Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Rutt – A History of Hand Knitting

For the last few years, every discussion of the history of knitting has eventually resulted in somebody quoting Rutt, and that often being accepted as the final authority, because Rutt has so many sources, he must be right! That should not be the case. A History of Hand Knitting is manifestly incomplete, and often wrong. The common theme of his errors was to ignore the traditions of professional, commercial, and serious knitters. He ignored their tools and their techniques and this inevitably lead to erroneous conclusions about their knit products.

His first error is in his definition of knitting, where he limits it to yarn. In fact, many early knitters included gold filaments, and the incorporation of such metal wires does not prevent that work from being "knitting." Moreover modern knitting machines may use strands of synthetic material which is yarn only in the broadest sense, yet the fabric is still clearly knitting. Thus, the definition of knitting must one of process and topology, and not one of material.

Rutt wonders around his description of knitting needles without ever understanding that different knitting needles were used for different knitting techniques. (While he references commercial knitting techniques, he does not actually discuss them. Thus, glosses are deliberate, rather than purely ignorant.) Most importantly he fails to point out role of knitting sheaths in various knitting techniques. He fails to note that there were long steel needles used with knitting sheaths yeilding a spring action for knitting ganseys – this is one kind of needle with its own technical constraints. Shorter DPN could be used with other kinds of knitting sheaths (and different knitting technique) for knitting other kinds of objects. Despite later extensive quotes from Howitt, on the use of curved needles in the Yorkshire Dales later in the book, Rutt does not bring this information into his section on needles. And yet, it was the physics of a curved knitting needle (with a knitting sheath) that made the very fast knitting of the Yorkshire Dales possible. This is a completely different knitting technique from what is used with gansey needles, and a history of knitting needs to recognize that. Thus, Rutt does not describe the needles that were used by generations and generations of professional, commercial, and serious hand knitters. The cottage workers in England made exporting boat loads of hand knit hose to France possible. They are a big part of the history of hand knitting. These are the tools that made fine fisherman’s ganseys possible. Those ganseys made cod fish possible. The cod fish made the Church's "fast days" possible. Taxes on the knit goods supported the British Crown. These tools that Rutt ignores were critical to history as we know it.

Then Rutt talks about holding the needles and he ignores knitting sheaths and pouches. These had been at the core of techniques for professional, commercial, and serious hand knitters for centuries. What he does get right is admitting that the knitting styles that came in at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, slowed knitting down. However, those knitting techniques are the only ones he describes in detail and says little about the methods of hard working (and fast) cottage knitters. Rutt says, “Ideally only one needle should move”. This may be true for slow, elegant, stylish knitting in the post-Victorian drawing room, but it contradicts Howitt’s eyewitness description of how the fastest knitters ever known (the Terrible Knitters of Dentdale) did knit. They are an important part of the history of hand knitting and they need to be discussed by someone that understands what they did, and how they did it.

Rutt did not understand the tools used by generations of hand knitters. This is a deep and fundamental fault with Rutt’s knowledge of knitting.

Having glossed the tools and techniques of serious knitters, in favor of drawing room fashion, Rutt dismisses the work of Braham Norwick while acknowledging that the metal work discussed is topologically knit. Rutt says it is not knit because it is not yarn -that is silly! I have knit metal wire and the process is knitting; that is one must now how to knit before one can knit metal wire, and if you can knit metal wire, you can knit yarn because the process is the same. Anybody that has knit both knows this. Any knitter that has knit wire knows that after knitting wire, you go find some yarn to knit because it feels so good after knitting the wire.

And so on! That is my feelings on the first 25 of or Rutt’s 213 pages, and it does not get much better. He attributes dates without justification, and he missed important work. He makes mountains out of molehills and molehills out of mountains, and it is hard to tell what he is going to do with any particular reference.

I will gladly admit that Rutt cites a great many sources, but his analysis of those sources is faulty and out of context. If Rutt is cited, always go back and look at the original source. Rutt is not the last word in knitting. Rutt did not write a history of hand knitting, he wrote a justification of modern drawing room knitting.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Curved Needles and Sock Yarn

OK! Curved needles do work for sock yarn, I just had to drop down to 1.5 mm pricks, and it gives me about 10spi. The yarn band says 7.5 spi for Amrican size 2 needles. I like the firmer, 10 spi fabric better. In fact, the firmer fabric is much more like the fabric in those nice Smart Wool socks that my wife just bought. (Those Smart Wool sock are knit at ~32 spi so I am not even getting close to their gauge.)

This swatch was started on 2.38 mm pricks, and I just could not make those big needles work with the fingerling yarn. You can see the big stitches at the bottom. Besides, I do not like the fabric.

The wood thing is the knitting stick I am using.

Curved knitting needles in the style of the Yorkshire Dales

I am simply amazed at how little has been written about curved needles (pricks) as knitting tools.

My first swatch with the first curved needles. There is some junk stitches, but the last 300 were very nice. And, since then, better pricks, have resulted in better knitting.

Mary Thomas, at least wrote briefly about knitting sheaths, and had pictures and drawings of knitting sheaths in her classic book on knitting. Certainly Mary Wright talks about knitting sheaths at length, and I even found a paragraph in one modern text explaining how to use a knitting sheath. However, there is even less on curved needles.

Curved needles can be used hand held to facilitate continental knitting. However, they come into their own when used with a long knitting sheath. The needle then pivots in the knitting sheath. The front leg of the stitch is used as at fulcrum to lever the yarn through the stitch. The effort comes from the large muscles of upper arm. Control and stability come from the knitting sheath and the inter–actions between the yarn, the fabric, and the needle. Therefore, the Yorkshire commercial knitting techniques do not work for all yarns and fabrics, but when they do work, they are very fast. This is a very different motion from any of the motions for using straight needles with knitting sheaths, and it certainly was not contemplated in the one modern text that describes how to use a knitting sheath.

The leverage available with a knitting sheath and curved needles is not as great as with a knitting sheath and straight needles, thus curved needles are not suitable for knitting very tight fabrics. Nor, are curved needles suitable for loose fabrics or lace. What we would call standard hand knitting (http://www.yarnstandards.com/weight.html) is too loose to use the fabric to stabilize the needle. However, I do not like those fabrics anyway. (And, I note, that the knit wool fabrics offered at good or fine clothing stores are also firmer than what results form following the recommendations of the Craft Yarn Council.) That is, professional or commercial quality knitting is firmer than the recommendations of the CYC.
However, if you want to knit a nice firm, consistent fabric very rapidly; pricks are your tool of choice. If you want to knit a fine Jersey in a day, get curved needles. If you want really consistent knitting, get curved needles.
So, she asks with a sneer, "Is it fun knitting that fast? How can you enjoy knitting that fast?" It is like riding in a car. In a new BMW, it is comfortable going 80 mph. An old Ford Model T is not comfortable at 50 mph. NO! with most needles, it would not be any fun knitting that fast, but with curved needles, when you get everything dialed in, it is just knitting at the natual speed that feels right.
I have some Special Blauband sock wool, and I have not yet figured out how to knit it with curved needles. It is on 2.4 mm pricks and I was lucky to get a thousand stitches done in 4 hours. I mean I was struggling to do 5 spm, so I do not have this all figured out yet.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Knitting before Newton

Lack of evidence for existence may or MAY NOT be evidence of non-existence. Lack of evidence may simply be good evidence for moths, mold, damp, hearths without chimneys, and frogging for reuse. Lack of evidence may be a problem with experimental design or the mechanics of the sampling methodology. I find that knitters tend not to spend a lot of time pondering design of experiment and sampling methodologies.

A careful reading of Rutt suggests that he never knit with a knitting sheath, which I find a singular lack in someone writing about an industry where the knitting sheath was a primary tool. He handled ganseys in a museum context and did not go out and determine their functional qualities. His statement to the effect that too much has been made about how weatherproof fisherman’s ganseys tells me that he did not understand the rigors of sailing in a wooden ship or the warmth of a real gansey. As one's body cools, one loses judgement and coordination. For a sailor working in the rigging, loss of either judgement or coodination is sudden death as he falls. In contrast, a cold farmer may stumble on his way home, and still make it back to his warm hearth. If one does not understand these two points, one cannot make sense of that knitting masterpiece called a “fisherman’s gansey.” Rutt did not understand the physics of knitting, the physics of how a knit fabric insulates, or human physiology.

Fisherman’s ganseys and seaman’s gansey are functionally similar and produced with the same materials and tools. For all practical purposes they are the same. While the British navy did not set a uniform, they constrained what a seaman could wear by what was available for him to buy aboard ship. A sailor pressed off of a merchant ship might be wearing a gansey, but but a landsman would not. Now, go back through the British Admiralty contracts, and see what they put in the "slop chests" from which every British seaman had to buy the clothes that he wore. A good place to start is Admiral Nelson and work backwards. This is piles and piles of documentation in the best British tradition. Every British Naval vessel had what we would recognize as seamen's ganseys aboard to sell to the seamen.

The French built Louisbourg on a cold point in Nova Scotia to protect their cod fishery and to a lesser extent their fur trade from the British. King Georg was projecting his navy across the Atlantic and we have records of what was in the slop chests on those ships, and thus what British sailors were wearing. We can make a reasonable assumption that the French sailor’s supporting Louisbourg were similarly dressed. And yet, when I visited Louisbourg nobody on their huge staff knew about knitting sheaths. Nobody knew what a gansey needle was. They had not even looked for DPN – they had looked for Victorian style SPN. There were living history staff for a remote, cold, outpost set in 1740, knitting lace with SPN?! No wonder they did not find evidence for knitting in a very cold place where there were sheep bones and wooden shoes in the midden. They did not seem to know what to look for in the way of knitting tools. While we were there, one of the enactors got hypothermia, and they had to send her off to get warm. It was June! It was nice and warm (6C & 25 knot wind) right there on that parapit. Of course, I was wearing a gansey, hat, and wool socks, all knit from local wool. (My wife in her Patagonia gear was very cold. No other tourists stayed on top of the wall for more than -- seconds.) While I expect that the ladies of Louisbourg did knit lace in 1740, I am also sure that somebody in that fortress was knitting warm woolens.

When I visited the archeology dig at York, they told me that they had not looked for knitting tools because everything they were looking at was before knitting was introduced into Europe. I suggested, maybe not, and showed them what wear marks would indicate knitting needles rather than awls. Recent publication reports the finding of 14th century metal double pointed knitting needles at York.

Estonia, Ireland, and Scotland were all very much in the Norse world of trade from the 8th through the 13th centuries. Consider the fragment of elaborate “Fair Isle knitting” that was found in 1949 in a 13th century Votic grave. It was in the literature, and yet ignored by Rutt. This tells me that the York knitting needles are not anomalous, and there was elaborate knitting being done in Europe in the 13th century. We can be sure that in the 13th century knitting was established from Estonia to Ireland.

In the early 13 th century the Portuguese were selling cod form the Newfound Land Banks. They must have had ganseys. Ganseys made commercial, long range fishing economic. Knit ganseys kept sailors from getting so cold that they fell to their death. If too many of the sailors on board get chilled the ship is lost and the venture is not econmic. In this same time frame the English from Norfolk were fishing cod from square rigged ships as shown by the bench ends from King's Lynn. They fished so well that in 200 years the grounds were fished out and the tradition of cod fishing in ships from Norfolk was forgotten. All that remained was a knitting tradition, supporting fishermen in small boats.

The 11th century saw Cistercian Order with abbeys in Portugal, France, England, Ireland, and Scotland moving rams to improve their flocks of sheep. They had wool, ships, and they had a mission to teach. I think we can be sure that they taught knitting and even gansey making.

Knitting is knitting, whether it is done from cotton or wool or silk or silk with gold threads. That is, knit fabrics containing metal threads has always been considered knitting. We have Irish and Scotch metal work, with good provenance clearly dating to the 8th and 8-9th centuries containing knit metal wire. We have all seen these examples in our art history books, we just did not think about what we were seeing. Ladies and Gentlemen, knitting in Great Britain is an ancient art.

One thing that is unique about knitting, and that makes it different from naalbinding and woven material is knit fabrics' ability to be easily unraveled, and the yarn reused, or re-spun and reused. If I am a thrifty housewife with a drop spindle, every bit of yarn is precious. If I have an old bit of thread-bare knitting, I am likely to unravel it, and use the old threadbare yarn as one ply in a new yarn. Or, I might just reknit the piece. In a land of hand spinning, I would never expect to see any scrap of old knitting. If the owner did not want the yarn out of it, somebody else would. We should be very surprised to see old knit fabrics. If the moths or mold did eat the fabric, then the nearest spinner or knitter would have used the fabric.

What is an old knitting sheath? Firewood! Firewood next to the fire is always better than firewood out in the yard. Old knitting sheaths went on the fire. Old wooden knitting needles were saved for kindling. Any blacksmith would buy steel or iron or brass or bronze knitting needles for cash money. We should not expect to find many old knitting implements.

So, why don’t we find ganseys in the document record? Why are they not listed in wills? Well they were a work garment, and work garments wear out. No, they were THE work garment. A seaman was likely to be wearing his best gansey, and one way or another, he was likely to be buried in it. If he is planning on being buried in it, it is not going to show up in his will. In fact, a man on land did not need a seaman’s gansey at all, and a gansey was a very expensive thing to own if one did not need such an elaborate garment. If he sells it of gives it away, it is not going to show up in his will or inventory. If he is wearing it, it is not going to show up in an inventory of the house. I would not expect to see much documentary evidence relating to “fishermen’s” or “seaman’s” ganseys. Which brings us back to – What was in the slop chests of the British Navy? There, where we expect it, we have references to knit frocks.

A ship is a complex system. Change any part of it, and other systems much be changed. The great changes in western ships counting backward were, use of liquid petroleum fuel, use of coal, use of square rigged sails. . . . . . . . Diesel and steam meant that sailors could operate the ship without going above the deck, and without the kind of gymnastics that sailors traditionally performed. Engines also provided heat for the crew. Thus, after the advent of steam power, sailors could have a warm dry place to sleep, this changed their clothing requirements. And, the costume of sailors changed.

We know that square rigged ships sailed by sailors in ganseys worked very well for a very long time. The question arises, “Which came first, square rigged ships in Europe, or knitting in Europe?” Square rigged ships appeared around 1000 AD or two centuries AFTER we know the Irish were knitting even very difficult things like wire. Thus, the system of square rigged ships and knit sailors’ ganseys could have evolved together.

To move the above from an isolated chronology to a documented web of history, consider the Channel Islands. Early on, they were agrarian, developing their own fine breeds of milk cows, sheep, and very complicated land inheritance traditions. In the period of the 8-10th centuries, they became the primary provider of salt fish to Catholic Europe (and England) for fast days. They were such good fishermen that they fished out their local waters and in the 11th century were selling “exceptionally cunning” garments knit from their local wool to other sailors and fishermen. By the 12th century, their knitting production exceeded local wool production and they were importing wool from England. The customs taxes on that wool were the primary source of cash income for the cash strapped treasury of the English Crown. This continued until the Tudor wool act which stopped the export of raw wool. (Thus, a few years later, Cabot's men were wearing Englsih knit frocks rather than Guernsey knit.) Suddenly cut off from the wool for their knitting that was their principle source of income, the Channel Islands turned to piracy to support themselves. Elisabeth R sent Sir Walter Rayleigh to stop the piracy. Rayleigh helped the islanders reestablish their knitting industry.

It is worth noting that despite great advances in scholarship the field of knitting history, Rutt has not updated his book.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


It is how the "Terrible Knitters of Dent" knit so fast.

Miriam Tegels as a speed kitter? Ha! she does not even have a "clew." See (http://www.truveo.com/Learn-to-Speed-Knit/id/144115227455160401 ) Swaving takes all that, and pushes it to the extreme; including minimal motions and keeping the shoulders loose by flexing them. Then it goes beyond that, by synchronizing the hand motions so both hands are making similar symmetric motions. This seems to make coordination of everything easier, i.e., none of this; right hand do this, and left hand do that stuff. Both hands just make tiny circular motions together.

Swaving is not continental knitting. Both swaving and continental use the left hand to tension the yarn. However, with swaving, both needles move at the same time.

It was not just a fiction. I know how it is done. I am not real fast - yet! In fact, I have not even worked out how to purl yet. But, damn it works! Wow! I have not timed it yet. Maybe it is not as fast as it seems. I doubt if I will be able to knit 200 spm – that is for nimble fingered young ones that started knitting as kids. Still the nature of the motion makes it seem very, very fast. We will see.

Very low stress on both hands. All the effort in both hands is from the shoulders and upper arms. On the other hand, knitting fast is a high effort activity, No wonder the Victorian ladies let this style of knitting die out.

This makes it clear that there were at least 4 styles of knitting based on knitting sheaths and knitting pouches:

  • There was/is the English which produced very tight fabrics
  • Continental was/is fast, but tended to produce looser fabrics
  • Swaving
  • The two handed, two -yarn techniques for Fair Isle, weaving, and twining
  • There are specialized techniques for carrying two yarns in on one hand

On a lighter note as I pick up the sock I was – swaving – last night, I note the needles in it are cheap, old aluminum (Susan Bates or Boyle or ?) that somebody bought in a “hobby shop” and I got in a bunch of used needles on eBay years ago.

Why were the old knitting sheaths so big?

The books said old knitting sheaths were BIG, so my first knitting sheaths were big. Then, over time I discovered that for just plain knitting I really liked smaller knitting sheaths with a different leverage between the belt holding them in place and the needle. There was a clear difference; the smaller worked much better, so why did the old time contact knitters consistently have bigger knitting sheaths? I would not say that it kept me up every night, but this has been a persistent question for me over the last couple of years.

Certainly, part of it is what I normally wear while knitting. I wear a different kind of belt and I tend to wear it higher on my hips than those old timers. My normal apron for knitting fastens in the back with a clip, so normally no apron strings to tuck a goose wing or knitting sheath into.

Then, there is how the knitting sheaths were made. Green wood would have been split with an ax and shaped with a draw knife, then finished with a small knife. The last step would have been to make the needle hole either by burning it with a red hot needle or drilling it. There was the chance that the wood could check or crack. In a large knitting sheath, this made no difference; in a small knitting sheath it would have ruined the work. In a large knitting sheath, everything could have been done by eye, while for my smaller knitting sheaths I have to measure very carefully. In short, the large knitting sheaths were much easier to make.

Then there was the question of life style. Many of the knitters had gardens, orchards, fields, and animals to look after. Knitting was done in the evening after the farm work was done. A big knitting sheath is more durable as it endures farm life, and is easier to see if it is dropped in the grass or in the bedding in the barn.

Finally, replicas of some 16th century rural goose wing designs that I recently found show exceptional versatility in function. These are much more versatile than the late Victorian goose wing designs that I had first used as templates. The older designs are not nearly as pretty, but they work better. Those old knitters knew what they were doing. The Victorians favored form over function.

How Old is knitting in Great Britian?

Recent scholarship on has shown very a very high level of knitting skill in Estonia in the 13th century ( a study of a 13th-century votic knit fragment by Anneke Lyffland) but what about Great Britain?

See The Origins of Knitted Fabrics by Braham Norwick for a cogent argument that the Irish knew about knitting in the 8th century. He goes on to layout similar evidence for the knowledge of knitting in Scotland in the 8th to 9th century.

Worth finding and reading.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Knit like a Professional

For a very long time, knitting was a honored profession, with its guilds, tools, and skills. Guild members traded knowledge and the trained their employees and apprentices, but there were no programs to teach knitting to the public. England had old, broad, and deep traditions of contract and commercial knitting rather than guilds per se. Guild members did not write books about knitting for sale to the public. Nevertheless, in Jane Austin’s time, ladies knit and there was no stigma to knitting very well or to using the tools of a professional knitter. In Jane Austin’s day, many ladies did knit like a professional.

Knitting as profession unraveled around 1820 as the government of Cornwall established schools of industry to teach the poor to knit. Suddenly there was a flood of lower quality knitting in Great Britain that depressed the price of all knit woolens and no professional knitters could make a decent living. To be a professional knitter in Great Britain was to be poor.

Victorian society ladies liked to knit, but they did not want to be mistaken for the poor. Thus, they avoided everything that would make them look like a professional knitter. Everything associated with professional knitting was taboo in high society. First and foremost they avoided knitting sheaths. Knitting sheaths were the tool and mark of the professional knitter. Then, ladies knit loosely to remind everyone that their family was rich enough to have central heat, and plenty of coal. They knit slowly. Their knitting was conspicuous consumption. They demonstrated that they could afford to spend all day knitting and accomplish little. And, they wrote books to instruct young ladies that they also must knit loosely, slowly, and avoid knitting sheaths.

We do not have the instruction materials from the early knitting guilds or the instruction, or notes from groups meeting after farm work to sing and knit for pence, or materials from the schools of industry where they taught the poor how to knit fast and tight with a knitting sheath. What we have are the knitting books written by Victorian ladies that make knitting sheaths taboo.

Let us get over that Victorian taboo on professional knitting skills and tools.

Good knitters should use the best tools available. Sometimes, and for some purposes, the very best tool for knitting is a knitting sheath. Knitting sheaths are part of a tool kit that allows one to knit better. For hundreds of years, the best knitters used knitting sheaths. They had good reasons. It is time for the best knitters to once again use the best tools.

I see five virtues for modern knitters in knitting sheaths:

  • First and foremost, knitting sheaths can help protect the hands and wrists of aging knitters from repetitive stress.
  • Second, knitting sheaths can help knitters knit faster and longer at one session so they have fewer WIP that do not get finished. This helps avoid the second sock syndrome. (Some knitters tell me that they knit for pleasure, and do not want to knit faster. They do not have to knit faster, but if we can show them how to have that same pleasant rhythm at twice the speed, they may enjoy having more FO for the same knitting time.
  • Third, knitting sheaths help manage fine needles allowing more intricate patterns and fine lace much easier. In this category, I would include Fair Isle. You would just not believe how much easier a knitting sheath makes Fair Isle and the other two-yarn techniques. A knitting sheath also makes the fancy gansey and Bavarian stitches easier.
  • Fourth, it allows the production of firmer fabrics. When I was just starting to learn about knitting sheaths, I walked in to a LYS owed by a famous knitting designer. I had a large swatch that I had knit from Patons Classic (Merino), and I had a question about knitting technique. The knitting instructor in the shop, took the swatch and looked at me in astonishment, her eyes went big, and her mouth dropped open, and she was silent for half a minute. I thought she was going to berate me for brining such cheap yarn into her very high end shop. Instead, she asked, “ How did you ever knit anything so wonderful?” I used a knitting sheath. I took a sweater in to a guild meeting a while back, and a master knitter that has been to thousands of “Show and tell”, came up afterword and stood over it, fingering it and looking at it for perhaps 5 minutes. Her husband is a master weaver. His reaction was, “That might make me take up knitting.” It was not some wonderful fiber, it was just Frangipani 5-ply, the least expensive of the modern gansey yarns.
    I mostly knit coarse wools fit for sailors. With finer (softer) fibers, a knitting sheath will help one knit something fit for a queen. Look at the knit fabrics in a very expensive department store – they are finer and firmer than standard for modern hand knit. Nobody knits that finely (except for socks) and tightly these days because it takes too long and is too hard on the wrists. Why do people like knitting socks? – One reason is because they like the fabrics produced on fine needles. However, they do not knit sweaters out of those fine fabrics because it would take too long and be too hard on the wrists. A knitting sheath changes that.
  • Finally, knitting sheaths provide a connection to the heritage of knitting. That is as true today as it was in the days when Mary Thomas was writing.
    People are going to say that I have a shop on Etsy, and discount what I say. However, I like fabrics that are firmer that what has been taught to hand knitters for the last hundred years, and almost everyone else that I talk to also likes firmer fabrics. This is acknowledged by a great many hand knitters that brag about how tight they knit. Take a nice firm fabric to a knitting guild show and tell and see what happens.

Honestly now, do you really like your hand knit fabrics better than the knit fabrics in the clothes in fine department stores? If the department store fabrics are one bit better, get a knitting sheath, and knit like a professional.

The time for knitting like a Victorian lady is over.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

More Tools

People want knitting sheaths and gansey needles.
Nobody else wanted to make them, so I am.

I bought some bigger tools.
And, I put up a store on Etsy: "Agres's Shop".
Anyway, good knitting sheaths and steel knitting needles are available.