Why Don’t I Have A Knit Sheath?

History of Knit Sheaths

I’m currently reading Cornish Guernseys & Knit-frocks by Mary Wright. Its a lovely little book born out of Ms. Wright’s quest to knit a sweater in the way that the Cornish knitters knit them in the mid 1800’s. For her book she did more than collect the patterns and techniques unique to that area; she included tons of early photographs showing fishermen in their best knit-frocks, dirty boys in hand-me-down knit-frocks, not as dirty girls finishing up new frocks, and the Cornish Knitters themselves making the frocks. Ms. Wright also reproduced pictures of the knit sheaths those Cornish knitters were using which led me to wonder: How come I don’t have a knit sheath?

They are very rare these days but it used to be that all hard-core knitters had them. If you were a knitter who knitted every chance you got, if you were a knitter that was perpetually up against a deadline, or if you were a knitter that needed to keep knitting after your hands started to ache, you used a knit sheath. I don’t know about ya’ll but I can check every one of those boxes. So where the heck are our knit sheaths?

A homemade knit sheath as shown on The Big Snafu blog.

A knit sheath, aka knit stick, aka knit fish, is any device that you use to anchor a long knit needle to your waist. By anchoring it there you free up a hand, usually the right one, to just work the yarn. That means your right hand can act like a shuttle to move stitches from the left needle to the right needle. It also means you can knit really fast. Ms. Wright claims that experienced knitters can get up to 200 stitches a minute this way. 

That got your attention right? Right.

A knit sheath can be very simple or very elaborate. Most are pieces of wood shaped to fit comfortably in your belt with a small hole drilled into one end to put your working needle.

A knitting sheath from the 1600 or 1700. (image from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Very simple ones can be made from bundles of straw or feathers.

A straw knit sheath. (image from The Fetlar Museum)

Some are not sheaths at all but leather pouches with holes that you fill up with hair (I read in one place horse hair works the best) and then attach to your belt.

A fifty year old knit belt still used by Hazel Tindal. Check out her blog and her collection of knitting belts that have been passed down through her family.

Here is a short clip of one of the Terrible Knitters of Dent using a knit sheath and talking about… something. This poor but very curious American can’t make out what the heck she is saying and would love a “translation” by any of her lovely British readers.

(The Terrible Knitters of Dent are a thing. “Terrible” meaning fantastically talented and fast of course. Tales about them have been collected here and there. I won’t go into details because I’m thinking the Terrible Knitters of Dent need their own blog post. But the phrase seems to originate from Robert Southey’s The Doctor published in 1847 and you can start there if you’re curious!).

Knit sheaths seem pretty handy if you have a lot of knitting to get through in your life. They are also absolutely necessary if you want to knit-on-the-go.

A Shetland knitter on-the-go (from the Shetland Museum Photographic Archive)


Which brings me back to the question I’ve been harping on: Why don’t we have knit sheaths? I think (and this an opinion based on my reasoning and not any facts I could find) that we don’t have them because modern knitting traditions come from the fashionable drawing rooms of Europe and not the hard-working country villages. Knit sheaths were used by people who had to knit if they wanted sweaters to wear and socks on their feet. They knit first to keep their family clothed and second to earn every extra penny to keep their families fed. Knit sheaths were for knitters of a lower social class.

The knitters of the upper social class sat around in comfortable rooms are worked on their frilly, lace-y something-something to keep themselves occupied. Speed wasn’t as much of a concern as looking dignified and composed while knitting. I’m thinking you can’t look very dignified with a long knit needle stick up out of your clothes. The upper class knitters were the hobby knitters and we, the modern knitters, are descended from them. Which is how we got gibed out of our knit sheaths.

I’m thinking knit sheaths is going to be one of those things I need to acquire and learn how to use. I can probably rig up a simple one. Then I just need to come up with some really long double pointed needles. It may be a hassle to get all the stuff and then learn how to use it but… 200 stitches a minute? That would be pretty sweet. Even if I can only get 50 stitches a minute that would be a huge improvement.


And maybe if I get good with a knit sheath I’ll be able to babble in something that’s vaguely like English and confuse the bejesus out of the younger generation. That’d be pretty sweet too.


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40 Comments on "Why Don’t I Have A Knit Sheath?"

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I have a British friend that knits with extra long needles and the right one is held tucked up under her arm pressed against her side.

Anne Witkowski

My right arm if not so good, so I also use long needles and have it braced against the back of my chair, it works well.

Rick Martin

Hi Jenn,
If you find (or make) a knit sheath I’d really like to see how you do it! Even if it is only 2 stitches per minute that would be great. Actually slower would be better than faster that way we can actually see what you’re doing because I can’t see anywhere near 100 or 200 stitches per minute.


I can see why you would want a knit sheath. Now that I’ve seen one, I want one myself. One of the pretty decorative ones. So it can sit beside my decorative spindle with its pretty decorative hand spun and my decorative needle and hook holder. It would be the perfect compliment to all my decorative textiles.
A knit sheath will round out my embroidery thread, button collection and felting supplies. Not to mention my yarn stash. I assume a knit sheath isn’t really all that big. Surely I could squeeze one in somewhere.

i have my grandmother’s knit sheath.grandfather carved it for her during their engagement and gave it to her for a wedding gift. i only ever use it for large projects like blankets for some reason. probably because i use circulars for most everything else. but there doesn’t seem to be a valid reason to omit the circulars from sheath use. the dear lady was speaking of how the ladies would get together to save fuel for heat and light and the knitting group became a social circle as well as a working group. was that really unclear or are you… Read more »

Is there anything you don’t know about yarn history? I love every bit of it! Keep it coming. Of course you need a knit sheath. Can we have too many craft notions? I think not.