The earliest known description of what is now called Tunisian crochet is found in Swedish instructions published on 1 January 1856 (discussed here). They prescribe “a bone crochet needle, 12 millimeters thick.” This is a surprising unit of measurement since the metric system was not adopted in Sweden until the end of 1878, with a ten year transition period before it was expected to come into widespread use.
This raises a question about other evidence of yarncraft being ahead of official metrication. The reference to the 12 mm crochet hook gainsays accepted notions of knitting needles and crochet hooks not being measured in millimeters until well into the 20th century. Other early indications of metric gauging remain to be located in Swedish sources but are found elsewhere.
The metric system originated in France, where it became legally normative in 1785. A “French gauge” for measuring the diameter of medical catheters came into widespread use during the 1830s. The gauge numbers indicate diameter in 1/3 mm increments — “1” = 1/3 mm, “2” = 2/3 mm, … “30” = 10 mm. Both the numbers and the mm sizes are marked on the one seen here, made by its inventor J.F.B. Charrière.
A similar gauge was in industrial use with side slots instead of holes. (Slots are necessary for measuring a wire at any point along its length and such tools were also used with sheet metal.) The underlying standard was formally adopted in 1857 as the Jauge de Paris 1857 (Paris Gauge 1857). The exemplar shown here, in current production, begins with P = 0.5 mm and extends to 30 = 3.0 mm. The standard includes smaller sizes successively labeled from P1 = 0.46 mm to P15 = 0.15 mm.
On the reverse side of a Paris Gauge the slots are labeled to the nearest 0.1 mm and production tools therefore normally start with P and run as far toward no. 30 as the intended application requires. The initial 5 (= 0.5 mm) on the decimal side of the following one is at the back of the slot labeled P, and the 44 (= 4.4 mm) is gauge no. 20 on the obverse.
Metrication was not on the horizon in the UK when the authors of fancywork instructions began to comment on standardized indications of knitting needle and crochet hook sizes. At that time, an older Birmingham Wire Gauge (BWG) used in the wire-drawing industry was being supplanted by an Imperial Standard Wire Gauge (SWG). This acquired full legal status in 1884 and provided the UK “knitting needle numbers” used prior to direct measurement in mm.
The question is when the SWG acquired that role. Several well-known authors commented on the situation in 1842. In The Ladies’ Assistant (vol. 2, p. 419) Jane Gaugain states:
“The gauge used by me is the Standard Wire Gauge, used by all jewelers, wire-workers, &c. I would recommend every lady who is a knitter or netter to be provided with one… They may be had either round or oblong squares, the round is certainly the neatest looking instrument.”
“In using the gauge, to ascertain the size [of a crochet hook], pass the neck part of the hook or needle just above the hook, through any of the front slits of the gauge. Many ladies, in using the gauge, erroneously suppose that the round holes are the test, instead of the slits.”
In The Handbook of Needlework, Frances Lambert says that a confusing array of other gauges was also in use.
“The size of steel knitting needles is designated by their numbers, which vary from 6 to 25, and are determined by a filière or gauge; but as all writers on knitting do not appear to employ the same gauge, it frequently leads to error, and will continue to do so until there be some general standard…
A filière or gauge is a steel instrument with graduated notches round its edges, distinguished by different figures. It is used by wire-drawers for ascertaining the sizes of their wires, and is applied in a similar manner for measuring the diameters of netting and knitting needles; thus, — when speaking of the relative size of those needles, they are frequently designated by their corresponding numbers; but as has been before observed, there appears to be no universal standard.”
The P at the first slot indicates this to be a Paris Gauge, running from 0.5 mm to 3.9 mm, and only one slot smaller than preceding one. The side Lambert illustrates doesn’t include the numbers “6 to 24” she otherwise specifies, but they would appear on the decimal side, as they do on both a larger Paris Gauge and the SWG.
A Manual of knitting, netting, and crochet work, by Cornelia Mee, includes an illustration that is all but certainly of the SWG. It is numbered in the order opposite to that of the French and Paris gauges, with larger numbers indicating smaller sizes (a convention that initially derived from the number of a times a wire had passed through a drawing plate).
The segment of the SWG on this gauge extends from 0.45 mm to 3.25 mm, which is very close to Lambert’s segment of the Paris Gauge. For reference, the full SWG standard also extends beyond the numbers seen on this current exemplar — from 7/0 (.500″ = 12.7 mm) to 50 (.001″ = .025 mm) — and each slot is now commonly marked on the back with its size to the nearest 0.01 mm.
In My Knitting Book, published in 1843, Lambert replaces her initial filière with one that follows the SWG numbering order.
“The following engraving represents the Standard Filière, or knitting and netting needle gauge, an instrument invented some time since by the authoress, and now in general use, by which different sizes of knitting and netting needles can be ascertained with greatest accuracy.”
It is unclear what invention is being claimed. Charrière had already introduced a hole gauge as a handier alternative to a slot gauge when the end of the object being measured is freely accessible. Nor was there a reasonable basis for Lambert expecting the putative confusion caused by the use of different gauges to be remedied by applying familiar numbers to a different scale, tapering from a no. 1 slightly larger than that of the SWG, to a no. 26 that is about an SWG no. 19. (I’ll return to her gauge sizes in a later post.) Nonetheless, the back of the title page in the 1845 edition of My Knitting Book emphasizes:
“N.B. The Standard Filière is Copyright. Every instrument has the inventor’s name (F. Lambert) engraven on it.”
This triggered a response from Elizabeth Jackson who changed the frontispiece of the 1845 edition of The Practical Companion to the Work Table to a full page illustration of a hybrid hole and slot SWG with the same numerical range as Lambert’s. (The 1844 edition neither illustrates nor says anything about it.)
“The sizes No. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, are ascertained by inserting the pins into the circular holes corresponding in the respective numbers; the other sizes are determined by the square notch in the rim of the Gauge.
The Gauge is a circular piece of steel beautifully finished. Some writers on the subject of Berlin wool work, have asserted that no standard measure exists; whilst others with equal truth but less modesty, have claimed the invention as their own. The writer of this volume begs to state that the above Gauge has been in use for centuries, and may be relied on for its perfect accuracy. It is the standard by which all wire manufacturers regulate their sizes, and may be obtained at…any respectable ironmonger’s warehouse.”
It was Lambert’s turn again in 1846, in the expanded 4th edition of The Handbook of Needlework. She dismisses the wire drawer’s gauge as “a bulky and rude machine, little fitted for the work-table of a gentlewoman” and notes that the accuracy of the more compact alternatives varies widely enough to be a problem. She illustrates her 1843 filière twice, with a footnote emphasizing the normative effect she remained convinced it would have, but dismisses the need for similar precision with needles it doesn’t accommodate. She says nothing about needles smaller than her no. 26, and “knitting needles, which exceed the size of No. 1, can readily be measured by an inch rule.”
The preface to this edition also expresses displeasure with the unauthorized republication of an earlier edition in the US. That one retains the illustration of the 1842 filière with no suggestion of Lambert’s reappraisal. Despite her complaint, the US edition appeared again in 1851. It includes a supplement by Jane Gaugain that is a revised version of one of her earlier works, adding a drawing of an industrial SWG that extends to no. 36 (= 0.19 mm).
However the elegance of such implements was assessed, an accurate but relatively expensive steel gauge was more than many knitters required. In September 1847, the needle maker George Chambers — aware of the needs of the yarncraft sector and with influence over the standardization process at the requisite level — obtained a patent for a design he called the “Bell Gauge.” It was to become the most frequently referenced such implement in Victorian fancywork contexts.
The Royal Coat of Arms conveyed greater authority than did the proprietary graphic devices on comparable consumer-level gauges (distinguished by decorative profile, not the underlying gauge system) explaining part of the ascendency of Chambers’s design. Its relevance to the fancywork trade was highlighted by parallel presentation as “Mlle. Riego’s Bell Gauge.” It is fair to suspect that this was her competitive initiative but she makes no claim of ownership when referring to the bell gauge in her instructions.
The event that ensured its dominance occurred the year after Chambers’s death. The business he founded failed in 1858 and bell gauges were subsequently made by other manufacturers without indicating either his name or patent. An intermediate representation appears in The Lady’s Manual of Fancy-work, published in the same year by Matilda Pullan.
“Gauge. — This is a little implement for measuring the sizes of knitting and crochet needles. I give a facsimile of the bell gauge, which is, I think, the best of any. It is made of plated, or electrotyped metal, and each hole is numbered. From the material employed, the bell gauge is not liable to get worn or injured, which some other varieties have done.”
The best known subsequent producer was Henry Walker, another prominent needle maker who also had the right to display the Royal Arms. He placed them on a bell gauge with a slight (but apparently patentable) difference in layout from the one devised by Chambers. The illustration here was published in 1888, twelve years after Walker’s death. Posthumous Walker gauges are otherwise stamped with, and identified by, a trademarked “Archer” logo instead of the arms and are still relatively easy to acquire.
Riego facilitated the transition of Chambers’s leading role to Walker, who ran an advertisement for needles in Riego’s Abergeldie Winter Book, from 1867, illustrating a bell gauge with the Chambers layout but not identifying a manufacturer.
Riego prescribes Walker’s needles by name in the same book, typified by instructions for Tunisian crochet specifying a “Walker’s Tricot Needle No. 6, Bell Gauge.” Mee had already called for Walker’s Tunisian hooks by gauge number in instructions from 1858. Pullan also prescribes Tunisian crochet hooks by explicit reference to the Bell Gauge in another publication from the same year.