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Knitting Sheaths

In Elizabethan times the humble knitting sheath would have been a useful household tool.

Helen Cook

This knitting sheath is a bit of a mystery object. Looking at it today, it is difficult to work out what it actually is as these tools have fallen out of popular use. Times have changed and technology has moved on, but in Elizabethan times the knitting sheath would have had an important role to play. This one (production date unknown) is currently displayed as part of the Tudor Courtship Exhibition at Anne Hathaway's Cottage.

This post was researched by Rebekah Owens and Alex Hewitt.

Knitting sheath
A wooden knitting sheath from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The date of its production is unknown.

Unlike today when it is largely regarded as a hobby, in Elizabethan times knitting was an on-going task. Families had to be supplied with warm clothing (caps, hats, hose, etc.) and these items couldn't always be bought ‘off the shelf’. Knitting was an important job that had to be done alongside all kinds of other household tasks during the working day.

The ingenious knitting sheath was supposed to help. It was a simple wooden tool that, with practise, made knitting on the move possible. While one knitting needle was held in the hand, the other would be fixed into a hole in the end of the sheath, and the sheath then tucked into a belt or apron. This left one hand free to control the yarn, stir a pudding, comfort a child or a multitude of other tasks, since one-handed knitting was now possible.

Knitting sheaths were often given as love or courtship tokens, carefully carved and decorated by a man for his sweetheart. Sometimes the designs included names, initials, hearts, or flowers.

Knitting sheaths (supposedly made from wood taken from a mulberry tree that grew at New Place, Shakespeare's final home) were among the many items sold as souvenirs to early tourists and Shakespeare devotees visiting Stratford.

It is likely the women in Shakespeare's life, for example his wife Anne Hathaway and Mary, his mother, would have been able to knit. Shakespeare himself does not mention knitting sheaths but in The Two Gentlemen of Veronawhen Lance shows Speed a paper listing the virtues of the woman he loves, it contains among other things...

Item, she can knit