The craft of knitting came relatively late to Scotland. The first knitters were highly paid craftsmen of the 16th and 17th centuries who protected the secrets of their trade within incorporations or guilds. Nevertheless, by the mid 1700s knitting skills had spread throughout the country. This created a thriving cottage industry mainly producing simple knitted stockings in great numbers for sale to the home market and to the colonies. Such an industry grew up in Sanquhar.
By 1778 when David Loch visited the town, the industry was
"and, by this means, spinning of wool and knitting of stockings, which they do better here than anywhere in my tour (Aberdeen excepted), has of late greatly increased, and is daily increasing. The fabric of these goods is of excellent quality, and find ready sale."
Loch was touring Scotland on behalf of the Board of Trustees for Fisheries and Manufacturers, an organisation set up to regenerate the Scottish economy using funds arising from the Treaty of Union of 1707. From the 1770s it concentrated on the Scottish woollen industry, giving £40 in premiums a year to the knitters of Sanquhar.
The majority of the townsfolk would be involved in knitting. It was generally a way to supplement the family income and cannot be traced in historical records as an occupation, although it could support single women and those unable to do other work through illness or old age. It required no equipment or machinery, only needles or "wires" and left no trace on the industrial landscape. It is therefore easy to dismiss its importance to the local economy.
The hard cash made from knitting would pay rentals and buy luxury goods such as medicines and books. It would also give protection from famine if harvests failed and was therefore encouraged by local gentry. Charles, 4th Duke of Queensberry supported the Sanquhar knitting industry by matching the £40 premium payments of the Board of Trustees.
When the Rev. William Ranken of Sanquhar described his parish in 1793 for the First Statistical Account of Scotland he observed a decline in the knitting industry.
"Knitting of stockings was formerly a considerable branch of manufacture in the burgh, by which a number of the lower class were decently supported ... But upon the breaking out of the American war, which for a time, shut up the commercial intercourse with this country, this branch received a fatal blow ..."
Many factors combined against the Scottish hand knitting industry. In the late 18th century trade was disrupted by revolution and war in America and Europe and competition from cheaper machine made garments increased. Close to Sanquhar a new woollen industry was developing, creating a market for the plentiful supplies of local fleece and expanding employment for a workforce already highly skilled in textile manufacture. This was the carpet factory at Crawick Mill and its success must have relieved local people of much of the hardship caused by the sudden loss of trade in knitted goods.
It was most probably around this time that the distinctive two colour patterns now identified with Sanquhar knitting developed. It is unlikely that the vast numbers of stockings made in the 1770s and 1780s were patterned. In 1807, however, Thomas Brown recorded in his Union Gazetteer for Great Britain and Ireland,
"The stocking trade is the oldest, and was formerly more considerable than at present, though the fabric is both curious and serviceable and almost peculiar to the place. The knitters, by the dexterous use of two threads, produce a substance resembling an outside and a lining. Most of the stockings are parti-coloured and of great variety of patterns."
The origins of the traditional patterns of Sanquhar knitting are
obscure, but date from the late 1700s. They are similar to patterns
used for gloves in Aberdeen and North Yorkshire at that
Their names are often self-explanatory as in the Rose or even the Midge and Fly! The Duke pattern doubtlessly takes its name from the Dukes of Queensberry and Buccleuch who were notable patrons of the craft in the last century.
The tradition of intricate patterns arose as the hand knitting industry was pressed by the factors which eventually caused its demise. As markets were lost a highly distinctive and well made garment would still find a buyer. Its special quality could compete with machine made goods and was difficult to imitate.
It could be that the Sanquhar knitters who attempted to protect their livelihood by developing these distinctive patterns achieved far more than they intended because their ingenuity has survived for two centuries.
What inspired the Sanquhar patterns? They have similarities with
traditional knitting from Scandinavia to Afghanistan. More
specifically, there is close correspondence to knitting of the same
period from Aberdeen and the Yorkshire Dales. Ideas may have
travelled these distances but it is more likely that they arose
independently from the simple coincidence of similar solutions
being found to similar problems.
Patterns are determined by the possibilities of technique and materials. In a relatively new craft such as knitting they often refer back to more established textile trades. The existing hand loom weaving industry in Sanquhar may account for the two colour changes which resemble plaids and checks.
Knitters named patterns after people, events and everyday things from their own experience; The Duke, Rose, Trellis, Drum, Coronet, Glendyne, Midge and Flea, Shepherd's Plaid and Prince of Wales or Fleur de Lys.
How the patterns survived
Despite the temporary protection given to the trade in hand
knitted garments by their quality and distinctive patterning, by
the 1830s it had disappeared from all records of business in
Sanquhar. Nevertheless, the traditions of the knitting industry
survived and were passed on from generation to generation of
knitters, who made garments for their families or knitted for cash
in their spare time.
Sanquhar gloves were still sought after, in the 1860s Dr T B Grierson collected a pair for his museum in Thornhill, and in the 1890s the Duke of Buccleuch "gave a large order of these gloves for himself and his family."
Jessie Wilson knitted Sanquhar gloves and socks for a living in the years after the First World War. In the 1920s she received 2/6 (12 1/2p) for making a pair of gloves with initials or a full name worked at the wrist. The person placing the order would supply the wool. When orders were scarce they knitted gloves with `Sanquhar' at the wrist for general sale.
Throughout this time the patterns were never written down, but
were passed on by patient teaching. Interviewed in 1955 Mrs Alison
McGavin asserted that, "there are some bits you can't do unless
you've seen them done."
In the 1950s the Dundee based magazine, The People's Friend popularised Sanquhar knitting with supplements containing traditional glove patterns and fashion knitting incorporating Sanquhar motifs. The Duke pattern also appears in commercial knitting leaflets of this period. In the mid 1960s the Scottish Women's Rural Institute published a series of four knitting leaflets detailing the surviving traditional patterns.
Publication brought the patterns to the attention of knitters far beyond the small burgh where they originated. Many needlewomen enjoy the challenge of knitting these intricate gloves, although some may now agree with Mrs McGavin!
The growing appreciation of traditional knitting has lead to the story of Sanquhar's knitters becoming world famous. Most recent books on the topic of traditional knitting contain information on Sanquhar knitting.
Woven on wires
Sanquhar knitting was traditionally worked in the round on four,
five or six needles with points at each end. This is the best way
to make socks and gloves as it avoids seams and produces a strong,
long lasting garment. It is also the simplest way to knit using two
differently coloured yarns as every row is knitted on the right
side in plain stitches, and the wool is stranded along the reverse
side. This double layer makes a warm and elastic
The needles and the yarns used were very fine by modern standards and the patterns were intricate. This ensured a market for handknitting long after it became possible to make socks and gloves by machine.
The complexity of the patterns also protected them from imitation. Nowadays gloves are knitted using 3-ply wool and needles ranging from No 13 to No 16 (2 1/4 - 1 1/2mm). As the patterns are constant it is the size of the needles which determines the size of the glove. Sets of finger needles as little as 3" (75mm) long made the knitting of fingers swift and easy.
Colours were generally black and white or navy and natural, but later examples occur in more adventurous combinations of which red and green is probably the most successful. Brown and yellow was a popular choice in the 1920s. The pattern leaflets published by the Scottish Women's Rural Institute are still available but difficulties in obtaining commercial 3 ply yarn may yet threaten the survival of this knitting tradition.