Yorkshire really is enormous! Well, in British terms it’s enormous. If you are used to the open plains of America or the Sahara Desert it is actually quite tiny, but as far as the counties of Britain are concerned – it’s huge. So it follows that within the Ridings of Yorkshire there are many interesting traditional craft stories to tell, one huge story, which I will only be able to scratch the surface of here, is the story of the hand knitters of the Yorkshire Dales.
The Costume of Yorkshire Illustrated By A Series of Forty Engravings - George Walker, 1814
Hand knitting was an important cottage industry across the Yorkshire Dales from the end of the sixteenth century right through to the beginning of the twentieth century. Sheep had been an important part of the local economy since way back when, and it followed that spinning, weaving and knitting industries developed in the area. Yet, it wasn’t just in Yorkshire that hand knitting was an important cottage industry. During the seventeenth century, hand knitting had been a major source of income for the pauper classes throughout the United Kingdom. Up to 13% of the very lowest earners across the country scrapped a living by knitting stockings. Thinking about it, it’s not surprising really, as everyone wore stockings back then and someone had to make them. However, by the beginning of the eighteenth century hand knitting as a cottage industry on any scale had already begun to decline due to mechanisation. But hand knitting continued in the Dales of Yorkshire, because it was a poor, isolated area with little other options and people were able to combine it with farming.
Knitting in the Yorkshire Dales developed in a very distinctive style. Descriptions from the 1840′s stated that knitters sat rocking to and fro like weird wizards! On each rock of the body, both hands engaged in a variety of little motions which together formed a uniform tossing action. Needles were pricks and crooked, with one attached to a knitting stick tucked into the belt called a cow band. The technique was known as swaving and it enabled the knitter not only to knit very fast but also to knit one handed and this was vitally important as to scrape a living the knitters had to work day and night to make it worth while.
Knitting stick - often carved by young men for their sweet hearts.
All members of the family would be required to knit, children started as young as three or four and they would have to knit practically all the time. Men would knit as they milked the cows and drove the wagons and once the days work was done, families would gather at each others houses, taking it in turn to host their neighbours. Knitting throughout the evening by the light of the peat fires rather than waste candles, telling stories and singing to pass the time. The Vicar at Dent even complained the women were knitting during the Sunday church service.
The items that were knitted varied greatly. Stockings were the most important item but bonnets, hats, gloves and undershirts were also produced. The wool, called bump, was thick and greasy. As the industry developed a ‘bump’ master transported the wool to the villagers and took the finished articles either to market or back to the mill to be dyed. Gloves and stocking made of finer wools were also made and it was these that displayed the distinctive Dales patterns.
By the beginning of the twentieth century the hand knitting tradition of the Dales had waned as a cottage industry but knitting for domestic use continued and luckily the traditional patterns and styles are well documented. To be honest, whilst it is fascinating to read about a craft so strongly linked to an area, it is easy to understand why it’s not really a career choice today. Hand knitted clothes are now reassuringly expensive to reflect the amount of time it takes to knit a jumper or even a pair of socks! It is still not easy to make a living from this traditional craft in Britain but easier than it was.
image from Dent Village Heritage Centre
And here are lots of links if you want to know more,
Click’n’knit - Sue Carne knits tradition Yorkshire Dales gloves so if you need a pair she is your woman!
theknittinggenealogist.wordpress.com - soon to release a book on the history of Yorkshire knitting!
Lesley O’Connell Edwards – Working Hand Knitters in England from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries, Textile History, Volume 41, Number 1, May 2010 , pp. 70-85(16) (accessed online via ingentaconnect.com)
William Howitt - The Rural Life of England in Two Volumes, 1840, p307 (accessed online via google ebooks)