Knitting supplies through time – Part 1

miniature knitting
© F H Powell 2013

Today the word spinster is used to denote an unmarried woman usually considered to be passed marrying age. The term originates from the 14th century as the occupation of one who spins yarns. Often it was older unmarried women that undertook spinning to earn a living having no husband to provide for them. The term spinster came to have a precise legal definition being used in the banns of marriage in the Church of England.

Back in medieval Britain the yarn that was being spun was wool. The wool was hand dyed from natural sources commonly bark, leaves and flowers. As a result the colours were mellow but warm being derivatives of ochre, deep yellows and dark reds. The main use of this yarn was for embroidery and tapestry, as knitting was a fiercely protected secret dominated by Guilds. Although some ladies at the court of Queen Elizabeth took up knitting, this was not a common occupation for women. By the end of the Elizabethan period (Elizabeth I reigned 1558-1603) the formation of the East India Company in 1600 saw the importation of Indian crewel embroidery. Crewel yarns (still woollen based) would eventually prove useful for knitting, although not until much later in Victorian times.

Given the island location of the country there was little opportunity to import other more exotic yarns. Although the importation of silk yarns from Spain and Italy, again originally used for embroidery, allowed early knitters to make use of silk, notably for stockings, expense limited this to the very wealthy.

Spinning still occurred in poorer homes and often the women would knit gloves or socks from undyed wool to supplement income or keep the family warm. However time was very limited, so the women often used knitting sheaths to hold one needle and so allow them a free hand, with which to do something else. Paintings exist showing women walking with sheep or cattle and knitting. Mechanised knitting brought an end to much of this type of knitting, with hand knitting skills only surviving in more remote areas, where socks and gloves were still made using undyed yarns and giving rise to regional variations in patterns. In these poorer homes, knitting took too long to be useful in making garments for family members, although sometimes vests and underwear was knitted for children.