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.