Materials – Three ounces of three-thread fleecy wool; pins, No. 14.
So starts a pattern for a Woolen Chemisette from 1857. There are many challenges facing a knitter when looking at a pattern written decades ago. The most obvious is the language. Today, there’s an accepted phrasing for knitting patterns, terms and phrasing that are common and used with great frequency; technical editors help pattern designers ensure terminology is correct and consistent. Reading and understanding a pattern from the 1800s isn’t nearly as clear as understanding modern patterns.
Once you get used to the lingo and understand what the pattern is wanting from you, the next challenge is figuring out the materials. ‘Pins, No 14.’ While reading about historic knitting needles and trying to understand their sizes, I discovered the Bell Gauge, named as such for its distinctive bell shape.
Today, needle gauges are valuable tools, helping knitters discern their needle sizes, that is if it isn’t handily printed on the side, and they aren’t a modern invention.
It appeared these handy tools started creeping into popularity in the early to mid 1800s. It was in the mid 1800s when Henry Walker created his gauge, and commonly, patterns for the late 1800s call for knitting pin sizes based on the Walker’s Bell Gauge. According to Sheila Williams, a Walker’s gauge can be (somewhat) easy to date in that after 1876, their gauges feature an archer as the logo, where before 1876 and the death of Walker, it featured the Royal Coat of Arms, indicating royal patronage.
Interestingly, a book from 1885 recommended using a gauge to determine needle size, but also admitted that “many do not consider it necessary, especially as gauges are somewhat expensive” (Jane Cunningham Croly, Knitting and Crochet: A Guide to the Use of the Needle and the Hook, 1885).
Thankfully, there are knitting historians who have done far more research than I into methods from the past. Colleen Formby researched and written quite notably about knitting during the US Civil War era, and she has shared information about needle sizes and their historical equivalent. This is where I’m going to just insert my own personal opinion – a standard needle size would make oh so much since. Being Canadian, I am very biased towards the metric measurement, but I’d be very accommodating if we could all just get along and come up with a universal standard, but I digress. Formby states that the size 14 that Godey’s was calling for may translate to a size 0 or 2mm – aka very tiny needles. I plan on starting this chemisette, and perhaps writing another blog into the history of this undergarment, and knowing what materials to use is a great start.
I would love to add a vintage bell gauge to my collection of knitting paraphernalia, so I’m keeping my eyes open at thrift shops and antique shops. It would be not only a good tool for future reference but a fun trinket from days gone by.
Jane Cunningham Croly, Knitting and Crochet: A Guide to the Use of the Needle and the Hook, 1885, accessed from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=PUdFAQAAMAAJ&lpg=PA51&ots=q-XkcKWlqp&dq=bell%20gauge%20knitting&pg=PA9#v=onepage&q&f=false)
Colleen Formby, Everyone His Own Knitting Needles, accessed from: http://www.raggedsoldier.com/knitting_1.pdf
Bell Gauge, Victoria & Albert Collection, accessed from: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O108412/bell-gauge-needle-gauge-g-chambers-co/
Sheila Williams, The History of Knitting Pin Gauges (Melrose Press, 2006), accessed from: https://books.google.ca/books?id=Y2gmkFgUEcwC&dq=walker+bell+gauge&source=gbs_navlinks_s