The story of 1840s knit­ting su­per­star Jane Gau­gain

The Knitter - - Contents -

“Ger­man wool is the pro­duce of the Merino breed… and is the best sheep’s wool that we pos­sess. The merino fleece is brought to the great­est per­fec­tion in Sax­ony… It is chiefly man­u­fac­tured at Gotha; the dy­ing [sic] of it per­formed at Berlin… ” 1843

“Mr Gau­gain, Im­porter of Ger­man Pat­terns, Wools, &c., in ED­IN­BURGH, has es­tab­lished a Branch Ware­house in YORK, un­der the man­age­ment of Mrs Gau­gain’s Sis­ter… Saloon, 14, CONEY STREET”

IT’S NO co­in­ci­dence that many of the early knit­ting man­ual writ­ers were the own­ers of yarn shops, or ‘wool ware­houses’ as they were then called. The doyenne of all early Vic­to­rian knit­ting man­ual writ­ers was Ed­in­burgh’s Jane Gau­gain (c. 1800 - 1860).

Jane and her hus­band ran a chain of wool ware­houses, with their flag­ship shop on Ge­orge Street, Ed­in­burgh. Jane’s book, Lady’s As­sis­tant in Knit­ting, Net­ting and Cro­chet (1840) was to be­come the world’s best-selling knit­ting re­ceipt (recipe) book, and went into over twenty edi­tions world­wide.

This in­flu­en­tial writer was born Jane Al­li­son, the daugh­ter of a tai­lor, in Ed­in­burgh. In 1826, Jane mar­ried J.J. Gau­gain, an im­porter of fancy goods, and “dealer in for­eign lace” orig­i­nally trad­ing in Black­fri­ars, London.

Knit­ting in fash­ion

Un­til the ad­vent of pub­lished pat­terns, knit­ters car­ried pat­terns in their heads. Many of those who knit­ted for a liv­ing learned young - and weren’t, in any case, lit­er­ate. There are few pub­lished knit­ting pat­terns un­til a ver­i­ta­ble ex­plo­sion of man­u­als in the 1830s and '40s. ‘New’ yarns en­tered the UK mar­ket around that time. Knit­ting was also mak­ing a shift from be­ing a means of sur­vival for the knit­ter, es­pe­cially those de­pen­dent on it as a source of in­come, to an el­e­gant hobby for the fash­ion­able and the bur­geon­ing mid­dle classes.

In the 1830s, the smart money was on ‘Berlin wool’. Its vi­brant colours and soft, fine yarn made women ev­ery­where want to knit. Who bet­ter to de­fine ‘Berlin wool’ for us than Jane Gau­gain her­self:

Much Bri­tish com­mer­cial knit­ting yarn had been spun from an ear­lier type of Le­ices­ter sheep - lus­trous and beau­ti­ful yarn, but not so soft and fine as merino. Ger­man dy­ers rep­re­sented the apogee of the art of colour, cre­at­ing re­li­able and beau­ti­ful shades, mak­ing Berlin wool highly de­sir­able to crafters.

Jane was one of the first en­trepreneurs to re­alise that wool ware­houses could sell more yarn if they pub­lished pat­terns. Soon, J.J. Gau­gain was de­scribed as “book­seller” as well as a wool ware­house pro­pri­etor and wool dealer.

From 1837 to 1854, Jane wrote six­teen man­u­als on knit­ting, net­ting and cro­chet. Some early man­ual writ­ers pub­lished pat­terns for rather ar­cane, in­ac­cu­rate or im­prac­ti­cal items; Jane’s were prag­matic, and for ev­ery­one.

She dipped her toes in the wa­ter in 1837 with Small Work On Fancy Knit­ting, which may have had a mod­est pre­cur­sor,

Three Re­ceipts For Friends. Jane’s pat­terns were wide-rang­ing; there were ‘re­ceipts’ for ev­ery­thing from bon­nets to coun­ter­panes; purses to “polkas” (dresses). She was one of the first man­ual writ­ers to use ab­bre­vi­a­tions in knit­ting pat­terns - al­though her ab­bre­vi­a­tions didn’t catch on. For ex­am­ple: “P” meant “plain (knit) stitch”, and the ab­bre­vi­a­tion for “purl” was “B” (“Back stitch”).

In 1836, J.J ex­panded his woolly em­pire south of the bor­der, an­nounc­ing a new shop in The York Her­ald:

The build­ing at 14 Coney Street had long been an ex­hi­bi­tion space used for trav­el­ling ex­hi­bi­tions, wax­works and freak shows. The new ware­house’s

man­ager was Jane’s sis­ter, Cather­ine Cur­rie. A “Miss Cur­rie” ap­pears in the list of sub­scribers to one of Jane’s ear­lier ti­tles. (In the 19th cen­tury, sub­scribers of­ten ‘kick­started’ the pub­li­ca­tion of books.)

The Morn­ing Post in 1842 an­nounced the dis­so­lu­tion of a part­ner­ship, “J.J. Gau­gain & Co” and their wool ware­house in New­cas­tle upon Tyne; sug­gest­ing J.J’s busi­ness em­pire had ex­panded to the point that the Gau­gain’s Berlin Wool Ware­houses were a chain in Scot­land and North­ern Eng­land. In fact, Berlin Ware­houses may well be one of the ear­li­est at­tested types of chain store.

When the Gau­gains re­trenched their York busi­ness, ‘Mr Gau­gain’s Berlin Wool De­pot’ be­came ‘The Berlin Rooms’ owned in 1841, by El­iz­a­beth Jack­son, who also wrote knit­ting man­u­als.

Jane’s sis­ter Cather­ine stayed in York and struck out on her own, open­ing a new Berlin Ware­house:

A year later, Cather­ine Cur­rie’s ad­vert ended with the rather pointed: “N.B. C-C wishes to state that she has No Con­nex­ion with any other House in this City”; dis­so­ci­at­ing her­self from the Berlin Wool Rooms of El­iz­a­beth Jack­son, which had for­merly be­longed to her sis­ter. Ac­cord­ing to the 1841 Cen­sus, Cather­ine Cur­rie was still trad­ing from 47 Coney Street, and listed as “Berlin Wool Dealer”. She was gone by 1851.

Mean­while, the Gau­gains had re­alised the po­ten­tial of knit­ting as a mail-or­der busi­ness, so that Jane’s pat­terns and Berlin wool could reach those peo­ple not within easy trav­el­ling dis­tance of the Ed­in­burgh, York or New­cas­tle shops.

Jane Gau­gain per­fectly rep­re­sents the pi­o­neer­ing knit­ting man­ual writ­ers who were strong, fe­male en­trepreneurs; women who bucked the cliche of Vic­to­rian women “not al­lowed to own any­thing”; women who owned and ran busi­nesses in their own right, and used their knit­ting man­u­als to carve out their em­pires in a world where busi­ness was dom­i­nated by men.


– Univer­sity of Southamp­ton’s digi­tised Vic­to­rian Knit­ting Man­u­als: https://ar­­tails/vic­to­rian knit­ting­man­u­als – Vic­to­rian Lace Today by Jane Sowerby (XRX Books, 2006)

“MISS CUR­RIE from Mr Gau­gain’s De­pot for Ladies’ Fancy Works, 14 CONEY STREET YORK, begs re­spect­fully to in­form the Ladies of York­shire, par­tic­u­larly those who have kindly promised her their Pa­tron­age, that she will open the shop, NO 47 OP­PO­SITE THE CHURCH, on the 16th of Jan­uary, for the sale of Berlin Wools…”

DE­CEM­BER 27th, 1836

Knit­ting for plea­sure be­came fash­ion­able in Vic­to­rian times

1 Jane Gau­gain was a hugely in­flu­en­tial knit­ting writer in the Vic­to­rian era 2 Her 1840 man­ual, Lady’s As­sis­tant in Knit­ting, Net­ting & Cro­chet, be­came the world’s best-selling knit­ting book 3 The Peo­ple’s Book of­fered a wide range of beau­ti­ful lace stitch pat­terns

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