Knitting & Crochet Chatelaine

by Eleanor Hughes, 1903

Inventor

  • NAMEEleanor E. Hughes
  • PATENTGB190217277A
  • DATEJuly 9, 1903
  • LOCATIONPatented in the UK
  • INVENTION“Bags for Holding Wool for Knitting or Crochet Work”
  • THEMEWorking
BIO —

Eleanor Elizabeth Hughes was working as a lady’s maid at Newton Park, Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire in 1902. We have not been able to trace her via the census records and it is likely that she would have been relatively transient, moving between different employees. The 1911 census shows a 39-year-old Mary Hughes working as a servant at Newton Park and later in Birkenhead, North West England.

Invention

PROBLEM —

We speculate that Hughes would have had few options for storing threads or yarns for use in knitting and crochet, either within practices of her paid work, repairing her own belongings or perhaps as a compact leisure activity that could be picked up and put down as time allowed. Working as a lady’s maid, she also would have had very little time and space of her own. The challenges are compounded because yarns tangle easily, and need a certain amount of management to be able to work with them effectively.

SOLUTION —

Hughes’ solution was to design a compartmented bag in which wool or cotton threads could be stored while also keeping them separate. The purse-style metal top of the bag has holes to allow the ends of the wool or cotton to pass through and be separated to work with. The bag has a side opening for access and a chatelaine hook to enable it to suspend and be worn, making it a portable wearable device.

“A bag with a metal top secured like a purse (...) with one or more apertures in top for wool or cotton to pass through separately.”
— Eleanor Hughes, inventor
Another invention by Eleanor Hughes

Eleanor Hughes successfully patented again in 1913 (GB191209795A).

She was still a domestic servant – working as a maid attendant in Birkenhead. Again, her living and working conditions would have been minimal and cramped and unlikely to have given her much life/work separation. This time she invented a “Portable Work Table”.  Similar to the knitting and crochet chatelaine, this invention also provided a mobile working space.

Patenting twice, while working in this very labour-intensive, time-consuming role, points to an ambitious individual imagining a life beyond that of her daily servitude.

Speculatively Sewing Eleanor Hughes's Invention

We made many iterations of Hughes’s invention – a small-scale paper model, a full-sized calico toile and finally a performance piece using high-vis Dashing Tweed. The latter featured in the “POCKETS of POWER” show, developed in collaboration with feminist theatre company Scary Little Girls and Dr Naomi Paxton in her cabaret persona, Ada Campe.

Like many patents, this appears to be simple in text and drawing. It is a small bag that is worn on the body, secured from the waist, at easy access to the hands. It was designed to contain multiple knitting and crochet projects that a busy worker like Hughes might have on the go. The complexities of the invention lie inside; with its divided interior and multiple compartments.

The exterior pocket carried finished projects or an extra ball of wool. The two internal pockets kept projects separate and the divided opening at the top enabled wool or yard to “pass separately”. The overall aim was to keep “the balls separate and to prevent them from getting tangled”. It was “suspended by a chatelaine hook and chain or strap or cord”. In many ways, this invention is a portable pocket filled with pockets.

Hughes would have had scarce space or enough time to fulfil her work duties let alone anything else, but in her two patents we gain insights into the desires she might have had to be more than just a maid to a lady. With her inventions she transgresses some of the boundaries that conventionally shaped and contained lives like hers. Much like her kitting and crochet projects, they enable her to partition her life of servitude away from her personal (or perhaps even entrepreneurial) activities. She could create clear divisions to claim space in a place that would never be hers.

More research into Hughes' invention