Image © Hazel P. Mason

It’s been eight years in the making, but finally, its here.

‘Their Darkest Materials’ started when I was researching something else entirely. I kept stumbling on these gems of stories – absolutely fascinating, and textile related, yet not quite what I was writing about at the time.

So I started my own word-hoard; gradually amassing a fair bit of research; things found in archives, newspaper reports and various other sources all outlining the darker side of textile history. I wasn’t even sure where I was going with this, or what angle to take, when someone who had booked and re-booked us for talks several times, asked me to do another talk and wondered what I was writing about at the moment. The research notes were loosely connected with the working title “Dark Side” and so, as I talked about a potential future talk, as I heard myself speaking I sort of realised this was not unlike a sort of horrible histories for adults – and so ‘Their Darkest Materials’ was born. Not unfittingly, I had this conversation in the bowels of Armley Mills, now Leeds Industrial Museum. The chapter on child labour mentions that very mill’s owner, coincidentally, when he gave evidence to a parliamentary commission into child labour.

So it’s fit that down in the basement of Armley Mills, my nebulous ‘Dark Side’ notes suddenly coagulated into ‘Their Darkest Materials’. Somehow, it all fell into place. That talk, a year or so later, was packed to the gunnels with over 200 people and we knew we were onto something.

The book is available in our Etsy shop, as a physical copy for £16.99 or a downloadable pdf (non-interactive) for £12.



Here’s a little taster of what’s inside:

“… One political prisoner, this time in England, was Jeremiah Brandreth, 1785 – 1817. Jeremiah was a stocking maker and Luddite who fought for workers’ rights in Nottinghamshire. He was thought to have been involved in the Luddite actions of 1811, and in 1817, decided to levy a force of 20,000 men to march on London and storm the Tower. His group was infilitrated by government spies. Brandreth led the Pentrich Rising – an uprising of 1817 during which he shot through the window of a house and killed a servant.  He was executed at Derby jail after being set up by a spy. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered along with two other men but the Prince Regent commuted the quartered part of the sentence – they were to be hung then beheaded. Although a stocking frame (machine) knitter, Jeremiah would have been able to knit by hand as well, to turn heels, or do complex operations the stocking frame couldn’t perform. Contemporary accounts of Jeremiah’s time in prison said:

“… During those hours in which Brandreth was not occupied in prayer, he occupied himself in knitting a work-bag for his wife, upon the surface of which he had contrived to form, with different coloured cottons, various ornaments: – This he mentioned in a letter written just before his execution, as his last relic…”

Caledonian Mercury, Saturday, November 15, 1817.

In his final letter to his wife, Jeremiah Brandreth mentions ‘… one work-bag, two balls of worsted, and one of cotton; and a handkerchief, an old pair of stockings and shirt…Adieu! Adieu to all for ever…’

The chaplain present remarked that Brandreth went to his death resolutely.

The work-bag alluded to was made by Brandreth himself, knitted from cotton, and was about eight inches square, drawn together at the top, and ornamented on each side with bunches of flowers worked in different coloured cottons. This, as well as the other things specified, were inclosed in a small canvas bag, which was extremely dirty.

After Brandreth and his two co-defendants were hung, their bodies were cut down and their heads severed with an axe.  When the executor held up Jeremiah’s head by the hair and shouted the customary:

“Behold, the head of a traitor!” the crowd stood balefully, refusing to cheer.  The government had dispatched mounted cavalry amongst the crowd with orders to start attacking them at the first sign of any insurrection.   Within two years, the infamous Peterloo massacre happened when local Yeomanry attacked a crowd in Manchester, gathered at a political rally.   Fortunately for Jeremiah’s crowd, the uneasy silence failed to break out into an actual riot so this time the citizens were spared the government’s wrath.

Jeremiah Brandreth chose to knit to pass the time in prison but sometimes in the UK, prisoners were made to knit as part of their punishment and also to save the authorities money; knitting stockings for themselves and fellow inmates, as well as sewing their uniforms:

“The system adopted by Mrs Fry … for reclaiming and improving the condition of the female prisoners in Newgate, has been eminently successful. Within a period of little more than three months the women and girls have made nearly 4000 shirts &c. They have knitted 220 pairs of socks and stockings, and have lately commenced the spinning of flax. The amelioration in their morals has kept place with their progress in habits of industry.

The Morning Post, Monday, August 11, 1817

In November 1831, Jane Robinson, a debtor imprisoned in Lincoln Castle, said to a fellow inmate:

“As I have just got my knitting done, I will now read the Bible to you.” and the very next second, dropped down dead. The coroner’s inquest returned a verdict, ‘Died by the visitation of God, occasioned by the rupture of an internal blood-vessel.’    Jane had been a ‘respectable’ woman who was known to be religious. She was 61. A heartbreaking codicil to the story appeared in the newspaper, the day after the first article about Jane’s sudden death:

“..Her friends made application to her creditor for her body, that it might be taken home for interment, to which he assented; but this being opposed by his attorney, on the ground of its illegality, the deceased was buried in the usual place in the Castle-yard, on Saturday afternoon…”

The Leicester Chronicle: or, Commercial and Agricultural Advertiser, Saturday, November 12, 1831

The creditor was the person to whom Jane had owed money, who will have obtained the court order to have her imprisoned and it was their decision whether this hardworking, pious woman’s body could be returned to her loved ones or suffer the eternal indignity of being buried with criminals.


In 1843, one Northumberland prisoner was revealed to be a muffattee (fingerless mitts) smuggler:

“Ellen McGurch, a character well known to the turnkeys in Morpeth Gaol, was brought before the Mayor of Morpeth… charged with having stolen a quantity of articles, the property of the Governor of Morpeth Gaol, previous to her discharge from prison a few days previously. … it appears that Mr. Cousis gives each prisoner about half a pound of  yarn at a time to knit stockings with – that the stockings are not weighed after being made… the prisoner went to Campbell’s lodging house, where a bundle, containing a quantity of stockings, was seen in her possession – that she was also seen undressed – with a large quantity of stockings sewed round her shift – that her shift was doubled up at the bottom and a quantity of muffatees filled into the double … that she sold two pair of stockings to Mrs. Young of the Wheat Sheaf Inn… the female prisoners, instead of knitting the stockings with the yarn given to them, make muffatees and other articles… carry them out of the prison with them, and then dispose of them for money or drink…”

The Newcastle Journal, Saturday, January 28, 1843

Who’d have thought that knitted items and yarn were a woolly currency in the criminal underworld..?”

We’re keeping going, of course, but wanted to open this site specifically for ‘Their Darkest Materials’ and other forthcoming books, patterns and information from Pretty Baa Lambs Press, which is our imprint.

Look out for my latest series of articles about knitting and related artefacts in museums across the UK, in ‘The Knitter’ magazine.