Free EBooks



Tools of the Trade (and farewell to a legend)

Mar 7, 2012

I watched the Oscars last weekend and, as always, I was so touched by the "In Memoriam" segment. I must admit I keep myself pretty informed about the whos and whats of pop culture, but I'm always shocked during the memoriam presentation about one or two of the people we've lost.

I was reading the new issue of PieceWork and I experienced the same feeling. Editor Jeane Hutchins wrote in her "Notions" column about the passing of Erica Wilson.

Dog sewing bird, from the collection of the Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, New Jersey. (Photograph copyright the Monmouth Museum, Lincroft, New Jersey)


Erica Wilson's Embroidery Book (1973) was always front and center on the bookshelf at our house. My mom calls it her Bible, and when she moved and lost it somehow, the search was on.

I got her a couple of embroidery dictionaries that she was very thankful for, but I could tell they weren't appropriate replacement of the Embroidery Book, as if it could be replaced. Then one day I got a voicemail message that simply said, "I found one!" I wasn't sure what Mom was talking about, but when I called her back her enthusiasm made perfect sense.

The Embroidery Book graces my mom's bookshelf again, and all is right in the crafting world.

I want one!

PieceWork always entertains and inspires me, but I really had a great time with the March.April 2012 issue.

It features several articles about tools of the needlework trade, one of which I'd never seen before. It's called a "sewing bird" and Erin Gilday's article about the Victorian sewing tools intrigued me. They clamped to the edge of a table and they have clips to hold fabric taut. These tools weren't limited to bird shapes, either; see the dog sewing bird at left. I have a dog collection that's full of fun items (my favorite is a spaniel-shaped whiskey bottle) and this would fit in perfectly!

Some more tools that really caught my eye were sent in by PieceWork readers.

First off is the Forget-Me-Not Knitter's Computer. Its functions include a 1-inch opening for checking gauge as well as counters for different knitting operations, including repeats, increases, decreases, and rows. There's also a ruler across the top. Why did they stop making this? I challenge Clover or Susan Bates (or anyone, really) to resurrect it!

Forget-Me-Not Knitter's Computer, from the collection of Willa Pettygrove. (Photograph courtesy of Willa Pettygrove.)
And then there's a clear holder for Boye double-pointed needles, which assures the customer that they are "non-inflammable." I wonder what happened to make that disclaimer necessary. (And I hope no one was hurt!)
Boye needle case, from the collection of Willa Pettygrove. (Photograph courtesy of Willa Pettygrove.)

The Bickford Family Knitting Machine, from the collection of Karen Hooton. (Courtesy of Karen Hooten)
And finally, the Bickford Family Knitting Machine, at left. These amazing sock knitting machines, some dating back to the 1800s, are still in use today. My friend Nancy just got one and I'm jealous . . . I mean happy for her!

Rumor has it this little machine can crank out a sock in a half-hour. Can you imagine? I'll bet there's a bit of a learning curve, but it sounds like it's worth it for perhaps the best sock yarn stash-buster ever!

Those are just a few of the tools celebrated in this issue of PieceWork. Subscribe today so you don't miss anymore of the fascinating features to come! (And when you subscribe, you'll get a free lace knitting eBook!)


P.S. Do you have any "tool stories" to share? Please do so in the comments below.

Related Posts
+ Add a comment


karpap wrote
on Mar 23, 2012 8:38 PM

The Bickford Knitting Machine is fascinating.  Do you know if it came with an instruction book and does Nancy have a copy?  Does it make the heel and toe shapes?  I'd be interested to learn more about these.  

Patsy A. Goodman

on Mar 17, 2012 4:45 PM

I inherited a very old sewing kit that had been in the family for years. In it was the smallest hairpin lace loom I have ever seen. It's U-shaped, metal, with a little metal bar that comes off the other end. It's only a bit more than one inch wide and someone had worked about 3 invhes of lace on it using crochet thread.

on Mar 14, 2012 1:33 PM

I was so sorry to hear about the passing of Erica Wilson.  I remember her books and kits, back in the 60s!  She was very influential in the growth of my love for needle arts.  I feel like I have lost a dear friend.-  Leslye Tomney

artknits wrote
on Mar 14, 2012 8:36 AM

When I ripped out a sock for the third time I decided I hated the yarn.  So I took it to Loppy Yarns in Chicago, they have a Bickford Family Knitting type machine and for a price do crank out a pair of socks in a half hour.  Only problem is that it is a little narrow at 54 stitches.  However I think I'd love one to bust out my stash.  Diane H

RebeccaA wrote
on Mar 11, 2012 11:32 PM

I want to share how much I greatly appreciated the articles in the most recent issue of PIECEWORK, especially the one on tambour embroidery.  I am privileged to own a set of vintage curtains and a bedspread of tambour lace.  While I treasure them, it is wonderful to have a better idea of the process of their creation.  Currently, and coincidentally, I am now reading Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park."  In chapter 7, one of the characters is referred to as follows:  "Mrs. Grant and her tambour frame were not without their use . . . "  Because of your informative article, I can now have a better idea of how this character, a clergyman's wife, was spending her spare time.

on Mar 10, 2012 10:50 AM

I too have a circular sock knitter, we actually have two. An Auto Kniiter and a LeGare both made in Canada for knitting socks for the soldiers during the WWI and WWII who were very much in need of socks while fighting over in Europe.

They are amazing machines!

Judi M wrote
on Mar 10, 2012 10:26 AM

I have been cranking socks on an antique sock machine for 5 1/2 years but

it is not the Bickford  -  that is really a beauty!!!    She is very fortunate to find

one as they are pretty rare from what I understand.  I have a P.T. Legare from

Canada and love it

Judi Meissner/Knox, IN

on Mar 10, 2012 10:06 AM

I think at one time knitting needles were made from cellulose, and that is flammable. This might account for the "non-inflammable" notation on those needles that look like they are from the '40's or '50's. But, I'm not an authority on such matters.

on Mar 9, 2012 2:49 AM

Well, surprise me!  I just saw the "Forget-me-not" knitters computer and Ihad already  picked one up at the thrift store in pink plastic with the HERO printed in front, on left and on the right. Patent Pending  No. 211     It's a keeper!    ebgutierrez

jmemayfield wrote
on Mar 8, 2012 8:38 AM

Hi!  My family is the one that's reproducing the antique sock machine right here in the United States!  Talk about a great way to make socks...I can make a pair in less than an hour!  For more information, go to

Embgrades wrote
on Mar 8, 2012 6:48 AM

needles were probably made of celluloid which is flammable.

SusanM@130 wrote
on Mar 8, 2012 5:18 AM

Re: "Non-inflammable" double-point knitting needles.

At one point, knitting needles were made of celluloid, which was highly inflammable.

Mary AnnM@16 wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 8:48 PM

that antique boye double point needle case has a "non-inflammable" disclosure on it because it held a set of plastic needles.  some of the earliest manufactured plastics were, extremely flammable, to these boye needles were a vast improvement, and were advertised as such!  i remember a set like those pictured among my mother's needles.

acha7516 wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 5:50 PM

I don't know if anyone has pointed this out, but wouldn't "non-inflammable" mean that the needles are actually flammable?

nana knits wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 5:43 PM

I found a Forget-me-not knitting tool on Etsy for $1.75.

on Mar 7, 2012 4:42 PM

How much did Karen Hooten pay for it and where can I get something like that? It look like a great tool to have around the house.

Jannifer wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 4:05 PM

I noticed in this newsletter and in the issue of 'Piecework' you reference, that no one has any idea why knitting needles would be marked "nonflammable."  Elizabeth Zimmerman actually provides an answer in 'Knitting Without Tears.'  When celluloid was introduced, knitting needle manufacturers made use of this wonderful new material.  However, celluloid is highly flammable.  A celluloid knitting needle will burn like paper if exposed to enough heat.  I've actually burned a broken knitting needle to confirm this.  Apparently the "nonflammable" tag was added when the manufacturer switched to a different plastic.

Mystery solved!

ddhockey321 wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 3:45 PM

I belong to a group that hand knits socks for our armed forces - Socks for Soldiers, Inc. - and we have been blessed by having "machine knitters" who knit the leg portions of some socks (this part alone needs to be 12 to 13 inches long to be worn in uniform), while hand knitters do the foot portion.  We also hand knit top to toe, but these machine knitters, using sock knitting machines very much like the one you pictured, are such a help to our mission of getting socks to everyone who is currently on our "please send" list.    They turn out k1, p1 ribbing that is just fabulous to "finish  with feet"

jmburt wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 3:16 PM

I used to have a row/stitch counter that was like a little pegboard--it had pink pegs to track rows, pattern repeats, stitches---I LOVED it but it's not made anymore.  Maybe a Susan Boyle item.  So wish they would make it again.  It kept track of more than one thing if you had a "busy" pattern.

rkr4cds wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 3:12 PM

I have many antique and vintage needlework tools and accessories in my collections; one of my favorites is a a Linen Counter.

Of Brass with a magnifying glass in the middle section, it's approximately a 1½"  x ⅝"  tri-fold, in a well-worn leather case, meant to be carried in the pocket by one who inspects Linen (and other textiles) for the correct number of threads-per-square-inch: when it unfolds it's self-standing.

bikerdot wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 2:39 PM

I, too, have a Forget-me-Not ruler just like the one pictured.  It was bought in the 70's when I was doing a lot knitting and was resurrected when I took up knitting again about 3 years ago along with many knitting needles I had the presence of mind to keep.

Debra P wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 2:23 PM

Early "plastic" knitting needles were made of celluloid, which was inflammable. I still have a few of these from my grandmothers' stashes.

Jean@95 wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 2:15 PM

I recently got my mom's knitting computer, so seeing this in your post was a nice reminder of Mom. Very handy tool indeed.

on Mar 7, 2012 1:59 PM

I am a leathercrafter by trade, and one of my pieces of equipment, is called a "third hand" and although it is not so pretty as the antique ones, it does the same thing.  Weaver leather in Ohio carry them.

on Mar 7, 2012 1:21 PM

Where is a book when you want it? As a Home Ec major in college, I had a book on the development of textiles as that is what was my major in those courses. Apparently, until the development of the knitting machine, the stockings that were part of a cottage industry could only be worn by the nobility. On knitter who was working over time to knit those stockings had a husband--probably one of the persons you mention --became the person who invented the knitting machine to help his wife. This was sort of like the beginning of the industrial revolution for many in the cottage industry whose hand knits were the only way stockings were knit at that time. After that, more common people could afford to have knit stockings  as the machines became the tool of choice for many.  Probably, after that, the Ludites, a group who so seriously felt threatened by the introduction of machines like this, went about destroying what ever machines they could find.I think that there are still people like that today and that group has not stopped but is not as prominent today.

deyaneria wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 1:18 PM

I love the knitting computer that is an awesome tool. I was lucky to be gifted a 1914 gearheart circular sock knitting in almost perfect working order. Still learning how to use the ribber on it but I have made 4 prs of regular stockinette socks on it.

TravlinWoman wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 12:34 PM

Let's have the knitting computer tool again!  I think it would be easier to count gauge with that than the measure I currently use.

Suzie G wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 12:26 PM

I have one of the "Knitter's Computers" and I love and still use it! I definately agree that someone should take up your challege to bring them back!

Great tool and great idea!

Suzie Garner

SinclairS wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 12:19 PM

I don't have a tools comment, but a comment about the word "inflammable."  I was flummoxed by the word "non-inflammable," as it seems to be a double negative, which would mean that the item was, in fact, flammable.  However, a bit of research turned up the fact that "inflammable" means "flammable," or "capable of being set on fire."  Therefore, "non-inflammable" means that the [knitting needles] were NOT capable of being set on fire.  My guess is that some of the plastic needles COULD be set aflame, thus the need to disclaim flammability on these needles?

See discussion of "Flammable" v. "Inflammable"

and the definition of "Inflammable" with explanation of its origins in the Usage Note on

Thank you for a very interesting and fun article!

Rizor wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 12:09 PM

If you want to know more about Circular Sock Machines (CSM), start with

then check out the many videos on YouTube showing them in action.  Yes, once you know what you are doing, you can make a pair of socks in less than an hour!

KateM@40 wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 12:01 PM

I know that for a while, they made some knitting needles out of celluloid, an early plastic (also used for dolls and early movie film).  These were VERY flammable, so later plastic needles would have wanted to distance themselves from the older ones.

gbjane wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 12:01 PM

Found a on-the-needle row counter with a small tape measure in it -- made in England.  Have shown it to several folks and they had not seen anything like it either.

JeanRI wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 11:59 AM

I have a sewing bird and never knew what is was used for.  It has been passed down in our family.  Thank you for the information.

auntemeg wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 11:56 AM

Thank you for telling us of the passing of Erica Wilson. Her book was also a tremendous inspiration to me as I embarked on my lifelong love affair with needlework. She introduced me to bargello, graduated to needlepoint, moved on to weaving, then just launched from there. I can still see her sunny face smiling back at us from various patterns and stories. Thanks to Erica Wilson who truly left her mark on the earth.

knitguy114 wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 11:52 AM

I have a Knitter's Computer I "inherited" from someone, not sure where it came from.  I keep it for the nostalgia.  I also have some all metal circular needles.  The cable is like a tight coil, I wonder where they came from as well.

Sblack wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 11:35 AM

Erica Wilson was a legend with the needle...the Martha Stewart of the 70's.  I was lucky enough at the time to spend my summers on Nantucket Island.  My first year there I signed up for Erica's Embroidery Class. The next year it was needlepoint. Returning years I would frequent her little colorful shop on Main street to purchase my project for days spend at the beach.  One of her needlepoint kits proudly hangs still over my desk here as I type. She was a wonderful teacher who inspired  the young girl in me to enjoy needlearts.  Thank you for that reminder of wonderful memories!

on Mar 7, 2012 11:31 AM

I remember when I bought my Erica Wilson Embroidery Book as it it was yesterday.  I would not give up my book for anything. I have other Embroidery Books, but they only sit on the shelf.  Erica's book is well used.

I am so sad to hear she passed.

jojobrow wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 11:23 AM


Is the pom tree history?

Judy C wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 11:19 AM

I recently discovered a lucet. Learning to make straps for my knit felt purses with a homemade lucet.  The straps are more rectangular than rounded. Nice effect.  Also got a great photo of an "Army Wife's Sewing Kit " from WW II at the Air and Space museum, priceless.  

Solsken wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 9:29 AM

I WISH a company would re-make the Forget-Me-Not Knitter's Computer!

I have been trying to find one and have been unsuccessful (needless to say, I can sympathize with your mother with the book too!)

Ysabel180 wrote
on Mar 7, 2012 7:41 AM

I love that Bickford Family knitting machine. Where did your friend find hers!?