Northfolk logoThe Northfolk Project

Geology Ganseys Publishing Brewing


Knitting with a shield

Professional knitters of the 19th and early 20th century used a method of holding the working needle either in a padded leather knitting belt or a short wooden stick made in a variety of designs. These were known as knitting sticks, knitting sheaths or in Norfolk a 'shield'.

There are many benefits from using a shield and it is difficult to understand why they are not more widely employed by English knitters today. The benefits are:

Dishcloths to Gansey patterns by Val Smith

I learned to knit about 70 years ago. The first thing I remember making was a dishcloth, followed by a peggy purse and a vest for my cousin. Over the years I have knitted an assortment of items but always ended up with aching shoulders and a stiff neck so the phase of knitting was often short lived. I then became interested in crochet and patchwork and for years knitted only occasionally.

A few years ago I was invited to a meeting of the Textile Group at Sheringham Museum and became involved in the Gansey project. A group of ladies knit swatches and samplers from charts compiled by Martin Warren from photographs and original ganseys in the Sheringham Museum and Cromer Museum collections. We are trying to replicate the fine work of the Sheringham gansey knitters.

Although I was very enthusiastic the old problem of an aching shoulder and neck returned together with a tension headache. The subject of using a shield to support the right needle as the old knitters did was raised and suggested to me but I wasn't convinced thinking "You can't change the knitting habits of a lifetime". However, believing that you shouldn't knock anything unless you've tried it I decided to give it a go and soon discovered how wrong I had been. I searched YouTube to find different ways of using a knitting shield (known in other areas as knitting sticks or knitting sheaths). Leather knitting belts with a pouch punched with holes and filled with horsehair to grip the needles were also used.

I came across two YouTube videos by Lorna Jenkin of WoollyWoodlanders:

Knitting much faster English method

Speed up your purling

Lorna has researched the knitting techniques of the professional knitters of the 19th and early 20th century and earlier and that was good enough for me. I practised with swatches and began to prefer her style of knitting and its many advantages. It is very relaxing because of the reduced hand/arm movements, the work is more even and eventually speed improves. I would encourage anyone to watch these videos and to try knitting with a shield. It certainly worked for me and I can now knit for hours with no ill effects.

It is interesting to note that the world's fastest knitter Hazel Tindall uses this style of knitting.

Val Smith, August 2019

Three knitting hields

Three home made knitting shields

Martin Warren, The Northfolk Project