Early North American Knitting Needle Gauges

Part 3- World War II and Canadian Gauges

by Susan Webster, Australia

WORLD WAR II GAUGES

The World War II gauges are firmly dated, of course, and were produced in both Canada and the United States, as well as other countries.  The Red Cross in both countries played a huge role in organising knitting for the services, and hoped that such aids would guide volunteer knitters to produce standardised items that could be easily distributed to servicemen.  (It seems to have been assumed that WACS, WAVES, WASPS, WVS, etc., would knit their own “comforts”, as all the pattern leaflets refer to producing items for men.)

In Canada, some other military-related gauges were produced in addition to the yellow Red Cross gauge shown in the middle of Figure 24.  Note also that the Canadian Red Cross was able to sign up the telephone company (then, a government-run instrumentality) as a sponsor and, possibly, distributor for its gauge.  The Royal Canadian Engineers also issued needle gauges, possibly just as advertising or give-aways.

The fairly common “…V –” gauge is included here at the bottom of Figure 24. The assumption is that it refers to “V for Victory”, as the Morse code elements for V are dot dot dot dash.  “V for Victory” was a campaign run by BBC radio to encourage resistance elements in occupied Western Europe.   It is not clear who actually produced this gauge in Canada.

The American Red Cross (ARC) gauges kept it simple: in Figure 24, the cardboard gauge second from the top has no numbering at all – just descriptions of the type of items to be knitted!  The celluloid gauge on top has three sizing holes at first glance.  The numbering shown on the front does not match the Standard American Wire Gauge.  This special Red Cross numbering was actually a carry forward from World War I.  And sure enough – there on the far left is a fourth sizing hole labelled “Steel No. 11” – shades of those early American days when steel double points had to be measured separately from needles made of organics or synthetics.

On the back, this celluloid gauge equated the ARC numbering to other sizing systems – see Figure 24b for the back of the gauge and one of the Red Cross’s 1943 knitting pamphlets referring to the gauge.  In letters so tiny I had to replace my magnifying glass with a loupe, the maker of the gauge is given, The American Art Works Inc of Coshocton, Ohio.  This company grew from newspaper printeries at the turn of the 20th century, and is still famous as the printers of the tin Coca Cola trays and signs, so collectable today.  They printed mainly advertising on many other materials including burlap, paper, and, here, celluloid.

Figure 24World War II gauges, top two from the USA, lower three Canadian.

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Figure 24bA 1943 American Red Cross (ARC) pamphlet making reference to the ARC gauge – and the back of the gauge, which mentions other needle types and sizing.

CANADIAN GAUGES

 The Canadians didn’t  go through the early sizing competitions of the US firms (see Part 1 in the June issue), but needle sizing in Canada offered plenty of choices, as the country was caught between its British heritage and the economic forces to the south.  I have identified no gauges made before World War II, except possibly those for Lux Flakes.

The Canadian gauge heyday seems to have been the 1950s and ‘60s.  Many of the holes were labeled with both Canadian and American sizing schemes, and a few other  gauges refer to Canadian and British sizing, and one set has labelling on the back which says French sizes, which were actually metric.  In fact, until the 1970s, Canada officially used the Imperial (British) system of measurement units, labelled as “Canadian units of measurement”.  Nowadays, metric sizing conquers all.

Canadian gauges seem to fall into two main streams – those provided by firms and shops associated with yarn and needlework,  and those made to advertise non-knitting related businesses – possibly give-aways or “goodie bag” inclusions.  A large number of gauges were made of celluloid, which was later replaced by hard plastic.

One early enthusiast for knitting needle gauge advertising was the Lux brand of personal and laundry products developed by the British firm of Lever Bros.  Possibly Lever Bros. saw their product as being closely aligned to needlework tools – the laundry being next to the sewing room, so to speak.

Lux started as Sunlight Flakes laundry soap in 1899, and the three gauges shown here are made of a very light-weight treated cardboard.  Their personalised slogans in French or English are consistent with the global firm’s slogan-based advertising.  Note in Figure 25 that the gauges, even those with the slogan in French, all state they are “English gauge” sizing.  All three were made by the Stanley Manufacturing Company of Toronto, whose website today boasts “imaginative printing solutions since 1917” and nominates printed plastics as a specialty.  I don’t have a date for these gauges, but the treated cardboard suggests the 1930s.

Figure 25Lux gauges in French- and English-language versions.

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Although there were some unique shapes like the Lux gauges, those used by the large yarn sellers have mostly been produced from two or three basic blanks which were then personalised by individual firms.  The hard plastic gauges – post-war technology – came in three colours, soft blue, cream, and soft green, and were sold unbranded as well as with branding for many firms.  In Figure 26 one of the white gauges shows the back which states French sizing for the holes; on the front of all the gauges sizing is identified as Canadian or American.

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Figure 26 –The standard hard-plastic gauges – in colours like soft blue, cream, and soft green – were sometimes distributed without a brand name on them.  Notice that the blue gauge second from the top is a different mould.  And the translucent dark green gauge on top is a one-off – I’ve found nothing else like it in North America.  It has no brand name or advertising, but does have a part number on the left-hand side.

YARN SELLERS AND MANUFACTURERS

 The big yarn firms of Corticelli, Dominion, and Mary Maxim all advertised on gauges. Corticelli was founded in New England early in the 19th century, and their Canadian gauge is in celluloid.  They later produced similar gauges branded Belding-Corticelli after another merger.    I’ve never found a US gauge for this firm.  Dominion Woollens & Worsteds Ltd was located in the then town of Hespeler, which is now part of the City of Cambridge in Ontario province.

Mary Maxim, a proud Canadian producer since 1954, made their gauge in hard plastic, consistent with technology at that time.  The firm tackled the UK markets in the 1950s and 1960s, but there are no UK gauge examples.  Monarch Yarns was in business by the 1930s at the latest, but dating for its give-away metal gauge is not clear.  The holes are labelled with Imperial sizing, but no designation is given for British, Canadian, American or metric. 

Figure 27Top, two Corticelli gauges, then a gauge for Dominion’s Bouquet yarn brand, all celluloid, then the Mary Maxim hard-plastic gauge, and finally Monarch Yarns’ metal gauge. 

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Figure 28 – More yarn seller gauges:  Maitland Spinning Mills used celluloid, while Three Bees over time used both light plastic and the 1950s hard plastic.

The P K Mothproof Wools gauge from Maitland Spinning Mills Limited was made sometime in the 1940s or early 1950s.  During World War II, P K Wools sold balls of “Victory” Service Yarn, but the Maitland and Mercury mills were taken over in 1954 and closed in 1955.

Three Bees used both celluloid and hard-plastic gauges – see Figure 28.  I have not been able to find any documentation on the Three Bee brand, which was also carried by mid-century knitting needles.  But Three Bees may have had a tie-in with the big Canadian knitting needle brand of Perfecto.  Early packaging for both brands was the same paper wrapper with the same slogan, the word “Reliable”.  Perfecto brand was owned by Dominion Comb & Novelty Co, a company first registered in 1931.  One business directory lists a “plastic needles gauge” among Dominion’s products, but I have never seen a Perfecto gauge.  Perhaps it is the Three Bees gauge they are referring to – more research needed here!

Still on “three”, the French yarn firm of 3 Suisses produced a hard plastic gauge around mid-century.  The firm started out in 1932 running a mail order service for knitting yarn from a local spinny.  Today 3 Suisses is a large internet-based retailer of clothing and other goods, and the knitting needle gauge and branded 3 Suisses needles themselves seem to be relics.  Knitting patterns branded 3 Suisse can be found in mid-century magazines like Vogue.  The gauge shown in Figure 29 has printing in Dutch (Naadlennummers = needle sizes and Breisucces = successful knitting) and the 3 Suisses logo of three marching soldiers or chasseurs.  The gauge itself is very similar to the other hard plastic gauges at the bottom of Figure 26 or the Three Bee and Mary Maxim hard plastic gauges; but it is reversed so the measuring slot is on the right, and of course the wording is different.  But it is similar enough that I feel it must have been made in Canada as well as sold there.

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Figure 29 – Haberdashery firm Taylorform provided the bottom two gauges, including the only Canadian gauge with tear-drop windows to determine the sizing and only the second metal gauge made in Canada. 

Also in Figure 29 are two very distinctive gauges from Tailorform – firstly, the second metal gauge in Canada, and then the bright red plastic gauge, a different style and colour to all the other plastics in North America.  The red gauge uses a tapering window along which a knitter would slide her needle until it would not move further.  This style of gauge was more popular in the early UK gauges.  Sizes are noted as Canadian, English, and American.  The internet has some answers.  Tailorform is a brand name now controlled by N. Jefferson Ltd “The Leader in Notions” and “Servicing Canada since 1926”.  I haven’t been able to establish any dating on the metal gauge, but I would place the red gauge in the 1950s.

GIVE-AWAYS

One Canadian tradition which doesn’t seem to have been too strong in the United States was the use of knitting needle gauges as advertising give-aways. Presumably these were handed out at the shop itself or, perhaps, included in the goodie bag or offered as souvenirs at trade fairs or expositions.  Many wool or needlework shops had their details printed on a gauge or affixed a label to a blank gauge like Woco Yarns Ltd in Figure 30.  Note that Woco features Jaeger Yarns, a UK brand.

Again, this seems to be a ‘50s and ‘60s practice – notice the two-digit phone number on Mme Diane D’Amour’s celluloid gauge, second from the top, in the small Ontario town of Cadillac.   Other such gauges have no contact details, only the business name.  The giver must have been able to assume that the person using the gauge knew whence it came.

Figure 30Gauges for yarn shops, chains or suppliers.  Lady Fair was the house brand of the Eaton’s Department Stores chain.  

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Other give-aways, like those in Figures 31 and 32 had no association whatsoever with needlework or knitting. The gauge was just a vehicle to convey the marketing information.  I must admit that I could not find a single fact relating to the Rayolith gauges in Figure 31, my research task being made harder by the fact that Rayolith is the name of a character is one of those best-selling fantasy series.  References to Lord Rayolith filled all those search engine results that did not deal with Rayolith as an ore.  So a Rayolith company had no references.  Rayolith’s clear celluloid gauge is unique and presumably a very cheap product, as it has warped badly with the passage of time.  Presumably, these Rayolith gauges were distributed in a town or region where the company was so well known that no advertising or contact details were needed, as there is no information on the gauges themselves.

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Figure 31Advertising gauges for various non-yarn firms, presumably all give-aways, covering a variety of products and services. 

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Figure 32More giveaways:  The Magic Baking Powder, at least in its English language version, may have also been issued in the UK. 

 END NOTE

As noted earlier in this series, the need for knitting needle gauges seemed to fade in the 1970s and ‘80s when knitting on unsized double point needles died back.   This research concludes around the 1950s and ‘60s.

Today the biggest brand names like Susan Bates, Boye, Prym, Birch, Pony, etc., still produce gauges, which are distributed around the world.  Their labelling usually covers metric and American sizing.  India, home of the huge Pony and Jyothi brands, does still seem to retain Imperial sizing for internal sales, as I bought a box of needles there last year; the sizing information was Imperial and the packaging information on the box included the date of manufacture, 2009.

Many modern gauges are also produced to complement “boutique” needle brands. Also, many gauges are produced as artwork or jewellery.

Although this is a series on North American needle gauges, I have not been able to find any gauges made or distributed in Mexico.  Mexican factories were making knitting needles for some of the large American firms in the last quarter of the 20th century, but no gauges, I guess.  The Boye gauge in Part 2, with its dual English and Hispanic printing, is the closest I have found, although there is nothing specific to Mexico in it.

Anyone with more information on any of these topics, please get in touch.  I’m always looking for more knowledge.  And, if I have erred in my interpretations, I want to know that too.

Thank you to all the people who helped me with information and photos.

 Acknowledgements

Christina Bertrand

Clarice Birch

Patty Caras

Fibregypsy.com

Tamar Lindsay

Gay Lines

Nancy Nehring – www.lacebuttons.com

Joyce Poynter

Sheila Williams

Several of the gauges shown in Part 3 are from the collection of Clarice Birch, Adelaide, South Australia.  Also, special thanks to Tamar Lindsay for the information on Monarch Yarns.

 

Only one fresh gauge has appeared since Part 2 of this series was published in the October issue of the Bulletin – Boye’s 7-in-1 KnitAmajig.  It is not new, and at 8 x 3 inches, it is quite a big item – perhaps another case of trying to meet too many needs in one device.  It doesn’t say it is made in made in the USA, but does have the Boye trademark symbol, so presumably it was made after the take-over by Wrights.  They couldn’t have sold too many, as it seems to be quite rare.

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Figure 33 – Another new Boye gauge, from around the 1970’s – the KnitAmajig