I love vintage knitting needles, particularly American aluminium needles in sweet-shop shades. I’ve never been particularly drawn to other knitting paraphenalia – until a recent visit to Ida’s House at Unravel, that is. I fell in love with a Viyella “Needle Gauge and Knitting Recorder”. I promised this tiny treasure a blog post all to itself.
Viyella gauges are unique and hard to find. I didn’t know this when I saw it; I knew the name Viyella as part of our textile heritage and I just thought this was a beautiful thing. I picked it up. Your hand just closes automatically around its round body. It has a lovely, solid weight to it, a lovely feel. But it is useful too.
Larger sizes of needles are measured in the chromed top of the drum – from sizes 1-7 UK Imperial, which is 7.5mm-4.5mm or US 10 1/2 – 7. Turn it over, and you can measure from sizes 8-17 UK Imperial. Well, a 14 is 2mm or US 0. The smallest vintage needles I own are UK 14 – I just checked. Apparently size 17 is 1.4mm – I guess that’s some number of zeros in US sizes!
It’s one thing knowing that we generally knit heavier fabrics than in the past, but it’s another seeing a real-life hole in a needle gauge that someone’s needles actually once fit. I thought size 17 was fine enough, but my head is still spinning from discovering that the oldest gauges from the mid 19th Century go down to size 28! What would they have done with a 15mm/US 19 needle? Staked something out with it, I suppose.
Back to the Viyella gauge. As mentioned, it’s also a “Knitting Recorder”, which these days we know as a row counter. The top and bottom of the drum, where the needle gauges are found, rotate just like a modern row counter. The numbers are painted on the barrel and a little window in the side of the drum lid reveals each number in turn. A spring wound around the central pin in the drum keeps the ends tensioned so the numbers move smoothly yet won’t slip. The countersunk screw allows it to stand flat – another innovative feature at the time.
I gather from the lovely vendor that the idea is that you use one end to count decreases (red) or increases (gold) and the other to count rows, but I have struggled to verify this. Sounds likely, though, since other gauges with multiple sets of numbers worked in a similar way.
At home, I idly twisted the counters round, and then smiled when I discovered that the numbers run from 1 to….24. Of course. An imperial number. It fits right in with 12” in a foot and 12d in a shilling. I love that the numbering is a historical artefact in itself, recording not just knitting rows but how we handled numbers in general.
It’s a very compact design, but there is still space for decoration. On the side is a charming transfer picture by Mabel Lucie Attwell of two children playing with yarn, along with their puppy and teddy bear. I like the illustration because it shows yarn as just another thing to play with around the house, not something that only some kids play with these days.
The earliest ones are enamelled blue, like mine (and I heard possibly also pink). Later versions are black and during World War II the picture was substituted, for economy, with just plain text.
This fascinating piece of design was patented sometime between 1932 and 1936, and they were made up until 1940. My gauge says “patents pending”, which makes it one of the earliest ones made. It is pristine. I will continue to treasure it.