A Knitter’s Day Trip: Dales Countryside Museum
“It was all work i’ them days. It all had to come from your finger ends.”
On one of those bright spring days that makes you think you might be able to break out a cotton cardigan instead of a woolly sweater, I travelled from my sea-level town in Lancashire to Hawes, the highest market town in the Yorkshire Dales.
The Dales are like no other place in England. Gray stone farmhouses and barns stand lonely and sentry-like halfway up hills carved by ice millennia ago. Hardy sheep are hefted to the land or “heughed” as the locals say. The hardiness of the sheep mirrors the hardiness of the people who conjured their existence on farms and in remote villages from their “finger ends.”
The daily work of the Dales people forms the heart of the collection of the Dales Countryside Museum. Like so many regional museums in Britain, the museum had its beginnings with passionate Britons who recognized that the traditional farming and working life of the Dales was rapidly changing in the twentieth century.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby, two tenacious women, travelled the Yorkshire Dales asking people about farm tools and knitted gloves, inglenook fireplaces and cheese-pressing stones. They collected historical objects from estate and farm sales, and accepted them from Dales people who heard that they were looking for things.
Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby going over a map and planning one of their research trips
Ultimately, Hartley and Ingilby wrote Life and Traditions of the Yorkshire Dales, a bestseller which is still in print today; and they acquired so many objects in their research that they founded a museum.
Perhaps most exciting for knitters and textile devotees, Hartley and Ingilby also authored The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales that features many items in the museum’s collection.
The museum displays photographs of several local knitters at work. In one you can see Martha Dinsdale of Appersett near Hawes using curved pins and a knitting stick. She has a leather belt around her waist and a wood and bone knitting stick tucked between the belt and her side, with her curved pin fixed in the hole at the end of the stick.
To me knitting sticks are like jewels—they were the stars of my visit to the Dales Countryside Museum. Carved or welded by fathers, husbands, brothers, and sweethearts, knitting sticks are full of unknown but hinted-at stories. They are the snowflakes of knitting accessories, no two alike. Goosewing, dagger, forked, spindle, and heart styles made of wood, tin, bone, lead or brass. Others feature carvings or shapes specific to Dales villages or areas like Swaledale, Wensleydale, Dentdale, Teesdale, and Clapdale.
IN OTHER WORDS, “DON’T DROP A STITCH.”
For many hundreds of years, knitting provided an essential and sometimes the only source of income for families of the Dales. Lead mining, shepherding, and farming, some coal mining and other village work like smithing, shoemaking, and cheesemaking completed the circle of daily life. But their pins were never still. And knitting was done while tending fires, minding children, making cheese, keeping house, and herding livestock. An anonymous poem from the museum puts it this way:
“She knows how to
sing and knit. And she
knows how to carry the
kit. While she drives
her kye [cow] to pasture.”
And what were they knitting? They mainly knitted practical garments like their own sweaters, shawls, hats, caps, jackets, and stockings, and stockings for traders who brought wool to them for the purpose. They knitted thick leg warmers for the lead miners.
Some also knitted extraordinarily fine gloves on tiny needles with tiny patterns. Like many fragile and well-loved textiles, there aren’t many surviving examples of these Dales gloves, but the Dales Countryside Museum has several in their permanent display and their archives. In 1834 poet Robert Southey wrote about the “terrible knitters e Dent”—terrible meaning extraordinary because of their exceptional speed and the quantity of the stockings they knitted.
Any knitter who has spent time on US 0 (2 mm) or smaller needles knows what a feat it is to simply see a pattern through at that gauge, but to knit a miniscule stranded pattern on the back and front of a glove through the thumb gussets and along each finger shows the dedication and skill needed to make these gloves. The patterns are midge and flea, zigzag, tree of life, diamonds, among others, and the initials of the recipient and sometimes the date are knitted into the cuff. If you’re familiar with Sanquhar gloves from Scotland, Dales gloves are their Yorkshire cousins. Gorgeous and rare.
With textile tools like carders, combs, and knitting machines as well as rag rugs and quilts, plus displays on sheep, cows, butter-making, all topped off with Anglo-Saxon and Viking archaeological finds, and an entire exhibition inside several train cars, the Dales Countryside Museum will keep you busy for the entire day.
The bustling market town of Hawes is replete with tea shops, pubs, antique, and gift shops. You can also walk along the windswept Pennine Way from Hawes. Plus, if you just have to get knitting right away, there’s the wonderful Julie at Abbotstone House who runs the tiniest fabric and wool shop I’ve ever visited tucked into the side of a hill.
Abbotstone Wool from the fleeces of Blue Faced Leicester sheep who graze the fields in Hawes
If you are crazy about cheese and ice cream, the famous Wensleydale Creamery is in Hawes too.
You might just want to stay overnight!
- A Knitter’s Guide to Gloves by Angharad Thomas
- This Golden Fleece by Esther Rutter
- Mary Allen’s Gloves, a pattern by Sue Leighton-White
- For more about knitting sticks, knitter and historian Ann Kingstone has an excellent video here on the many kinds and how they are used.
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