A retired carpet fitter from Huddersfield is exhibiting his large and rare collection of knitting sticks at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes.
John Dixon, 78, said the knitting sticks, sometimes given as finely crafted love tokens, told the story of a people who were poor and who deserved to be recognised.
During the past twenty years he has collected more than 400 sticks. They were once a common object in Dales households.
All have been put on display in the exhibition, “Love tokens, sittings and song – Knitting sticks from the John Dixon collection”, which opened on 2 October and will run until 27 March 2022.
John Dixon, from Shelley near Huddersfield, said: “We have been trying to get this exhibition together for several years and to see it now makes me elated. Every knitting stick has been a challenge to collect and save, polish, look at now and again, polish again and store. It’s given me a chance to know the relationship between the valleys up here – the social history of how Middleton in Teesdale is different from Dentdale.”
Knitting sticks were used in Britain wherever wool was produced, but they have fallen out of use. In some parts of the country, particularly Wales, they were given as love tokens. In the Dales the sticks were plainer, but each was a unique piece of wood carving.
Mr Dixon said: “A knitting stick is just piece of wood with a hole in the end for the needle. It’s tucked under your arm [or held fast in a belt] so you can knit with three or four needles. They learned in the 1800s that if you had a stick, you could knit faster and therefore earn more money. The money that they earned was a pittance but it was better than nothing.
“I’ve got about ten from the 1700s. The majority are from the early 1800s when we were – dare I say this – fighting the French. In this area we used to knit socks and load them on to big carts in Kendal and take them down to Liverpool and Bristol and Portsmouth. We knitted thousands and thousands of socks. They were knitted in a tube, not with a heel and a toe. The men used fruitwood to carve the shape of a leg – they are called leg boards – and these would be pushed into the tube. It would be put into water for a couple of days so the sock would take shape. When the sailors and soldiers wore the heel out they just twisted the sock around.
“The people who used these sticks were old when they were in their 30s. They were poor. Men used to knit when they walked to the lead mines. If they were walking three or four miles, they knitted. And they got to the mines and there’d be a shed where they’d put their knitting sticks and wool and go down the mines and come back and knit all the way back home. These knitting sticks tell the story of a people who were poor and who deserve recognition, in my opinion.”
In the exhibition the knitting sticks are cased in groups that highlight the different styles. Some, called representations, are shaped like fish, hands, legs, shoes or dogs. Others are shaped like pegs, spindles, or have intricate chains carved from a single piece of wood. There are also examples from Spain, Greece, Holland, Bavaria and France. Some are decorated with tiny glazed windows containing messages or the name of the woman who would have received it as a gift. Others have heart shapes made from bone or are inlaid with wood. They are stunning objects that tell a fascinating story.
The exhibition also includes knitting dialect and visitors are encouraged to share their family words linked with knitting and crafts. Kevin Frea, Member Champion for Promoting Understanding at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, which runs the Dales Countryside Museum, said: “In 1812 a visitor to Wensleydale wrote that the wants of the ‘humble inhabitants’ were few, but to supply them almost constant labour was required. That meant people needed to knit, all the time. Shepherds knitted while attending their flocks and women knitted while going to market. To understand how people eked out a living in the Dales in times past, look no further than John Dixon’s collection of knitting sticks. A warm welcome awaits when you visit the Dales Countryside Museum.”