Tuesday 18 May 2010

Makkin Wires for Quaker Pinballs

Some of you may be contemplating knitting pinballs from your Sarah Harris eBook, rather than stitching them. I found no fine knitting needles at Ackworth School that might have been used for knitting the fine silk pinballs the girls made. Today there are knitting needles of fine gauge made for knitting miniature items which people use for knitting the pinballs. So are these like the ones the girls used? Hard to say, but we do know that knitting needles like the ones pictured above were being used for fine knitting at the time. These steel knitting needles were being used as early as 1800, and by the 1840s some knitters were using brass needles. Brass, unlike steel, does not rust. These needles belonged to Miss Elsie Thomson of Sandwick, Shetland and in her time they were called 'makkin (making) wires'.
As anyone who has used 'makkin wires' to knit a pinball can tell you, the ends are sharp. Ouch! Sometimes knitters stop the end of the wire with a bead, or with the handle from an art paint brush. In Shetland these decorated knitting sheaths were once used by knitters. Made by seamen in their spare time, they were a product of their rope splicing skills. The narrow end of the knitting sheath was tucked into the right side of the knitter's skirt or apron, and the knitting needle was inserted into the open end among the quills. This freed up the knitter's right hand, and enabled them to knit much faster. Sometimes sheaths were made from a bundle of straw bound with twine and were called wisps - wisp being the word for loose straw.
Leather knitting belts replaced the sheaths in the 20th century. Shetland Museum has a fantastic archive of knitting - to visit just click here.


  1. I just checked youtube to see if there was a video on how these knitting belts are used, but there isn't anything available. How did it speed up the knitting, I wonder?

  2. I had decided a fortnight ago to knit a pinball after I gave a talk on Quaker Crafts. I bought some 1 ply wool at the weekend and ordered the 8mm needles from a miniatures shop. They arrived this morning so I've had a go at a simple garter stitch blanket but I'm finding it hard going as I'm used to using much longer needles but I will persevere with it. The next job will then be to dye some of the wool for the pinball!

  3. In Shetland they used the knitting belts along with the double ended needles. They used to keep some knitting in the pocket of their apron and then when they stopped to talk they would pull out their knitting and talk and knit. The holes in the belt meant that they could put one end of one of the needles into the belt and everything was held firm and secure while they stood knitting.
    That's also why their fairisle patterns have a very short repeat so that it could be remembered and they didn't need to carry the pattern around with them.