Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Knitting Tool Profiles: The Needle Gauge

This is the first in a year-long series. I'll post a new one on the last Tuesday of every month, with facts, photos, and further resources about twelve knitting tools. First up, the needle gauge.

Occasionally one comes upon a mature needle gauge in which the holes have actually become enlarged through constant use, or by forcing through of too large needles.
This all points to the admonition not to take needle sizes too seriously..."
-Elizabeth Zimmermann, Knitting Without Tears

The Needle Gauge
A selection of needle gauges
From top to bottom, left to right: 
1950s metal bell gauge, acrylic peacock gauge from Hip Strings
Fancy Tiger Craft wood cat gauge, wood brain gauge, and Lambert antique ivory gauge from S. Williams book.

What is it?
A knitting needle gauge is a device that allows you to measure the size of your needle.

Fun Facts
  • The earliest known gauges were created in the 19th century. In 1843 Frances Lambert wrote in My Knitting Book that she had invented a standard filigree to gauge the size of needles and hooks.
  • As a general rule, the greater the number of sizes on the gauge, the older it is. Victorian gauges could have up to size UK 28, reflecting the contemporary interest in fine gauge knitting and crochet. As the 20th century progressed, interest in the finer knitting waned, and many of the smallest sizes were left off gauges.
  • It may seem contrary that the finest needles had the highest numbers but this is because it relates 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.
  • The advent of chunky yarn in the 1950s added new sizes to needle gauges (UK 00 and 000)
  • The first needle gauges were made from ivory, bone and wood, but were quickly overtaken by metal (not only because it’s a less expensive material, but also because it’s easier to pierce in the creation of the gauge holes). The first plastic to be used in needle gauges was Bakelite, invented in 1907.
  • In the late 1950s, manufacturers began to add metric sizing to needle gauges in anticipation of the switch to the metric system.
  • In the mid-late 20th century, needle gauge manufacture reached a minimalist, mass-produced standard, with simple rectangles in petroleum based materials and aluminum taking place of the more attractive shapes. The golden age of needle gauges can be said to have ended in the 1950s.
  • Or has it? A quick look at online/specialty retailers shows that now, with the resurgence of interest in knitting, the market is able to support and is interested in artisanal gauges in a variety of shapes, finishes, and materials.
  • The Viyella needle gauge and knitting counter was created between 1936 and 1940. The two ends of the drum are pierced to form a needle gauge. The ends rotate numbers are revealed through piercings in the sides of both drum-ends.
  • There's an app for that! The iKnit Needle Sizer displays an image of needle widths that you can use to size your needles!

Read More
The History of Knitting Pin Gauges, by Sheila Williams, Melrose Press, 2006.
Knitting Tool History Timeline
Great collection of needle gauges
Vintage gauges on Pinterest
More about the Viyella gauge
Milward Gauges

Fancy Tiger Crafts
Hip Strings
The Cottage Needle