The Weird Wizards of the Yorkshire Dales

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!  - 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

William Howitt - The Rural Life of England in Two Volumes, 1840, p307  (accessed online via google ebooks)

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4 Responses to The Weird Wizards of the Yorkshire Dales

  1. Michael says:

    Dear Rachel,

    Very interesting stuff about the Dales, it would be interesting to know to what extent these traditions are being kept up or how they have evolved and their modern day manifestations. My interest in history is particularly acute when it helps to contextualise things around us today.

    Many thanks

    • admin says:

      Hi Michael

      Its a shame but the Dales traditional knitting patterns are really only being kept alive by individual knitters, unlike Fair Isle which is still much more well known and sold commercially. But I am busy researching traditional gloves and scarf patterns so that I can develop a craft kit for knitters to be able rediscover these patterns. Will keep you posted!! Thanks Rachel

    • Sue Carne says:

      Michael, you may be interested to know that I knit gloves, some of which are are based on heritage designs. I have recreated the “Mary Allen” Yorkshire gloves several times and undertaken three commissions lately for people with family roots in Yorkshire. The original of these particular Yorkshire gloves being held by the Wordsworth Museum. Sue Leighton White produced an accurate pattern of these some time ago. I draft patterns that take the spirit of the original but not necessarily an exact copy and I would like to think I execute them with the same degree of skill. I knit the gloves using approximately the same stitch count as the originals and use vintage yarns but also produce designs that are easier and quicker to make using modern yarns, making them accessible to a wider audience. My work departs in design from the originals in that the gloves are engineered to fit a little better – something that the hands I knit for currently demand.
      I am not alone in knitting pieces inspired by our knitting heritage and the knitting website Ravelry has had an immense effect in the sharing of traditions, tips and advice.

      • Rachel Reynolds says:

        Hi Sue

        Thanks for getting in touch. Its nice to know that people are still knitting the traditional Yorkshire gloves. I took at look at your glove and your gloves are lovely. I admit feeling slightly jealous – knitting is a skill that eludes me. I am too impatient. I have included a link to your blog above so that anyone who is looking to commission a pair of Yorkshire or Sanquhar gloves will be able to find you. Thanks again Rachel PS I love Ravelry, I wish there was a sewing version!

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