Sunday 9 June 2024

The Wheel of Fortune

I recently acquired a new addition to my collection of knitting needle gauges.  An exciting acquisition, as I had never seen one for sale before, though I knew of it from Sheila Williams book 'The History of Knitting Pin Gauges'.  On one side, it reads 'THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE WIRE GAUGE'. 

It is steel, about 6 cm. in diameter, and it measures needles from size 1 (7.5mm.) to size 24 (0.5mm).  Very roughly, the finer the smallest needle measured, the older the gauge.  Most needle gauges made since the 1950s have not measured needles smaller than size 14 (2mm.), while Chambers' Bell Gauge, patented in 1847, measured needles down to size 28 (0.375mm.).  


The Wheel of Fortune gauge dates, I believe, from the early 1900s. The other side of the gauge has the address 'Head & Son, 191A & 192A Sloane St., London S.W.'   W. H. Head & Son was a haberdashery shop - the Knitting & Crochet Guild has a copy of their catalogue and price list for Autumn and Winter, 1918-1919.  (KCG members can download a copy of the catalogue from the KCG website, and see the whole range of needlecraft supplies that the shop stocked.)  

The catalogue has two knitting needle gauges.  One is Walker's Bell Gauge, descended from Chambers' bell gauge, and the other is the shop's own Wheel of Fortune gauge.    

The description says: 'Made in Steel, very hard, exact in measurement will not alter in use, indispensable to all Ladies who Knit or Crochet. THE BEST GAUGE YET PRODUCED.'

The Wheel of Fortune gauge was on sale by at least 1909, when it was mentioned in The Queen magazine. In spite of being the BEST YET PRODUCED, it doesn't seem to have sold well.  

On the other hand, Walker's bell gauge which was also illustrated in W. H. Head's catalogue, with a small figure of an archer drawing a bow, seems to have sold much better, judging by the fact that many have survived - they can be easily found on eBay.  According to Sheila Williams' book, it had been in production for many years before the 1918-19 catalogue.  The bell had become a popular shape for needle gauges, with many different versions made. (My post on Chambers' bell gauge, linked to above, shows more than a dozen variations.)     

The 'Wheel of Fortune' was a phrase often used at the time - newspapers used it for stories of rich people who had lost all their money or people in modest circumstances who had inherited a large legacy from a long-lost relative.  It was also used more literally for roulette wheels.  I don't know why the gauge is called the 'Wheel of Fortune' - maybe just because it is circular?  

It was not in fact the first circular needle gauge: Sheila Williams shows illustrations of circular needle gauges in knitting and crochet books from the 1840s.  One of these books, by Elizabeth Jackson, says that her gauge is based on those used by wire drawers.  The Wheel of Fortune is itself called a wire gauge, because the sizes of knitting needles were the same as wire sizes at that time - metal knitting needles were basically lengths of wire.  It seems that the circular shape has been a standard for wire gauges for a long time.  I don't know anything about the history of wire gauges; I'm looking into it and will report if I find out anything interesting to knitters. 



    1. That's interesting - the wire gauge discussed has exactly the same elements as the Wheel of Fortune. Thanks.


    1. Thanks. The old knitting needle sizes (until metric sizes were introduced in the 1970s or 80s) used British Standard Wire Gauge sizes - which of course is why a needle gauge can be so similar to a wire gauge,


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