Monday, December 06, 2010

Modern Knitting as Art

Back in art school, I learned that: Art is something that makes people think about their world. In general, art is a non-functional representation of an object, i.e., paintings, sculpture, textile art, jewelry, decorations on objects (color patterns in functional textiles), and public architecture. In the “Art World” functionality has no value. Decoration is everything.
And then we had “crafts”, which were functional objects. We were pushed to find the perfect tea pot, the perfect wine chalice and so forth. If we were going to make a perfect tea pot, we had to learn how to make tea. We had to test our tea pot(s) to ensure that they were perfectly functional. In the craft world, decoration without function is nothing.
I think that most hand knitting over the last 80 years falls into the category of: “Art”. Consider the fisherman's sweater.
Long ago, a fisherman's sweater displayed his social status, but mostly it kept him warm. Warmth was the core function of such a sweater. A representation of the sweater that did not function to keep the wearer warm was, and is “art”. This would include a textile representation that does not provide the warmth of the original sweater. Worsted weight yarn knit on # 6 needles will never come close to providing that kind of warmth, and thus is “art”. Modern hand knit sweaters are decorative – they are knit on big needles, and the wind blows right through them taking body heat with it. If you want a real fisherman's sweater, knit it on #1 needles.
A lot of knitters shout that, “Oh, my lace shawls are so warm!” or “my hand knit socks are completely functional.” Statements that one's woolen objects are “warm” are disingenuous, because the really remarkable thing about this knitting is how little warmth these objects do provide for the amount of wool used to construct them. Yes, lace shawls are light weight and provide detectable warmth and protection from drafts, but their primary purpose is as objects of personal adornment. They are badges that wearer does not have to work (and stay) outside when the weather turns foul. Originally they were worn as badges of a Shetland woman's great skill in domestic chores. A lace shawl showed that she could could do her chores and still have time to spin and knit decorative items for herself. Then, ladies form the south started buying such shawls to show the wearer's family was rich enough to afford a heated environment. If you are wearing a lace shawl as your primary outer garment and you have to stay outside in a cold rain squall, you are going to get wet and cold. In contrast, the Shetland women wore warm clothing under their lace shawls. Shawls are a display of status display rather than for practical warmth. Lace shawls are “warm” only in a culture that thinks that a “fisherman's sweater” knit on US 6 needles from [4] weight yarn is warm.
Hand knitters recite the myth that “any hand-knit wool is warm”, (but that if you go out side, you have to put a jacket on to stay warm.) By commenting on how warm their hand knit objects are, these knitters are saying, “My art is to produce a little warmth from a lot of wool!” In early Victorian times, that was indeed very clever art. It took the concept of “warm wool” and stood it on its head. It made people think. Now, that clever art has become the norm, and warm, hand-knit wool has become the rarity.
Most modern hand knit socks are not durable enough to be particularly functional – in truth, they are no more functional than a painting of socks. (Do not tell me how long your socks last.  Consider the the fresco on the wall.)  Those socks function as personal adornment, as a statement that I can waste my time knitting non-functional objects. The knitter says, “My hand knit socks are more functional than the store bought socks.” Ok, but are the store bought socks functional?
I had a good bit of time in the big department stores over the weekend, and the socks that I saw therein were designed for personal adornment. Thus, saying that your hand knit sock is more functional than what you can buy at Needless Markup, is just not saying much. Those socks are primarily for personal adornment – jewelry made out of textiles. I look at the sock yarns that are being sold to knitters and the sock patterns that are popular, and together these produce more textile jewelery than functional socks. They are not people that walk much. These yarns and patterns produce socks that scream, I am well to do, I do not have to walk, I can drive or take a taxi. I mean they are buying sock yarns made from fine, short staples and they are knitting it loosely. Does the knitter really expect the resulting sock to be “durable”?
One more point, in those department stores, the cheap knit sweaters and hats had gauges similar to that of most modern hand knitting. However, the very expensive (machine knit) sweaters and hats had gauges and textures similar to what I knit. It was what I consider to be warm and durable. It seems that Needless Markup and its suppliers concur with me on what makes a good knit fabric.

In the Begining

I wore a very nice hand knit fisherman's sweater, and I about froze, so I asked the question, “How did the old fishermen stay warm?”

As late as 1844, it was hand knit sweaters. Why were their sweater warmer then our sweaters? I tried different wools and stitch patterns. None of theses were particularly warm. Then in 2004, I came across Gladys Thompson, Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys, & Arans. Careful reading showed that all the patterns were knit much, much tighter than any of the modern hand knitting patterns.

In those days, I knit on circs – Addi Turbos. However, the Gladys Thompson gauges were so tight they were very difficult for me to knit. So the question became, were those very tight fabrics worth the effort to knit. Were they so much warmer, that they would be worth effort?

I knew from the literature and basic physics that advection (, Air is a fluid that can advect heat ) was a major source of heat loss through clothing. I set out to measure air flow through knit fabrics. I took an old vacuum cleaner and made a little device to measure the pressure drop across a small sample of fabric. I also turned an old water bed heater into a heat source to measure conduction across small samples of fabric by measuring how long it took to melt a standard ice cube. Then I knit and tested hundreds of samples. I tested commercial fabrics and products.

The results were fairly straight forward.
  1. Tighter was warmer. (in the range possible by hand knitting)
  2. Some stitch patterns (in very tight knitting) dramatically increased the warmth of the fabric.
  3. Hand knitting could produce fabrics that were as warm as the best commercial products.
  4. Knitting such tight fabrics on circ needles was not practical. (Yes, it could be done but many who tried it, ended up requiring wrist surgery.)
Since science is the systematic collection and organization of information by the making of observations, formulation of hypothesis, and testing of those hypothesis, this was good science. However, there were nothing here that was any more deserving of a peer reviewed publication than any high school student's assigned science lab exercise. This had all be done, and published long before. My work simply calibrated my materials and techniques.

The early posts of this blog describe how I then worked out (un-vented) the old knitting sheath technologies so that I could easily knit much tighter and faster without damaging my wrists. The various garments that I have knit, tested, and used confirm and validate all of the testing that I did on the swatches. The proof of my swatch testing is the garments I knit on a daily basis. The proof of that swatch testing is when I do a demonstration; and, the oldest and most experienced knitters in the room, squeal, “Oh, My God! How do you knit such objects?”

People that have not seen my fabrics, simply do not believe such fabrics can be hand knit. And, they call me a liar, or worse. It is slander and liable, but I know they are just ignorant. And, it is OK! As long as they disbelieve, I know I am knitting much better than they are. If they started believing, they would use these techniques to produce objects that are better than anything I can dream.

The a view of the other side of my world is at :

Monday, November 22, 2010

I got it wrong on spindles

I looked at videos of Peruvian spinners, and thought they were using the Berber spiral groove on their bottom whorl spinners.

They were not.  One of those spinners assures me that they were using a half-hitch, and there was no grove on the spindles.

Turns out, that half-hitches on bottom whorl spindles can be set and released faster than the eye can see.  And, it can be done by feel, in any position.  No need for even the Berber Spiral Groove.  What is takes is a lesson and practice.

On the other hand, the ancient Egyptian spinners that were spinning linen threads only 4 fibers thick, did use the spiral groves that the modern Berbers use.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The state of yarn

Knitters talk about how warm a lace shawl is -- that is silly.  Lace shawls are only "warm" in the context of a very mild environment, generally the result of central heat and heated transport.

Ladies that think lace shawls are "warm" have been the primary market for yarn mills for the last 100 years.  The yarn companies have adapted.  For the last 100 years, few people have worn hand knit work clothes, and the wool industry has adapted.  The ladies want softer yarns, so the yarn companies make softer yarns. Now, if you go to a ski resort, you do not see wool sweaters on the ski slopes, you see them in the (heated) restaurants and in the (heated) lodge in the evening sitting by the fire.  Nobody is asking for the more durable fibers, so the wool industry stops growing them, and the yarn industry has stopped spinning them into yarns for hand knitting.

The result is that there are likely 20 good yarn stores within 30 miles of my house, and not one of them carries a a single yarn containing any of the high luster, traditional British long wools. Even if I mail order "5-ply gansey yarn" from the UK, none of the 4 brands in my stash have any long wool in them.  However, if we look at the pictures in Gladys Thompson's Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys and Arans, we see that high luster long wool was used for every object except the Aran patterns.  This tells us that yarns really have changed in the last 55 years since GT was first published.  What does this mean?

It means that if you buy a "5-ply gansey yarn", it will be spin from fine, short fiber.  It will not be nearly as durable as a yarn spun from long wool. The fibers are thiner and will not tolerate abrasion as well as the coarser long wool fibers.  The fibers are shorter and more likely to pull out of the yarn, and the yarn will fall apart if the object is worn for an extended period of time while wet.  To hold the shorter fibers in place the yarn has more twist and ply and thus is stiffer and requires more effort to knit into a weatherproof fabric.  On the other hand, the high twist yarn shows off cables even when knit loosely. These are yarns that have evolved to meet needs of personal adornment, rather than the practical needs of a waterman.  These are yarns of status rather than for warmth.

Seeking more durable yarns for outer wear, you are likely to find MacAusland's Woolen Works and Cottage Craft in the Atlantic Provinces of  Canada.  These are 2-ply and 3-ply yarns that are spun semi-woolen or semi-worsted. With their coarser fibers and woolen nature, these yarns do have a certain itch factor when worn next to the skin. With their thick plies, these yarns require great effort to knit tight enough to be weatherproof.  And, when knit tight enough to be really warm, these yarns produce a fabric that is stiff.  On the other hand, I have worn sweaters that were hand knit from these yarns to keep me warm and comfortable while pruning apple trees in fierce storms. With their coarse fiber, these yarns are relatively durable. And, over all, they are the most comfortable garments that I have ever worn skiing.

What were the virtues that caused the old knitters to use long wool 5-ply gansey yarn when knitting "ganseys"?  First there was cost, long wool was plentiful and less expensive.  There was durability; both the thickness of the fiber and the length of the fiber contributed to produce a very durable fabric that was tough enough to be workman's clothing in an industrial environment (ships).  The yarn was very supple which allowed it to be knit tight enough to be weatherproof and yet the fabric remain flexible and elastic, and thus very comfortable. The worsted spun structure resulted in a smooth surface, that while not soft, was pleasant to the touch.  Thus, it produced a relatively thin fabric that was light in weight, flexible, and very durable. This met the needs of a sailor working in the rigging above deck, or sleeping in his hammock, or indeed anyone working on the water.

There are a lot of farm stores selling yarns spun from long wools. Some are even an appropriate "sport' weight.  However, they are 2 and 3-ply, which do not have the durability or suppleness of 5-ply. Further more, the the fibers for these yarns "have been through the mill".  That is, they have been commercially processed to remove vegetable matter, and subjected to aggressive picking and carding.  This is much harder on fibers than hand combing.  Thus, the fibers in the yarns sold by "farm stores' tend to be shorter than the fibers in the fleeces sold by the same farm stores.  There are two reasons for this.  The fleeces with shorter fibers tend to be the ones sent to the mill for spinning into yarn, while fleeces with longer fibers are sold to hand spinners.  And, mills tend to break fibers.

Thus, at this instant, if you want to understand why people made such a fuss over British seaman's ganseys, you are going to have to hand spin your own yarn and knit it yourself.  In fact the whole British tradition of  knitting yarns consisting of long wool spun into fine singles and plied up into 3-ply fingerling, 4- ply, and 5-ply is well worth investigating for anyone that is interested in light weight, but very warm and supple clothing.  

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Drop spindles do gansey yarn


Spindles for testing

A friend, who is a very experienced spinner with a large collection of good spinning equipment, "demanded" that I make her a better drop spindle.  I thought that very odd as there are lots and lots of drop spindles on the market and this woman attends all the wool shows, and I was not really making drop spindles.

A little experimentation showed why she made her demand.  Most drop spindles on the market are not really suitable for production spinning.  In fact, I had assumed that it was not possible to make any useful amount of worsted spun 5-ply gansey yarn on a drop spindle.   I thought that because drop spindle spinning was so slow, prior to around the year 1500 there would have been no worsted spun yarn.  Fishermen (and others) would have had to rely on semi-worsted yarns spun on a great wheel.  I had heard that the sails of Columbo's ships were woven form yarns that were drop spun.  However, the reality that drop spinning could be "fast" never crossed my mind.

The problem is that when spinning became fashionable, spindles started being made to be pretty rather than functional.  The other day, I had a student who owns 80 drop spindles.  They are all beautiful.  They are all jewelry - articles of personal adornment.  Not one those spindles is particularly functional for rapidly spinning high quality yarn

Moreover, I hear spindle makers spouting all kinds of  nonsense about their spindles and the new owners of those spindles reciting the same stupidity.  As I get deeper into this, I even see silly statements by experts, who really should know better.

For example, a bottom whorl drop spindle can be spun with an elegant "Princess Twinkle" flick in the drawing room.  Or, you can use a thigh roll with a bottom whorl spindle and it is is just as fast as any Egyptian drop spindle.  Or, you can use a two-handed toss on your bottom whorl spindle and it will be faster than an Egyptian drop spindle.  With a two-handed toss on your bottom whorl  drop spindle, you can spin very fast. It is not elegant, but it is fast.

In short, it was perfectly feasible to spin worsted 5-ply yarn for fine knitting on drop spindles. It is even feasible to ply 5-ply with the proper drop spindle (and lazy kate with singles guides from LK to plier. In addition, you need a spindle that is made for doing that sort of thing, rather than a spindle design that is made to be easy (cheap)  to produce, or a spindle design that is mostly for personal adornment.

And, Oh! yes, I like that spindle standing in front with the bit of white single on it.  Does it look like any commercially produced spindle you have seen recently?  Sadly, I think not.

Why 5-ply?

Alden Amos says in his, Big Book of Handspinning, that there is no reason to spin 5-ply yarns.

In fact, 5-ply yarns are more supple for their thickness, and thus easier to knit into weatherproof fabrics.

5-ply yarns are also more durable than a 2 or 3-ply yarn of the same fiber and grist.

Those issues may not enter into your decision making, but if you are thinking about knitting a sweater that will keep a seaman warm on a long sea voyage, they are valid reasons.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Handspun gansey yarn

I have not posted for a bit, because I was learning to spin my own gansey yarn.

I had been told that NOBODY ever spun gansey yarn by hand because it was impossible.  The required plies were so fine that they could not be spun by hand and that it was impossible to ply 5 singles together by hand.

Well, lots of pre-mill spun woven cloth had very fine singles - that were spun by hand.  Plying 5 singles together is not that hard.

Thus, after a 3-month learning curve with my little Ashford Traditional, I am turning out my own handspun gansey yarn, and I am very impressed with its competence.

It is stronger and more durable than any of the modern commercial gansey yarns.  I spin it softer, so it is more friendly. It is warmer than modern commercial gansey  yarns.  I like it.

Why in the world would somebody bother to make a 5-ply yarn when it would be easier to spin 3 thicker plies? Well, 5-ply is warmer and more durable.  It is the compromise that provides the most warmth for the least amount of wool.  Given all the effort to prepare the fiber and knit, it is also the compromise that provides the most warmth for the least amount of effort.

Here is the pix taken in November.  The blue on the left is hand combed, hand spun 5-ply at 16 wpi, and the darker yarn on the right is is 5-ply at 14 wpi being knit up as boot socks.

hand spun gansey yarn

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An apology about waterproofing wool

A couple of years ago, a yarn supplier told me that a drop of baby oil would oil ,and waterproof wool. I tried it, and it has worked very well for me on a large number of swatches and objects. I have repeated the advice often.
I now find that the situation is more complex, and the baby oil was acting a carrier for other materials with which I inadvertently contaminated the yarns and/or objects. Thus, the waterproofing that I see in my knit woolens requires more than just baby oil.
Other materials in my crafting environment which may be causing the effect include:

• Spinning oil on a yarn that I frequently use

• Bees wax,

• Petrolatum

• Lanolin.
One, or all of these, is likely contributing to the weatherproof qualities of the objects that I make.
In any case, my weatherproof fabrics are not noticeably oily or waxy, nor do they smell like sheep when wet. Thus, I am taking bout trace quantities of contamination. The advice to knit very tightly, full completely, and oil the wool stands. The ambiguity is what “oil” is best.
Anyway, I am sorry for any confusion or problems that this may have caused.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

hand spun gansey yarn

I just passed a milestone and had something of an epiphany.
I am working with Cotswold, spinning and swatching for a gansey. I had been working toward finer singles, but had stalled at about 35 WPI due to lack of skill to spin the coarse wools finer.
However, when I did finally get to 40 WPI, I realized that gave me 10 hanks per pound, and 1,000 yards of 5-ply per pound. This all harkens back to a standard for cottage hand spinning on an industrial scale.
Coarse long wools such as Cotswold were an important industrial fiber. With hand spinners in different communities, using different equipment under different conditions, some kind of commercial standard for spinning coarse wools was necessary so weavers and knitters would know what to expect. When all spinning was still by hand, 40 WPI was about as fine as such a diverse group of spinners could consistently produce. It was an easy standard to enforce by giving each spinner a length of dowel with 2 marks on it and telling them the single must wrap so many times between the marks.
Certainly, any good spinner could spin that wool finer, but the standard was a commercial compromise between human variability, technology, and economics.
Then, 2-ply yarn was about 2,500 yarns per pound, 4-ply was about 1,250 yd/lb, and 5- ply was about 1,000 yards after tight plying – all a direct consequence of wrapping a single around a piece of dowel with two marks on it. Do those numbers ring a bell? They have the virtue of being easy math in a cottage industry where many can’t read / write, but can do commercial arithmetic, and make their mark.
After about 1770, factory spinning in England was so much cheaper and better than cottage spun yarns that industrial and domestic users both switched to factory spun yarns. The market for handspun yarn crashed, and hand spinning was no longer a viable commercial activity - except for a few niche markets.
The traditions of the cottage industry of spinning industrial yarns was lost. People bought their 5-ply. After families had bought their 5-ply for 4 generations (60 years) families assumed that they had always bought their 5-ply.
The factories produced yarns similar to those that had been previously produce by the cottage industry. They did not have mass media to teach weavers and knitters to use new kinds of yarn, so the spun yarns that were similar to the yarns that had been produced in cottages and homes for hundreds of years. In 1800, knitters and weavers bought yarns of the same thickness that they had bought 50 years earlier because those thicknesses of yarn produced textiles suited to the environment. A hundred years later in 1900, central heating and better windows was resulting in a warmer living environment for many. Thus, by 1920, very different kinds of textiles and yarns were required for the new living environments.
However, in 1820, clothing requirements were very similar to what they had been in 1720. Fashion changed, but the amount of insulation that the clothes were required to provide did not change much. Thus, the nature and types of yarn produced changed more between 1820 and 1920 than it did between 1720 and 1820 despite the fact that in the later period yarn production moved from hand spinning in cottages to the factory.

Two Ply, Three Ply, More Ply

I have been hand spinning classic gansey yarn from traditional British long wool fleece. The extreme fineness of the singles that I had to spin to get the right grist on the final yarn was a real eye opener.
Yes, I had deconstructed modern commercial gansey yarns and had seen how fine the plies in it were. That is what triggered my decision to learn to spin. However, there is a big difference between seeing such fine singles (as a non-spinner) and actually spinning such singles as a (beginning) spinner. Moreover, spinning gives one time to think.
One thinks of England as a cool place, full of sheep and wool, so wool must be cheap and they can afford to be extravagant with wool in their clothes, right? England was full of wool because wool was useful and valuable. In fact, the English were very good a making a little bit of wool provide a lot of warmth. It is only recently, that they have become extravagant with their wool.
The English have long traditions of spinning very fine and knitting with fine needles. The result is fabrics that by modern standards of hand knitting are extraordinarily warm, but by modern standards of hand knitting are light weight and have very little bulk. They really are nice fabrics for all kinds of uses, because they are so much warmer than we expect such a thin fabric to be.
I spun the singles to be plied into the gansey yarn, and I wondered, what would happen if I plied these up into a 2-ply yarn? Knit on fine needles (UK 16 / 1.6 mm) I got a fabric warm enough for cool mornings in spring-summer- fall. I made up some 3-ply, knit it on 1.75 mm needles, and lo and behold! I got a fabric that is warmer than modern commercial gansey 5-ply yarn  knit on 2.5 mm needles! In a mild climate, 3-ply (22 wpi) on #00 needles was/is good for winter wear. (For skiing, I might put on long pants.) Again this is a stealth fabric. Look at the fine 3-ply knit on the #00 needles next to the 5-ply knit on the larger needles and you would say that the gansey fabric is many times warmer. However, it is not.
This brings home several lessons. The first is that fine yarns can produce very warm fabrics. The second is that gansey 5-ply yarn knit on “big” needles does not produce a very warm fabric. The third is that appearances can be deceiving and you need to test a fabric for warmth, because the eye can be deceived. The fifth is that you do not need a bulky fabric to be warm under most conditions. The sixth is that 5-ply gansey yarn knit tightly produces a fabric that is suitable for very cold conditions.
Fisherman’s sweaters in the modern context are knit loosely because most people do not want that kind of warmth.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


There were places I had to go, and things I had to say (in other places). Then, I had to learn to use my new spinning wheel. Then, I had to become a rather better wood turner, and you wonder why I have not been blogging?

And, I had to make some knitting sheaths with adapters:

Knitting sheaths and Adapters for different sized needles

I have knit with ALL of the above knitting sheaths and adapters and they work.  The adapters are interchangeable between all of the knitting sheaths and any knitting sheath can use any of the adapters. Needle sizes run from way too small for elves to big enough to plug the Gulf Oil Leak. (Number of black bands reflects needle size.)
The adapters need to be a wood that is as hard as rock maple (or harder). The knitting sheaths can be softer woods. For example ebony and walnut work well together, as do maple and maple, maple and ash, or maple and oak. The male fitting on the adapter needs to be ~3/8" and the knitting sheath needs a thickness of ~1/4 on each side of the adapter or it will crack. Thus, the minimum thickness/diameter of the knitting sheath is 7/8". The adapters can easily be made from 3/4" stock.

Do I like using them? Not really. I prefer just using a knitting sheath made for that needle size. However, I tend to work with a very limited number of needle sizes and I do not like the kits of circs with interchangeable needle tips either. But, that is just me, and many knitters do like the kits.

When I first knit with a Yorkshire Goose Wing knitting sheath, I was amazed at how ergonomically and comfortably the goose wing fit against my body. After more experience with the turned knitting sticks, I have to say they are just as good and perhaps more versatile.

A quick review of Brears reminds us that while Yorkshire had the goose wing knitting sheaths, they continued to use the turned knitting sheaths.

I had some of these at a KIP the other day, and the adapters kept falling off and -- hiding.  This design is not good enough.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Nothing in the mud?!

How many knitted seaman’s frocks would YOU expect to find from the medieval period? We will not know that there were medieval ganseys unless we have a model that estimates how many, and where, we are likely to find ganseys. Then, we estimate the number of samples that are likely to be required to find that number of ganseys over the expected area, and based on the results of our sampling we accept or reject the hypothesis that there were knit fishermen's frocks in the medieval period.
To find such an artifact, 4 rather improbable things must occur:

1) The frock must be knitted. Knit fabric is 8 to 100 times more expensive than woven and is thus only selected where the properties of knit material are required or where it is being used as conspicuous consumption. J. M. Synge’s “The Aran Islands” make it clear that in 1900, “ganseys” were are rare on the Aran Islands as silk suits are in Wal-Mart. Woven cloth was cheaper, and that is what they used, layers and layers of woven wool. This worked for an impoverished subsistence farmer that had to sometimes row out to the steamer or to another island. On the other hand, note that the men that went off island and worked for wages as seamen, did have knit sweaters.

2) The knit frock had to be discarded. Seamen had one gansey and they wore it all the time.

How many sailor’s frocks would we expect to find in the wreck of the Mary Rose or the General Carlton? Every sailor was wearing his knit frock. If he had an extra, it would be lashed in his hammock to the deck railing. (And, the railings are one of the first parts of a wooden shipwreck to be lost.) If he survived, his frock went with him. If he drowned, his body cavity filled with decomposition gases, and floated away carrying the frock with it. If he died of trauma, then the nutrients in his body attracted scavengers (sharks and crabs) that would also damage the gansey. Thus, our hope of finding a gansey is to find the “slop chest” on board. Was the “slop chest” found? If not, the probability of finding a gansey at the wreck site is almost zero.

Moreover, if the wreck was salvaged at all, any seaman’s frocks would have been valuable and easy to carry away. The slop chest would have been a target for anybody that could get to the wreck.

What happened to “ganseys” on shore? In hand-spun days, last year’s gansey was un-raveled and the resulting yarn re-plied to make next year’s gansey. (Or, socks for the kids.) The sailor either wore this year’s gansey to his death and Davy Jones Locker, or it became last year’s gansey and was un-raveled and re-plied. Thus, in “hand-spun days”, I would not expect to find a fragment of a gansey. I would expect the first old ganseys to show up about the time mill-spun started to gain acceptance and knitters did not have a spinning wheel handy. In environmental science, this is what we call “fate and transport.”

In short, ganseys were not something left lying around.

3) The gansey had to survive after being discarded. Given the number of bugs, critters and molds that destroy wool, discarded ganseys would survive only if they were dropped into acid bogs or anaerobic muck. Certainly small items were trod into the mud of York, but an entire gansey is harder to lose. At some point, a rag picker sees it in the mud and picks it up.

4) Archeologists must sample the acid bogs or anaerobic muck until they find the gansey. Mostly, archeologists look at centers of population. However, if it was a center of population, then some contemporaneous rag picker would have recovered and recycled the yarn. Thus, to find old discarded ganseys, archeologists are going to have to sample bogs and muck from the period away from centers of populations. We have to find some sailor that wore a gansey, fell in a bog, and his body never floated to the surface. (Rare, because most bodies that were not staked to the bottom of the bog, do float to the surface. If he was alive, he would have recovered his gansey, and gone on his way.) The method of calculating the required number of samples to find such textile fragment(s) can be derived from Gilbert’s text on Statistical Methods for Environmental Pollution Monitoring or for a more general case, Cochran’s Sampling Techniques. We are going to need more archeologists.
I would like to point out how few artifacts of spinning wheels we have from some periods when we know that they did have spinning wheels. At first thought, there are not as many artifacts as one would expect for the amount of spinning that we know was done. However if we think about spinning wheels as tools of production rather than as sentimental items of decor, we understand that they are kept until they are worn out, then they are repaired and used some more. These days we discard obsolete technology. Prior to 1780, there was no such thing as an obsolete spinning wheel. There was only spinning wheels and firewood. Second thought, brings forth the realization that spinning wheel artifacts would be very rare indeed. This is consistent with what is found in the field.

As for searches for “gansey” in news papers: while “gansey” does occur in Howlett (1840) it did not make it into an OED cited source until 1851. Clearly, in 1840, it was a term of art in use by contract knitters and not in general use. I trusted OED, and looked to “frocks” for richer pickings.

Given the variations in population as famines and pestilence swept the medieval period and the way that cultural material is lost every time a structure is abandoned for even a short period, I would be very surprised if any sample of a pre-1700 sailor’s frock is ever found. (Richer families could protect their structures in downturns, but knit frocks were still work clothes that got recycled. There was also a class of knit goods that served as conspicuous consumption. Part of the conspicuous consumption was that the garments were always in good repair, and thus recycling was part of the conspicuous consumption. At the end of its life as a frock, the yarn became socks and hats. Again, such knit goods are likely to be as rare as Armani suits in a Salvation Army thrift store. That does not mean that they did not exist, it only means that you are not going to buy a good Armani suit for $5 in a Salvation Army Thrift Store.

I spent the weekend looking at homestead sites that had known dates of abandonment over the last hundred years. The people with me were astonished at how fast a farmstead could become an archeological site, and how fast materials and contents were lost. Some of those sites are being rebuilt today and an archeologist looking at the material in 200 years would think that there was essentially continuous habitation, as there has been some continuous, dateable, deposition on the sites. We need to remember that areas that we consider to be continuously inhabited were subject to plagues and famines that caused drops in local population and temporary abandonment of some buildings and structures with resulting loss of cultural material. These were frequently periods of salvaging. A single sock in the mud might be overlooked, but a gansey was trove of yarn that could be unraveled, and from which much could be made.

Looking for a gansey in the midens of Yorkshire is like looking for a Rolls Royce in the auto junk yards of America. It is not that Rolls Royce were never in wrecks in America, it is that there were relatively few of them, and they were so valuable they were taken out of the junk yards and reused. You can look, but I can tell you right now, that you will not find a Rolls Royce in an American junk yard.

In my model, it is unlikely that any reasonable number of samples is likely to reveal gansey artifacts. If we should suddenly find a bunch of 17th century ganseys, then my model is faulty. In short, old ganseys are rather like neutrons, in that they can only be detected indirectly. We have evidence that they exist today, but our evidence that they existed yesterday is indirect—unstable isotopes for the neutrons and square rigged ships for the ganseys. Never the less, we can be sure that both existed “yesterday”, even if we did not specifically see those particular neutrons and ganseys. Do I “believe in neutrons”? It is a model that explains the observations without exception. Do I “believe in ganseys”? It is a model that explains the observations without exception. Do I believe in Irish Fairies? No, there are simpler explanations.

Lord Kelvin got a lot of things correct, but he was way off in his estimate of the age of the sun. Ussher, Kepler, and Newton all placed the creation of the Earth around 4000 BCE. This forced the compression of the timelines affecting all branches of human development. Now, we know that Cornwall/Wales were trading tin to Carthage in 500 BC, and Carthage was also trading to Syria and India at the time. The timeline has expanded. The Han had treadle spindles for spinning cotton; and, the silk road was a fact when the Romans got to Britain. However, textile arts have been slow to decompress their timelines, and they still write of “inventing” treadle spindles 1500 years after the Han. Modern Knitters seem to cleave to an old model that says knitting is new, more on a basis of what we have not found, than of careful analysis.  We need to look beyond Wright, Rutt, and Tompson, just as Einstein  looked beyound Newton.

I look for skill sets that we have lost.  Some of those skill sets are like a gansey in the mud -- they have value.  The awe and greed on the faces of the people touching and feeling my products this weekend tell me that I am on the right track.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

New technology needles

I have been admiring and praising the Hya-Hya DPN for knitting softer spun yarns on the basis of some hand knitting at a show. These are very light weight knitting needles made from stainless steel by fusing the tips on to tubing. Recently I bought a bunch of them and it turns out that for use with a knitting sheath sizes US#1 and larger sometimes tubing crimps and collapses suddenly unless the knitting sheath fits them just perfectly. used very gently, and they will likely work very well, but I am an agressive knitter and they lasted seconds.However, minor wear in the knitting sheath can result in such loss of perfection. Their #0 and smaller needles are solid stainless steel, which does not crumple like that larger needles but does not have much spring and bends rather than flexing.

The Signature needles have that fine point so beloved of fast knitters of tightly spun yarn. Again in sizes above #0, the needles are made by fusing aluminum tips to tubing. Again localized pressure on the shaft of the needle can result in fatal (to the needle) crumples. Moreove, Signature needles do NOT like being stepped on.  Knit VERY gently if you must use your Signature needles with a knitting sheath, and I do think you will be OK. Signature’s needles in sizes #0 (and smaller) are made of a very high quality stainless steel, and are not real “springy”, they may bend on you in knitting sheath use. Still they are beautiful needles made by very nice people.
My needles just are not as pretty. On the other hand my needles have more spring, and there is nothing that your or your kid or your horse can do to damage the needles that I make (except leaving them in the damp so that they rust.)  Take the above with a grain of salt, because I bend my spring steel needles all the time. I bend them and they keep on working.  Hya-Hya and Signature do not keep working if they get bent.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I do not give many citations. Suppose I cite British customs taxes from the 14 th century? The few folks that would go to London and check the original customs ledgers know where they are and how to get permission. For anyone who is not going to check the original manuscript, there are variety of transcriptions and summaries of those documents. However they are mostly in collections and you have to go to the library or collection, put on the white gloves and look. Just having the title of the document does not ensure that I did not transpose some numbers when I was taking notes on my little steno pad.
There are a lot of library skills that I take for granted. My dear Readers should take that as a complement.

I said, “that we do not do fine knitting any more”, and we do not. Bug knits is tiny stitches, but it is novelty work. There is a wonderful collection of similar work in a knitting shop on the North Shore of PEI, and I am sure that there are many other similar artists around. The lady on PEI said that each of the little garments required more than 200 hours of work. In contrast, the Pope’s Stocking was a fragment of men’s hose that was designed to be worn.

As late as the start of WWII, a good deal of fine knitting was still being done in the couture houses in Paris. These were finely knit, one of kind objects, which were not publicized. They also required thousands of hours of hand knitting. By the mid-1980s those knitting divisions at the couture houses were phased out. One of the last of those professional knitters now works as a sales clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue in SF. She is one of the few people in the US that I have met that knows how to knit with a knitting sheath, but most of the knitting when she was working in the couture houses was looser, and done with circs.

Folks today do knit gansesys. Gorden knits beautiful ganseys on circs, but he knits for half an hour per day and it takes him a YEAR to knit a gansey. Dawn9163 on Ravelery knit her son a wonderful gansey on circs in only 6 weeks, but at the end, her wrists were sore. The days of "terrible knitters" doing a gansey in a day are passed. I can knit a plain (but absolutely weatherproof) gansey in a week without hurting my wrists. I can knit a good, weatherproof sailor's kit in two weeks. I made many determined attempts to knit such fabrics on circs, and never could do it (fast enough to suit my needs for winter wear). At one time, I had a whole bin of failed attempts. For the first couple of years after I moved to DPN/knitting sheath, I would go back to my circs and make another stab at knitting such fabrics on circs.  I always failed.  No! that is not quite right. I COULD do it, but I could not do it fast enough or long enough at a time to to make it a practial method of production.   I would freeze before I got enough knit to keep me warm.  With a knitting sheath, I can easily keep myself and all my skiing and hiking buddies supplied with weatherproof knit wear.

The French had year-round navy patrols of the English Channel in the last couple of decades of the 14 th century. Why? Who knows? The British Crown was too broke to mount an invasion. Would you have volunteered for winter patrol in the English Channel? Not considering their ships, lack of charts, lack of coastal facilities, poor food, and lack of weather forecasts. No, France pressed their sailors. Press gangs worked later, and they worked just as well in 1380. We know that the Channel Islanders were knitting garments for sea faring men, and some of that product went to France. It is very likely some of it went to the sailors on Channel patrol. Ships are expensive, and hypothermic sailors result in lost ships. No, France bought their sailors tightly knit ganseys so the sailors could keep the ships a float. It is worth noting that 100 years later, France was still one of the largest customers for English wool. Trade routes tend to persist for generations.

Friday, February 19, 2010

My View of Knitting History

I am highly amused by the reaction that I get when I talk about knitting sheaths in history groups. Knitting sheaths are tools, like rocks and hammers. Sometimes they are the right tool, sometimes they are the wrong tool for the job. However, for me, it is funny for somebody that has never used a knitting sheath to vehemently say that knitting sheaths are unnecessary. That is like somebody that has never used a hammer telling a carpenter that hammers are unnecessary. I have to think that this is a residue of the Victorian loathing for the poverty associated with “knitting for pence”, and the Victorian distain for the tools of the impoverished contract knitters.

Actually, I thought about felt quite a lot. However, we have good knowledge that it was not much used aboard square rigged, sailing ships. So the real question is why was felt not used more? The answer is that felt clothing does not suit the kind of work done on a (square rigged) ship. As a result, the great sea faring centers have museums devoted to knitting, not felting. Felt clothing was very practical and popular on steam ships starting in the Victorian Era.

Knitting for subsistence fishing could be performed by wives, sisters, mothers, and other family members. However, Great Britain was a great sea faring nation with a navy that pressed crews - no chance for a mother to knit for her son while he served in His Majesty’s’ Navy. So there was commercial knitting for seamen as early as there were navy press gangs – and in France that was um – 1380? Customs tax records suggest that the wool that those French navy sailors wore came from England and was knit in the Channel Islands. Knitting was such a large industry in the Channel Islands that for a while customs tax on British wool exported to the Channel Islands was the primary income for the British Crown. When the Tudor Wool Act was passed, (to protect the Yorkshire knitting Industry) the Channel Islands turned to piracy, which was only resolved when Sir Walter Raleigh reestablished knitting on the Channel Islands as an industry. In those days, knitting was big business.

In Victorian days, knitting became conspicuous consumption in the tradition of Thorstein Veblen, Gary Becker, and Kevin Murphy. Knitting loosely proved that a lady’s house had central heat. Ladies wrote new knitting manuals to teach their students how to knit slowly and elegantly. Another great virtue of knitting slowly and loosely is no stress on the wrists. Thus, the ladies were able to discard the distained knitting sheaths. The old professional knitters did not write their skills down, and subsequent generations of knitters from all walks of life looked to the knitting manuals written by Victorian ladies. However, later generations of knitters forgot that those Victorian ladies had a distain for practical professional knitting.

As Mary Thomas writing in 1938 said,

Knitting sheaths, or sticks, as they were sometimes called, are now a feature of museum interest, but at one time, when hand knitting was a vast and flourishing industry and speed a matter of pence, every knitter owned and used these implements. . . .

 Mary Wright was one of the first to address the subject of knitting sheaths openly in her 1979 book, Cornish Guernseys & Knit frocks. (It is also worth noting that she damaged her wrists knitting a replica gansey on circular needles.)

In the old days, when knitting was an important technology, they were very, very good at it. One of the finest examples of knitting that we have is a fragment of silk hose with designs in gold filaments from the Arab world, knit in the Ninth Century. That was knit with the élan that separates the talented professional from the merely competent amateur. Yes, today we have people that do things like:, but it took her more than a month and she had sore wrists afterward.

In the Victorian era, we lost much our heritage of these professional knitting tools and expertise. We no longer have cadres of talented professional hand knitters with trade secrets, advancing their craft generation by generation. We forgot how to knit ganseys without sore wrists. We have forgotten how to hand knit silk and gold at 30 stitches per inch. With a few exceptions, now, we do “hobby” knitting. Our professional knitters are designers that make a living doing designs for “hobby knitters”. I look to history, not for history per se, but for clues that can let me be a better knitter in the future.

Knitters that come to me for “history” are going to be disappointed. Knitters coming to me for ideas on how to knit better are going to be amazed and delighted. I have used rocks (Clovis blades) to cut my meat, but sometimes a steel knife is - just better. I have pounded nails with a rock, but sometimes a carpenter’s hammer is – just better. I have used Addi Turbos, but sometimes DPN with a knitting sheath is - just better.

He, who knows only his own generation, remains always a child.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

An approach to using different sized needles with the same knitting sheath

Many Victorian knitting sheaths have adapters that allow several different sized needles to be used with the same knitting sheath.   Many of these Victorian knitting sheaths with adpaters have a look about them that make me think of vocational school projects for teaching young men to use a variety of power tools.  That is, these are not tools made by a knitter.  Moreover, I do not see much in the way of wear marks on such tools suggesting that they were often gifts and keepsakes.

Several knitters have asked about how to use several different sized needles with one knitting sheath, and this is certainly a workable approach. The photo shows two knitting sheaths that I made which accept  adapters.  By changing the adapter, different sized needles can be used with the knitting sheath.  Thus, with these 4 adapters, US # 0, 1, 2, or 4 needles can be used with either of these knitting sheaths.
These are crude prototypes, but they work very well.

Another advantage of this system is that the knitting sheath can be made of a light weight or decorative wood while the adapter can be made of a harder wood such as maple. Thus, the  design life of the system can be longer, that the design life of a system with the (steel ) needle flexing against a softer wood.

On the other hand, these adapters are tricky little fellows and I expect they will tend to runoff, join the circus, and never to be seen in a knitting bag again. 

Monday, February 01, 2010

Wood for knitting sheaths

The traditional wood for for making knitting sheaths was "sycamore".  I had been looking for sycamore, and the American sycamore that I had been finding was not suitable.. 

The deal is: English sycamore is very similar to America soft maple. Sycamore from Scotland and Yorkshire is more similar to the harder American maples.

Thus, maple, and particularly rock or sugar maple, is an excellent wood for knitting sheaths.
Two Yorkshire style knitting sheaths made from rock maple.

Every time I use "goose wing" knitting sheaths, I am amazed at how well they work for gloves, hats, and other small knitting when tucked into apron strings  I love them.

My thanks to Chris at Robert Sorby.