Luxury Knitting Tools and their Social Context

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This talk covers tools made and sold as items of luxury – that is, expensive items for rich or almost rich people – or people who wanted to show off their status.

They are not necessarily valuable today, except, perhaps to collectors.

Other, originally much cheaper items, may today be worth much more – handcrafts made of whalebone, beadwork and straw work are examples.  But today we are concentrating  on items created  for the wealthy or for people who wanted to impress friends, social contacts, themselves.

Needlework tools were very satisfactory gifts for women from husbands, fiancés, relatives –

  • to be used in an informal and almost intimate manner.
  • Suitably domestic

Knitting did not have the same social cachet among the UK middle and upper classes as in North America and Europe, so British tools are rarer.

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This pic about six years old – now have 3x as many needles filed by brand name – too messy to show

  • Knitter coming up to 50 years
  • Always interested in history – studied at uni, etc.
  • Started to combine the two in about 1990
  • Collect all sorts of knitting tools, not just luxury
  • More you collect, the more you want to know – this is not a well-documented field
  • My special research interest is the period when knitting needles were becoming commercialized – no longer sold as a commodity by weight

I divide knitting tools into several categories:

  • Needles
  • Needle holders and cases
  • Tip guards/point protectors
  • Knitting sheaths and holders
  • Yarn holder
  • Measures – gauges, row counters, stitch measures
  • Skein winders/yarn winder
  • Other – patterns, books, ephemera
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I try to stay within a chronology here :

Luxury items do not need to be made of precious substances – usually the context determines luxury.

My earliest luxury items are wooden knitting sheathes – note much more intricate carving than normal English or Dutch KS – cf Pinto.

WE think of the 19th century as the time when the middle class swelled and blossomed, when wealth flowed throughout the social system in Europe and North America – but, of course, the craving for luxury started much earlier.

  • Left and middle, 17th century French – cc 2222 – from the Sid Levethan / Longridge Collection of British and Northern European decorative arts, amassed over 30 years in the middle 20th century. Note silver casing on middle KS covers a break.
  • Right 18th century Austrian – cc 1645 – carved in full relief with a convivial drinking scene (tuttotondo = well rounded, full or complete), and with captive rings – virtuoso carving. The paper-covered wooden scabbard for the KS is shown behind.
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An English Heart – Shaped Knitting Sheath

Still in the 18th century

One of the few “luxury” knitting items I have found in the UK.    BUT NOT MINE !

You may know this one from Bridget McConnell’s book The History of Needlework Tools> 

I was introduced to it by my Sheffield friend, retired librarian Molly Pearce.  It is displayed in Sheffield Museum as an example of Old Sheffield Plate, a process that preceded electroplating, this sheath dates to about 1770 – one of the earliest silver knitting  tools I have found..  About  3 inches (7.5 cm) across the widest part.

Note the sewing holes along the rim.  The heart could be sewn to a pad or piece of fabric which was then pinned to the waistband or lower blouse.

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Mostly late 18th /early 19th century.

I run a broad church; I am happy to collect any tools that could have been used for knitting, even when they are known mostly for other ideas –like these yarn tubs, mostly used to support e crochet hooks tambor hooks, tattling shuttles.

Bottom right, cc       Dutch with a memorial message – an unusual practice – in memory of my sister who died in 1802””

Bottom left, cc 1004 – ivory yarn tub with tortoiseshell inset base and ebony inset decoration on rim. French, early 1800s

Top left, cc  1113   – Dutch yarn basket to be worn over the forearm.  One could work whilst walking around with this basket on the arm.

Top right, cc      – a bit later,   Gorham hallmarked heavy glass yarn holder encased in sterling – note hole for yarn to pass through at the top.

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CC 2541 – Angle-Indian table top winding reels, rosewood and ivory, with weighted bases for stability.  (Bought from a Sydney firm)  Say, first half 19th century

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Toys –

CC 1609 – A knitting compendium, bought from Italy, but probably carved in the ivory crafting centre of Europe,

with painted cardboard case.

I have seen two other identical items in museums or for sale, indicating that the source was a workshop, rather than an individual craftsman.   – about 10 inches long – see next slide.

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Toys –

The Ivory knitting compendium – CC 1604 – unscrewed into its component pieces.  Note the thimble on top in previous slide unscrews to reveal the floss or thread reel.  The knitting sheath is actually upper left, only about three inches long, although it could be lengthened by screwing on the next piece.

The full kit includes a needles case and three enclosing rings – more virtuosio carving.

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Toys -European Needlework Compendium – about 1850

In the tradition of 18th century adult “toys”, this compendium (CC 225) tests in parts for solid silver.  The original sheen can be seen on the thimble and perfume bottle, which have been lidded through the life of the piece.  Other parts like the scissors appear to me to be nickel silver or silver gilt.

Totally assembled, this piece is rather ugly to me.  Also hard to imagine that such a clumsy item was actually used, but it does have repairs as well as signs of wear.  It’s easy for the modern trousers-clad woman to forget just how constrained was the clothing and social environment for a woman of the middle and upper classes.  Pieces  include :

  • Scissors and scissors sheath with belt clip
  • Wool hook to hold a ball of yarn
  • Two stilettos and a needlecase that slip out of their holders (not visible in screen)
  • A removable cap inscribed Amalie covers a thimble engraved with an A on a shield-shaped cartouche
  • Below the thimble is a perfume or smelling salts bottle with a chained cap.
  • The framework of the compendium pulls apart to serve as knitting needle holders with an adjustable chain to hold the needles secure
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Toys -European Needlework Compendium – about 1850

In the tradition of 18th century adult “toys”, this compendium (CC 225) tests in parts for solid silver.  The original sheen can be seen on the thimble and perfume bottle, which have been lidded through the life of the piece.  Other parts like the scissors appear to me to be nickel silver or silver gilt.

Totally assembled, this piece is rather ugly to me.  Also hard to imagine that such a clumsy item was actually used, but it does have repairs as well as signs of wear.  It’s easy for the modern trousers-clad woman to forget just how constrained was the clothing and social environment for a woman of the middle and upper classes.  Pieces  include :

  • Scissors and scissors sheath with belt clip
  • Wool hook to hold a ball of yarn
  • Two stilettos and a needlecase that slip out of their holders (not visible in screen)
  • A removable cap inscribed Amalie covers a thimble engraved with an A on a shield-shaped cartouche
  • Below the thimble is a perfume or smelling salts bottle with a chained cap.
  • The framework of the compendium pulls apart to serve as knitting needle holders with an adjustable chain to hold the needles secure
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Cap has a repair

All pieces marked with viii – jeweller’s method of keeping track of all the pieces that make up the one object.

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Still first half 19th century mainly – small needles were still popular at this time, but were moving toward  wider gauge and stoppers on the end.

  • Lower row, all American coin-silver knitting sheaths, with holes on sides or loops on reverse to sew the sheath to a pad of cloth. My fellow-researchers and I have not been able to identify sources, so we assume they are local jewellers or silversmiths. Dated examples exist referring to the 1830s.
  • Upper left, silver leaf knitting sheath with holes to sew onto cloth and just the tip of the ivory shaft to hold the needle showing. Seller said German or Dutch. I go with Dutch, as I feel it is too delicate for German.
  • Upper right, unusual knitting sheath with a waistband clip, holding the needle horizontal. Ruth Mann collection, and Bunny Gorfinkle said Dutch or German. Kay Sullivan says not Dutch.
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Luxury Knitting Sheaths – left to right

  • Knitting stick, to be inserted under the waistband, from a German boxed set of needlework tools (CC 1788)
  • A chatelaine waist clip sheath, probably Spanish, with the knitting sheath upright in the middle of the harp. The seven rings are for dependent chains, although not in this case for needlework tools or other trinkets. The figure at the left is a Sargasso Siren, a creature considered protective of pregnant women.   The dependent chains are short and would have had bells or rattles attached – again to frighten off evil spirits. (CC 1477)
  • A French hexagonal sheath to be pinned to the blouse or skirt. Very chic. (CC 140)
  • A Dutch sheath, again to be pinned to the clothing. (CC 1318)
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Knitting needles began to appear with stoppers in the first half of the 19th century, initially in Europe.  This needlebook dates to about 1820, according to my German friend Heike, due to the technique used to print the cover.  On other pages are soldiers standing to attention with needles as their rifles.  This page shows the soldiers at leisure, and the sitting soldier knitting with knobs on his knitting needles.  Soldiers and sailors were usually drawn from the peasant classes and so knew how to knit.

Needles with knobs on the end were still enough of a innovation in England that the first pattern books in the 1840s and 1850s sometimes urged the knitter to find and use needles with stoppers.

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Before patterns were written down, needle size did not matter so much, and trainee knitters learned to gauge by eye and  from swatches and experience what their needles would produce .

In the 4th quarter of the 18th century, very fine needles and fine knitting of reticules, cuffs, gloves, etc., became fashionable.

  • Reflect the taste for the delicate fabrics being shipped in from India
  • Fine needlework could be more easily taken with a lady on social visits and could be used to display the needlewoman’s skill and dexterity, and her delicate, white hands

The first printed patterns for mass use appeared in the UK in the 1830’s-1840’s – a bit earlier in Germany.  Mme Lambert claimed in her books that she had invented  the needle gauge, which she called the Standard Filiere to help knitters match their needle size to the patterns.

The three larger gauges seem to have been cut or stamped from the same last.  Mme Lambert’s ivory gauge dates from 1842 and is pretty rare (CC 39).  There are two versions of the Standard Filiere, only one shown here.

The Leahman gauge – CC 1219 – and the  Wilks gauge are extremely rare – CC 2263.  I have only seen these in the photo.  There is one other such gauge from the same last – inscribed for Boultons, the early firm of needlemakers (presumably knitting needles as well as sewing needles).  My bidder at Bleasdales auctions knew this was my number one pick for the entire auction and bid above the limit I set.  Finally she was too frightened to bid higher, and a jeweler bought this specimen for his mother – grrrr.

The smaller ivory gauge (CC 37) in the upper right comes from the USA and is undated so far.

The bell gauge (cc 871) – a look-alike to hundreds of thousands made of chrome, brass or base metal – is sterling, made by Frederick Henry Weare, a Soho jeweller registered from 1880.   It is quite plain and boring.

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French Palais Royal Travelling Box (CC 1142)

Retailed (and possibly created) by M. Herbert, of Galerie de pierre No 10, Palais Royal, early 19th century.

The maker’s name is inside the letter pouch.  It is a very heavy box of the highest quality – a lady who travelled with this case would also have had a maid or companion to carry it.  She would also have had her clothes made by a seamstress – but the tools for her social needlework were here.

There are two trays –  the second, lower tray is sitting beside the box.  Very little use has been made of this box or its contents, possibly because of the weight.

There is damage to the tortoiseshell by mites, although this must have been treated earlier, as the deterioration has not progressed.    Also the sponge for polishing the teeth has dried up.

The tools here are mainly ivory, possibly accounting for the fact that there are no pansies or other badges on this set.

I bought this box from Holland, and remarked to the seller that the whole box would be catalogued as a pair of tip guards.  She laughed and said the previous collector had catalogued the entire kit as a corkscrew, because that is what he collected.

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Another French Palais Royal Travelling Box (CC 2781)

Again, extremely heavy, and with a pair of clamp-style yarn winders, indicating a fairly early date.  It was a common practice for the lady who was to own the box to pick out what tools and implements she wanted in it.  The tool trays and other fittings were then crafted to hold the individual tool exactly.  For this reason, these boxes rarely contain matching tools – the owner chose what she wanted.

Two tools have the pansy plaques, and other implements have other escutcheons and identifiers, including the vase on the notebook in the lower tray.

first quarter 19th century, monogram for cornelia patterson van rensselaer,
comprising a gold thimble engraved CVR July 8th, 1848, two gold bodkins, a gold vinaigrette, a gold needle , etc.

Also, two flat jewellery trays under the tool trays.  The tip guards are in the lower tool tray, made of mother of pearl, and unbadged.

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Needlework sets – not quite so luxurious, but based on folk-lore

  • In the Austro-Hungarian style of about 1850-1860, this boxed set of needlework tools includes a pair of knitting needle tip guards on an adjustable silver chain. The set retains its original mirror in very good condition, trimmed in red chenille and with its original silk tool cushion, also trimmed in red chenille and tinsel, to keep tools from moving around. Note the paper edging around each tool well, a very common technique of the era.  (CC 1106) although it wears quickly.  The paper wells and the lighter weight of the metal and the pressed method of creating some of the tools (rather than casting molten metal) indicate a drop in quality.
  • Also, the box actually has a paper hinge, almost a guaranteed breakage.
  • This is accounted for by German collector and researcher Ingraban D. Simon whose book Symbole der Fruchtbarkeit und der Liebe states that such gifts as these were a wedding tradition in the second half of the 19th century. This bridal gift contained many references to sexuality and the hoped for fertility of the newlyweds. He says, “the often crude workmanship of the articles suggests that the focus was on the symbolism and not on the usefulness of the tools”.
  • Swedish knitters chatelaine with its waistband clip topped with an exotic parrot and a dependent key that slides apart to hold the needles. It has the date code for 1850 and the markers mark for G.F. Richter of Stockholm. (CC 1063)
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CC 2008 – dispersal of the Anne Friede collection.

This shot has a thimble and bodkin added by me.

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Hand painted scene on the cover (according to Kay Sullivan) but I don’t think so , wooden body, and – possibly – a vulcanite or pressed horn decorative framework.

Kay Sullivan says she has these.  One with no name, one from Austria, and one from Prague.

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Yarn hooks,  reel holders, spool knaves

Left, a German bangle (note the elaborate filigree work and the acorn atop the yarn hook) – mid 19th century

Three American bangles with a stick to fit through a reel of yarn or silk– turn of the 20th century to 1920s

Right, a child’s spool knave – late 19th century

All this talk about yarn hooks leads us to other things to hold yarn  >>>>

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A variety of bangles with yarn cages dependent – not all that aesthetic.

Second from left, note the flat plate with four chains – looks rather slippery, but paintings show that it is worn well up the forearm where it is more stable.

Right of the shaft, quite ugly, looks like probably art deco period.    I only bought it to complete my collection.

Second from right is  hollowed mahogany ball.

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More Toys ? – left to right

  • A large “bow and arrow” holder for knitting needles – French CC 1587
  • Heart-ended needle holder, here holding a set of 4xdp sterling needles marked for Patons & Baldwin, the great British yarn firm – CC 1688 and
  • Above, left, gold tip guards in a very common Dutch shape and carrying the Dutch oak leaf mark used for 14K between 1853 and 1906. The makers mark on the rim has not been identified.  The ruched ribbon is a replacement for the original elastic. (CC 083)
  • A Pratt-ware ceramic heart-shaped tip guard, made in the style which is stitched through the side holes onto a piece of cloth and then the cloth is pinned to the garment. Probably a love token, not intended for use.(CC 1412)
  • A Scottish silver waist clip spool knave (CC 2112)
  • Above right, heavy Dutch tip guards made by Carolus ten Ham marked with the date letter for 1791. These are the oldest dated tip guards that I am aware of, and the my Dutch antique silver dealer agreed they are the oldest he is aware of too. (CC 821)
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More Needles and Needle Cases

From the back, coming forward

  • Leather boxed gold needles with turquoise stone stoppers by the royal jewelers Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company Limited. Unmarked but tested as 14 K . Made between 1910-1920.  (CC 948)
  • Extra long (14-inch) tubular needle holder, inscribed Phoebe Harrison 1875. Though unmarked – and, to me, looking like a giant thermometer holder – the case does clean as silver. A clumsy and heavy item, it has a slot for the in-progress knitting to hang out from the enclosed needles.  Inside is a different style of single-point needles by Webster & Co. (CC 591/592)
  • German Biedermeier design needle holder with a rigid crosspiece and sliding endpiece. Unmarked and presumably nickel silver. (cc 026)
  • Another pair of American celluloid needles with stoppers stamped STERLING in the shape of hot air balloons. (CC 121)
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Knitting Needles – Too Good to Use ??

From the back, coming forward

  • CC 1044 – Boxed set of four silver double-pointed “sock” needles. It has been suggested that the needles were probably made in England, although I have never seen any other English silver needles. They were retailed in Australia by Hardy Bros, whose trade mark appears on the inside lid.  The needles show no sign of ever having been used, but they are stamped H BROS.  STG SILVER.  (CC 1044)
  • German silver needle case to hold needles with work intact. Each end piece is a hand grasping a cornucopia, and the case is inscribed in point work M.M. Sohl 1855. The end slides off to allow insertion of the needles, but is held safely with a chain.  (CC 645)
  • American sterling needles by, inscribed with an E on the stopper, and also STERLING and the makers mark for Webster & Co. (CC 016)
  • Amber resin shafts with stoppers stamped STERLING, also American. (CC 038)