Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A historical knitting song from a time when normal folk didn't know numbers ...

Have you ever stopped to consider how, for much of our history, most of us could neither count nor read? And can you imagine the problems that must have created for anyone trying to knit even a semi-complex stitch pattern?

Labourers used to count on their fingers using five sets of four fingers to make a score of 20. And, to keep them focussed on where they'd got to, they developed counting rhymes. There were different rhymes depending on what they were counting, and depending on which part of the country they were in. Last night I was reading Food in England by Dorothy Hartley. She quoted this example of an ancient counting rhyme:

... eni, deni, diny, dass, catla, wena, wyna, wass ...

Now this struck me as being very similar to some playground rhymes that children still use today.

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Catch a tiger by the toe ... . 

I wonder if this modern-day rhyme grew out of some universally-known counting rhyme used by our ancestors to keep tally on their sheep.  Maybe we're listening to the echoes of our distant past in the playgrounds of today.

I did a little bit more research on why they counted to 20 using multiples of four rather than just 10 with multiples of five for the number of digits on each hand. It turns out that these rhymes originated in the Celtic lands because Celtic languages traditionally did not count individual numbers above 20. You'd get to 20 and then start counting twenties.

My favourite counting rhyme comes from Teesdale, where it was traditionally used to keep tally on sheep. This is how it goes:


Isn't it a delight to say out loud? If you say it, counting on your fingers as you go, you can see how the repetitions work over four fingers with a thumb, and the new count kicking off after each thumb. It's easy to imagine the shepherd doing the count and striking off his digits as he goes.

A similar knitting song was the subject of an article published in a literary magazine called Notes and Queries in September 1863. The correspondent reports that in Wensleydale the local ladies had a knitting song that they repeated as they worked, which was a local version of the Teesdale numbers. The correspondent continues: Though it simply consists of numerals up to twenty, it is most curious; and seeing it is in the Norse language, must have lingered in the Dale a thousand years. 

The ladies of the Dales were using the same system to count their stitches as the shepherds used to count their sheep.

The article also mentions the account by Betty Yewdale of how she and her sister were sent from Langale to Dentsdale in Yorkshire to learn how to knit socks. Whilst they were there they sang this song as they worked at every needle:

Sally an' I, Sally an' I,
For a good pudding pye,
Tea hoaf wheat, an' tudder hoaf rye,
Sally an' I, for a good pudding pye. 

When they'd reach the end they'd shout off and repeat the rhyme for the next needle using another person's name. Now imagine you're there, knitting socks on double ended needles: three needles with 15 or 20 stitches per needle being worked by a fourth. If you're a reasonably quick knitter Betty's song would more or less last for the 15 or 20 stitches on each of your needles. It's easy to imagine the knitters singing away, finding a rhythm in their work that matched the meter and rhythm of their song. And, for me, it's just a little bit thrilling to find that same rhythm in my own work today as I labour over a pair of socks on double-pointed needles.

If you'd like to read the account from the magazine you can find it here:  Betty Yewdale's Knitting Song on Google Books.

All the best for now and happy knitting,

Bonny x


  1. Thanks for sharing these interesting tidbits about knitting. You might just get me interested enough to learn basic knitting!

  2. Bonny, The more I read of today's post, the more I laughed. I now recall one of the reasons I had so much difficulty mastering knitting - the counting! I fear I have some deficit of attention that makes me lose count! Still, you've made it all sound like so much fun - I've promised to try to one more time! And I love the image of the shepherd's counting their sheep with such clever systems.

    Your knitted creations are so beautiful - and the vintage strawberry fabric background makes for a perfect photograph!

  3. How interesting, Bonny. This is for sure a much less boring way to count your stitches. (Haha, I can envision you knitting away as you sway to the rhythm of these songs.)