sticks

If you stood the course through my radio burblings the other day, you might have heard me mention the thing that I’d like to contribute to the BBC / British Museum’s History of the World in 100 objects. I thought you might be interested to see it. While I was researching my piece for the current Rowan Magazine, I became very interested in the different tools that enabled women to knit while standing up, outdoors, or on the move. Circular needles now mean that our knitting is easy to carry about, but in earlier centuries, there were many different devices to enhance the craft’s portability. Shetland islanders used wisps:


(Shetland wisp. Rope and straw. Late Nineteenth Century).

. . . and later, leather belts . . .

. . . like this one (bought from Jamieson and Smith and demonstrated by Ysolda. ‘Goose-wing’ or ‘Gulls-wing’ knitting sticks, shaped to be tucked easily into skirt or apron top, were common in the Scottish Borders, the Yorkshire Dales, and Wales :


(“goose-wing” knitting stick. Late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. This example was previously painted, and scraps of green are still visible on the carved leaves)

. . . and all over the country, there are examples of straight or slightly curved knitting sticks, hand-carved, machine turned, and sometimes inlaid with shell or bone, dating from the seventeenth- through the early twentieth centuries. Here’s a simple eighteenth-century turned one:

As these photos might suggest, I’ve now amassed a small personal hoard of these things, but they feature in local museum collections all over the country: I’ve seen some great examples in the V&A, and National Museum of Scotland as well as at Dent, Whitby, and Beamish. (If you click on the Beamish link you’ll see a gallery of many interesting examples)

Here’s another view of my favourite knitting stick:

It is a small oak object, less than 15 cm long. The top of the stick has been reinforced with a cage of carefully soldered lead, which provides a secure and durable holder for the knitter’s needles:

Carved into the wood is a name (Jane Brown), and the date:

There are a number of reasons why I like this particular knitting stick. First, of course, it is a personal object — an object with a private connection, a name, and a story to tell. These sticks were frequently given as love tokens, and this one was probably carved for Jane Brown by her feller. This is, then, an object with private and sentimental meanings, and which may carry other intimate connotations too. Jane’s stick is very like a busk — small wooden or whale-bone objects that were worn by Georgian and Victorian women under their clothing to stiffen and enhance the effect of their stays. Wooden busks were similarly formed, similarly carved, and similarly given as love tokens (to be worn next to the heart). Indeed, from its particular tapered shape, and its resemblance to other busks that I have seen, I would speculate that Jane’s knitting stick was first intended as a busk, but then adapted to another purpose by the addition of the soldered top. I like the idea that an object designed to maintain the stasis of a woman’s body might be put to more practical use as a device enabling her to knit-on-the-move. I also like Jane’s knitting stick because it is an ordinary thing. The carving is neatly, but not professionally done, and unlike some sticks of the same era whose condition is pristine, Jane’s shows evident signs of wear. Her stick is a sentimental object, a decorative object, an intimate object, and most importantly, a functional one as well. It is an unpretentious, everyday tool, used by a woman who was clearly practised in her craft.

While the things that Jane Brown knitted are almost certainly long-gone, the object that enabled her to create them has survived. For me, Jane’s knitting stick, — ornament, tool, love token — illustrates how historically rich everyday things can be, how they can tell us so much about the connection of people in the past to the material culture that surrounded them. That, to me, is what is so great about the BBC’s / British Museum new project. I’ve added Jane’s knitting stick to their online gallery, and encourage you to upload a photograph and story of your own object here. (I have a strong desire to fill that gallery with lots of knitting and sewing related things . . . but I shall resist)

ETA: Jane Brown’s knitting stick is here in the BBC’s online gallery.

41 responses

    • the sticks would be secured in the waistband of the knitter’s skirt or apron, holding the right-hand needle securely (in much the same way that the belt that Ysolda is wearing does), and keeping the knitters hands free to make stitches . . . or do other things!

  1. This blog is very interesting to me. My mother was from “bonnie Scotland” and always used the longest knitting needles she could find. She did her knitting with the right one held tightly under her arm. Having been taught to knit by her that is they way I knit also.

  2. I love to think about the past encapsulated in objects, and the constitutive effects they had on people’s lives. I had come across those curved knitting sticks in ‘The Old Hand-knitters of the Dales’, but had always been a little mystified as to their use, so thanks for clarifying that! Maybe this is reading a bit too much into it, but the sheath function of a knitting stick seems quite symbolically charged to me, if they were given as love tokens. I wonder if Jane Brown knitted the carver of her stick some socks as thanks…

  3. The history of the ordinary is fascinating–in some ways, much more so than the extraordinary! Thank you for sharing your collection and this snippet of history with us.

  4. I remember both of my grandmothers using knitting belts. They both made Fair Isle garments for sale. My paternal grandmother made allovers and haps in particular, while my maternal grandmother made gloves and hats. I’m not sure what happened to either knitting belt, though it would be nice to have one of them as a momento. I’m not that good a knitter to cope with a knitting belt.

  5. What a beautiful (and functional!) object. It’s a real treasure. Thank you for sharing the information. I’ve never seen these tools mentioned in any of the books I’ve looked at, and it’s new to me. Old photos show Swedish women knitting and walking (often while carrying loads on their backs) but where the wool was secured and the needles carried, wasn’t entirely clear to me.

    • I’ve read somewhere that “the stitch patterns for identification” story was made up by some business owner to sell the sweaters. Can’t remember where I read it though…

      Kate, fabulous story and images! I had never imagined that there are/were many people knit while walking outdoors.

  6. What an interesting variety of designs on the “goose wing” stick. Like a sampler of sorts.
    I’m wondering if these types of objects would have found their way to the U.S.?

    I’m a regular antique shop prowler (and museum goer) and can’t think that I’ve run across anything like them. Perhaps I have seen them and not recognized what they were for. Of course, being in California the sticks would have had to filter their way across the continent.

  7. I listened to you on the BBC iplayer – where would I be without it. So nice to hear an interesting, intelligent conversation about knitting and the significance of hand-crafted objects in people’s lives.

  8. This post is a really good example of why I look forward to your posts. So interesting and such beautiful illustrations. Also, that BBC series – isn’t it brilliant? I can’t believe how much fascination they pack into 15 minutes.

  9. Those are so beautiful!

    And thank you for the little history lesson. I’m so fascinated with the history of knitting. It’s so cool that there’s this whole portion of my chosen craft that I’m still learning about!

  10. They have a wonderful collection of goosewing knitting sheaths, as well as many other everyday objects of Dales heritage, in the Swaledale Museum in Reeth – http://www.swaledalemuseum.org. When we visited in the summer I was really enchanted by them, and spent a while trawling the internet to see if I could get hold of one. Now I know where they’ve all gone! :-)

  11. I found your post very interesting. I have my great-great-grandmother’s “knitting sheath”. It is very similar to the “goose wing”, but all very smooth, without decoration. My own grandmother always refered to it as her grandmother’s “knitting sheath”. Is this term familiar to you? She passed it onto me with a note that says my great-great-grandmother was from Cornwall or the Isle of Man and that, as well as knitting, she smoked a corncob pipe. It is a treasure to me for obvious reasons.As a knitter, this everyday connection to another knitter (and in my own family no less!)is so very special. Thank you for the bit of history today.
    Sincerely, Cheryl U.S.A.

  12. Could you post some picutres showing the use of these sticks? I don’t understand how they are used. I knit continental maybe they are not needed then? The sticks are very pretty! What I like about knitting though is sitting down and relaxing. I don’t think I want to knit while walking. I might run into things :)

  13. In Denmark we use the continental method – or picking method, so we dont need anything to rest the needles on. However we have another little tool called “gillikrog” – Its a small metal spiral ending in a hook. It could be tuck into the sleeve opening or neckline of the knitters clothes, in order to hold the wool, which would be made into a center-pull ball, so he or she could move around freely..

  14. This comment is really for the previous theme, namely a suggestion for another book about woman travelers:”Women Travelers: a Century of Trailblazing Adventures 1850-1950″ by Alexandra Lapierre and Christel Mouchard. It features a chapter called “The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt”!! I have just booked it at my local library, but it seems there is only 1 copy in Denmark! I found your blog yesterday, and I have already been to it a couple of times! I see you are on Ravelry, so I assume that you too are going to Stirling in August? See you then!

  15. What a wonderful blog entry. Bringing the history of knitting alive. I look forward to pursuing more of the links. I keep dabbling in different things and doing some writing – now I want to gather more notes related to the history of knitting.

  16. I’m curious as to where you pick up artifacts like these. I would love to start a collection, but I live in the States, so they probably wouldn’t have many, if any. Online antiques dealers….? *ponders*

  17. 11 colours. I see no reason why these “knitting sticks” would not be available in America. There was a very early settlement period there by many nationalities.
    I am sure that if you got onto one of the 18th century Living History sites like Living History Worldwide you would find someone who can help.
    There is a link to LHW on my blog at:

    http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/

    Regards, Le Loup.

  18. Each item you showed was so appealing, I especially liked the carved goose wing knitting stick, I haven’t seen anything like these before (you won’t find anything like this in Southern California, everything is new – sigh). What treasures you have!!!!

  19. I have put a yoke that was once used for holding Cotswold sheep in the 100 objects projects page… I love the series so much and it has really enhanced my own thinking about things and their resonances, materiality and meanings.

  20. PS – I just got an email from the BBC saying my sheep yoke can’t be included since I don’t personally own it and the photograph is rubbish! Should’ve read the guidelines first…

    …really enjoyed your radio appearance, especially the part where you said that when we knit we make stories.

    I love the 100 objects series; it’s so great with the Thing-ness and materiality and I really liked hearing the echoes of a dying star and thinking of a time when flint-knapping was the main thing we heard in the everyday soundscape.

  21. what a fabulous post! and lucky you for all your treasures! Do consider submitting this to Piecework Magazine — it is exactly the type of article that makes that magazine so great! (Piecework is part of Interweave Press, as I am sure you know).

    Off to check the link … but dear Jane Brown … how wonderful!!

  22. I write historical romance novels for Bethany House and while I was doing research, I found your pictures of Jane Brown’s knitting stick. I fell in love with it and created a similar knitting stick for my heroine in my new book, Hidden Affections, which takes place in Pennsylvania in 1831. In fact, the knitting stick becomes a major plot element. The book, which is my 20th, will be coming out in 2011.

    I just wanted you to know that I’ll be listing your website in the acknowledgments page.

  23. I love your collection of photos! I want a goose wing stick!

    But, the Jane Brown stick doesn’t remind me of a busk, at all. It looks too thick. Busks are typically 15+ inches long, and 2-3 inches wide. Smaller than that is *painful*! I do 18th C living history, so I wear a busk routinely with my stays, and if they aren’t the right size, they pinch (odd things we learn, doing experimental archeology!). You wear them tucked inside your stays, in a little flat pocket, and a thick piece won’t fit. The extant stays I’ve looked at that have pockets, all have very flat pockets.

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