Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Making Bone Knitting Needles

In the previous post I showed two ads for knitting needles, from 1921.  Both ads mentioned bone knitting needles, implying of course that the advertised needles were far superior.  Since I wrote that post, I have found a description of how bone knitting needles were being made in the early 1920s, at a factory in Gloucestershire. (I was browsing in some historic newspapers online, looking for something else entirely.)

By the 1920s, the process was highly mechanised, though still requiring a great deal of skill,  But it was also doomed - the article mentioned that a factory nearby was making casein, an early plastic.  The writer thought that it "has probably affected the bone trade in no small measure, but there still remains an extensive demand for knitting needles and other like articles manufactured from bone."  Not for much longer, I think.

We have a lot of bone knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Knitting & Crochet Guild collection, and  I picked out a small selection today. Here are two pairs of straight needles, a set of four double-pointed needles, and a crochet hook. The needles are sizes 5mm. and 5.5 mm. - bone could not be used for fine needles.  It's hard to measure the size of the crochet hook - it tapers along most of its length, so I don't know where to take the measurement.  

Vintage knitting needles; vintage crochet hook; bone; 1920s
Bone knitting needles and crochet hook
The bones for knitting needles were a by-product of the meat trade, and I had assumed that they came directly from butchers.  But evidently they didn't - they were collected by rag-and-bone men, largely I assume from private houses after the meat had been eaten.  I remember a rag-and-bone man making regular appearances on our street, with his horse and cart, when I was very little, but he was just part of the background, and I never thought about what happened to the rags and bones.  Later, if I had thought about it, I might have guessed that the bones were converted into bonemeal for fertiliser, and possibly some was, after the more useful pieces had been selected for destinations like the needle factory.

The article describes the initial preparation of the bone - which must have been a very smelly business:
The bones collected by the rag and bone merchant—or the tatter man—eventually find their way to the mills, and one section of the bones which are the result of stew are sawn off and are ready for use at once. The remainder, however, have to be thoroughly boiled. This is done in large tanks, the bones being boiled in steam-heated water for some 24 or 48 hours, as the case may require. Having been thoroughly boiled, which renders them soft and possible to handle easily, the bones pass on to the second process. This consists of sawing them into square strips—a most tricky and tedious business —and they then go to a series of machines through which the square strips are run emerging at the other side of the machine in the round. The bone is converted from the square to the round by means of a small revolving knife, through which the bone is drawn. This done the round strips are next placed in vats containing a bleaching chemical, and on being removed from this the bone, which was previously a creamy colour is perfectly white. 
The bone strips were then taken upstairs to the skilled needle makers:
The bones are now in round strips about eight inches long and bleached white. They next pass to the first floor of the factory, and here the strips are finely polished. To do this the pieces arc placed in the end of a rapidly revolving spindle, one at a time, and as they revolve they are polished by means of a piece of emery paper held in the hand of the operative. The points are then made, a revolving emery wheel being used, and the knobs for the other end having been turned out by a special machine, are attached by glue, the finished needles tied together in pairs, and packed ready for the purchaser. 
Knobs for bone knitting needles

A disadvantage of bone, mentioned in the Double Century ad, was that to make long needles two pieces had to be joined together by splicing. Evidently bone would only yield lengths of about 9 or 10 inches (23-26 cm.)  The article explains how pieces were joined to make longer needles:

Needles of 12 inches [31cm.] or more in length have to pass through an additional process—that of splicing. Bone cannot be obtained in long enough lengths to enable needles of this size to be made in one piece, and so two short strips are taken and cut at the ends in such a manner that they may be strongly spliced together with the aid of fine string and a specially prepared cement. When the needle is complete it is almost impossible to discover the joint, so perfectly is the work finished. 
I didn't know until I saw the Double Century ad that bone needles might be spliced, and I looked for some long needles today to see if I could see the join.  And indeed, the double-pointed needles shown above are just under 12 inches long, and they are all spliced, if you look very carefully.  The join is still almost invisible after all this time, and is perfectly smooth.  (Look for the faint diagonal line in the photo below.)

Splice in a bone knitting needle

The factory described in the article also made crochet hooks (or crotchet hooks, as they are called throughout):

The first stages of the manufacture of crotchet hooks is identical with that of knitting needles. On arriving at the finishing department, however, the pieces of bone are polished and then one end is slightly tapered. This accomplished, both ends are rounded and the hook made. The making of the hook is an operation which needs no little skill on the part of the operative, for the slightest mistake as the bone is placed against the revolving disc which performs the operation would immediately destroy the piece of bone on which the hook is being made. The hook is polished once again, and is then ready for packing.
The better class hooks are decorated on the handle, and this is done by a specially constructed machine, and also requires great skill on the part of the worker. 
The crochet hook shown above is one of the 'better class', and is beautifully decorated.

Decoration on bone crochet hook

I'm really pleased to have found out how bone needles and hooks were made, at the tail-end of the history of working with bone.  It had been a raw material for making tools and decorative objects such as sewing needles and combs for hundreds of years.  By the 1920s, perfect knitting needles and crochet hooks made of bone could be mass-produced  - and then bone was completely superseded by new materials like anodised aluminium and plastics.  I don't know when the factory described in the article closed down, but I think it must have been within a few years.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Advertising Knitting Needles

I wrote a post two years ago about Double Century knitting needles, which had a metal core inside a plastic coating.  The original idea was patented in 1913 by Emily Doubble, although she seemed an unlikely inventor, as she was a widow in her 70s at the time. But this week, Emily's great-granddaughter commented on my post and said "she did invent a knitting needle which her son, Theodore, patented for her. My aunt told me that she was fed up on her fine needles breaking and had the idea of putting a metal wire in them. She was a great knitter, embroidery and wood carver!"

(One of the best things about writing a blog is that sometimes people give you fascinating information in comments - sometimes several years after the post first appeared.)

Belinda's comment reminded me that at the time I wrote the post, the earliest ad I had seen for Double Century needles dated from 1945, though it was clear from the wording that the needles must have been in production before the start of World War II.

But I've since found a much earlier ad.  It appeared in Needlecraft Practical Journal, and I date it to 1921.  (I'll write later about dating issues of Needlecraft, because it's not at all straightforward.)

1921 ad in Needlecraft Practical Journal; vintage knitting needles


At that time, bone was a common material for making thicker sizes of knitting needle, and you could also get ivory knitting needles, though they were of course much more expensive.  Double Century needles were always a cream colour, and this ad shows that it was because they were imitating the colour of bone or ivory.

In the same issue of Needlecraft, was an ad for Stratnoid knitting needles - another brand based on a patent.


This is also an earlier ad than I had found previously.   The patent (to make knitting pins from duralumin, an aluminium alloy) was granted in 1919, so the manufacturers were quick to get the idea into production.

The claim is that Stratnoid knitting pins are "STRONG - FLEXIBLE - LIGHT AS BONE - STRONG AS STEEL".  As with Double Century, bone was one of the materials to compete with.  It's interesting that they are claimed to be flexible - the finer ones will bend a bit, but you'd need a lot of force to bend the thicker ones.  And the ad doesn't mention their other big advantage over steel - they don't rust.

And with both Double Century and Stratnoid needles, you could knit faster, allegedly.  I've tried both, and they are very nice to knit with, but I don't think I can knit faster than with other needles.  Perhaps I should be comparing with rusty steel needles, wooden needles with splinters, or bone needles with  snags, but if so, I'd rather not do the experiment - I'm convinced already.    


Monday, 5 June 2017

Disco Sweaters

One of my favourite blogs is The Knitting Needle and the Damage Done, by Orange Swan.  She reviews knitting magazines, and often exactly nails just what's wrong with a design.  And occasionally she has a post collecting together photos of unusual (aka seriously weird) knitted garments.  Her most recent post is one of those:  Lederhosen and Tutus and Other Knitting Fables.  It included this knitting pattern:


1980s vintage knitting pattern; picture knits
Sirdar leaflet 6065
Her caption is "Penelope had come up with the perfect way to get men to buy her drinks when out clubbing."

It's a super example of 1980s picture knits.  I looked for the leaflet in the Knitting & Crochet Guild collection, and found that it's one of a small group of "Disco" knits.  Here are the others:

1980s vintage knitting pattern; picture knits
Sirdar leaflet 6062

1980s vintage knitting pattern; picture knits
Sirdar leaflet 6063


1980s vintage knitting pattern; picture knits
Sirdar leaflet 6064

You were evidently supposed to wear your Disco sweater with skintight metallic lycra in a bright colour, and BIG hair.  But a long-sleeved sweater in a thick yarn (DK) seems very impractical for a disco - you'd boil.  I can see that one or two of them might also do for everyday sweaters - the giant daisy, and the hearts.  Maybe even the butterfly.  (It was the 80s after all, when picture sweaters were normal wear).    But the lips/straw/glass combo - as Orange Swan says, that's just begging someone to buy you a drink.