Collecting Treen in the 21st Century

by Susan Webster

Needlework Tool Collectors Society of Australia

Thank you to Brighton Antique Society for your invitation to the Needlework Tool Collectors Society of Australia to share some of our interests with you today.

NTCSA is a small national organisation.  We aim to increase knowledge of current and antique needlework tools and the skills they supported. Our group holds meetings regularly in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney, and offers library and newsletter services to our members in Australia and in other countries.
Meetings usually include a presentation on specific needlework tools, a research theme such as chatelaines, work boxes, etuis, thimbles, knitting tools, half dolls, sewing birds, needle cases and more, or on types of needlework including antique textiles. We also have a show-N-tell session in support of the presentation or theme for the day, refreshments, and occasional sales tables. Other activities include workshops and site visits, and help in identifying obscure needlework tools and curiosities.

My Knitting Needle Reference Collection

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I usually start with my collection – demonstrating my bona fides

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

What is Treen?

Geoff and I spent a time working on a suitable topic for this presentation – what would both represent the interests of the NTCSA and engage the interest of the most members of the Brighton Antique Society.  We settled on this one – the topic appeals to collectors of needlework tools, collectors of treen, and collectors of tools too.

Authorities such as Pinto and Toller define treen as items made wholly or mostly of wood, and for utilitarian purposes.

No larger than about the size of a spinning wheel (we could say, three  to 3.5 feet high).   Or, nothing that could be called furniture.

We do not generally include the specialties – Mauchline ware,  Tunbridge ware, Pokerwork, or marquetry, carpentry, or joinery.  Turning was the mechanical operation most associated with Treen.

Imagine your current house, your kitchen  with no plastic, no synthetics, only metal and simple organic materials – no electricity or gas.

Metal objects were expensive – “pin money”, the tinker to mend the pot or pan – and pottery or glass required much processing.

Wood was the most accessible and easily workable of the available materials.

Shows how important wood was to everyday people – metal usually beyond the reach of common people.

Wooden Bygones

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(photo – Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia)

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Rush-light holder

(c. 1750 – photo from  David Levi Antiques)

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Pinto – author of the bible, 1968’s Treen and Other Wooden Bygones –left himself a lot of wiggleroom with the second half of his tome’s title “other wooden bygones”.  His encyclopaedia covers every movable wooden object he could acquire – hand worked fire engine, waywiser

Turning vs carving vs joinery

Some definitions exclude joinery

A joiner differs from a carpenter in that joiners cut and fit joints in wood that do not use nails.[citation needed] Joiners usually work in a workshop since the formation of various joints generally requires non-portable machinery. A carpenter normally works on site. Cabinet makers who specialise in manufacturing furniture are regarded as producing fine joinery.   – Wikipedia

I, of course, focus on needlework tools – specifically on knitting sheaths and yarn working equipment – which I will use to illustrate the next part of my talk – “The Great Collections”

Prehistoric-style Lathe Designed at the Crannog, Scotland, Historic Site

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This slide shows an operating turner’s lathe, the re-creation being based on artifacts from the excavation at the Crannog Historic Site in Scotland on Loch Tay, Perthshire.  Crannogs were artificial islands built in lakes or rivers about 2500 years ago.

But, to concentrate on treen itself, the definition we can use is :

Small and portable – yes, up to size of a spinning wheel.  This size limitation almost confines treen to the domestic arena – although a lot of farm equipment, like churns, moulds, scoops, and ox muzzles falls within this size limitation.

Carved or turned – turning requires a simple piece of machinery – so not wholly made by hand

But not glued or joined.  Pinto says that late roman times (say 5th century) to the 15th century  was the age of dry construction and turnery.  If you discount joinery, the all the wooden workboxes, tea caddies, and such would be excluded.

But – like Pinto – I am not so rigid. 

Of utilitarian purpose – not art

Most speakers and most written work concentrate on kitchen and dining wares – cups, mazars, wassail bowls, wooden plates and platters.

Some  others focus on tools themselves – carpenters’ tools, woodworkers’ tools, etc.

Medieval Spring Pole Lathe

(print appears in Pinto)

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Welsh Turner in 1905

(from Pinto)

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Notice the partially finished Welsh spoons in the upper right of the photo.  So treen was often of peasant or “non-commercial” origin – that is, it was “sloyd”.

Sloyd (Slöjd), also known as Educational sloyd, is a system of handicraft-based education started by Uno Cygnaeus in Finland in 1865. The system was further refined and promoted worldwide, and was taught in the United States until the early 20th Century. It is still taught as a compulsory subject in Swedish and Norwegian schools.

But not always, especially as we move into the 19th century, that is, more and more of our wooden needlework tools were professionally made.

A prominent aspect of much peasant or non-commercial treen is its creation and gifting as a love token – e.g. Welsh love spoons, knitting sheaths, or stay busks.

The Great Collections

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Treen seems to have been invented as a collecting category by Owen Evan-Thomas in the first third of the 20th century – as the primacy of wood was being threatened by the twin forces of rising wealth (people could afford more expensive substances like metal ) and development of synthetic substances which were becoming cheaper and easier to acquire.

A few early articles appeared in The Connoisseur and in some of the proceedings of local historical societies.

Evan-Thomas wrote the first book about treen, focussing on domestic objects, based on his own collection.

Evan-Thomas’ book Domestic Utensils of Wood from the XVIth to the XIXth Century was published in 1932, and I understand that his collection was dispersed about the time he died in 1939 by Sothebys.  No other information that I could find about him, aside from references in Pinto.

Edward Pinto – the Great Populariser

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A bidder at the Evan-Thomas auction in 1939 was the young Edward Henry Pinto.   “A specialist in furniture and joinery” he actually developed his collecting mania as a boy, spending “schoolboy pennies”.  This “grew to shillings” as he began earning money and from 1930 he says his collection began to grow rapidly.  He wrote several books, including Treen – or Small Woodware Throughout the Ages  in 1949, contributed to many industry and general periodicals, gave lectures and broadcasts, and judged competitions.

In 1955, he began to display his collection to the public.  Annual numbers of visitors grew from just over 1200 in his first year in 1955 to over 23,000 in 1965.  He and his wife – whom he credits for equal participation in developing his collection and publishing their research findings – put together a brochure for collection viewers – but the workload became overwhelming, and great was the relief and pride at the Pinto household when the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery purchased almost the entire collection.    The museum might have purchased the majority of the collection of 5000+ items, but it states on line that the collection consists of 224 items.    Maybe the rest are squirreled away in the stacks, but I have a few items that were de-accessioned before the collection went out to the public.

Preparation for the transfer of the purchased items and disposal of those surplus to the BMAG’s requirements was the opportunity for Mrs Eva Pinto to photograph every item and update the Pinto catalogues and for the couple to work on their magnum opus Treen and Other Wooden Bygones.

How to Use a Knitting Sheath

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This photo group was lifted from the internet, but the blogger actually took the famous left and lower right photos from earlier sources.

For us, the upper right photo is the most interesting, demonstrating how a knitting sheath would be used by a speed knitter, or one who had to knit while standing up.

Here the knitting sheath is stuck under a belt and a double-pointed needle or “wire” is inserted.  Stitches are transferred from the left needle to the right which is supported by the sheath, providing stability, assisting speed, and ensuring that stitches do not fall off the other end.

W.J. Shepherd - a Turned Bowl and a Yarn-holder Clamp

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Only 15 years after the Pinto collection was acquired by the Birmingham, another post-war collector sold up – again by auction at Sotheby’s. Walter J Shepherd  – according to his son’s preface to the auction catalogue – “maintained an interest in the subject of Treen since at least 1932, the year of the publication of Owen Evan-Thomas’s then definitive work on the subject”.    Shepherd’s son Roland notes that this interest was peripheral to his working life as a physician, but that his father was fortunate to retire just at the time that the Pinto, Sharpe and Eckman collections were all being dispersed.  Consequently,  the W J Shepherd collection contained some items from each of these earlier collections.  (McFeeters noted that his Evans-Thomas sheaths had come from the (intermediate) Eckman collection.  And, see reference to Sharp later in this presentation.  And, my own Pinto KS comes via the Ruddleston collection.)

Shepherd indulged himself with printed collection labels – as did Evan-Thomas – making it easy to follow  the progression  of their items through the various  subsequent collections.

My obsession with this collection reached such heights that in early 2011 I managed to get my hands on a copy of the auction catalogue – paying about twice what I had paid for the two Shepherd items themselves.

In 2006 Christies  auctioned the treen collection of another physician, Dr. Jonathan Levi.  Dr. Levi had intended to publish a great coffee table-sized reference “groaning with gorgeous colour photographs” and replete with his own analysis of styles over the centuries.  Ill health led him to publish a smaller work, Treen for the Table.  His collection was auctioned subsequent to his death.  His son David Levi runs an antique gallery specialising in treen.

The Shepherd Catalogue and a Matching Example

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A page from the WJ Shepherd catalogue showing, at top, a sheath described as:

Item 898 “A 19th Century Scottish carved boxwood “fiddle stock” knitting sheath bearing the name Maryann Hedley and carved through with wheatears, flower heads and a thistle. “  Sold in 1983 for GBP 66.

Next to the  catalogue page is my own sheath, identical in every  way to that sold in 1983 except for the different name carved on the front.  Surely these two sheaths came from the same carver – maybe from the same commercial establishment – the aesthetics, balance and beauty of the sheath is undeniable – so perhaps a master carver designed the original and his staff made others.

But I have established earlier provenance for the Maryann  sheath.  It also appears in Plate 75 of Pinto’s first book on treen, published in 1949, with Plate 75 attributed to the collection of Rev. C.J. Sharp, vicar and local identify in Shepwerh, Herts.

Second from the top in the Shepherd catalogue page is the dolphin that appears on Dr. McFeeters wall, purchased by him as a young collector in 1983.  And, Item  904, the coiled fossil carved from boxwood also appears in Plate 75 of Pinto’s book – from the Sharp collection.

Syd Levethan and the Longridge Collection

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As with several other treen collectors, Syd Levethan was better known for his ceramics collection – so much so that Christies held three “name” auctions to disperse his collection.   He collected for 30 years, paid for the best advice by experts in his fields of interest, but made the final decisions himself on what to acquire – including embroideries and stumpwork, American and British 17th and 18th century ceramics, and treen.

These three French 17th century knitting sheaths were acquired at the third Longridge auction in November, 2011.  Two are here today.  You can note the fantastic carving, so typical of the highest quality European craftsmanship.

A Modern Collection

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