Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Making Bone Knitting Needles

In the previous post I showed two ads for knitting needles, from 1921.  Both ads mentioned bone knitting needles, implying of course that the advertised needles were far superior.  Since I wrote that post, I have found a description of how bone knitting needles were being made in the early 1920s, at a factory in Gloucestershire. (I was browsing in some historic newspapers online, looking for something else entirely.)

By the 1920s, the process was highly mechanised, though still requiring a great deal of skill,  But it was also doomed - the article mentioned that a factory nearby was making casein, an early plastic.  The writer thought that it "has probably affected the bone trade in no small measure, but there still remains an extensive demand for knitting needles and other like articles manufactured from bone."  Not for much longer, I think.

We have a lot of bone knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Knitting & Crochet Guild collection, and  I picked out a small selection today. Here are two pairs of straight needles, a set of four double-pointed needles, and a crochet hook. The needles are sizes 5mm. and 5.5 mm. - bone could not be used for fine needles.  It's hard to measure the size of the crochet hook - it tapers along most of its length, so I don't know where to take the measurement.  

Vintage knitting needles; vintage crochet hook; bone; 1920s
Bone knitting needles and crochet hook
The bones for knitting needles were a by-product of the meat trade, and I had assumed that they came directly from butchers.  But evidently they didn't - they were collected by rag-and-bone men, largely I assume from private houses after the meat had been eaten.  I remember a rag-and-bone man making regular appearances on our street, with his horse and cart, when I was very little, but he was just part of the background, and I never thought about what happened to the rags and bones.  Later, if I had thought about it, I might have guessed that the bones were converted into bonemeal for fertiliser, and possibly some was, after the more useful pieces had been selected for destinations like the needle factory.

The article describes the initial preparation of the bone - which must have been a very smelly business:
The bones collected by the rag and bone merchant—or the tatter man—eventually find their way to the mills, and one section of the bones which are the result of stew are sawn off and are ready for use at once. The remainder, however, have to be thoroughly boiled. This is done in large tanks, the bones being boiled in steam-heated water for some 24 or 48 hours, as the case may require. Having been thoroughly boiled, which renders them soft and possible to handle easily, the bones pass on to the second process. This consists of sawing them into square strips—a most tricky and tedious business —and they then go to a series of machines through which the square strips are run emerging at the other side of the machine in the round. The bone is converted from the square to the round by means of a small revolving knife, through which the bone is drawn. This done the round strips are next placed in vats containing a bleaching chemical, and on being removed from this the bone, which was previously a creamy colour is perfectly white. 
The bone strips were then taken upstairs to the skilled needle makers:
The bones are now in round strips about eight inches long and bleached white. They next pass to the first floor of the factory, and here the strips are finely polished. To do this the pieces arc placed in the end of a rapidly revolving spindle, one at a time, and as they revolve they are polished by means of a piece of emery paper held in the hand of the operative. The points are then made, a revolving emery wheel being used, and the knobs for the other end having been turned out by a special machine, are attached by glue, the finished needles tied together in pairs, and packed ready for the purchaser. 
Knobs for bone knitting needles

A disadvantage of bone, mentioned in the Double Century ad, was that to make long needles two pieces had to be joined together by splicing. Evidently bone would only yield lengths of about 9 or 10 inches (23-26 cm.)  The article explains how pieces were joined to make longer needles:

Needles of 12 inches [31cm.] or more in length have to pass through an additional process—that of splicing. Bone cannot be obtained in long enough lengths to enable needles of this size to be made in one piece, and so two short strips are taken and cut at the ends in such a manner that they may be strongly spliced together with the aid of fine string and a specially prepared cement. When the needle is complete it is almost impossible to discover the joint, so perfectly is the work finished. 
I didn't know until I saw the Double Century ad that bone needles might be spliced, and I looked for some long needles today to see if I could see the join.  And indeed, the double-pointed needles shown above are just under 12 inches long, and they are all spliced, if you look very carefully.  The join is still almost invisible after all this time, and is perfectly smooth.  (Look for the faint diagonal line in the photo below.)

Splice in a bone knitting needle

The factory described in the article also made crochet hooks (or crotchet hooks, as they are called throughout):

The first stages of the manufacture of crotchet hooks is identical with that of knitting needles. On arriving at the finishing department, however, the pieces of bone are polished and then one end is slightly tapered. This accomplished, both ends are rounded and the hook made. The making of the hook is an operation which needs no little skill on the part of the operative, for the slightest mistake as the bone is placed against the revolving disc which performs the operation would immediately destroy the piece of bone on which the hook is being made. The hook is polished once again, and is then ready for packing.
The better class hooks are decorated on the handle, and this is done by a specially constructed machine, and also requires great skill on the part of the worker. 
The crochet hook shown above is one of the 'better class', and is beautifully decorated.

Decoration on bone crochet hook

I'm really pleased to have found out how bone needles and hooks were made, at the tail-end of the history of working with bone.  It had been a raw material for making tools and decorative objects such as sewing needles and combs for hundreds of years.  By the 1920s, perfect knitting needles and crochet hooks made of bone could be mass-produced  - and then bone was completely superseded by new materials like anodised aluminium and plastics.  I don't know when the factory described in the article closed down, but I think it must have been within a few years.

6 comments:

  1. This is interesting. The rag and bone man was still doing his round in Peckham n the 1990s - don't know if he still is as I moved away. I always looks for cassein needles in charity shops, have you looked into their history at all?

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    1. The rag-and-bone men diversified into collecting all sorts of scrap (as in Steptoe & Son), so they could have carried on long after collecting rags and bones for recycling was worthwhile. I've got a bit of information about making casein for knitting needles, but I don't know how to recognise casein, so I don't know if there are any in the Guild collection. How do you know if needles are made of casein?

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    2. Put the needles in warm water for a few minutes then see if they smell of milk. Sounds daft I know but it's true.

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    3. Hi Frankie - thanks for the advice. I'll try it and see if I can find any casein needles in the collection.

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  2. Lovely article Barbara, and great to learn the origins of the term "Rag and Bone" man - I had no idea that they did actually collect bones! Whilst in France we visited a textile museum, and that had a fascinating video and section on making combs from horn, a by-product of the local angora goat farms. Sad that these historic processes are being lost to history.

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    1. Thanks. There are still some craftspeople working with bone - Angharad made a box, I think, from bone, when she went to a craft week in Estonia last year.

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