Hand knitting was very important in the 18thand 19thcentury particularly in Wales, Northern England, Highlands and Shetland where it provided a major and important source of income.
Hand knitted stockings alone from Swaledale and Wensleydale in Yorkshire in the 1820’s was worth £40,000/ year (equivalent to 360 million today)
In places like Dentdale and Ingleborough in the N E of England everyone knitted, women men and children as young as 3 years. Children were put to bed in the evenings and then families would gather at neighbours houses around the fire and would knit whilst they sung songs or told stories often in poor light. The knitters of Dent acquired a reputation for their knitting. They were extremely fast but the weird method of rocking back and forwards ‘like weird wizards’ gave them the name the “terrible knitters of Dent”.
Antique treen knitting sheaths are wooden sticks to aid knitting. They all have a hole in the top to allow a knitting needle to be inserted. The knitting sheaths were worn on the right hand side in a sloping position usually tucked into a band or belt. Some knitting sheaths are designed to slot over the belt, or have diagonal slots to fit over apron strings and held in place. A hook known as a “clue holder’ was often attached to the belt to support the knitting and prevent it hanging down.
The sheaths held the bottom of the knitting needle allowing the hand to hold the top of the needle releasing the fingers to throw the wool. They also took the weight of the knitting and stopped stiches slipping off. Knitting needles were shorter and thicker and were bow shaped than the ones we know.
The smaller holes in the top were for finer knitting such as silk stockings.
Silk stockings were first introduced to England when Elizabeth I was given a pair made by her silk women Mrs Montague in 1561 and from then on wore hand knitted silk stockings.
Knitting sheaths vary in shape and size from 3 inches to around 12 inches. The smaller ones on the whole were made for children. Knitting schools were founded. At the York knitting school in 1800’s each girl was allowed a knitting sheath and a new set of knitting needles at Easter…
They were made from a variety of materials but the majority were wood made during the 18thand 19thcentury with only a few rare examples dating from the 1600’s found.
There are such a variety of knitting sheaths that have been found from soldiers and Welsh ladies to mermaids, horses, fish, birds and feathers. Antique knitting sheaths can be found with chains, hooks, glazed panels with proverbs, inscribed dates, lanterns with balls, carved hearts etc. There are regional characteristics like Goose Wing shaped sheaths, which were from N W Yorkshire.
The diagonal crosses on antique knitting sheaths seen on many probably symbolises protection. Similar to the crosses cut into witches’ posts to guard the fireplace and entrance doors.
Collecting antique treen knitting sheaths is a great field and can suit most budgets simple spindles and sticks can be found very reasonably priced ranging up to the truly magnificent sheaths with chains, hooks and elaborate carvings.
Images in this article are from a range of antique treen knitting sheaths are from current or past stock.