I used to collect knitting needle gauges – for a rather perverse reason.
Our first knitting book (Woolly Thoughts) was about modular knitting using any needles and any yarn to make a garment of the right size without ever having to knit a tension square (known as a gauge square, or swatch, in US). Many knitters hate tension squares, or just can’t be bothered to make them. They are vital in some garments but not always. Knitters get hung up on trying to achieve the right tension using the needles given on the pattern or ball band.
Knitting needle gauges, theoretically, tell you what size your needles are but that doesn’t help you to know what size stitches you will get. Different knitters can achieve the same result by using wildly different sized needles. Knitting is bit like handwriting and varies from person to person.
Gauges are useful for matching up needles but they are not totally reliable as they can vary from one make to another.
I have over 200 gauges. 36 of them are bells, all different. One gauge on these boards is not a bell-shape but it is the oldest gauge I have and deserves pride of place.
The Fairfax, and the two gauges next to it, date back to 1847. It is possible to roughly estimate the age of a gauge by looking at the size of needles that it was intended to measure. The oldest gauges are from the days when wool and needles were very fine. Gauges from 1847 have holes or slots for size 28 needles. In those days needles were usually referred to as knitting pins or wires.
The sizes were based on the measurement of industrial wires. It may seem contrary that the finest needles had the highest numbers but this is because they relate to how long a piece of wire was stretched out to be. A size 2 needle means that the wire was stretched twice as far as for a size 1 needle. A size 28 means the wire was stretched 28 times as far. 28 needles could be made from the same piece of wire, making a very fine needle.
The Birmingham Wire Gauge was used because many of the factories making needles and gauges were in Redditch, which is a town near Birmingham.
Some old gauges were made in very fancy shapes and these now change hands at high prices.
Bell-shaped gauges were very common. It may seem a strange shape but it was really a very practical way to produce a decorative item.
Very little metal was wasted when they were stamped out from a full sheet. The curved edges may also give a more usable perimeter.
The shape evolved slightly over time. The oldest bells had straight slits for measuring the needles. These changed to being rounded holes with slits. The reason for this is unclear and it seems as though it may only have made knitters more confused because they weren’t really sure which part to use for measuring. Later still the slits disappeared completely and there were only holes.
The history of these bells is very vague. Some were produced for big-name companies so they probably had them specially made. Others were mass-produced but if a company bought a certain number they were embossed with their own logo or other information. It is not known how many factories were producing bells. They were not all made from the same metal and some seem to be thicker and/or better quality than others.
Many people say they have a bell gauge, believing them all to be the same. The bells on the boards are all different. In many cases the differences are minimal and might only be a different metal or a different typeface. I have no idea how many more there might be that I didn’t find.
I acquired several duplicates. Many have been given away. Some hang from a swift as wind chimes.
There will be further posts about my gauges in the future.