It is thought that knitting began in the Middle East and then spread to Europe via Mediterranean trade routes. The earliest surviving examples of knitting have been found in Egypt and date from between the 11th century and the 14th century. The earliest known knitted items in Europe were made by Muslim knitters employed by Spanish Christian royal families during the 13th cetury.
Knitting arrived in England later than the rest of Europe with knitters producing such things as stockings and caps. In the 16th century stockings became everyday wear for men and women, made in fine wool as well as silk. The fashion for men was for short trunks, making fitted stockings a necessity. Hand knitting became an important part of English working life and fine wool stockings were exported to the rest of Europe.
Yorkshire became a well-known area for hand knitting. From the 16th century it was a recognisable cottage industry with men, women and children all taking part. Schools were set up to teach the children of the poor to knit, so that they could earn their own living, as knitting required very little equipment.
One optional, but popular item of equipment was the knitting sheath or knitting stick. They were worn on the right side of the body, tucked into a leather belt. Knitting sheaths have a central hole into which the knitting needle is fitted. Here it is held rigid while the left hand needle does most of the work. This arrangement allowed the knitter to work faster and produce a tighter more even tension. It also meant that accomplished knitters could do two things at once, having a free hand to milk the cow or churn the butter.
Knitting sheaths could be plain or elaborately carved, sometimes including the owner’s initials. They were often given as love tokens. There were regional differences in the shape and style of the decoration and types of knitting sheaths have been linked to certain areas of the country.
The change in men’s fashion in the 19th century from knee breeches to long trousers marked the beginning of the end for the hand knitting industry. The decline in the demand for stockings, and the growing machine knitting industry, meant that by the beginning of the 20th century it was almost impossible to earn a living by hand knitting.
At the same time knitting became a more genteel past-time appropriate for ladies. The old style of knitting using a sheath, however, was not thought appropriate. The needles were no longer gripped in the palms, but held more like pens. The use of multiple needles and knitting in the round, the method used to produce stockings, became less common. Flat knitting using a single yarn with only two needles became the normal arrangement. The knitting sheath was no longer needed.
Although not needed any more these personal and often beautiful objects were clearly treasured and kept and can now be found in museum collections.
The knitting sheaths are part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on [email protected] or 01723 384510.