For Whom the Bell (Gauge) Tolls

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.

T.276-1979: Bell Gauge, from the Victoria & Albert Collection

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:

Colleen Formby, Everyone His Own Knitting Needles, accessed from:

Bell Gauge, Victoria & Albert Collection, accessed from:

Sheila Williams, The History of Knitting Pin Gauges (Melrose Press, 2006), accessed from:



Really, Truly, Swatching

The start of a new project is always fun. You get to choose the perfect pattern, you find the right yarn, and you cast on, but before you do that, every good knitter knows you should knit your gauge swatch.

Hands up, who does this faithfully before starting any project. I’m certainly not raising any hands on this one…

Knitting a gauge swatch may be one of my least favourite parts of any project, and I’ve been known to knit a ‘cheaters swatch’ where I cast on some stitches, knit a few rows, then use my ruler and see how close I am. Bad knitter. Bad.

The purpose of knitting the (dreaded) gauge swatch is to see how your knitting measures up to what is recommended for the project.  If the designer says 32 sts and 46 rows equals 4” on 3mm needles and your swatch isn’t close to this, then you’re finished object may not resemble what the pattern says it will.  Gauge is a very important part of any project, as tedious as I may personally find it.

I’m not going to outline the steps to knitting a gauge swatch because I won’t be able to do as good of a job as the fine folks over at Knitty did. This article is a fantastic breakdown of Swatching 101 – how to swatch, why swatching, and everything else in between.

I was feeling like a top-notch knitter last night when I grabbed the yarn I needed to make my Madewell sweater and I knit a proper gauge swatch.  I knit the required stitches for the requiored amount of rows; I cast off, washed and blocked the swatch.  I think I deserve a gold sticker or something.  Is that a thing? Stickers as rewards for good knitting habits?

Do you knit your gauge swatch faithfully every time? Do you knit what I call a cheater’s swatch (by knitting only for a few rows until you’ve got a good enough picture), or do you take caution to the wind and start without knitting a gauge swatch?

‘Tis The Season

To start thinking about Christmas knitting!  Can you believe there is only 93 days until the holiday?

Late last week, I cast on what will likely be my largest gift.  I won’t post too much here in case the person I’m making it for somehow stumbles upon this site (very much doubt they will, but one never knows).  Once it’s finished, gifted, and worn by the recipient, I’ll post pictures, because even at a few inches knit, I’m very happy with its progress.

Making this item, I wanted to make sure that it was done right.  This meant knitting a gauge swatch.  Have I lamented about how much I hate gauge swatching on this blog yet?  You know, I don’t remember either, so here it comes: I HATE making a gauge swatch.  I know that I’m a product driven knitter, so knitting a square for the sake of knitting a square is so insanely DULL to me!  Can I let you in on a little secret?  I cheat when I make my gauge swatches.  More often then not, I cast on about half of what they recommend, and I knit about half the rows I’m supposed to, check my tension, then rip back and cast on for real.  Yes, I know, I know, this is not how it’s done… At least when I knit the swatch for this latest WIP, I cast on MORE stitches then recommended and got the desired 4 inches wide, and well, old habits died hard when it came to knitting the rows… sigh.

My cheater’s gauge swatch

I’m working diligently on this gift, and I have another item on my needles that will also be gifted, so once again, no pictures of that WIP.  I have a feeling holiday knitting will be keeping me busy for quite some time!

Have you started your holiday knitting yet?