Crochet · History · Knitting · Tools

Frances Lambert’s knitting needle gauge

This post continues the examination of Victorian efforts at converging on a single standard for designating the sizes of knitting needles and crochet hooks, begun in the post before last. In 1842, one of the initial participants in the discussion of that topic, Frances Lambert, illustrated a gauging tool made according to a French standard based on the millimeter. In contrast, beginning in the same year, her colleagues repeatedly stated that the inch-based Standard Wire Gauge (SWG) — the source of the current UK knitting needle numbers — had been widely adopted in their field.

Lambert persisted in claiming that the SWG was only one of many systems in use and that a “Standard Filière” (wire gauge) of her own invention, tabulated below, was the way to resolve the alleged confusion. This led to a series of contentious exchanges on the subject of gauges — a term used to designate both a measuring tool and the ordered system of numbers and measurements that it incorporates. The debate is reviewed in detail in the earlier post, to which I’ve since added more information about the French system that weighed into Lambert’s work (also correcting an error in the initial version).

The evidence shows that Lambert’s alleged multiplicity of systems was not generally seen as the problem she repeatedly stated it to be. Her colleagues were comfortable indicating the sizes of knitting needles, crochet hooks, and netting meshes with the SWG, which was also employed by the manufacturers of such implements. As noted in 1848 by George Hope, the designer of one of the many alternate formats in which the SWG was produced, it “is a correct measure for the numbers used in every publication, except those of Miss Lambert.”

Lambert offers no explanation for her belief that a confusing array of gauges would become less so by adding another one to their number. Her claim of having solved the problem with a unilaterally devised “standard” also suggests a misunderstanding of the normative process. There is no evidence of her work having influenced manufacturers’ practice and it would be interesting to know how she specified knitting needle sizes when ordering them for sale in her store.

Numerical indications of the size of knitting needles in Victorian instructions can be assumed to refer the SWG unless another system is unambiguously indicated, with those written by Lambert being an obvious general exception. She also notes that, “knitting needles, which exceed the size of No. 1, can readily be measured by an inch rule.” Other authors prescribe the same method or use the further alternative of including full-scale drawings of requisite tools in printed instructions, introduced below.

Repeating an illustration from last time, here is a drawing of an SWG with both holes and slots, published by Elizabeth Jackson in 1845. The instructions for its use note:

“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.”

Jackson gauge 1845
“Knitting and Netting Gauge”

The underlying admonition had already been articulated by Jane Gaugain in 1842:

“Many ladies, in using the gauge, erroneously suppose that the round holes are the test, instead of the slits.”

The proper use of a slot gauge can also be essential when determining the size of crochet hooks, which can have profiled heads that will not fit through a hole that matches the nominal diameter of the hook’s shaft. The purpose of the hole at the end of a slot is otherwise to ensure that the piece being measured can pass through the entire slot. The diameter of the hole needs to be larger than the length of the slot but adjacent slots often end in holes of the same size.

There is also an intrinsic limit to the accuracy of measurements that can be made with a hole or slot gauge. If using one labeled directly in millimeters, a knitting needle with a diameter of 9.1 mm will not fit through a 9.0 mm slot or into the same size hole, but the 10 mm opening that it does fit into will also accommodate a 9.9 mm needle — and everything in between. It is possible to estimate finer differences by the closeness of fit but they cannot be quantified numerically. Handheld calipers capable of measuring the exact diameters of crochet hooks and knitting needles became available in the late 1840s but never found a broad path into the yarncrafter’s toolkit.

I have a copy of the 1846 edition of Frances Lambert’s My Knitting Book (Second Series) that includes a full-scale illustration of her gauge. There is nothing noteworthy about such 1:1 representation. It is a natural result of a woodcut being made directly from an object that fits easily into the intended page format and therefore does not require intermediate drawing to a reduced scale.

The sizes of the holes shown in this engraving closely match measurements taken directly from a physical exemplar by Colleen Formby, presented here together with photographs of the gauge. The individual values were determined by best fits of knitting needles marked in 0.25 mm increments. Her table doesn’t include Lambert’s gauge no. 1 but the other values extrapolate easily to the 8 mm obtained by measuring the printed image.

“Standard Filière”

One remaining question is why Lambert tapered her “standard filière” (hereafter “LSF”) to a no. 26 over twice the size of the same number on the SWG. Here again, extrapolating from Formby’s table and measuring the printed gauge sets the LSF no. 26 to just over 1 mm. The SWG value closest to this is no. 19 (1.02 mm). The division of the LSF into smaller increments than those of the SWG provides useful means for sorting out discrepancies in the sizes of nominally identical needles made according to the SWG but with some variation from manufacturer to manufacturer. Lambert’s perseverance may have been in recognition of this, thereby explaining her claimed invention. She may also have been heeding the caveat about the confusion attaching to slot gauges, keeping hers to holes only and never suggesting it to be applicable to measuring crochet hooks.

One obvious consequence of the LSF having 26 numbered sizes in the same interval where the SWG allocates 19, is that there is no one-to-one correspondence between them. It might be expected that Lambert would take full advantage of the finer graduation of her gauge, if for no other reason than to demonstrate its utility. However, the knitting instructions in her 1846 text only prescribe 16 of the available 26 sizes. She does use all sizes smaller than no. 22, except for no. 25, and it is at that end of the scale that the difference between it and the SWG would be most relevant. This makes it all the more peculiar that the LSF does not continue to the smaller sizes of the finest needles in use at that time — which are accommodated by the SWG.

The following table is derived from the values reported by Formby and measurements taken from the 1846 illustration, both directly from the printed page, and digitally from an enlarged image. These measurements were plotted against the gauge numbers on a graph. The printed holes do not all have clearly measurable diameters and those with a range of possible values were excluded from the plotted data points.

A smooth curve was calculated to fit the plotted array and used to interpolate values for the excluded gauge numbers. The interpolated values all fall within the measured maximum-minimum interval for the respective gauge numbers. Additional measurements were taken from Formby’s photographs of the gauge she measured, a photograph of another gauge, and the engraving of the gauge in Lambert’s publication from 1843 shown in the earlier post. These measurements are all within a half gauge number of their expected positions on the curve.

Contemporary UK knitting needle gauges round off the sizes specified in the SWG standard to the nearest 1/4 millimeter. This also appears to be the increment applied to the upper half of the LSF but sizes smaller than 3 mm require first 1/5 and then 1/10 mm resolution. The British Standard Wire Gauge, formally established in 1883, is defined in 1/1000 inch increments. It might be an interesting follow-up exercise to add 0.001″ values to this table but doing so meaningfully would require the remeasurement of everything reported here directly in inches. However, this would be of little practical utility to the contemporary knitter interested in working from Lambert’s instructions with as little compromise as possible.

Frances Lambert’s Standard Filière

No. mm
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Colleen Formby
Colleen Formby
1 September 2020 21:32

There is an updated version of the 19th century measurements that I did, that also included measuring both in the slit and the hole for the Archer gauges, and the 1847 Riego bell, as well as period German and French measurements, which are completely different, and should be taken into account if knitting from those patterns. The comparisons were indeed made by using modern knitting needles marked in .25 mm. I’m am happy to share that if you are interested. It is not published online anywhere, but has been shared in a historical knitting group on Facebook.
Colleen Formby