By the mid 1700s, as knitting skills spread throughout Scotland, a thriving cottage industry was established. It first produced mainly simple knitted stockings in great numbers for sale to the home market and to the colonies. The ancient burgh of Sanquhar was ideally located for this, in good sheep country with soft water for processing wool and established roads following the river valleys to markets in central Scotland. The origins of the distinctive two-coloured pattern to which the town gave its name are obscure but date from the late 1700s. They have some similarities with traditional knitting from Scandinavia and Afghanistan. Ideas may have travelled these distances but it is also possible that they arose independently from the simple coincidence of similar solutions being found to similar problems.
The most common design in a grid of black and white wool is called the Duke. The other main patterns are Prince of Wales, Shepherd’s plaid, Rose and Trellis, Drum and Cornet, Pheasants or Birds Eye and one of the oldest, Midge and Flea.
The entire Scottish hand-knitting industry declined dramatically in the final years of the 18th century. This was caused by a variety of factors; the loss of trade to the American Colonies, the disruption to commerce caused by revolution and wars in Europe; the increasing industrialization of the spinning and processing of wool; and the competition from cheaper, machine-framed garments.
With the recent appreciation of traditional knitting, the Sanquhar pattern has again become widely known. Though, while in use in gloves and scarves, it has yet to return to larger garments and my Sanquhar waistcoat seems to be unique!
Sanquhar Tolbooth to a design by William Adam, 1735