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