The story of 1840s knitting superstar Jane Gaugain
“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://archive.org/details/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