A History of the Sanquhar Knitting Pattern

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The distinctive two-coloured patterned knitting which is widely known as ‘Sanquhar knitting’ takes its name from the small parish and ancient burgh of Sanquhar in Upper Nithsdale. The upland valley of the river Nith, with its many tributaries, was an ideal situation for the development of wool-based industries. Here there was good sheep country, soft water for processing wool and established roads following the river valleys to markets in central Scotland.

The wool trade had been an important one in the coastal trading towns of Dumfries and Kirkcudbright since medieval times and by the 18th century Sanquhar had developed as an inland market centre. The Sanquhar Wool Fair, held in July, regulated the prices for the south of Scotland but was beginning to diminish in importance by the end of the 19th century.

Nevertheless, industries of any kind were late to develop in this corner of South West Scotland, perhaps because of the unsettled times experienced by its people. First religious differences, then national allegiances disrupted trade as the ‘Killing Times’ of the covenanters were followed by the Jacobite Rebellions.

‘They have no forraigne trade.....their inland trade consists only of some few sheeps skins, butter and cheese...’
This describes Sanquhar burgh at the opening of the 18th century, a century which was to see the return of peace and prosperity to the valley and the development of a knitting tradition which has survived until today.

The beginnings of this industry in the parish of Sanquhar are as difficult to discern as they are in the other areas where it developed (Aberdeen, Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales). The means of production were modest; only needles or ‘wires’ were required. There is no evidence for the use of a knitting belt or sheath, and no traces were left on the industrial landscape.

A traveller’s account early in the 18th century tells us:
‘Gloves they make better and cheaper than in England, for they send great quantities thither.’

Knitting was usually a means of supplementing the income of subsistence farmers; it is therefore elusive in contemporary accounts and records. The work of women and children, the sick and the aged often does not figure as a recognized trade. However, the income generated by such work as knitting could often be a significant part of the local economy. The hard cash it earned could pay rents and buy goods which families could not produce for themselves. It could afford some protection from famine in times of crop failure and in times of prosperity it brought luxury goods such as dyes, medicines, and boots into an otherwise isolated community. We know that such an industry grew up in Sanquhar from a detailed account of its flourishing condition in the 1770s:

‘Here are five frames in the stocking way, and a great deal of stockings knit and sold here, from one shilling to five shillings per pair, and a great demand for them...His Grace [the Duke of Queensberry] likewise contributes £40 annually, and the honourable Board the like sum which are given as premiums to the people of the neighbourhood, in order to promote the industry; 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 an excellent quality, and find ready sales.’

What became of this thriving local industry? The next written information occurs in the Rev. William Ranken’s description of his parish:
‘Knitting of stockings was formerly a considerable branch of manufacture in the burgh by which a number of the lower class were decently supported.’
The entire Scottish hand-knitting industry declined dramatically in the final years of the 18th century. This was caused by a variety of factors; the loss of trade to the American Colonies, the disruption to commerce caused by revolution and wars in Europe; the increasing industrialization of the spinning and processing of wool; and the competition from cheaper, machine-framed garments. Closer to Sanquhar itself a new woollen industry was developing, creating a ready market for the plentiful supplies of local fleeces, and expanding employment for a workforce with already highly developed skills in textile manufacture.

The beginning of the 19th century, then, saw, the end of the prominence of hand-knitting in the local economy. Yet in 1807 a local publisher, Thomas Brown, gives us one of the most descriptive accounts of the garments produced in Sanquhar:
‘The knitters by the dextrous 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.’
This is the first indication we have that the products of the 18th century industry bore any resemblance to what we know as Sanquhar knitting today.

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It could be that the Sanquhar knitters who attempted to protect their livelihood by developing distinctive patterning achieved far more than they intended, for the patterns have survived for two centuries.

How were the patterns invented? Again, many speculations are possible, particularly when their resemblance to other traditional knitting patterns are noted.

Patterning in knitting is notoriously peripatetic, not because it is communicated over great distance, but through the simple co-incidence of human intelligence developing similar solutions to similar problems. The patterns arose from the possibilities of technique and materials, and the requirements of creating a marketable product. In a relatively new craft such as knitting, inspiration for patterning may have derived from the ornamentation used in more established textile trades. In the case of Sanquhar knitting, the existing trade in the weaving of ‘stuffs, serges, plaidens, and flannels’, could account for the two colour changes resembling checks and plaids in the more restrained of the traditional patterns. Finally, a word from the Rev. Ranken on the possibility of cross fertilization of designs from other areas, as he complains of:
‘the almost continual flux of vagrants through Sanquhar, which is a thoroughfare for both ends of the kingdom.’
Despite the protection afforded to the trade in knitted goods by their quality and distinctive patterning, it appears that by 1835 it was more or less moribund. In the Statistical Account of Dumfriesshire, the Rev. Thomas Montgomery records that:
‘the knitting of stockings and mittens...is now almost entirely discontinued.’

By this time, the principal occupation of home workers was flowering, the embroidering of elaborate white work onto muslin. This painstaking work was generally contracted as piece work from an agent, and the demands that it made upon the time that women had free from their domestic chores would allow very little over for knitting. The Rev. Montgomery records that over 300 women in his parish were involved in this work, with a further 49 employed full-time at the thriving Crawick Mill Carpet Manufactory.

It is perhaps ironic that the period which saw knitting arrive in practically every lady’s drawing room as a popular pastime, producing a greater diversity of techniques, yarns and dye colours than ever before, saw its almost total exclusion from the homes of Sanquhar’s textile workers. By 1853, when the Rev. Robert Simpson published his history of Sanquhar, the only textile trades mentioned in his description of ‘the present condition of the burgh’, are weaving and flowering.

Nevertheless, the tradition of knitting the intricate geometrical patterns was carried on throughout the 19th century. A pair of gloves in the ‘Duke’ pattern were to be found in the collection of Dr. T. B. Grierson, whose museum in Thornhill opened in 1872. They are described as ‘a pair of worsted mitts for the wrists, of a pattern formerly worked in Sanquhar’, in the published catalogue of the collection.

The catalogue of the International Exhibition of Industry Science and Art, held in 1886, contains an entry in the Women’s Industries Section:
‘Miss Barker, Sanquhar; one pair of gloves, a Sanquhar industry’ and in 1891 James Brown in his History of Sanquhar recounts that:
‘Quite recently the Duke of Buccleuch gave a large order for these gloves for himself and his family.’

James Brown is also the source of an anecdote of a Mr. Hedley, ‘the famous coursing judge’ , who accidentally discovered that Sanquhar gloves were ideal for riding and driving and hence, it seems, created a popular demand for them. The fragment of Sanquhar knitting which is cherished carefully by a family in Sanquhar supports this statement.

This small surviving fragment of knitting from earlier times is very fine and appears to be ‘drugget’. This was the material formerly used to knit the gloves; it is a mixture of wool and cotton or flax and therefore more hard-wearing than the modern glove knitted in pure wool or wool and polyamid mixture.

Examples of the gloves knitted by people in Sanquhar have been gifted to the local museum and this is an indication of the importance placed upon the gloves and the skills of individual knitters. Jessie Wilson donated her mother’s work—this family was probably one of the last to rely upon the income from knitting as part of their subsistence. The family of J. S. Waugh, the first local volunteer in the Boer War, gifted two items belonging to him and cherished by his descendants; his War medals and his Cornet’s gloves.

The annual ceremony of the Riding of the Marches is the most important event in Sanquhar’s year. This August festival is a time of celebration of identity by the whole community. All the horseriders of Sanquhar ride around the boundaries (‘Marches’) of the burgh, led by the ‘Cornet’—the elected principal horseman. It is a great honour to be chosen as Cornet.

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The presentation of specially knitted gloves to the Cornet and other principals during the annual Common Riding Festival is an important part of these celebrations, expressing the townsfolks’ common pride in Sanquhar’s heritage. Although there is a special pattern called the ‘Cornet’ this has not always been the one used, as for many years the person who knitted the gloves worked only with the ‘Duke’ pattern.

There are about a dozen known, named, traditional patterns with as many variations of cuff patterns. Some of these have interesting historical anecdotes as to their origins, such as the most popular and most commonly knitted one, the ‘Duke’. Patronage by the local gentry (the Queensberry and Buccleuch families) which was important economically in the 18th and 19th century, became a matter of prestige and honour in the 20th century. Visits to the Royal Burgh of Sanquhar by dignitaries and royalty, as well as honours conferred on people, have all been commemorated by the naming of a pattern or the presentation of a pair of gloves. One of the lesser known patterns is the ‘Glendyne’, knitted in 1922 by Jessie Wilson for Robert Nivison who, when elected to the peerage, took the title Lord Glendyne of Sanquhar. Another is the ‘Fleur de Lys’ reputed to date from the time of the Napoleonic Wars when French prisoners were in Sanquhar.

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The other main patterns which can be seen in the
Sanquhar Tolbooth Museum
are: Prince of Wales, Shepherd’s plaid, Rose and Trellis, Drum and Cornet, Pheasants or Birds Eye and one of the oldest, Midge and Flea. This pattern was collected along with others by the late Jenny Macmillan for the Scottish Women’s Rural Institute in 1938.

It was not until the 1960s that the main patterns were published by the S.W.R.I.; meanwhile the oral traditions carried on, passing from one generation to the next the skills necessary to continue this unique local craft.

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In the 20th century, through oral testimony, the story begins to emerge of how the traditional patterns were taught. There are a small number of family names in Sanquhar Burgh which recur in connection with the Sanquhar glove, suggesting the kinship links which ensured the survival of the patterns. Secondly, certain key figures were community teachers or tradition bearers; and, lastly, the school became involved in teaching the knitting of the gloves in its needlework classes.

The Sanquhar pattern glove is still knitted today by a few dedicated and skilled knitters, carrying on a tradition vital to the cultural identity of this small Royal Burgh in the heart of Southern Scotland.

So highly regarded are these patterns that Sanquhar Gloves have become an important symbol. They are given to international celebrities visiting the town. They are worn at rites of passage, such as weddings and funerals, and are treasured by ordinary folk, each of whom has a story to tell about them. Even in these days of computers and commercialism, the Sanquhar Pattern is both a living testimony to the strength of the oral tradition and an individual’s link with the ancestors—a heritage that nothing can take away.


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