History · Knitting · Tools

Circular knitting needles

The German publication Der Bazar (The Bazaar) figures prominently in a number of posts on this blog. This is due in no small part to the online availability of an almost unbroken series of issues from the outset of its publication through to the end of the 19th century. The inaugural volume appeared in 1855 and is one of the few not to be found in library catalogs but I’ve managed to acquire a printed copy (said with a fair amount bibliophile pride). One of what was to become dozens of competitors, Die Modenwelt (The Fashion World), commenced publication in 1865. As far as I have yet been able to determine, no library has a complete set and relatively few volumes have been digitized.

The business model of Der Bazar included the syndicated parallel appearance of its descriptions and illustrations of fancywork techniques in collaborating publications in several other countries. The same practice was adopted by Die Modenwelt, which listed the international editions on its masthead.

Die Modenwelt 1868

The title of the Dutch edition, De Bazar, suggests an earlier relationship with the German Der Bazar that is probably worth further investigation. However, the present post only considers the English and Danish editions, which both lack indications of any such tie. As with many syndicated publications, the recipient venue was less concerned about advertising that relationship than the supplier was. The Danish translation, Dagmar, presented itself as Scandinavian rather than national. It used the masthead of Die Modenwelt, whereas the British The Young Ladies’ Journal (here from 1871) did not.

Dagmar 1889

 

Young Ladies Journal 1871

These publications were autonomous with regard to material of literary and general cultural interest. The syndicated fancywork instructions, although distributed to all licensed recipients, were used selectively at local editorial discretion and scheduled for release on the same basis. As with the parent Die Modenwelt, neither the British nor the Danish publication has been digitized comprehensively.

A history of knitting in Norway, Strikking i Norge (Knitting in Norway), edited by Anne Kjellberg and published in 1987, includes material taken from the 1 March 1881 issue of Dagmar. It illustrates and describes a circular knitting needle made of whalebone (fiskebeen, c.f. Fischbein). This is the earliest mention I have yet seen of such a tool, but it is presented as having fallen out of familiar usage over the preceding two generations rather than being an innovation.

This diffuse chronological perspective reduces the need for putting an exact date on its presumed simultaneous or earlier appearance in Die Modenwelt. However, the initial wording may differ in relevant nuance from that of the Danish translation and I am actively trying to locate copies of at least the 1880 and 1881 German volumes. The fancywork pages from the 1881 volume of The Young Ladies’ Journal are online but don’t include the circular needle. I haven’t yet found a copy of the cited issue of Dagmar for direct examination either.

Nonetheless, the written Danish and Norwegian languages of the day were extremely close to each other and the original instructions would have been fully intelligible to a Norwegian readership. The cited snippet appears in its original orthography in Kjellberg’s book, in what may safely be taken as a verbatim transcription.

“With a skirt in progress we illustrate the practical use of the circular whalebone needle, with which one can always knit very conveniently and even in the round. The needle may be familiar to as large a part of our readership as it is unfamiliar, since those who have not yet used such a needle may remember having seen their aunts or grandmothers with it earlier. In any case, the mere recollection of the existence of such a needle ought to be useful. Such tools are not only very practical for knitting in the round but also for larger objects knitted flat, since their circular design prevents the stitches from sliding off.”

dagmar-circular

There is no other mention of this tool in the multiplicity of knitting instructions that began to appear in the 1840s (yet again, at least as far as I have been able to locate), which generally specify the requisite needles quite clearly. The 1881 reference to the circular needles its readers may have seen their grandmothers using harks comfortably back to the outset of the fancywork press. It therefore seems reasonable to conclude that the flexible implement had already lost whatever mainstream status it may have had by that time.

This raises an interesting question about the extent of its earlier use. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a long circular needle was used for the 18th-century petticoat of possible Dutch origin in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (museum number T.177-1926). The shape of the garment matches that of the 1881 skirt well enough, and although the 3 meter circumference seems extreme, that factor besets all implements that can be suggested. (And is it really a petticoat?)

dutch-petticoat© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The situation is quite different with the tubular knitting at the core of the contemporary production of socks and traceable back to the unshaped tubes which had appeared in the Nile Valley by the 5th century CE. Knitters working in the round now debate the relative merits of straight double-pointed needles used in sets of four or five, against techniques using one or two flexible circular needles.

For as far back as baleen was available for such purposes (taken from what were previously known as “whalebone whales”), an arbitrary date cannot be set for when it can first have been fashioned into circular knitting needles. It may be sufficient to note that the hunting of whales that produce baleen began in Europe before the earliest evidence of knitting there.

The 5th-century tubes have been explained alternately as a product of needle knitting or peg-loom knitting, without any direct evidence of the contemporaneous availability of either device. There is no early direct evidence of circular baleen needles either but there was a thriving whaling industry in the Mediterranean Sea at the time knitting was being developed. Right whales were among those hunted and flexible needles made of baleen are as reasonable to place on the speculative list of candidate implements used by early knitters as double-pointed needles and peg looms are.

Other materials with similar mechanical properties were also available to the earlier workers. Comments on the initial version of this post discuss metal wire in particular. The questionable scalability of peg looms down to sizes commensurate with the narrow diameters of many of the early tubes and the fine-gauge stitching they share with the socks, would be less of a consideration with circular needles. The flexibility and strength of the selected material would determine the viability of a circular needle of a given cross-sectional diameter, but the tool has no other potentially limiting mechanical intricacy.

Although material properties also apply to rigid double-pointed needles, they are not subject to the remaining constraints that have yet to be quantified for the other alternatives. This may explain both why double-pointed needles were the first of the various tools for hand knitting to appear in the iconographic record toward the end of the 14th century, and the preference for them in the 19th-century fancywork literature.

9 thoughts on “Circular knitting needles

  1. Very interesting post, thank you!
    I was wondering for along time about first circular needles and possible suitable for them materials available in the past. Are there any survived old samples or modern copies of whalebone circulars exist in museums or collections?
    As for the petticoat (absolutely surreal artwork!), I think it was knitted on a piece of metal wire. It is worked with a very fine gauge, therefore very thin needles required.

    1. One of the problems with references to whalebone needles is that the term is applied both to baleen — which is the material described in the 1881 instructions — and the actual bones of whales. Baleen is more familiar in the Victorian context as the flexible stays in such things as corsets and collars. The bone used for the rigid knitting needles of that day is variously described as being from cows, pigs, and whales, as well as ivory, often without making any rigorous determination of its actual origin.

      The possibility of wire being used as a flexible circular needle makes it all the more plausible that the earliest tubular knitting could have been made using no more complex a device than an appropriate length of whatever metal could be drawn to the desired diameter and have sufficient toughness.

  2. What excellent research! I always read your posts and I really should have stated my appreciation for your work sooner—your blog really is a treasure.

    On a practical level, I’m very curious about what knitting with circular needles of either baleen or wire would be like: how flexible is baleen? Would wire knitting needles suffer from fatigue and break? I don’t know if it’s possible to get hold of either but I’d love to experiment.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words! Steel music wire is one of the strongest engineering materials and easily capable of withstanding the flexural stress it would be subjected to when used as a circular knitting needle. The same can safely be assumed for the work-hardened iron music wire that preceded it. The problem with the practical applicability of iron alloy wire is its stiffness not strength. However, at small enough diameters that ought not to be a concern, either. It is certainly easy enough to determine experimentally, as it would also be with copper alloy wire (about which I’m more hesitant to venture any guesses).

      I’ve never worked with baleen or examined any implements made from it. However, unless the illustration from 1881 is exaggerated, it certainly appears flexible enough for the described purpose. One thing I did note was that the end segments of the coiled needle are not curved but straight. This is also consistent with modern circular needles, with their rigid tips and flexible cables. It suggests the possibility of the bendable part of a baleen circular having been treated to enhance it flexibility. That effect could be achieved by impregnation with a hygroscopic substance such as glycerin. The relevant physical and mechanical properties of baleen are discussed at length in this article: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rsos.160591

      1. My belated thanks for your reply and the link, that was interesting reading. The practicalities of acquiring baleen seem greater than my interest in the issue, but I will definitely experiment with wire.

    2. This sounds like a suitable experimental history project for Knitting in Early Modern Europe to set up and run! I know a source for baleen which may prove useful for organising this, which I can investigate in early June. I also note the useful reference to the Royal Society article posted below.

      1. If Victorian corsets still appear on the vintage clothing market, perhaps they might provide a source for testable lengths of baleen.

  3. Years ago as an experiment I sharpened up some AWG 16 copper wire ( just plain old DARICE craft wire from a retail store) into points, a long enough length to make a hat. A blacksmith friend helped to smooth and harden the points but we left the length of the wire itself without further treatment. It worked just fine for that project. I consider it a valid test of the premise that soft wire made a decent circular needle (and possibly half-hard wire as well, though I didn’t test that; I just used what was easily available).

    1. Of all the implements that could explain the method of production for the early tubes, a length of copper wire used as a circular needle is certainly the most straightforward. My own fingers are now itching both to make a suitably short copper circ and then give it a whirl.

      I had also considered the possibility, but not mentioned it in the blog text, of the support device being a rigid ring with an opening just wide enough to slip the yarn through. The stitches could then be knitted on it with a single hook-tipped tool of the type that would also be required for a peg loom, without need for any assumptions about how tiny the latter device with a dozen or two pegs can viably be. If it comes to it, I suppose it could be argued that knitting looms can be scaled down to arbitrarily small diameters, with the pegs being replaced with a single slit at some point along the way.

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