North of England Knitting Sheaths
Handknitting in the hills and dales of England’s northern counties, including Cumberland, Westmorland, Durham, and Yorkshire, evolved from a domestic activity to an industrial-production level. In Elizabethan times (1558 to 1603), knitting schools were established in towns and cities—for example, in York and Lincoln— to teach poor children the skill and thus enable them to earn their keep. The demand for knitted stockings began at the royal court, first as luxury items of silk. However, that demand soon spread and moved down the social scale, as all classes of people began to wear knitted hose, mostly made of worsted yarn (wool), and much more comfortable than the cloth hose of previous centuries.
Over the following decades, entrepreneurs, or middle men, known as “hosiers,” traveled around the towns, villages, and scattered farmsteads of England’s North Country, delivering yarn and collecting knitted items. Those items were mainly stockings for men, women, and children. Thousands of pairs, ranging in quality, were produced and taken to markets at Richmond, Kirkby Stephen, and Kendal. In 1770, in Kendal alone, 5,000 people were employed to produce stockings. That number included the wool combers and spinners who supplied the worsted yarn in addition to the knitters. Stockings were then exported by land and sea to London and to continental Europe. Packs of stockings from Richmond market went to the port of Yarm, on the River Tees (now no longer open to the sea, because the river has silted up). During war years, demand was particularly high to supply the armies.
Gloves, caps, and “guernsey frocks” (sweaters) also were knitted in great quantities. Handknitting became a crucial strand in the domestic economy for rural populations, where farming was seasonal and no time was wasted. Men, women, and children knitted. In one community, Hawes, North Yorkshire, the youngest person described as a knitter in a nineteenth-century census return was six years old, and the oldest, a man of eighty-six. Lead miners knitted on their way to work. Women knitted while walking to market to sell butter and eggs. Old people, too frail for outdoor work, knitted to contribute to household incomes.
Writers touring northern England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries commented on the skill of handknitters: Robert Southey in his publication The Doctor, &c. (in seven volumes published between 1834 and 1837) described the knitters he encountered in one dale as the “terrible knitters of Dent” (“terrible” meaning tremendous or extremely industrious). William Byng, Lord Torrington, bought stockings for traveling in Askrigg, Wensleydale. He wrote in 1792, “The business of the poor is knitting of worsted hose, a very idle employ; and that I might encourage the manufactory, I purchased a pair for 8 pence halfpenny, to put on if well wetted.”
William and Mary Howitt, owners of a school in Derbyshire, described the knitters at work in Dent in the 1840s: “They sit rocking to and fro, like so many wizards. . . .” The action was called “swaving,” a simple, uniform tossing motion of the hands and body as stitches were transferred from one needle to another.
Sheaths, Shears, and Sticks
The tool that enabled people to knit quickly and to knit while standing and walking was the knitting sheath (regional names for these implements include “shears” in Swaledale and “sticks” in Wensleydale). Knitting sheaths varied in quality, workmanship, shape, and decoration, but each consisted of a shaft and a blade. The shaft had one or more holes in the end to take the knitting needle receiving stitches. Knitting was done in the round, with four or five needles. The blade was held next to the body by a leather belt, colloquially known as a “cowband,” shaped in the blade to prevent it from sliding down.
Each region developed a favored shape. Most were made of wood, carved by young men as love tokens for their sweethearts or by fathers for daughters. Knitting sheaths are treasured folk objects (as are Welsh love spoons). Some were adorned with dates and initials or even short phrases, affectionate or moral in nature. Inlaid panels of mother-of-pearl were quite common, as were glass panels to hold a lock of hair or words written on paper. In addition to wood, sheaths could be made from other materials, including brass, goose quills, or even bundles of straw.
Sheaths can be grouped into several categories: goose wing, straight, heart-shaped, chain, cage, spindle, and idiosyncratic forms, including representations of legs. Skilled carvers could produce chains from a single piece of wood and more elaborate pieces with freely moving balls within cages. The most common form of decoration was chip carving, which appears on folk objects all over Europe, from the Baltic states and Scandinavia to Slovakia and the United Kingdom. Many have floral and geometric motifs. Later examples were produced commercially, but retain regional characteristics. They often have shafts turned on lathes.
In Shetland, where handknitting is still practiced commercially, knitting belts were and are used in the same way as sheaths. A leather belt incorporates a pad stuffed with wool or straw, with holes to take a needle.
Knitting sheaths have been passed down through generations in families, long after their working days were over and their original use forgotten. However, several extensive collections can be found in museums, including those listed in the sidebar, as well as in the private collections of enthusiasts.
June L. Hall
JUNE L. HALL, a local historian and fiber artist, is the author of Henrietta Herdwick, a book for parents and children about the native Lake District sheep. She was a longtime member of the Wool Clip fi ber-artist co-operative in Cumbria, which organizes WoolFest, one of the largest sheep and wool events in Great Britain, and she serves as a committee member for the Rare Breeds Survival Trust of Cumbria. Her articles and designs have been published in magazines in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Featured Image: From the left: 1. Dales (Wensleydale and Swaledale)- type knitting sheath. Turned shaft. Much-used sheath, with broken blade. Blade straight and plain with chamfered outer edge, gently tapering to a point. 2: Teesdale goose-wing knitting sheath. Front face with chip carving. Blade flat, curved, with elaborate chip carving and initials MD surrounded with leaf motifs. 3. Teesdale goose-wing knitting sheath. Unfinished. Square shaft, cut at top and bottom to octagonal section. No hole present. Notched end to curved blade, flat at the front, and curved at the back to fit against the body. Leaf-shaped outline for intended decoration. “Fish tail” end to blade. 4. Dent-type knitting sheath. Turned shaft. Blade curved, with characteristic diagonal ledge, chip carving. Rest of blade with leaf motifs. Half-moon depression at top of blade, near shaft. 5. Eden Valley–type knitting sheath. Goose wing, with turned shaft. Plain blade. All objects from the collection of June L. Hall. All photographs by Mike Turner.
Find this article and many more like it in PieceWork November/December 2017!