Knitting sticks! I had never heard of them before, but they are ingenious. Were I a knitter I would have some idea how they work exactly and all the ways you could use them, but essentially they allow you to stand or walk and knit at the same time. I am not a knitter nor do I depend for life on how much knitting I can produce in a day, but I love the beauty with which this desire and this need has been satisfied.
A knitting stick is a piece of wood with a hole in the end for the needle. It’s tucked under your arm [or held fast in a belt] so you can knit with three or four needles. They learned in the 1800s that if you had a stick, you could knit faster and therefore earn more money. The money that they earned was a pittance but it was better than nothing.
This is all from the Dales Countryside Museum exhibition Love Tokens, Sittings and Songs in Hawes, showcasing the collection of John Dixon:
It’s probable that knitting sticks, sheaths as they can be known, were used from the earliest days of knitting. Many have a ledge or slit so they can be held firmly in a belt or apron string on the right side of the waist. They anchor the knitting needle onto which the knitting is worked and allow the knitter to work close to the point of the needle. They also enable the knitter to work while standing or walking about and to “park” their knitting if they need to use their hands for other tasks like opening a gate on the way to work at a lead mine or moving a pan from the range.
In their book Old Hand-knitters of the Dales, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, the founders of this Museum, talk of one of the earliest recorded knitting sticks possibly being of Northumbrian origin and dating to the 15th or 16th century, a time when knitting flourished as an industry in Britain.
So practical, but also so beautiful, some simple and stylish, others more fascinating and some of them wonderfully odd. They were all hand carved as gifts, some love tokens as the exhbition title goes.
As the old illustration shows, this was a social and most companionable form of knitting. There are series of pictures taken of older folks sitting outside their doorways in their chairs, ready to chat to any passers by. They sang songs as well.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would come together to knit, whether it was outside their homes during the day or at their neighbours by the light of a peat fire in the evening.
They sang songs to count the rows knitted with their knitting sheaths and curved needles known as pricks. The sittings were social and also saved money, with only one house having to keep a fire going.
“perhaps the most characteristic custom of the Dales, is what is called their Sitting, or going-a-sitting. Knitting is a great practice in the dales. Men, women, and children, all knit … the men still knit a great deal in the houses; and women knit incessantly. They have knitting schools where children are taught; and where they sing in chorus knitting songs, some of which appear as childish as the nursery stories of the last generation. Yet all of them bear some reference to their employment and mode of life; and the chorus, which maintains regularity of action and keeps up the attention, is of more importance than the words.”
This was such a surprising most wonderful thing to find. We came to Hawes on this rainy day, clouds low so low over the earth. A quite miserable day. We caught the most wonderful community run Little White Bus from Garsdale station. We came to see the town, to see Wensleydale Cheese being made (but it was closed), to see Gayle mill (also closed), to see the ropemaker (closed). I don’t mind that they were closed, we came over our own holidays after all. The exhibition made it all worth it though, and the village itself. It is beautiful there on the banks of Gayle Beck, with narrow streets and alleys, houses that all seem to face inwards towards the village and the community life there.