Early North American Knitting Needle Gauges

Part 2 – the Big Firms in the USA

by Susan Webster, Australia

After the variety in early US gauges in the 1920’s and 1930’s, things got a lot more serious in the 1940s, not surprising with so much energy devoted to the war effort.  There were still many brands of knitting needles,  but not a great variety of gauges.

Boye

The house of Boye manufactured and sold across the range of sewing, knitting and crochet needles and hooks, together with a variety of implements to support needlework and re-inforce the merchandising messages.  In the late 19th century,  the firm imported British needles, which they sold under their own name.[1]  They soon began manufacturing in the United States, and they were incorporated in 1906.  It was not until the 1930’s  that they first issued sizing gauges.  Like most early manufacturers of knitting needles, Boye established its own sizing, which seemed to be very closely aligned with British Imperial sizing.  The first gauges were circular cardboard, over five inches in diameter and with multiple layers to add to their  complexity and instability.  Both examples in Figure 13 note that the gauge is copyright 1933, and the second gauge includes a patent reference.

Readers with sharp eyes can see that the holes in these gauges are labelled with millimeter sizing above the hole and “Boye” sizing below.  However, the gauge is actually divided in half :  holes on the coloured background (at the top of the gauges in Figure 13) are for Standard Gauge for pins other than double point steel.  On the bottom, uncoloured half  of the outer ring of the gauge, the holes are labelled gauge for double point steel pins only.

As other firms moved toward a common American sizing for knitting needles, Boye maintained its own special sizing for steel double points.

Figure 13Boye’s 1930 cardboard gauges.

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In these round gauges, several  hole sizes are duplicated top and bottom; these show the same millimeter label for both holes, but different Boye sizing labels top and bottom – more evidence that Boye still, in the 1930’s, maintained two sizing scales.

These cardboard gauges have other aids to knitting perfection – the corresponding crochet hook sizing, the number of stitches (presumably per inch) and the suggested types of yarn for each size pin.  The back has still more helpful hints: “Dont’s for Knitters” <sic>  and a one-inch rule.  Not surprisingly, these big, bulky and unreliable (once you had forced a too-large needle into a hole) gauges were not issued for too long.

Presumably not long after the cardboard roundels, Boye issued a rectangular celluloid gauge with a much simpler presentation of sizes (see Figure 14).  The distinction between sizing of steel double-pointed pins  and of plain old straight needles disappeared.  So did the metric sizing.  There are still both the English  sizes and the Original U.S. Standard Knitting Needle Gauge, plus the crochet hooks. There is also a corner slot to measure stitches per inch.  This rectangular presentation became a standard for many firms, although it is not clear that Boye issued it first.  More likely it was a blank from a specialist manufacturer which was taken up by various needle makers.

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Figure 14 – Boye’s celluloid gauge – note the more simple labelling.

Also, presumably in the 1960’s, Boye joined other firms in “personalising”  aluminum gauge blanks (see Figure 15).  The horizontal J-shape gauge was also used by Ezy-Knit, and by Sears Roebuck & Co as their house brand gauge, and was also produced without a brand name.   Boye sometimes issued this gauge in a plastic sleeve and in various blue or silver combinations.  It is a much, much more simple gauge with only one set of number labels in the accepted American sizing.

Figure 15This irregularly J-shaped gauge was used by several firms including Ezy-Knit and Boye in both blue and silver.  It was also issued with no company name.  Here is the Sears version  in a dull gold background. 

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Boye has continued to produce gauges into current times, generally white with red printing, with information sometimes in  both English and Spanish.  The small  gauge in Figure 16 is the earlier, and was sometimes  included in sets of Boye needles or in kits of Boye Needlemaster interchangeable needles.  It still notes it was “made in U.S.A.”  The big gauge has resumed the metric labelling and has only the ® registered trademark symbol near the word Boye, so presumably has been retailed since the firm was sold to Wrights.

Figure 16 – Two modern Boye gauges.

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Susan Bates

In the late 1800’s, Carlton Bates set up a manufacturing business in Chester, Connecticut, making vanity kits – with scissors, nail files, etc.  By the early 1900’s, Bates was making bone and wooden knitting needles among many other goods.  In 1907 the business name was changed to C.J. Bates and Son.

The Bates firm believed strongly in the value of marketing and merchandising, and one of their characteristics was to personalise their products.  Their first branded knitting needles were made in the 1930’s (I think) and were named Chester, after the name of the firm’s home town; and their vanity kits were marketed as Barbara Bates brand, named after a daughter of the family.  In 1942 Bates launched their new needle brand, Susan Bates.[2]  Susan was never a real person like Barbara Bates, but the brand become so successful it outgrew the firm’s name.

Despite producing many ancillary tools for knitting, crochet, hairpin lace, tatting and other needlecraft, the Bates firm was never big on knitting needle gauges.    I have never found a Chester branded gauge.  And, only two styles of gauge were ever sold with the Susan Bates brand name.  The first was cardboard, with the holes labelled for both millimeters and for “corresponding U.S. sizes” – and then carefully adding, “Single Point and Double Point Knitting Needles (except Steel).”

This cardboard gauge was a stock item; it always shows the Susan Bates trademark somewhere, but was also given (or sold?) to shop owners and imprinted with the shop’s address as the feature.  The example shown in Figure 17 features Herrschner Needlecrafts’ name and address, and the Susan Bates brand name only appears in the small print.  There is also a code indicating the year of 1946.    Note also the Chicago office address, with the postal identifier “3”.[3]

Figure 17An early Susan Bates cardboard gauge  which was probably given to the firm’s retailer, Herrschner Needlecrafts.  The Susan Bates name actually appears only in the small text to the left.  Other examples show the Susan Bates logo and details  in the address box.

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In the 1950’s or ‘60’s, Susan Bates brought out its second gauge,  an aluminum  tool, the “Knit-Chek 4 in 1 essential knitting aids”.  Various marketing messages and details on the Knit-Chek changed over the years – early issues showed only the town name, Chester, Conn.  Later versions contained the modern US zip code, introduced by the US Post Office in 1963.  Versions of this gauge are still being sold new now, and it has reverted to including metric equivalents.

Figure 18a Knit-Chek with its cardboard backing card.  Retailing for 60 cents, it gives the zip code for Chester, Conn (still not using the standardised two-character state code) and notes the Bates firm was founded in 1873).[4]

Also in the 1950’s the marketing whizzes at Bates launched a more down-market knitting needle and haberdashery brand, Marcia Lynn.  This brand was aimed at discount stores and similar “cheaper” retailers, so that the up-market association of the Susan Bates brand would not be undermined by association with discount stores.  The Marcia Lynn brand name also  appears on versions of the Knit-Chek  gauge, although it was labeled a “5 in 1” gauge.

Figure 19 –The Marcia Lynn version of the Knit-Chek, “5 in 1”

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The Marcia Lynn brand is no more, but the Knit-Chek is still sold new today under Susan Bates brand; and it has reverted to labeling its holes with metric equivalents again.

Hero Mfg. Co. Inc.

 The third big needle maker, Hero Mfg Co Inc, of Waterbury CT, produced US-made knitting needles from at least the 1930’s.[5]  As noted above, many knitting needle gauges made and make reference to the American standard, the equivalent of the British Standard Wire Gauge.  But Hero subsumed the term “standard” into part of its own brand name, and before World War II, all logo references were to “Hero Standard”.

It is not clear if Standard was actually the name of an earlier manufacturer of knitting needles which was taken over by Hero.  There was definitely a brand name of “Standard”.  The very earliest Standard brand knitting needles have little labels pasted onto the shafts.  The labels pasted on the knitting needle shafts would have been an irritant to the passage of the yarn loops along the needles, so it is not surprising that this type of branding didn’t last long; and the needles are very hard to find now.

Later Standard-branded knitting needles, probably from the 1930’s, carried that brand name on their crimped-on stoppers. In any case, Hero Standard became the accepted logo for the  Hero Manufacturing Co Inc.

Like Boye and Susan Bates, Hero used some basic gauges which appeared over time with a variety of merchandising details – or, sometimes, with no brand name at all – see Figure 20 below and note the similarity of the cardboard gauges to the early Susan Bates gauge.  They were probably contemporaries in the late 1940’s.  And, the two bottom gauges in Figure 20 are upside down versions of the gauges in Figures 14 and 23.

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Figure 20Evolution of the Hero gauge: top,  the cardboard “Standard” gauge with a retailer address stamped on;  next, the same gauge branded “Hero Standard”; then, a blue celluloid Hero Standard, and, finally, the same celluloid gauge in white with no brand name. The blue Hero Standard example also came in white.

Hero also linked up with another haberdasher Emile Bernat.

Figure 21Top, a Hero Mfg Co gauge with no postal code and, middle, the same gauge with rounded corners and the name of Emile Bernat, another Massachusetts producer of yarn and knitting needles (and with an early postal code); bottom, a black Bernat gauge.

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Figure 22 – Bernat’s red and blue gauge  – same style as the celluloid cards in Figures 14 and 20  –  showing a marketing link-up with the Aero brand of UK firm Able Morrall (this last from the 1960’s or 1970’s?).

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As amalgamation rushed ahead after the 1950’s, Hero, Scovill, Bernat, and Dritz all appeared in various combinations on knitting and haberdashery products.  Knitting needle gauges were not as common during this period, probably because knitting in the round, on four- or five-pin sets of “sock needles” or on circulars, was not very popular, and almost all single-point straight needles carried a size embossed or inscribed on the needle or the stopper.  Hero was eventually taken over by Scovill Manufacturing; and by the late 1970’s, the Hero brand was no longer being registered, although their plentiful needles often fill the Ebay listings of used but still usable.

Miscellaneous Gauges

Gauge hunters continue to find new ones, particularly on the on-line resellers – sometimes variations on known brands and layouts, and occasionally, reflecting individual retailers or special promotions.  The Wool Shop cardboard gauge in Figure 23  is very similar to some of the Susan Bates and Hero gauges, but not quite an exact match and it gives no post codes.  So it was probably used in the 1940’s or early 1950’s.  The Family Circle gauge is, of course, a cardboard “freebie” from that magazine, and dated 1972.  It is the only magazine  give-away gauge I have identified from my early US collection, although this tradition was very, very strong in the UK magazines.

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Figure 23 – “Family Circle” magazine give-away on the right –  but no one knows why the Wool Shop at Concord and Wellesley, or the Super Mart chain (outlets listed on the back) decided to use these promotional items. They do not seem to be very common in the US.

  

Next issue – Part 3 moves back to cover American and Canadian World War II gauges and then takes a comprehensive look at Canadian gauges, with their own special sizing  challenges.

Of course, new gauges have appeared since Part 1 of this article was finished.  Two different Good Shepherd gauges have popped up, a celluloid roundel in the collection of Patty Caras and a celluloid rectangle, printed in green, and very similar to the Boye celluloid in Figure 14.  Plus I have been alerted to the possibility of needle gauges in early Shaker communities.  The templates held at Shaker Museum Chatham and by others would gauge very, very fine diameter and could be used for a number of purposes like clock or jewellery wires – or for knitting needles.  There is a working group looking at this issue.[6]  I would be delighted to hear of any more finds.

[1] See my article in Needle Notes, Issue 39, 2010, for more information about Boye selling imported British knitting needles.

[2]   Many details of the company history of the C.J. Bates firm, later Susan Bates, are held in the archives of the Chester Historical Society, Chester, Connecticut, including a newspaper cutting with photo of the Bates family celebrating the launch of the Susan Bates brand during World War Two in 1942.

[3]   In 1943, the United States postal service implemented its first coding, but it seems to have been rather haphazardly applied. For example, it might consist of one or two numbers, such as 16 in Minneapolis, or 1 in New York City.  The number represented the postal zone in a particular city.

[4] The claim by C.J. Bates that it started in business in 1873 puts the firm in close competition for earliest foundation with its fierce rival, the Boye Needle Co of Chicago.  Both brand names are still in use today, but are part of multi-national conglomerates.  Before the take-overs, as far as I can establish, the  Boye Needle Company was the larger of the two, but was taken over by Wrights in 1971, a few years before Bates succumbed to Coats & Clark.

[5]  I do not have an actual foundation date or any early history for this firm.

[6] Thanks to Christina Bertrand for the alert about possible Shaker gauges.

 

Acknowledgements

Christina Bertrand

Clarice Birch

Patty Caras

Fibregypsy.com

Gay Lines

Nancy Nehring – www.lacebuttons.com

Joyce Poynter

Sheila Williams

Tamar Lindsay

 

All examples are from my collection except Figure 22 which is from the collection of Clarice Birch.