History of knitting needles in Britain

knitting needles from Buttercup Miniatures
© F H Powell 2007

Many of our customers have queried elements of knitting history when trying to place knitted items in a dolls house, so we hope to answer some of these queries in a series of small articles on aspects of knitting history.

This first article hopefully answers the common query how many needles were used and what were they made of:

Early knitting was usually knitted in the round using four or five needles, although there are instances of two needles having been used from Tudor times onwards. This possibly came about as the heels of socks are turned using two needles and the garters were knitted using two needles. Our pattern for Tudor hose (below) shows the kind of socks and hose being knitted at this time-although this pattern has been designed to be knitted using two needles, as this is far easier in this small scale

miniature knitting
© F H Powell 2006

In order to be authentic in placing knitting in dolls houses it should be remembered that all early knitting needles were made of steel. Other materials such as wood, whalebone and ivory were not used until the mid 19th Century. The 20th Century saw many more materials being used. Most modern knitting needles are made of aluminium, wood or plastic. (Our own knitting needles for miniature knitting are made of steel, as other materials are not strong enough for these very fine needles.)

Interestingly points were not common on needles until Victorian times, when the way people knitted changed and required the needle to be inserted into the stitch to work it. Prior to this the ends were cut straight across and smoothed at the ends. Knobs on the end of the needles to stop stitches falling off were also a Victorian innovation, as two-needle knitting became more common.

Another thing to remember is until the mid 20th Century most knitting needles were extremely fine, as was the wool. Steel knitting needles were very heavy and it was not until lightweight materials became available that needles increased in size to some of the very fat knitting needles used today. As most knitting needles were made of steel the Standard Wire Gauge was used as a measurement in the British Isles until recently when metric sizing was introduced. Our knitting needle sizes also reflect this in the sizes such as size 19, etc.

Prior to Victorian times it was common practice to order knitting needles from the village blacksmith, as knitting needles were not mass-produced until mid Victorian times.