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A History of Knitting Tools

Thimble Collectors International

2008 Conference

Eight categories of items in my collection :

  • Needles
  • Cases, boxes or holders for needles
  • Sheathes or knitting sticks
  • Tip guards
  • Measures – gauges, row counters, rulers
  • Skein winders
  • Yarn holders
  • Other

I run a broad church here — happy to include some categories of items that are used by other types of needlework – crochet, embroidery, etc.

Focussed this presentation on American tools

Newspaper filler a month or so ago claiming that a recent archaeology find indicated that the Chinese were knitting 2300 years ago.


My Collection –

  • Knitter coming up to 50 years
  • Always interested in history – 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, but sold under brand names.
  • Have 400+ specimens of individual brand names, 700+ brand names in my database
  • Can only give my own opinions and analysis
  • Eager to be corrected – always want to know more
  • Knitting developed in early Christian era in middle East around 200-400 AD
  • Moved into Spain, Italy and eastern Europe via trade and invasion
  • Knitted fabric’s great advantage is its malleability, the ability to mould it to round and tubular shapes – like gloves, stockings, and caps
  • Technological innovation in about the 12th century – moved from 2 to 4/5 needles.
  • The Buxtehude Madonna by Master Bertram of Minden – this image taken from the Internet.
  • * One of about 4 or 5 such images of the Virgin knitting in the round, painted from the 14th century.
  • Knitting was a luxury item – surviving pieces are mainly church wear. References to the Parisian knitters guild date from 13th century.
  • Knitting reached Britain by late 15th century.
  • By 16th century, knitting exploded commercially in Britain :
  • First wire mill established – knitting pins more available
  • First enclosures of common land – more wool from more sheep
  • Spinning wheel replaced the distaff or drop spindle – more yarn – first illustrations of a spinning wheel were in the 13th century
  • Fashion changed – men began to wear short trunks with knitted hose – previously hose were made of woven cloth cut on the bias.
  • Also in 16th century, the knitting machine was invented in Britain.
  • At first, no match for an accomplished handknitter.
  • Owning a knitting machine required capital – found in urban areas.
  • Hand knitting over the centuries was gradually pushed further and further into rural areas.

Knitting proceeded in two streams – refined folk in the drawing room and common folk knitting to clothe the family or to earn a few extra pence.

What did people knit with in the old days?  Common folk used “wires” or “pins”.  This shot provided by the Hawes Folk Museum in the Yorkshire Dales shows the difference between the curved “pins” or “wires” on the right, and the later,  regular sets of double-points on the left.

Until country people had ready access to stores or markets, wires were carried around by peddlers or “petty chapmen”.    References In 16th and 17th century wills to “nitin” wires among the deceased’s stock.

In the 1830’s knitting recipes and patterns appeared.  The earliest booklet I have found is Knitting Teacher’s Assistant , first published in 1817 and reprinted regularly from the 1830’2 to the 1870’s.

In 1851 – a UK publication recommended Walkers Needles # 22 for use in their pattern – first branding I have been able to find for KN although not clear if there is any packaging.

Also in the 1850’s pattern books sometimes urged knitters to select needles with knobs or stoppers  on one end.  Obviously, this great innovation was still so new, it rated a special mention.


Hand-made needles :

  • Left and third from left, wooden (cc 912) and metal shafts (cc 744) with drawer pulls as stoppers
  • Second from left, spatula-ended whittled needles (cc 827)
  • Beyond the drawer pulls, are three metal shafts with various metal stoppers braised on (Gay found in Op Shop)
  • Far right, composition needles (feels like vulcanite to me) with hexagonal nuts glued on as stoppers (Bruce)
  • CC 36 – at the bottom, whittled needles, found “in an old attic in Fairfield, Maine”.
  • At the top, metal shafts with hard wax knobs and two needles made from bicycle spokes (or umbrella shafts) (also from op shop)

Hand made but for the upper classes, top down :

CC 5 – genuine American scrimshaw –  Bought from a man whose uncle had been a collector in the 1940’s and had died in 1972.   Note the whales on the left, and chains on the right.  From reading the two lines of verse on each needle, I think this pair was part of a set of 4.  The verse says :

May the heavens prove your guide my girl  *  Till I return again

Our ship she is lying in harbour  *  Just ready to set sail

When seven long years were past and gone  *  And seventeen long tedious days

She espied a ship came rolling in  *  With her own true love from sea

CC 7 – Bone with matching tip guards, lightly tinted

CC 778 – Bone with matching counting rings and stoppers

Both these last two have lathed shafts.


First commercially made and sold needles were double pointed metal.  Early knitting needles – like sewing needles – were prone to rust.  Dark paper, wood and tin, etc., were part of the effort to prevent moisture or condensation from rusting the needles.  I’ve never seen an emery for knitting needles, so I don’t know if any efforts were made in that direction.

Early metal knitting needles were imported from the Uk, and then from other European countries.  Today there is some confusion over the early sizing, but often the US and Canadian packets showed the English sizing.  When US firms began making their own needles this was proudly noted on the packaging.

Here a variety of packaging for needles sold in the USA :

  • At the top, Diamond brand from the Peerless Novelty Co in Grand Haven, Michigan – cc851
  • Columbia, a big yarn house – CC 1291
  • CC 878 – Very early Boye imported from the UK, in a flat tin tube and with a label that is a variation of the UK firm James Smith & Son, established 1698. The same label was used on their own tin of Double Century brand. Now, they are the TRIPLE CENTURY.
  • Cc 872 – Fleischer’s, another big yarn house
  • Superior Steel Knitting Needles] in a wooden tube
  • CC 604 – Nun’s from Germany in a cardboard tube
  • Underneath, CC 1050 – America brand in a wholesaler’s shallow cardboard box, which would hold about two dozen needles.

What did They Knit on Such Fine Needles?

  • CC 979 – On the right, a knitted reticule made in the first third of the 19th century, probably in central Europe (Germany ). Beads are so tiny, seems impossible to thread a needle through them. Close examination indicates that the yarn is a single filament of the finest cotton.  I have a reference for this, an exhibit in a 1971 exhibition in Bern, showing almost the exact same reticule with two brass hopes inserted to give it some volume.  My object has a very clumsy repair and also a small hole in it (on the other side).
  • CC 1138 – Middle, a piece of beaded knitting, still on the needles, and abandoned after about 12 rows. Notice the thickness of the yarn, compared to that used in the reticule.  The spool of yarn is from Hemmingway and the cork used as a point protector is with the project.  I couldn’t size these needles on an American gauge.  On an old UK gauge, they are size 18 Imperial.  My modern Birch gauge shows that size 14 Imperial equals 2mm, so presumably these needles are something like 1 mm.
  • CC XX – left, a knitted bandage, again abandoned on the needles – maybe victory arrived. The needle at the top is size 14 Imperial, so 2 mm. Note the use of small rubber bands to keep the work from slipping off the needle.

Rare, early US needles, left to right :

  • CC 1233 – Good Shepherd
  • Cone Tip – coolie hat
  • CC 1249 – Columbia — flat, square stoppers crimped on metal shaft
  • Gem – single piece (not a crimped stopper) spatula stoppered
  • CC 418 – Very rare (top missing) casein-style shaft with a size LABEL – this one says STANDARD around the numeral 5; also have a pair with the word MILLEMETRE around the numeral. I think this needle is associated with the very old brand name Diadem.
  • CC 109 – Vulcanite or “hard rubber” needle, the earliest “synthesised” or plastic needle. Stopper reads N R Co Goodyear 1851 around the size numeral.
  • CC 208 – Heavy steel Thornton brand needle with a narrow shaft near the top and the actual knitting gauge shaft near the tip – presumably to save weight on such heavy needles. Also  a German brand Goodman and some Flora MacDonald have this feature.



Canadian needles :

  • Mary Maxim, almost contemporary
  • Featherlite
  • Two packets of Fingertip.

Other Canadian brands, for which I don’t have packaging [CHECK THIS] are :

  • Allipins, Analox, Ardee, Belding Coticelli, Champion, Easy-knit, Jacmore, Maltese, Mayfair, Perfecto, Parloch, Sultana, Three Bees, Winco

Filling in the North American theme, I also have four brands which state made in Mexico, although I don’t think they are Mexican firms

  • Some Imra
  • Some Sewing Bee
  • Some Red Heart
  • Some Singer

Celluloid shafts with enameled/sterling stoppers

– early 20th century

US seems to have done more than other regions with elaborate and precious needles.   

  • Celluloid shaft with enameled sterling stoppers marked STERLING and with a makers mark that looks like AP inside an oval. (CC 208)
  • Celluloid shaft with deco-style squared off stoppers, enamel on sterling. Marked STERLING. I have matched these to a Webster & Co wrist bangle yarn holder which has their makers mark. (CC 891)
  • White celluloid/casein with gold-fitted enamel-topped stopper. In the original (perishing) box and cotton wool from Goodwins Limited, a large Montreal department store flourishing in the 1920’s. (CC 321)
  • Celluloid shaft with tapering hexagonal stoppers, again deco design, marked STERLING, but no makers mark. (CC 787)

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, engraved 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)

Cases, Boxes and Other Holders

Many, many of these even today, mostly plastic or wood.  Here :

  • CC 104 – Papier mache over tin tube. Probably Indian and shipped to the British market.
  • CC 455 – American wooden box with a slide top, nearly 15 inches long, and written on the bottom in ink Greg Davies 1837. Might have been made for something else, or maybe made by a man with some carpentry skills for his wife or sister. Came to me with long wooden needles and some of these wooden shafts with bone caps.  These needles are probably commercially made – note the wax stopper on the left.
  • CC 1029 – Hohloma hand painted and lacquered tube — a traditional Russian handicraft.
  • CC 305 – 1936 coronation commemorative needle clase. The extremely tiny photo of the royal couple has had colour applied to the king on the right, but the queen has been left in sepia tones.

Needles were (and are) often sold in kits or sets or as part of large or small work boxes.

Top is the boxed Victory kit (cc 1157)  from C.J. Bates  with a flying eagle on the red cover and  the implements in the famous red/white/blue livery.  Not sure the crochet hooks are original to this box as the colouring seems a bit different.   (also tape measure cc 931 and ball-stopper, 6-inch kid’s needles cc 10).  I think this was made during WWII, but not sure yet – possibly started in WWI.  Do have a pair of Fleischer single-points in the red/white/blue, and I don’t think this firm was still producing needles that late, so these could be WWI.

Some of the SB kits included a circular needle, introduced in about the first 20 years of the 20th century.  A true innovation made possible by new adhesive and fastening technology.  I have read these were developed in Europe, but I do have a US patent from 1918.

Below, is a lime green flock box with MOP needlework tools in the centre and KN held in elasticised slips in the lid.  Not sure if these are the original needles, as they seem a bit too long – very hard to extract.  I actually included this box to show the fineness of the thread, which is branded Superior China Silk Sewing.  There was another implement in the lid, near the hinge where the small holes show.


More Cases, Boxes and Other Holders

  • Top down, CC 1280 – cardboard embossed with gold foil, a gift of Virginia O’Neill
  • CC 923 – a leather over cardboard “gift”, reading “given by Baldwin & Walker, Knitting Wool Spinners Halifax  Estbd 1836”   The Walker firm were taken over in about 187, but not sure how soon after that date  the name went out of use.
  • From left, CC 311 – Wooden pokerwork with coloured stains, celebrating the centenary of the founding of the City of Melbourne in 1934
  • CC 662 – Silverplate tube with four unmarked silver sock pins. The tube is marked for the Mass silversmith Blackington
  • CC 1231 – Straw work case, probably English, with the two halves pulled slightly apart to show the traditional striped interior piece,

Sheathes are the most collected of knitting tools.

These are variations of the well-known “goosewing” sheath, the long sweeping vertical supposedly shaped like the extended wing of a flying goose.

There is  real aesthetic  appeal in the left (CC978) and second-from-right (CC 1273) sheathes, with the bone plaque on mahogany and the brass heart insert, as well as the carved decoration and the bone ferrules to protect the hole.  Notice that the ferrule on the second-from-right rosewood (?) sheath is a replacement.  When you look at the physical specimen, you will see that it originally had a deeper cap.  Repair and reuse was common with most such workaday items.

The right sheath (CC144) with its red paint, and the 1905 sheath (CC 555), second-from-left, are less refined.  The 1905 is the most recent date I have, and is very late when the use of sheathes was dying out.


Wooden sheathes were most common in Britain.  But there were specialist areas and also some specialist carvers.

Left (CC 368) is a chain sheath with some Durham features.  Chain sheathes (and other treen) were considered virtuoso creations – made from a single piece of wood with a heavy-columned cage and a second piece in which to catch a skein of yarn or some of the knitted fabric.   The hole for insertion of the needle is at the top of this photo – and the skein-holder would dangle down or possibly be caught up in the wearer’s belt or cowband.

The brass (CC 611) and tin (CC1102) sheathes come from the Kneightley Valley and are known as Airedale Hearts.  This was an early industrial area where metal-working was common.  The hearts don’t look very comfortable.  The wearer would sew the heart through the holes along the sides onto a pad of cloth or a cloth cowband.


Dutch knitting sheaths are actually better documented than the British, thanks to Kay Sullivan’s magnificent 2004 book Needlework Tools and Accessaries – a Dutch Tradition, and some other, earlier writings.

In addition to wood, the Dutch, a highly urbanised society since the Middle Ages, used many other materials, including a lot of silver

Cc 903 – ivory spindle shape

CC 1009 – an American  whalebone scrimshaw sheath – a much dirtier colour, but elaborately carved, including a cage, a vase-shaped top to take the needle, and finishing in a hand – a very typical bottom piece in American scrimshaw.  It has a very old repair or (possibly the original join).

CC 1037 – bone topped wooden sheath – probably West Cumbrian


I have never found a British silver sheath, although other countries created them.    Notice the small size of these four – much more for fine needles and drawing room use.

CC 140 – French art deco pin-on sheath.

CC 976 – Silver escutcheon – tests near sterling, but no marks – Dutch or German

CC 1115 – US coin silver cornucopia

CC 142 – US coin silver fish

All these three have holes around the outside or rings soldered at the edges on the underside, so that they could be sewn to a pad of cloth or even to a skirt


Sheathes made of other objects –

CC 937 – an antler finished in silver at both ends and with a silver belt clip pinned on – probably German, as they seemed to make a lot of needlework tools from antler.

CC 1324 – a silver finished sheath decorated with natural and coloured quill work – Kay Sullivan says these were popular at the end of the 18th century, mainly coming from Friesland.

CC 1076 – This is a copper ship’s nail, with the pointy end beaten into the lover’s heart and the “head” of the nail worked to create a belt slot and the hole to take the needle.  Possibly the work of a sailer, but it does have a very fine engraving of a woman’s name – presumably it would have to be engraved on land.  Georgian ?


Two US handmade sheathes :

Left, CC 224 – purchased in 2004 from Irene Schwall, by inheritance from her mother-in-law who bought it at a New England antique store in the late 1960’s.

Right, CC 1252 – found in a sewing basket with other very old, worn sewing items which were mostly thrown out.  The tube to hold the needle appears to me to be plastic – but could be a quill?? – putting it no earlier than 1920-30.  Not nearly as well made as other such items.

Presumably both were made by women – the only sheathes I have that I feel confident in saying this.


Tip Guards – Prevent stitches sliding off

Tip guards seemed to have been embraced earlier in Europe than England.  A Dutch silver pair hallmarked 1791 are earliest I have.  And the Europeans definitely included tip guards among their high-end needlework tools, including Palais Royal boxes.

Tip guards seem to be the second most collected knitting tool.  I have bought many tip guards from the US, but I do not feel that most of the high end items were actually made there.

  • 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)
  • 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)

More Tip Guards

  • Top left, cc 1320 – Webster sterling arrow-style, for single point needles, where the points of both needles are inserted into the holder. Still has its cloth inside, though wadded up. This deco style suggests early 20th century to me.
  • CC 250 – porcelain, probably from the factories in Thuringia, about 1820. Painted with roses and forget-me-nots and the words Aus treuer Freundshaft (with true friendship). Originally connected with a silk ribbon which perished.  I also have a second pair with the date 1815 on them, but a huge chip next to the date.
  • CC 90 – English horn tip guards covered with beaded knitting and with a ribbon closure secured by a third horn piece with more beaded knitting – courtsey of Carolyn Meacham nine years ago. Again, about 1820

All American

There re heaps and heaps of very utilitarian tip guards in the USA and UK – even available now from Clover and other large notions firms.  Here….

  • Two sets from Susan Bates red/white/blue patriotic range, cc 85 – a pair of chevons (unbranded) and a tubular pair with 4 r/w/b branded needles inside.
  • Also three sets with a verse – haven’t seen this style elsewhere, so I assume it was just an idiosyncrasy of this country.
  • Left, cc 1136 – Anti-Japanese — a slant-eyed wooden pair with cork inserts to hold the needles. The card reads :  “Here’s a corking place/For your needles to fit,/When you make up your mind/You don’t want to knit.”
  • Top, cc 320 – painted wooden heads whose card reads : “Knobs for Needy Knitters – There’s much to be knit to keep our boys fit – Uncle Sam says we must each do our bit – So at once we should arm with needles and yarn. And these to keep points from jabbing and harm”
  • Bottom right, cc 84 – Painted metal head and shoes with the verse reading “Your knitting needles/You may lose;/Unless I tuck them in my shoes”

Needle Gauges or Sizers

  • CC 39 – Miss Lambert’s ivory Standard Filiere, claimed by her to be the first needle sizing gauge, made from 1842. I have seen three or four of these, some with slightly different wording. Sizes are on the back.
  • CC 1219 – Very similar working, but inscribed F Du M Leaman
  • CC 37 – Smaller, thinner ivory gauge – same idea, so perhaps a copy by another maker

American measures seemed to come in a bit later than the UK gauges, and I have not seen any early American gauges in metal, as the British ones were.  Mostly the early US gauges were celluloid or cardboard like these.

  • CC 1205 – At the top, a small Boye rectangle gauge
  • CC 1369 – a round Minerva gauge
  • CC 1212 – From left, a cardboard American Red Cross gauge with only three needle sizes suggested for knitting items for the troops
  • Cc 1016 – Big Columbia celluloid gauge. The matrix is lists various Columbia nedles – bone, celluloid, wood – and the needle sizes in which they were made. This gauge was perishing as I was setting it up for the shot, very brittle and breaking between the holes and the edge.
  • CC 850 – Diadem rectangular gauge – a rather obscure brand for which I also have needles – don’t know much about them. Has metric and American on either side
  • Cc 900 – Dorothy Bradford gauge – a brand name owned by Scoville Hero

Canadian gauges :

  • CC 775 – cardboard Canadian Red Cross. Note it is completely different from the US Red Cross gauge
  • CC 906 – celluloid Bouquet which is also a UK brand – the gauge gives UK, Canadian and American sizes.
  • Cc 879 – plastic Mary Maxim gauge
  • CC 926 – faded celluloid Lady Fair gauge, issued by Eaton’s Department Stores


These were used to wind yarn for any needlework discipline like tatting or crochet, but I run a broad church and am happy to include them in my knitting items.

CC 1224 – Whalebone swift tied with the traditional red bobbles and ribbons.  In perfect and usable condition.  Many of these whalebone items are available in the US because of the strength of the whaling industry in the mid-nineteenth century.


The scale is different on these two swifts, although both are table models.

CC 1217 – Olive wood table clamp which can be dismantled and with the horizontal arms removed can be turned into a pin cushion clamp.  A delightful object in the tradition of the original “toys”.  Probably English

CC 608 – Much larger Australian table or floor model, with a brass lamp base-type stand.  Curved slats are tied with traditional ribbon at the top and bottom and are also affixed with wire in the middle.  It is made of the famous Huon pine, but I think it is ugly.


CC 901 – We’re going in the opposite direction here with this Australian winder –  from the elegance of the previous examples to this uber-utilitarian example.  Originally sold during the depression in the major department store, John Martin’s, of Australia’s third largest city, Adelaide.

Left shot is a close-up to show the store’s name proudly displayed on what appears to be a solder tin with wire spokes inserted.  The right hand shot shows the winder upside down to get a look at the clamp, again made of a thick wire twisted to form a screw mechanism.

Although I haven’t shown it here, there is a complimentary ball winder to go with this skein winder, also made of rickety tin, and with the company’s name on it.


CC 741 – last winder is a not a swift (umbrella mechanism)  but is a home made American yarn winder – date carved on top, 1810.  The base is about a third of a trunk roundel and the slats are pegged together – a great folk object.

CC 64  – floor model yarn holder.  These were commercially made with typical American bobbin and spool work and a steamed bentwood top.  I’ve seen three, including a table model with a much shorter shave.  The domed top tends to crack from the strain of such a large piece of wood being bend under great steam pressure.  They are also very insecure, being extremely light weight and with the tripod legs not much wider than the bowl itself.


Yarn Bobbins

Clockwise from top left –

  • CC 946 – Bates shamrocks
  • CC 254 – LeRoy Knitting Bobbins (from Bill May of Hollywood)
  • CC 376 – Jiffy Bobbins- extremely complicated and inefficient
  • CC 695 – Perlac fish (probably French)

Yarn holders – seems to be an endless variety of devices to hold yarn during knitting or crochet.

Clockwise from the top left :

  • CC 652 – A Webster & Co sterling wrist bangle with a dangle to hold a ball of yarn. Note the blue enamel shield is the same as the pink enamel stopper on the earlier needles. The needles were unbranded, so I was delighted to make the connection via this bangle.
  • CC 19 – crocheted wrist yarn bag – I have a knitted one, but couldn’t find it !!
  • CC 21 – the Yarn Nest – patented gadget which lies flat until the ribbons are pulled up around the ball or spool of yarn (as I’ve shown it here)
  • CC 1007 – a Gorham sterling yarn bowl, with the silver over a heavy cut glass cut and the hole in the lid to thread the yarn through.


My favourite piece in my whole collection – encompasses aesthetics and social history.

Dedication on the bottom, written in ink and cut out and pasted on the bottom, reads :


Trace Ann Brown

on her 8th birthday

Oct 4 1962 from her grand-

mother Maaike Stavel Baarstag,

born Aug 26 1883, who watched

her grandmother Maaike van

der Zee Stienstia, born Sept. 9

1816, use this knitting bowl

during her long life of

95 years.  She was

your great-great