Looped Fabric

Gauging wooden crochet hooks and knitting needles

The first measuring tools and gauge systems documented for indicating the sizes of knitting needles and crochet hooks were developed by the wire drawing industry. This was an obvious means for labeling craft implements made from wire, but separate numbering schemes also began to appear for hooks and needles made from other materials. Larger diameters were also indicated by direct reference to ordinary measuring scales.

In a presentation of a gauge of her own devising, in 1843, Frances Lambert says:

“Knitting needles, which exceed the size of No. 1 [8 mm], can readily be measured by an inch rule.”

Swedish instructions for Tunisian crochet from 1856 state that:

“This work requires a bone crochet needle, 12 millimeters thick.”

Instructions for a foot warmer in the 23 February 1861 issue of Der Bazar, prescribe it to be:

“…knitted with two long wooden needles the size of 2 centimeters in circumference [⌀ 6.4 mm]…”

The explicit mention of circumference makes it unclear if the 1843 and 1856 texts also refer to that dimension, or if they mean diameter. Another interesting question is how precise this general form of measurement can be. Holding a needle against a ruler is a straightforward way to measure its diameter but results can easily vary from person to person. The same applies to measuring its circumference, say, by wrapping a length of thread around the needle and then measuring the length of that thread.

The optical comparison of a needle to a ruler has the advantages of simplicity and directly measuring diameter, rather than requiring its calculation (if needed) from circumference. The typical workbasket contains both a tape measure and thread, supporting either measuring technique without additional need for a gauging tool. And then there is the converse of the previous question — how accurate do such measurements need to be?

A specimen Victorian answer to that question is found in the work of Frances Lambert cited above. She is willing to accept whatever variation there might be in the way individual workers read the sizes of 8 mm and larger knitting needles “by an inch rule.” However, the other end of her gauge system is graduated in 0.1 mm increments, which cannot possibly be determined in the same manner.

Another basis for comparison can be provided by drawings, at an indicated scale, of both tools and fabric. This was the preferred approach in Der Bazar, where a full-scale swatch is a frequent part of instructions. However, as seen in an earlier post, reliable illustration at 1:1 scale can be problematic regardless of the tolerance in the accuracy of measurement.

The issue of Der Bazar from 8 December 1861 addresses various aspects of the normalized representation of numerical detail in written instructions, introducing new graphic devices for that purpose. It is headed with an illustration of crochet hooks (Häkel-Nadeln) and knitting needles (Strick-Nadeln) in eight graduated and numbered sizes. There is no indication either of the drawing’s scale or any absolute measurements but the engravings of individual tools appear in subsequent instructions explicitly labeled as being at full scale.

Bazar gauge 1861

The surface detail of the engravings appears to indicate implements made of wood, emphasized by the rings and rays in the adjacent cross sections. The instructions in the same issue specify the size of wooden hooks and needles by the 1–8 gauge numbers, while continuing to use relative terms for the sizes of steel tools. As will be seen below, the smallest of the numbered sizes is 2.5 mm. The two systems are compared on the page where the gauge drawings appear, indicating the inapplicability of the 1–8 numbering to steel tools, which are smaller still. (Separate gauging systems for “steel” and “ordinary” crochet hooks remain in current use.)

“…one needs 2 very heavy steel [needles] or no. 8 wooden needles…”

Beginning with the 1 January 1862 issue, instructions often include an illustration of a specific tool in this table, as seen in the first such presentation.

bazar needle 6

This is identical in every detail to the no. 6 knitting needle in the aggregated illustration and indicates that each tool was engraved on a separate block. The different plate numbers beneath the crochet hooks and knitting needles also suggests their separate collation. The composite illustration is reprised in the 15 November 1862 issue, clarifying that it applies specifically to tools made of wood. The individual implements are identical but the alignment of the columns of knitting needles and their cross sections differ. This effectively confirms that each tool and cross section was engraved separately.

“…we are reprinting the various drawings of wooden crochet and knitting needles that appeared in the previous annual volume, in order to be able to make reference to the numbers provided therein for the individual instructions here.”

Bazar hook and needle gauge

There are a few problems with the determination of a clear millimeter value for each of the gauge numbers. To begin with, there is a significant discrepancy between the sizes of the three largest crochet hooks and the knitting needles that share the same gauge numbers. If the engravings were prepared from actual tools, some divergence between the model sets of hooks and needles might be expected. Their having been drawn from actual objects is further supported by variation in the proportions of the hooks, and what appears to be a physical imperfection at the tip of hook no. 6.

If the hooks had been drawn to an idealized pattern, greater regularity could easily have been attained, and the sizes accurately matched to the knitting needles. An alternate suggestion might be that two separately sized but similarly numbered gauging systems were knowingly depicted. However, there is no prior evidence of them and the numbering scheme appears to have been devised by, and introduced in, Der Bazar. If so, it would have been counter to its purpose to apply the same numbers to hooks and needles of different sizes.

Although less apparent, the diameters of the cross sections differ from those of the corresponding tools. There can be no doubt that the paired illustrations are intended to be of the same size. However, the side views of the tools are more evenly graded than the cross sections are, and optical comparison with the former appears more likely to have been the expected procedure. It is therefore reasonable to see the cross sections as graphic indications of wood, rather than as points of measurement, and only roughly matched with the normative engravings of the actual tools.

There is a copy of the 15 November 1862 issue of Der Bazar at the Nordic Museum in Stockholm. This made it possible to take measurements directly from a printed page. The binding prevented it from lying fully flat but this was not a concern when measuring the diameters of the illustrated tools.

Bazar full page

I did this using slide calipers with a dial marked in 0.1 mm increments and easily read to 0.05 mm intermediate positions. To avoid any pressure on the paper, I preset the calipers to the nearest quarter millimeter before holding them against the point being measured, iteratively converging on the closest fit. (I’ll discuss the use of slide calipers for the direct sizing of crochet hooks and knitting needles in a separate post.)

The following table shows the values measured directly from the copy of Der Bazar in Stockholm. The cross sections are included to enable the assessment of the explanation for the differences between them and the side views suggested above. Recording the values in quarter-millimeter increments provides a basis for direct comparison with the current metric gauge. However, it should be noted that the decimal indication of quarter millimeters does not imply 0.01 mm accuracy.

Number Hook

These measurements also provide a basis for comparison with the scanned images of the copies in Düsseldorf shown above. Syndicated national editions of Der Bazar that include the gauge table are also online, exemplified by the French La Mode Illustrée, and can provide further data points for a detailed analysis of the gauge system. (Values from such sources have been reported elsewhere, as noted in a comment on an earlier post.)

The images at hand were enlarged and their measurements compared digitally. This enabled the reduction of the data array to a table suitable for practical application.

Der Bazar gauge for wooden crochet hooks and knitting needles

Number Crochet hook Knitting needle
0 7.0 mm 8.0 mm
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Jane Malcolm-Davies
20 October 2020 12:47

Today is World Statistics day and you cannot go wrong with some discussion of objective/subjective measurement to celebrate, can you? Jane m-d