go would be analagous to a contemporary woman having a mobile phone to hand:

We did set an red dye and I did card a bit of wool whilst Mary did wrap the silver and did store it away in the chest. I did set up an stocking and did finish it by early candlelight… MAY 1834

Jane wrote of family friends’ sons visiting from England – poignantly, one of the boys died whilst staying with the Wood/Roodhouses in Illinois. And she wrote of everyday life; missing the ‘lanthorns’ that had been stolen from their storage; planting crops, looking after animals, and seeing a famous itinerant Methodist preacher (who was indeed at that place at that time). 

Jane had hoped to see native Americans, when on the trail to her new home; but her only sighting, disappointing her, was of some distant smoke, across the prairie.   Her lanthorns might have been lost but her spinning wheel must have travelled with her  (York was a place where some beautiful spinning wheels were indeed made, during Jane’s school years and beyond).  I have not been able to find out if Jane’s spinning wheel is extant but it is possible, as her portrait is, and the family continued to farm the same land well into the late 20th century.   In England, professionally dyed yarn could be bought at the shops, in town, or from pedlars who tramped from village to village, selling their wares. In America, Jane had to master new skills she’d never have needed back home.

Jane learned dyeing with new-to-her plants, from her servants.  A gentleman’s daughter, in England, by around 1800, would have had no reason to learn to spin. Yet Jane could, maybe speaking to the frugality and common sense of her Methodist family.

 Years after they settled, they paid an architect to reconstuct their house in Cawood, Yorkshire, going from Jane’s memory. I can find one house in Cawood that looks similar – but can’t be certain it’s the original.  They named the new, brick house “Cawood”.  I have found no evidence any of the Wood or Roodhouse children ever returned to Yorkshire, but they must have grown up hearing about “home” and the older children would have memories of their own.  A subsequent generation shared some family names with my own family in Cawood, which suggests to me that we were possibly still in contact with our American cousins, decades on.

Ben’s brother, Peter, died months after the family left for Illinois. He left a clock to his family “in America”.  How the will’s executors got the clock sent off, we will never know, but it may be this once glimpsed in ‘Prairie Smoke’:

The English clock does tick on these strange walls as it did in the Old World in the days of mine youth.  May, 1837

Jane was a middle aged woman with nine children when she came to Illinois.  She was often homesick for England. In describing the everyday details of pioneer women’s lives – the endless sewing, cooking, dyeing, spinning, and workaday knitting and the descriptions of the material culture of the pioneer home, Nelle seems fairly reliable.  The Roodhouses and Woods mixed with other English ex-pats; often lawyers and minor gentry.  As Methodists who had grown up in Wilberforce’s constituency, it is unlikely they will have had slaves in fact, they are highly likely to have been abolitionists, given their background in Yorkshire – Yorkshire Methodists were at the heart of the English abolition movement during Jane’s early years and her relatives were prominent Methodists.

The household did include servants, though, who Jane referred to as her “family”; including Jennie, who taught her about dye plants. In England, domestic dyeing was rarely done and only then, by miners’ or farm labourers’ wives; most knitters used undyed natural colours or bought commercially dyed yarn.  By 1830, few British people spun yarn at all as it was spun by the mile, by machinery and had been for decades.

Naturally dyed wool including wools dyed with lac and logwood.

From ‘Prairie Smoke’ by Nelle Green Strang:

The lads do assist in the felling of the trees and with the care of the stock whilst Mary and I do spin and knit. Jane does mind the small lads for they are ever in mischief as small lads do ever seem to be. Many stitches must be taken for we do number nine and no seamstress is at hand as in the Old World. I do wish to have a sufficient supply of garments and Lottie is most willing in all manner of labor. Strange does it seem as I do gaze about me but I have a stout heart and will not be always looking back over mine shoulder on the days of mine youth in England. Sept 1830



…Verily I do lose count on the days that do pass so quickly by but I do mark this day. I was spinning by the open door for the air was soft and balmy and daughter Mary was combing her brown curls before the mirror when I did espy an horseman coming out of the timber… Oct 1830


Then there’s this:

… I do see William’s newly wedded wife spinning at the cabin door so she may oft look towards the field where if William and his brothers are busy with the grain… June 1832

And, from November 1834:

… Already I have an vast number of socks and stockings knit. Mary has knit mittens and she did double-hook and peg an pair far each lad and she is now knitting braces for the lads to present them at Yuletide.

And maybe my favourite:

Jennie’s mother did make promise to set the dyes for us for it is soon we will need the garments stitched for mine household. She does handle the dyes with much skill. Each year she does go questing about in search of madder and logwood and sassafras also. She has even used the dark juice of the pokeberry and she knows even goldenrod and iris will yield up a bit of juice for her use. Sept 1835

One of the grandchildren played a trick on the elderly Jane, when resuming her knitting:

Whilst the frolic did go on I did slip out to fetch mine knitting and when I did open up the chest an voice from within did say “Woman,what seekest thou?” I did draw back afrighted and did bang down the lid. I did return to mine chair and did sit a bit and did ponder on it and I did think mine ears had deceived me and I did again go to the chest and the voice within did say — “Woman,why fleest thou from thy fate?” Quickly I did turn about and when I did return

I was greeted with an shout of laughter. The lad did then come to me and did plead for mine forgiveness for his trickery and when I did grant him this he did make the fire — dogs hark and an robin did chirp upon the window sill and there was an mewing beneath the table and no pussy-cat was there. He did have the power to cast his voice where he did choose and did much enjoy playing tricks on those about him.   Jan, 1852


Jane was capable as thousands of less documented nineteenth century pioneer women. In the words of another relative, L.W. Roodhouse, “she built an estate, she educated her children, she prevailed.”

Mudag of naturally dyed fibre. Jane and family may well have had to learn to weave simple baskets for their own use – another pioneer skill. Mudags coming soon from us, here:

Of Cardinals, Monks, and Rampaging Vikings

Cellarium, Fountains Abbey. CREDIT: Nate Hunt

On one of our regular dog walks, close to home,  we pass a flock of Norfolk Horn sheep.  They graze on a corner of Cawood Garth, a piece of common ground owned by the folk in the next village. It used to be where Cawood Castle stood (only the Gatehouse remains). This was where Cardinal Wolsey came to live, in 1530 but was here only a short while before Henry VIII had him arrested for high treason.  He died on his way to trial in that vortex of doom that is Leicester.  By all accounts he was very popular with the locals in Yorkshire and I grew up in a nearby village where every other street had the word ‘Wolsey’ in it.  The Garth was rescued from developers when Greater Crested Newts and Star of Bethlehem wildflowers were found – there are also some old varieties of apple growing there.


Norfolk Horns are an ideal breed of sheep used for ‘conservation grazing’ and the fact they are on the Garth is good news for its flora.  I have many happy childhood memories of Cawood, where my mother grew up and her aunties still lived. So to get some fleece from the sheep who graze there – and, of all places, on the very site where Cardinal Wolsey once lived – is a rare privilege indeed.  My ancestor, Isaac Moses, left a piece of land in Cawood his will, in 1820, called ‘The Close’ which may have been nearabouts and he lived yards away at Market Square.  This may or may not have been a bit of the Garth.

Washing Norfolk Horn in a dolly tub.

I managed to get talking to the sheep’s farmer, and she kindly set aside some of her clip for me.  I’ll be spinning some in the next month.   Having so much wool to wash or scour, we borrowed a dolly tub.  Scouring = a good, thorough clean with detergent and hot water.  Washing = a slight opening up of the locks, and then soaking for a few days in cold water, to get the worst of the muck out.   I tried a small amount of neck wool on the wool cycle of my washing machine, as I’d read Norfolk Horn was reluctant to felt. It instantly felted.  Luckily, only a couple of ounces lost!  For links to info about wool scouring, check out:

Fountains Abbey, Credit: Nate Hunt

The wool is short-medium staple and mostly looks to be white, but one fleece has some grey and others grey bits near the margins where the sheep have markings.  Fleeces were well skirted and rolled, and quality sorted. The wool looks to be a typical 54s-56s; and finer sections of the one I unrolled this morning had lovely crimp, and looked ‘lacy’ when held up to the light.  The wool has a fair bit of grease, too. By another coincidence, they were stored in a barn on my Grandfather’s old farm, where my mother grew up, so it was strange going to pick them up and thinking “She once stood here and this was all where she played.” My mother would have loved to know one day her daughter would be standing there, buying wool.

We sorted the fleeces, labelled them clearly and have stored them in the little loft of our shed – formerly the kids’ playhouse)so it had a tiny ‘upstairs’.  I’ve put the best fleeces towards the front and will process in quality order, ensuring the better ones, at least, are stored clean before winter. The wool on the ‘moderate’ ones looks to be very lovely, as well, though.

I’m also about to get a couple of Castlemik Moorit fleeces from a prize-winning flock.  With all our efforts going towards covering the cost of shearing at the Museum of Farming, earlier in the year, it feels good to be doing something to keep the rarer breeds of sheep going, in another way.  This will be a Norfolk-Horn crazed Spinzilla.


More Norfolk Horn info here:


Norfolk Horn Breeders’ Group.


Here’s hoping for a few weeks of sunny, windy weather, to get at least some of the wool scoured and dry before autumn sets in.  We bought a few metres of cheap muslin and have made some new drawstring bags to hang drying wool from the line.   I’m trying to get the first fleece scoured and carded, so I can see if my old David Barnett drum carder is OK with it, or whether I’m going to need a higher TPI drum carder to process it.  (Hand carding works better but I want to get a shedload carded before Spinzilla…)

I’m still dithering though, whether to enter Spinzilla – if I do, it will be as a Maverick. The year before last I was only 30 odd yards from winning the Mavericks, and as I hadn’t planned on entering the competition til the day before entries closed, I hadn’t cleared my schedule so lost a day of that week to appointments, and unavoidable things that could have been avoided with more notice!


As I card and spin this wool, in the run up to Spinzilla (or Not Spinzilla), I’ll report back how it’s looking as I know this is a breed of sheep a lot of spinners haven’t had the chance to try.


In other news, we just had to do an emergency harvest of our dye garden after it was trampled by some viking re-enactors (which, on the bright side, gives us the rare distinction of being possibly the first people to suffer financially from a raid by inconsiderate vikings, in almost 1000 years…)

Our dye garden area had an impromptu fence around it.  But apparently, the vikings had to urgently work on something that involved them being our side of the fence, and walking about on what they must have assumed were worthless ‘weeds’.  In fact, the madder we were hoping to leave undisturbed another year or two.  The weld – greatest tragedy – was two weeks or so off coming into flower.  We have just grubbed everything up, hung it up to dry in the shed, and will see what colours we salvage, when we get time to dye with them.  I would have had double the madder, I guess, leaving another year.  Anyway, we’re now going to have to re-locate to a place where rampaging vikings won’t do a dance on our crop.  (Quite ironic as they were doing ‘living history’ at the time but clearly with more of a 21stC sensibility where anything that isn’t petunias or roses = weeds…)  The dye garden was 2 years’ worth of effort put in by four people. A shame to see it go. It will rise, phoenix-like, from the Viking pillage – but in a Viking-free zone.

Green Man, Fountains Abbey. Courtesy Nate Hunt

Talking of Viking-free zones, the other week, we were at the stunning Fountains Abbey, fettling their Great Wheel which is having some teething troubles. (Nothing major – a slight problem with the leather bearings). We’ve had the wheel fixed for them by an expert and will be returning the mother-of-all and spinning head, down the week.

I’ve never fallen in love with a place on sight, so much as I have Fountains. Any excuse to get back there in the coming months, I think!  I’ve been reading about its history.  Only nine years after the Cardinal was captured, and marched away to die, Fountains Abbey was surrendered at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The Cistercian monks are of course, of great interest to anyone who is into woolly history. There was a woolhouse on the site, too.  (I’ll explore that the next chance I get and share in a future post).  On the ground, you can see how the landscape helped with the wool-growing and wool washing/processing. The abbey is sited in a sort of ravine – like so many Cistercian monasteries; put out of the way of humankind, in places we romantically perceive as ‘wild’ and ‘beautiful’ but medieval society perceived as ‘hostile’ and ‘barren’…
At the moment, I feel like I’m living the monastic life in my own personal woolhouse; constantly washing and scouring wool, and now preparing to card it for spinning, during the autumn/winter.  Sick of plastic bins splitting under the strain of wool washing, I hit upon the idea of using a dolly tub. Borrowed one, but it has to go back soon so I’ll be on the lookout for my own as it’s proving to be perfect for the job!


Look out for us demonstrating spinning/Yorkshire Dales knitting at the Cawood Craft Festival, this weekend.

We’ll also be demonstrating Dales knitting,  the Great Wheel and/or the Chair Wheel at Masham Sheep Fair, 24th/25th September.  Look out for us upstairs in the Town Hall!






Inside The Wool Spinning Mistress’s Closet

…each Girl has the following articles given to her:

A Pair of Scissors          A Huswife

A Thimble                       A Work Box

A Knitting Sheath            A Work Bag

A Pincushion                   A Comb and Case

At Easter she is allowed to have her Scissors ground; a Pincushion and String, Huswif mended, Her Thimble changed… a new Comb if necessary; a knitting sheath…. Whatever she uses more than these, must be bought  out of her own money….

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General.

by Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard

3 Shillings


Today I thought we’d take a look inside the eighteenth century Spinning School Mistress’s closet and, whilst we’re at it, nose through the charity school girls’ possessions.

Most girls came to York’s charity schools, penniless and literally in rags so the above list of items given to the girls would represent an investment. Finally, to own something all your own!

Some girls on admission, were barely clothed at all: if they hadn’t made their own clothes in school,  the children would have been “…sent in such a state as would render their very superintendence…nearly impracticable…” [p. 9]

When the school started it was more a night school. Founder Catharine Cappe wrote: “…Our first thought, was to have them taught to read, knit and sew on an evening after they had finished their work at the Manufactory…”

Once a formal school was established, a School for Spinning Worsted which opened in late 1782,  the girls had a uniform but had to leave it at school during the weekends, returning to put it on before going to church of a Sunday. It wasn’t long before the school was a boarding school, obviating the need to leave school clothes behind at weekends.

The Knitting school catered for the youngest children – knitting was seen as less skilled than worsted spinning. A seven year old was thought perfectly capable of knitting a stocking without a pattern; shaping the leg, turning the heel, etc.

At Catharine Cappe’s York Knitting & Spinning School, and later York’s Grey Coat School;  girls rotated every six weeks through different tasks; learning skills that would make them employable as servants, or maybe make them ‘diligent’ wives.

Children were expected to work at everything, in rotation – “wool-spinners, line-spinners, sewers, knitters and house Girls…”[p.32]

Line spinners = spinning flax. House girls = learning to cook and clean. Two girls would be permanently on duty sewing and repairing the charity school clothes.  The girls who carded and spun the waste wool for the school’s own use, also had the job of “twisting” (plying) the line (flax yarn). It seems plying was seen as a separate thing to spinning and might not necessarily be done at the same time or by the same person who spun the singles.

The idea was to make the girls employable, without being apprenticed as there had been some notorious cases of ex charity-children being abused when left in the homes of their masters/mistresses and apprenticed to trades.

York’s Grey Coat school ,which employed Catharine to overhaul its curriculum after the success of her own Knitting and Spinning School, took in “firstly, orphans, then if places remained, children of parents ‘in distress’, to save them from the parish Poor House “..or the houses of indigent Relatives”.  Some of the girls in the original school on  St Andrewgate, York, were rescued from a local hemp factory, because Catharine felt the adult employees were a bad influence. Other children were street kids, or had inattentive parents who let them go feral during the day. Some were, as Cappe put it, “miserable girls upon the town” (ie: child prostitutes),  Cappe characterised the children’s parents as frequently “dissolute” and “depraved”.

Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.
Handspun yarn singles Whitefaced Woodland.

The Spinning & Knitting School grew to accommodate 30 girls. A girl might gain admission on being able to prove she could knit a stocking in a week.  Spinning also had to pick up some pace, as the girls were supplying an un-named ‘Manufacturer’ with their yarn, presumably to be woven into cloth.

By the 1780s, spinning was already largely mechanised in manufactories, but hand-spinners still contributed to the yarn required by a voracious industry. The Spinning School was giving the girls a skill that would soon be defunct, in the UK at least. If the hanks were the standard 560 yards, this was 2240 yds, per day, per child. To put that in perspective, it is marginally more yardage than some of the faster spinners in a competition like Spinzilla.  And they were spinning worsted, which is considerably slower than wool spun long draw. This fearsome pace had to be kept up for 6 weeks at a time. Girls could keep a quarter of the money their spinning earned. :

“…As soon as the children can spin four hanks of wool per day, they are decently clothed, and moreover…  they receive one fourth of their earnings in money…”  [p. 8]

The children made all the clothes needed for the school itself from “waste wool” left over from processing wool they sold to a manufacturer. The school was self sufficient, for clothing and only had to buy in stays, shoes and straw hats.

In 1785, Catharine reformed York’s main charity school for girls, the Grey Coat school. She appointed two Assistant teachers – one in the Wool Spinning room and the other to teach sewing, knitting and line-spinning. In April 1785,  the spinning mistress Mrs Lazenby, became “deranged” and her husband, the School’s Master, put her in a lunatic asylum. We only have to hope it was the Retreat, not York’s notoriously awful County asylum.

Catharine herself became Superintendent of Spinning at Grey Coats (alongside running her own school):

She had “…To superintend the wool-spinning; to see that it reaches the proper counts; that every pound is marked with the girl’s name who spun it; that it is reeled right; that the Mistress keeps her spinning closet in order, and spinning book with accuracy, to correspond with the manufacturer; keep all the accounts; receive the money earned by spinning;.. and to see every pound of yarn weighed before it is returned to the manufacturer…”

She wrote a footnote on this page, giving us a fascinating peep into the contents of the Spinning Mistress’s Closet:

“The Wool Spinning Mistress has a  Closet divided like the Clothes Closet and Reward Box, with the name of each girl upon the partition appropriated for the reception of her particular hanks, as soon as they are spun; the names being changed every six weeks when the new arrangements take place. This closet the Mistress examines every night, and she enters in a book what every Girl has spun in the course of the day. This book is shewn at the end of the week to the Lady who pays the rewards; and each Girl is separately commended or reproved, and her respective task raised or lowered accordingly as the circumstances  may require. A book is likewise kept by the assistant Mistress, with the particulars of the stockings knit, and line spun, in the course of the week. The same method is followed in the Spinning School.” [33]

The girls also had a Master to teach them reading, writing and arithmetic. No doubt a literate and numerate girl had more employment prospects: she’d be able to keep track of household accounts, etc. This literacy and numeracy was, in itself, a valuable gift as a quick survey of 18thC marriage records often shows that many working class women, if not most, could not sign their own name. The charity schools gave this level of ‘pragmatic’ formal education, on top of useful manual skills like knitting, spinning and sewing.

What happened to the Grey Coat girls? We find out in a footnote from p.41 of “Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendlly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee”, 1805:

The number of Girls, who have left the grey Coat School since it was new regulated in 1787, are 114. Of these, 23 are married; 47 are in service; 43 are dead; 2 are Mantua-makers; 1 is now assistant Mistress in the School; 7 are at home with their friends; 2 are at home in a bad state of health; 5 have turned out profligate; and 14, having left York, the Ladies lost sight of them…

Mantua-makers were dress-makers. The charity school must have given these two girls enough sewing skills for them to find employment, without any formal apprenticeship, on leaving.

Thanks to those blog readers/followers who came up and said lovely things about the blog at our Living History day at Armley Mills, on Saturday! Hope you enjoyed this glimpse into the Spinning Mistress’s closet.

A Yorkshire knitting stick. Credit: Belinda May. York Castle Museum.

An Account of Two Charity Schools For the Education of Girls: And of A Female Friendly Society in York. Interspersed With reflections on Charity Schools and Friendly Societies in General, Catharine Cappe, York. Printer: William Blanchard, 1800

Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendly Societies and Other Subjects Connected with the views of the Ladies Committee, Catharine Cappe, York, pub. Blanchard, 1805.

A Week of Roguish Spinning…

Spinzilla2014collageOn impulse, I entered this year’s Spinzilla competition. Mainly because I’ve spent some time this year figuring out the sheer amounts spun in a day or a week by late 18th/19thC handspinners, and wanted to see if I could equal them; or even if the figures I’d arrived at were feasible. Also because I like putting my money where my mouth is. I know I can spin fairly fast but it was interesting to see how fast.

Because I hadn’t planned to enter, ahead of time, real life intervened. But that is good, right? Real life intervened for spinners since Clotho spun her first thread. Hand-spinners always had to spin between stirring the pot, feeding the kids (and hens!), sweeping the floor, going to the shops.

I entered as a Rogue Spinner (not in a team – what a maverick!) And came second. In the end I spun 13,704 yards in seven days. That comes to, on average, over a mile a day. I was pipped at the post by Jane Sheetz with a respectable 13,747 yards. I think I’m happy to take second place for the UK and Yorkshire! Within the teams there were spinners who got higher individual mileages still – several spinners topping 30,000 yards. I am fairly confident that if I enter next year I can top 20,000 yards. But am happy with coming second in the Rogues, which isn’t too shabby for a first attempt with no real ‘training’, forethought and too little preparation! In fact I hadn’t touched the spinning wheel since summer, when I had to spin an entire gansey in a matter of days. So no run-ups or training as such at all!

Spinzilla’s second year, and this was its first year with international entries. I entered at the last minute,  with only three days to deadline, and one of those days I knew I would have to spend preparing rolags for our living history day at Armley Mills; another day would be lost to being at the Mills. Which left me a grand total of one day to make rolags and prepare for Spinzilla! Foolhardy? Me?

IMAG0273(1)Why rolags, you ask? English longdraw is the fastest way I know how to spin. One day only gave me time enough to make just a pound of rolags from Lleyn fleece – I’d had a bin bag of this in my airing cupboard for a year, so time to get going! I had a few naturally dyed rolags left over from Armley Mills, too.  Spinzilla ran Monday – Sunday and needless to say, by Tuesday morning I’d run out of rolags. Which left me with a dilemma. I could spend half my spinning time making rolags or just spin worsted/semi-woollen or semi-worsted for the rest of the competition. I tried spinning worsted from commercially prepared tops, but when I measured the results quickly realised I wasn’t going to get the daily yardage needed to do well. So I ended up spending some of my spinning time drum carding or hand carding.  Next year, I’ll card for a few days before Spinzilla – so I can spin uninterrupted, either on the Great Wheel or the Chair Wheel.

Am fairly sure I can blow my own 2014 numbers out of the water with a fair wind behind me (and clearing the week of appointments beforehand! If I’d known I was entering I’d have re-scheduled a few things!) I lost one entire day of the competition, only being able to spin in the evening, and for a short while, due to an appointment that took up the entire day. In the end, I came only 43 yards short of the winner. Frustrating – as that 43 yards would have been more than made up had I prepared just one more day, beforehand, or say spun at midnight when the competition started (I went to bed and started the next day so missed my chance to get a couple of hours’ head start).  43 yards is very little spinning.

I’d assumed I stood no chance of winning, not having had much time to prepare, so it was kind of exciting to see how close I came to winning and at the same time, monumentally frustrating to realise if I’d just spun another half an hour I could have done it – let alone spun for part of all those hours during the week I lost to carding!

It was a brilliant learning curve though. It is easy to have opinions about ‘spinners of the past’ – without ever really testing out our assumptions. Spinning for a few hours a day felt relentless – imagine our ancestors’ lives of spinning, not just day in day out but year in, year out? By about Wednesday, I was waking up thinking “Oh joy – another few hours of spinning!”. Conversely, when I woke up on Monday and knew I didn’t have to spin at all, all day – I felt like spinning! And had to restrain myself.

Below is my yardage for each day. As you can see, on the best days (English longdraw with handcarded rolags) I was able to manage over 2 miles’ of spinning. On my worst two days, under one mile. Both of the slowest days were largely worsted spinning and with more interruption than spinning time. Whilst I can spin worsted in under a third of the time of a certain spinning blogger with much (self) vaunted speeds – I found worsted or even semi-worsted spinning to be painfully slow, compared to woollen. I am very tempted to do a fair bit on the Great Wheel next year and wearing a pedometer so we can test out Patricia Baines’ words: “… It is said that spinners who worked for the textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire walked the equivalent of 30 miles a week spinning wool…” [Baines, ‘Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning’, Batsford, 1977, p. 61].

Yorkshire spinners of the past – like those in the great spinning traditions the world over – fitted in their spinning between other tasks; household chores, field-work, etc. When you see folk opining about ‘history’ and going on about ‘professional spinners’ – let’s not forget our hand-spinning ancestors spun in the home, not factories and were not ‘professionals’ in the sense we understand the term, now. Spinning would have been constantly interrupted; and the week of as-flat-out-as-you-can-get-it spinning of the average Spinzilla team or rogue spinner, would be the same as our spinning ancestors’ week. Hours and days where you are somewhere else, earning money, or taking care of the kids! I will alternate Great Wheel with Chair Wheel for Spinzilla 2015 – because I can!  I spun every inch of this yardage on a Timbertops Chair Wheel but my favourite Spinzilla team were an Andean group from the Bolivian Paza Cooperative who knocked out an impressive 66,071 yards of pushka (spindle) spun yarn, coming in third place in the international standings. Because that is some serious spindling!

Here are my daily totals, with some pics of the yarn produced over the week. Terminology is always kind of nebulous, so for purposes of clarity – when I say “semi-worsted” I mean however I spun it, it was worsted-prep. “Semi-woollen” means: however I spun it – usually a sort of bastardised longdraw, not true English longdraw – it was woollen prep or woollen-ish prep.

I lost hours of good spinning time to drum-carding on my elderly David Barnett drum-carder. And also to hand-carding on my even more elderly hand-cards. Next year I will do all my prep the week before, so I can just spin, spin, spin during Spinzilla and then get a more accurate idea of how much our ancestors could really spin – with a fair wind behind them and a modicum of real life interruptions.    

Day 1: 2356 yards (Lleyn).  Monday. This day was plain sailing, as it was the only day I had nothing but hand-carded rolags to spin. (The drum carded batts seen below I made later in the week). Although you can spin from the cloud, from punis made from torn-off bits of drum carded fibre wrapped round a pencil, or many other ways – a well made, hand-carded rolag remains the true English longdraw spinner’s weapon of choice.  Interweave’s ‘How To Card Wool’ video shows Norman Kennedy hand-carding – and my method is probably closest to his. A well carded rolag will spin itself. For living history I have to churn out a lot of rolags quickly, and then will admit to using not very well carded rolags. If, when you hold it up to the light you can see through it “like smoke” as Mr Kennedy says – you have the means of fast longdraw spinning right there.

Lleyn and cochineal-dyed Boreray Day 2
Lleyn and cochineal-dyed Boreray Day 2

Day 2: 2128 yards (Including Lleyn and Boreray). Tuesday. I say ‘including; as most days I spun more than my ‘main’ focuses – odds and ends too and I can’t remember which I did on which days, now! That red Boreray is doubly expensive as it is one of the rarest of all wools dyed with one of the dearest of natural dyes. What to do with it? Answers on a postcard. It’s bloody scratchy. This is the day we ran out of rolags. Yes. Day 2. Lesson 1 – make more rolags! So now I spent several hours a day when I could have been spinning, drum-carding or hard-carding wool.  Lesson 2 – Whitefaced Woodland does not enjoy being drum-carded on my Barnett drum-carder.  Nor does the grey Shetland fleece I got at Masham Sheep Fair this year. Damn.

Logwood dyed mystery wool

Day 3: 1560 yards (Including commercial tops of black Shetland).  Wednesday. This pictured here though was some logwood dyed deep stash fibre. Some sort of commercial medium shortwool tops. Logwood was bought by the tonne in 18thC and 19thC Leeds. So this is kind of local history. I think I started spinning the Whitefaced Woodland too. I love this wool. I won’t be drum-carding it again anytime soon. But it is gorgeous wool. Lost most of this entire day to Commitments Made Before I Knew I’d Be Spinning This Week. Now seriously bored of white wool, too.

Day 4: 2040 yards (Including Whitefaced Woodland, grey Shetland, mystery cochineal dyed wool). Thursday. Now I was desperately having to card, or spin semi-worsted or worsted. IMAG0337(1)

Day 5: 1896 yards (Including black Shetland worsted). Friday. Slowed down by the carding and an unidentified finger pain so I kept switching spinning techniques and fibres all day, to avoid RSI.

Shetland semi-worsted

Day 6: 1532 yards, (Including black and grey Shetland and silk from deep stash -Maybe 12 years old! Still spun fine!)  Saturday and again a day of heavy interruption. More Whitefaced Woodland, and some angora tops. Angora cost me some time but I fancied a change plus it was more old, deep stash and I wanted it gone. This week it is already half a pair of Lovikka mittens.

Silk from deep, deep stash
Silk from deep, deep stash

Day 7: 2192 yards – (Including random bobbin ends from previous days, more deep stash silk tops). Almost all my wool and silk ended up being plied – usually around midnight the first few days – into 2 ply yarns. When I had plied the very last thing, I still had time left, so I added all the remaining singles odds and ends together on the Lazy Kate and counted them in the final total too. IMAG0352

TOTAL:  13,704 yards of wool, silk and angora, almost all 2 ply. Wools spun: Lleyn, Whitefaced Woodland, grey Shetland, black Shetland and several unknown medium shortwools from dye experiments. IMAG0366 Next year… I’ll be back. And this time – armed with more rolags!

How To Be A Luddite – Leeds Wool Week

ohkdboxGot a parcel, this morning. Getting parcels is always brilliant, but this was a particularly brilliant parcel.  Some print copies of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’.

These will be distributed around the shops of museums in the North of England who helped us during our period of research. I will put up details soon.

On October 4th, I will be at Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds for the launch of Leeds Wool Week, being a Luddite (in costume) and will do workshops on great wheel spinning and ‘Knitting the Old Days Way’. (Details to be posted, soon!) Would love you to come along and learn about spinning and knitting the old Dales way.  Will have a few copies for sale with us on the day, so if you want to buy one – ask a Luddite!


If you are in the US, or  – wherever you are – it’s an e-version of the book you’re after, check this out:


From the Armley Mills Wool Week Ravelry page:


Join us on Saturday the 4th of October 2014 to help launch Wool Week here in Leeds. Armley Mills Wool Festival is going to be a really exciting combination of shopping and a celebration of our woolly heritage, with workshops, demonstrations of now rare skills and machinery, talks from well known knitwear designers and performances of rare knitting music from WWI and WWII. Held within a historic woollen mill which now houses an amazing collection based upon Leeds’ industrial heritage. This event is going to be very special. The festival is open from 11am to 5pm, normal museum admission price applies, some sessions may be charged separately. More details to follow soon……

Armley Mills Industrial Museum
Canal Road
LS12 2QF
Museum Website


The Leader of the Luddites, engraving, 1812

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Yesterday, I was watching the incomparable Abby Franquemont’s  video download, ‘Respect The Spindle’.

I’ve had the book since the week (hour?) it came out but finally got round to getting the video recently, as despite my thirty odd years’ worth of spinning, knew I’d learn something new from it. And I did.

At one point, Abby was talking about the way spinners wind cops.  (Shorter OED defines ‘cop’ as: “..The conical ball of thread wound upon a spindle or tube in a spinning machine. 1795.)”  The final shape of your cop affects how well centred your spindle is, and how it spins. Abby made the point that although we spend a lot of time thinking about the whorls on spindles we want to buy or make, we forget that the overwhelming influence on the way the spindle eventually spins, is how you formed the cop. Good point and something I know I have tended to overlook. I decided to take a look at spinners of the past and see how they formed their cops.

Learning to spin in the 1980s, I used to think of a ‘cop’ as having a conical form, with the weight of yarn at the base. A by-product of learning to spin from British and American books, most of them written in the 1970s, was that you spindle spun on a low-whorl spindle. This lent itself more to forming a conical cop.  These days, I tend to form a cop that is fatter in the middle – like this medieval monkey’s.  Incidentally, whorls may sometimes – but not always – have been removable. Monkey here has a full cop, but no visible whorl.  These days I maybe favour this shape cop but then, I tend to spindle spin on a high-whorl. This seems to balance the spindle more effectively. Insert science stuff here.

Here’s another medieval spinner who may or may not have detached the whorl. Truth is, the physics doesn’t interest me, madly. I was that kid sat in the back during Physics, Chemistry or Maths; looking out of the window – mildly amused if a science teacher’s demo of an experiment went wrong, but that was the only flicker of interest I ever had for it. I have about as much knowledge of that as this medieval nun.  So leaving the physics aside,  and sticking with the history… I love it that spindle makers have come over all sciency of recent years. But am happy to remain incurious about the laws of…  whatever it is that makes things move. I know a good spindle when I use one.

Check out the distaffs, by the way. The conical ones, bound with lots of ribbon tend to be flax which was, of course, spun worsted from a distaff. The ones that are convex in the centre and tapered top and bottom, needing less ties, tend to be wool.  These images come from different European countries but the conventions of spinning seem to be remarkably uniform.

Now this lady has a low whorl, but still builds the cop in the same way as the other two; not conical, and convex with all the weight of the yarn towards the middle. She appears to be spinning flax and there is no difference in the shape of the cop, whether it is flax or wool.

There are a surprising number of medieval images of women using their distaff as a weapon. I suppose it was the most obvious thing to hand. In images,it often seems the case that the spindle remained attached to or dangling from the distaff, when not in use.

The distaff was, of course, also the universal symbol of femininity; hence the saying “the distaff side” (ie: female) of a family.  For other living historians/re-enactors here, it is worth us noticing that the spindle is never (to my knowledge?) portrayed on its own, but always seems to have been attached to a distaff. Medieval wheel spinners are sometimes portrayed with a male or female sitting nearby, carding wool for them. But spindles always seem to be associated with a distaff; freestanding or tucked under the arm.

Medieval women also seem to have spun in that odd five minutes between other tasks. Most famously, the woman on the Luttrel Psalter, 1325-35, who is feeding a chicken of epic proportions, in a brief pause from spinning her wool. The style of drawing is, by its very nature, cartoon-ish, so it is hard to be sure but her spindle looks to be low-whorl, or maybe even the whorl is centrally placed, like some contemporary spindles.  And again, the cop is bulbous.

Like many of the other medieval spindles, it is quite loaded with yarn and yet the whorl is still attached. This tells us it is unwise to opine whether medieval spindles had removable whorls or not. It appears – some did and some didn’t.

Sometimes, artists are notoriously inaccurate at portraying crafts and activities they haven’t personally experienced and don’t really understand. But hand-spinning was such a universal, daily, never-ending task for medieval women of all classes, we can assume every single monk who ever illuminated a manuscript, probably saw spinning going on, at some if not all points in their lives. It would be like drawing someone doing the washing-up.

Finally, one of my favourites, is the image from the marginalia of the Rutland Psalter, of a woman spinning on the ducking stool. It’s a small ‘joke’ at the bottom of a manuscript page.  Well, spindlers like to get a bit of height as it saves winding on so soon. Makes perfect sense. Also, in keeping with the medieval ethic of spin in every spare moment!

What is really interesting about this is she is clearly using a top whorl spindle. With a hook! Received wisdom tells us medieval English people only used low whorl, but there are images – not just this one – of top whorl. And, of course, the Vikings were known to have used top whorl (not all of whom left Northern England in 1066, or else I wouldn’t speak a dialect littered with Norse words!) So it could be that in some areas, medieval Englishwomen did indeed spin top whorl.

To sum up: the medieval spindlers’ cops seem to have been bulbous, not conical.  Some spindles may have had removable whorls; others not. Some English spindles appear to have been top-whorl although received wisdom has it they were always low-whorl. Maybe this is the viking influence. A heavily loaded spindle might still have had a whorl. All spindles depicted seem to be attached to a distaff. In England, this was often portable as women did other jobs whilst they spun – although the European nun had a static distaff on a carved stand, which maybe reflected the sedentary nature of her life. Winding on a cop in a conical shape may be more usual once the spindle was turned horizontal, and driven by a wheel, and so when spinning was revived as a craft in the 20thC, spindling pioneers tended to assume a conical cop whereas now we are returning to the better balanced, bulbous shape, to wind yarn on.

I am slowly building my Pinterest board, ‘Hand-Spinning Throughout History’. More images can be seen there.


Monkey spinning.the Isabella Breviary, Southern Netherlands (Bruges), late 1480s and before 1497, British Library.

Nun: from the Maastricht Hours, the Netherlands (Liège), 1st quarter of the 14th century, Stowe MS 17, f. 34r

Low whorl woman: Add. 42130 f.60, c.1325-1335 British Library

Chicken woman: Luttrell Psalter

Ducking stool woman: Rutland Psalter

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.