The Spring/Summer Issue of Designer Knitting (Vogue Knitting In the US) carries a feature by Carol J. Sulcoski A Brief History of Circular Needles.
The article points out that whilst knitting in the round is nothing new, the transition from doing so on double pointed needles to circular needles is a relatively new development. Reviewing evidence from US patents, the first flexible cable with fixed needles at each end appears to have been patented by Frank Sessions in 1917. Thereafter followed various developments in the construction of cables and affixing the tips to the cables.
Whilst this may seem a relatively new invention, and for some, myself included, circular needles are favoured not only for knitting in the round but also for flat knitting, as I meet more and more knitters, I see that my preference for circulars is far from the norm and there are many virtues to using straight needles. These may include speed, indeed the world’s fastest knitter uses straights. Straights can be anchored under the arm reducing the amount of movement needed to complete stitches and thus reducing mechanical strain. This also makes them preferable for those with arthritis and other conditions which may otherwise impede knitting.
But surely, interchangeables seem like a new idea right? Apparently not, Sessions, in his 1917 patent application, also posed the possibility of needles with separate tips and cables, recognising that being able to vary the cable length would be an advantage as the size of work knitted varies.
However, whilst the idea’s not that new it took until the 1960s for the first interchangeable set to appear on the market. Lorraine Linstead’s 1966 patent for a set of interchangeables, sold under the ‘Denise’ brand name were the first to be produced commercially and certainly it’s an idea and product that has now found it’s time.
I was introduced to interchangeables relatively recently by a knitterly friend who has access to a wonderful yarn shop and therefore access to more cutting edge knitting developments. I’m wondering how long it will be before she shows me her new square needles… and I beg to have a go…
Whilst I’ve embraced interchangeables, although I’m wavering, my delight in vintage knitting accessories however, remains strong. My favourite of all my needles to work with are my aluminium double pointed needles – I have a quite a collection of vintage ‘Alipins’ which I use for socks and still knit on sets of 4 rather than 5 so these are perfect.
Sulcoski’s article concludes by bringing us up to date with recent developments in the field with varying tips and for different types of knitting and knitters, and Addi’s new lace needles with a slot in the cable to attach a lifeline as you knit – I’ll be looking out for these.
Anyway, that quick summary of a much richer article, which I heartily recommend is really the prelude to my sharing one of favourite vintage Knitting needles.
It’s an Abel Morrall’s New Circular Twin-pin – I love the packaging which drew me to the needle, an elegant knitter working a two colour design in the round.
The needle itself has a relatively short tip and the cable is made of strands of metal twisted together.
The transition between needle and cable is smooth, but the cable is a little less flexible and slightly sturdier than modern cables. It looks like the yarn should catch on it, but no, it’s beautifully smooth.
The needle was manufactured at the Clive Works, Redditch, the packaging printed in Great Britain, and distributed in the USA by sole distributors Porter of Philadelphia.
The needle itself and the packaging both note the Patent No. 406435 which according to the Intellectual Property Office means that this design was patented in 1933. The details of the patent are as follows:
406,435. Flexible knitting pins or needles. HEATH, F. G., St. George’s Works, Birchfield Road, Headless Cross, Redditch, Worcestershire. Nov. 23, 1932, No. 33040. [Class 74 (ii).] The long flexible connecting portion 11 of a flexible knitting pin or needle comprises a core composed of wires 13 lying side by side, and disposed substantially axially of the connecting portion, and a helical winding of one or more wires 12 arranged with the adjacent wires in contact.
This is the drawing that accompanied the application:
F.G. Heath obtained a second needle patent 407,145. in 1934 for:
A rigid point portion 10 of a knitting pin, which is formed separately from the stem, is subsequently attached to it, either fixedly or slidably, by means of a tubular portion 11, or 15, provided (e.g. by swaging) with an integral tubular extension 12 or 16 of reduced diameter for receiving the stem 13, or 17. The stem may be flexible or solid, when it too may have a similar tubular extension, to receive a second stem. Specifications 216,234, 248,564, [both in Class 74 (ii)], and 406,435 are referred to.
This sounds like a much more sophisticated design, although it’s not clear to me whether the knitter themselves would change the different sections?
This second circular knitting needle patent was cited in a patent application in 1997 for an invention by Matuo Yosimi for Clover.
F.G, Heath also obtained a number of patents for many different clothes hangers and trouser stretchers, collar studs and garters and even a hairslide. His other knitting related patent pre-dates the needles, obtained in 1924 was for a wool carrier:
A device for carrying wool or similar material comprises a pair of tubes 1 secured together to form a cross about which the ball of wool is wound. Each of the four radial arms is provided with an extension member 2 having an enlarged head 3 and a split end 7 whereby the member 2 is fixed when set in position in the tube 1. The device may be attached by a chain 8 and a swivel fitting 9, 10 to a. wristlet 11.
Whilst my needle has survved, the works at which it was manufactured have not. This appears to be what remains of the Clive Works Redditch, where the needles were manufactured, although it may since have been demolished under the order granted by the local authority in December 2010.
1600 Arch Street Philadelphia, Home of Sole US importers, was the site of a 1925 development ‘the Pheonix’ headquarters of the Insurance Company of North America; the oldest fire and marine insurance company in America, and now appears to have been renovated to provide condominium living.
Tracing the history of my needle and the work of its creator made me think there really is little new under the sun. Ideas may have to wait to find their time, and knitters may make new discoveries from the past of their craft, and then re-interpret them. I love this tension between tradition and innovation in knitting and the wonderful creativity which emerges from the combination.
It was these thoughts that led to the title of this post, inspired by J.P.Lockhart Mummery’s 1936 book ‘Nothing new under the Sun’ which starts with a quote from Robert Herrick;
Nothing is new, we walk where others went
I was introduced to this book by a friend and was initially taken by the wonderful woodcut illustrations by William Wood. This is the frontispiece:
Mummery himself is an interesting character. As a clinician he worked on Polyposis and was particularly interested in the role of family heredity, setting up the Polyposis Registry in 1924, to further his study. He also straddles the period where science, as a laboratory based discipline, moves into the medical field and the divide between scientists and clinicians is clear. Indeed he was also involved in the establishment of the British Empire Cancer Campaign in 1923, a clinician led campaign regarded as a rival to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which was scientist led.
The Welcome Library which holds the Campaign’s historical archive identifies this rivalry in its description of their holding:
The British Empire Cancer Campaign (BECC or “the Campaign”) was founded in 1923 “to attack and defeat the disease of cancer in all its forms, to investigate its causes, distribution, symptoms, pathology and treatment and to promote its cure” (see Memorandum and Articles of Association). It was founded amidst rivalry and even hostility from the well-established Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF or “the Fund”) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). The ICRF felt that the Campaign would jeopordize its existence and the standing of other well-known cancer research institutions, especially regarding fund-raising; the MRC was concerned that the Campaign would challenge its supremacy within the scientific hierarchy and its control of the direction of biomedical research.
In Nothing New under the Sun, Mummery’s interests range widely. He is every bit a man of his time, especially in relationship to the sexual attraction of women, greatly impeded it seems by thick ankles! However, whilst he remains very much a modernist, he retains a scepticism about the paths down which a progressive science may lead. For example, his observations regarding the potential impact of science on textiles seem particularly apposite:
Everyone could have clothes made of really beautiful plastic materials, which would be warm and comfortable, and quite cheap because they would not need to be woven. But if this happened it would cause disaster in the Lancashire cotton industry.
This seems like a good place to stop this post – more about the fate of the Lancashire cotton industry is to follow in later posts…
But I will leave you with a further selection of William Wood’s wonderful illustrations: