A Useful Expression of Love

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For the Festival of the North East, which will take place in June, museums all around the North East got together to select a hundred objects that together portray the history of the region. Beamish will contribute with six objects. These objects were already on display on site, but will get some extra attention during the festival.

While researching these objects, there was one that particularly appealed to me: the knitting sheath. This once ordinary object has now largely been forgotten about, but is a great example of an object telling both a very sweet and personal story and representing the history of an entire region.

In the early nineteenth century, it was customary for old and young people in the northern counties, both men and women, to supplement their wages by knitting. Children learnt to knit in school, in some places it was as important a skill as reading and writing. In the evenings, people often got together in someone’s house to knit, the so-called ‘knitting dos’.

The knitting sheath was a useful tool because it allowed people to keep on knitting while doing other jobs. The sheath was tucked into the knitter’s waistband or belt, or even stitched on an apron. Each sheath had a short tubular opening on the end to hold the needle, and a way of attaching it to the clothing. Sheaths were worn at the right-hand side and were used by knitters who worked in what was called the ‘German manner’. In this way, the right hand was kept rigid and that is where the knitting sheath came in. Its use was to steady the right hand and knitting needle. They were mainly used in the North of England.

Knitting sheaths were not made to sell, but were designed as gifts. Most of them were presents from young men to their sweethearts. Sheaths were thus often carved with emblems such as hearts and arrows, together with the initials of the giver and those of the girl. On most sheaths, the carving is very carefully done, with some inlayed with ivory, mother-of-pearl or different coloured woods.

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Since they were all made by hand by amateurs, each knitting sheath is unique and there are a variety of types, mainly depending on the area they were from. Sheaths were made from different materials, people used whatever was available. Materials include wood, bone, leather with wood splinters, balls of horsehair, bundle of feathers tied together and goose-quills fastened upon a piece of flannel.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the knitting method with the sheath gradually fell out of use, since education authorities considered it to be harmful to the posture, producing a weak chest and rounded shoulders. Instead, children were taught to knit without the sheath, in the modern manner used today.

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