Getting started with Siberian Cuffs

The first pattern in Miss Lambert’s My Knitting Book is called Siberian Cuffs. The pattern is exceedingly brief by today’s standards, comprising just four lines from start to finish!

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It is not clear whether the word “Siberian” refers to the type of stitch, the origin of the stitch, the origin for the style of cuff, or simply for the warmth it will provide on a cold winter’s day. The purpose of the cuff is not described and there is no photograph of the finished product, possibly because cuffs were so commonplace in 1843 that no explanation was required?

The first line of the pattern is as follows:

Nine shades of German wool, used double, will be required. — No. 8 needles.”  (My Knitting Book, p. 13)

This is the only information provided in terms of material and leads me to several questions:  What was German wool?  What would be the equivalent weight of yarn in modern day yarn terminology?  What is the modern day equivalent for No. 8 needles?

The search for the answer to these questions took me to another book written by Miss Lambert, The Hand-Book of Needlework, published in 1851 by Willis P. Hazard, 178 Chesnut St., Philadelphia.  Chapter IV of this book is devoted entirely to the subject of wool.  According to Miss Lambert:

“German wool, unquestionably the finest description of sheep’s wool which we possess, is the produce of the fleece of the merino breed in their highest state of cultivation, from the flocks of Saxony and the neighbouring German states.” (The Hand Book of Needlework, p. 33)

German wool was also known as Zephyr Merino.  Miss Lambert describes how merino sheep were imported to Germany from Spain in 1765 and 1778, cultivated in Germany, and by 1815, trade with England had begun and rapidly increased over a short period of time.  I imagine that at the time of Miss Lambert’s publications, German wool would likely have been the newest and best quality wool available.  She provides the following advice for selecting good quality German wool:

“When of the best quality, German wool should retain but little of the smell of the dye; it should be soft and curly in its texture, and round in its make, and free from all particles of vegetable or mineral substances that may have been used in its dying.  This wool should not be wound, as, by being compressed, it may be partially deprived of its elasticity.” (The Hand Book of Needlework, p. 37)

As fascinating as this all is, it didn’t help me figure out the modern day equivalent yarn, so I moved on to determining the equivalent knitting needle size.  In The Hand Book of Needlework, Miss Lambert also discussed the size of knitting needles or pins:

“The size of steel knitting needles is designated by their numbers, which vary from 6 to 25, and are determined by a filière or gauge; but as all writers on knitting do not appear to emply the same gauge, it frequently leads to error, and will continue to do so until there be some general standard.”  (The Hand Book of Needlework, p. 92)

Sometime before 1843, Miss Lambert designed her own knitting gauge, the Standard Filière (The History of Knitting Pin Gauges, Melrose Press, Sheila Williams, 2006, p. 10):

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Many other publishers and writers of knitting patterns developed their own knitting gauges and there was no standardization between the different gauge manufacturers.  Not having Standard Filière on hand to physically compare the size of present day knitting needles to those used in 1843 (or any 1800s era knitting gauge for that matter) I have relied on the information provided in an article for living historians by Colleen Formby (Everyone His Own Knitting Needle).  In this article, she provides a very handy chart comparing the sizes on her Bell Gauge (a common type of needle gauge developed in the 1800s) to their US and metric equivalents.  On her chart, a No. 8 needle is equivalent to a 4mm needle.

In her article, Ms. Formby also lists the modern day equivalent for many vintage yarns.  Unfortunately, she does not include German Wool on the list.  She does have both Zephyr and Single Berlin wools listed as being equivalent to fingering weight yarn.  Since Berlin is in Germany and German Wool was also known as Zephyr, I think fingering weight yarn is a great place to start.

As 4mm needles seem to be appropriate for fingering weight yarn held double, I am off to my stash to find nine coordinating shades of fingering weight yarn and some 4mm needles!

5 thoughts on “Getting started with Siberian Cuffs

  1. actually modern “zephyr” wool is a brand, and not a type……that’s the reason it is laceweight in the modern brand. The comparisons I made in the article you mention elsewhere are based on mid-19th century weights.

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