Tuesday 3 December 2013

The Price of Knitting Needles

I have been sorting out a corner of the office at Lee Mills recently.  It was full of all sorts of papers - books, magazines, leaflets - all mixed up, and mostly very old.  One of the fascinating things I found is an illustrated price list from 1918-19 for W.H. Head & Son, a shop that sold materials for knitting, crochet and other needlecrafts.  

Catalogue of knitting needles, crochet hooks, tools & gadgets
W. H.Head & Son price list, 1918-19

The shop sold everything you would need for your knitting, from yarn and pattern leaflets to tools and accessories of all kinds, including, of course, knitting needles.  They were available in sizes 1 to 18 (7.5 mm. to 1.25 mm.), in different lengths, double pointed or with knobs, in sets of four or in pairs.   They were made in different materials:  steel, bone, wood, vulcanite and ivory.   Vulcanite is  vulcanised rubber, a hard material, usually black,  that can be polished and was sometimes used for jewellery, in imitation of jet.  Ivory (always 'Real Ivory', not just ivory) is the most expensive material by far.  Not every size of needles is available in every size:  steel is used for the finest needles, and lighter materials (bone, vulcanite, and wood) for the thickest.  But the middle sizes were for sale in  all of the materials, so prices can be compared.  A pair of 12 inch needles in size 10 (3.25 mm) cost 4½d (under 2p) in wood, twice as much in bone or vulcanite, and a shilling (5p) in steel.   Real Ivory needles cost 3 shillings (15p) - eight times the price of wood.   

What's the present-day equivalent of Real Ivory for knitting needles?  I guess it would be carbon fibre, but maybe there's some even more high-tech material that I'm not aware of.  And the cheaper end of the market is plastic and steel.    It might be interesting to see whether the price differential between luxury and basic needles is anything like it was in 1918. But of course the situation then was completely different - for many women, hand-knitting for their families was an economic necessity, whereas Real Ivory needles were probably bought by women who could afford to knit for recreation.           

W. H.Head & Son also sold  extra large or Leviathan knitting needles, in sizes A, B, C, D and E.  I don't know what sizes they were, but possibly they corresponded to the sizes that are marked 0, 00, 000, etc. on some gauges. I don't know what knitters used them for in 1918, but evidently if you didn't know what they were for, you didn't need them, so you didn't need to be told. 

To go with your knitting needles, you needed a needle gauge, because I think that needles were not marked with their sizes at that time.   There are two in the catalogue, nicely illustrated.    

Vintage knitting needle gauges, 1910s; bell gauge, Wheel of Fortune gauge

The bell was a popular shape for needle gauges - I have a very small collection myself (three, apart from the one I actually use).  Some friends gave me a Walker's gauge like the one illustrated, so it's nice to think that it might be nearly 100 years old.  Another is a different make but also bell-shaped.  And the Beehive gauge that I wrote about here is sort of a derivation of a bell shape, if you look at it cross-eyed. 

I have not seen a "Wheel of Fortune" gauge, as far as I know.  We may  have one in the Guild collection, but that part of the store ("Knitting Needle Alley") awaits sorting.


  1. My father is an Orthodontic Technician and he has one of the round wire gauges like in the picture, it is thicker than what u would think and heavier, greatest thing is it won't brake, believe me my brother and I would have if we could have growing up, (a bit rough on things haha) and my father has had this for 50 or so years so it is really built to last now I am not sure if it is the exact same brand but it looks exactly like the one pictured.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I assume that your father's gauge is a general wire gauge, rather than marketed specifically as a knitting needle gauge? I think that the old sizes of knitting needles (i.e. pre-metric) were the same as the standard wire sizes, so the gauges would be interchangeable too.

  2. Hi Barbara, you have a great blog - so good to be sharing all the fantastic information you are accumulating. And that work with the Knitting & Crochet Guild, sorting, sorting. I too am a knitting tools researcher and historian. My website is www.knitting-needle-notions.com.au and I have a list of about 800 knitting needle brands from about 20 countries. I don't have the depth of detail that you are amassing - great stuff.

    I am so jealous of all those antique fairs - we are a bit lacking in these in Australia - we have some, but not the quantity and quality of old things available to you in the UK.

    I am really writing about your work with the Knitting & Crochet Guild. I am completing a small book on new finds in knitting pin gauges, to be published by the Dorset Thimble Society in May, 2017. I am wondering if your sorting has included any gauges held by the KCG. I am particularly interested in securing a photograph of the Eagle Card Board Gauge, illustrated by (I think) a print in the 1846 publication The German Christmas-eve by Apolline Flohr. Or, a photo of the Royal Star Gauge which is referred to in The Ladies Cabinet of French Design for Insertion Lace Cuffs, Collars and Edgings.

    Hope to hear back from you - not sure if you have an email address or if I can give you mine. Anyway, thank you for all your work - Susan

    1. Hi Susan - Since I wrote this post we have done a lot of sorting of the tools and gadgets in the Guild collection, but have not found any unusual 19th century gauges of the kind you are looking for. You can email me at: barbaraknitsagain at gmail.com for more details of what we have.

  3. I ended up with a very old appearing sock needle case from W H Head and Son London. Any chance I can email a picture and you can tell me if my guess is correct ?

    1. Yes, I'll be glad to take a look, though can't promise I'll be able to tell you anything about it. Email address is barbaraknitsagain @ gmail.com


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