Women’s Work.

Ever since I was about 11 I have done this. My aunt tried to teach me. She would never sit without her hands being busy. She made beautiful Arran sweaters with an ease that astonished. A small woman, sometimes it seemed that the jumpers were bigger than her. Loved to watch her hands move and the single strand be wound and built into an intricate garment. She tried to teach me but I could make no sense of it. As she grew older her arthritic hands and shoulders couldn’t hold the weight of the wool so for the last 20 or so years of her life her hands would be earily empty. How I wish I had claimed her old pattern books. I loved my aunt.

The one day I fell in love with a piece of Fairisle in beige and brown and then I magically just ‘knew’ how to knit. I think she was pleased. Obviously something of what she had tried to teach me had gone in and just waited for me to ‘learn’ it, as is the way with teaching and learning sometimes.

So, when I went to college I did a part of my thesis on the knitting of the Fairisles and Arran. I learned how the different patterns had a macabre reason for being, apart from the thickening extra layers of warmth given to the garments. It seemed that when the drowned bodies of sailors were washed ashore you could recognize their identity from the patterns on the sweaters.  I also learned that knitting was not done as a ‘hobby’ but as a way to make new garments, and sometimes extra income.

I marvelled at pictures showing miners walking to work whilst knitting socks, wool and needles tucked under their arms. It seemed that at one time it was associated far more with both sexes. ( Good to see it making a strong come back with many male knitwear designers.) Now I learn that there were special tools to help people knit while walking. I knit in what I would call my ‘idle’ moments. In the past people couldn’t afford to have ‘idle’ moments.

knitting with a child

So, recently I got the bug again.The desire to ‘take up the needles’ had been lurking ever since Little Beau Peep came into my mind when working on The Cat and the Fiddle. She is a petite knitting super hero with a quiver of needles, and she too knits as she walks ( it is funny how some images dwell in the mind’s eye) with her giant sheep.

Little Beau Peep

(The artwork is for sale in The House of Golden Dreams, alongside prints and the book is available in libraries and all good independent bookshops.)

So, I went to Colourways in Whitland. Who would have thought that Whitland would have such a treasure as this amazing shop filled with gorgeous yarns from Rowan? There I bought some wool, a pattern book or two and set forth on a new project.

Little Beau’s knitting grew directly out of one of Rowan’s catalogues, from something I hope to knit myself one day.

Little Beau's knitting pattern book

Ever since I first found Rowan Wool in a shop called Shepherd’s Purse, now long gone, I have loved the texture, quality, colours and the patterns from Rowan. They took knitting out of the dark ages and into fashion, and their pattern books are just wonderful. I wish I had some of my old ones from 20 years ago. When I was at college I used to knit for The Shepherd’s Purse ( learning the true meaning of the phrase ‘pin money’). I couldn’t afford to buy the wool for myself, but loved working with it.

So now, while I think about dragons and book-worms and white bears and white ravens my hands move over a blue thread, winding and twining it with bamboo needles worn smooth by use, and a jumper grows slowly.

My nitting and the pattern book it comes frombamboo knitting needles

My needles once belonged to my friends’ grandmother and I love that connection to their family. I only knew her as a tiny, frail old lady, but once she was the most beautiful young woman, unaware of the man she would marry, children she would have, and grandchildren too. Now I am waiting for what would have been her first great grandchild to be born, any day now, and I wonder what this child’s life will hold, what adventures await. Perhaps when I have finished my sweater I will use her needles to make something for the baby. I think she would like that.

I drew Claire the other day.  Not a brilliant drawing, I could never do justice to her beauty but I am so glad that I did the drawing. It has more faults about it than I would like, but it also has something that I do like. My beautiful, tired friend.

Claire, pregnant

Looking forward to drawing the baby too.

About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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22 Responses to Women’s Work.

  1. mel says:

    Ahh a blog about knitting and then Claire in ink, has this post been designed to make me all happy and then make me blub my eyes out before I go to bed ?
    It really looks like Claire all tired and ready to take on the baby challenge, so looking forward to hearing about when the baby arrives (not the horrible bits though), I’m missing her lots.
    Those needles look fab, I love the bamboo ones, I must do some hand knitting, I can’t do many stitches but if I actually put my mind to it I’m sure I could learn more.
    I love the blue you have chosen and I’ll look forward to seeing the finished jumper.
    Happy knitting xxx miss you too xxx

  2. kaiteM says:

    such a beautiful story here, i am also a dedicated knitter but i’ve not yet trained my dog to hold the yarn while we walk along. i love your artwork.

  3. WOL says:

    You reminded me of one of my stories with its scene about Arianuala and Siobhan walking through the fields with the cattle, sheep and goats carding wool and talking about nothing and everything the way young girls do, or else singing songs together in harmony.

  4. What a lovely thought…that you have hand-me-down special needles. I do too, from my ex mother-in-law. They belong to my daughter Chloe now. I’ve discovered that I love to crochet, (although I’m only learning). Hey, have you ever seen the Japanese flower scarves that are so popular right now? I hope to make one…one day…er…soon.

  5. M-C says:

    You wrote a thesis about these sweaters and actually believe that hogwash about kntting different patterns so that drowned bodies would be recognized?? No doubt some bodies were recognized by their sweaters, just like they are by their dental work now :-). But if you did really knit, you’d know that patterns are individual because the knitter expresses herself through them, and because knitting the same thing over and over would be heinously boring, and because artistic individuality is always prized by both the maker herself and her community. No need to drag in doubtful legends, even if rural rather than urban.

    • Jackie says:

      It wasn’t a very good thesis, and I was aware that there was doubt as to whether the patterns were used for identification. But there were many references to it. It seemed that the main reason for cabling was that it thickened the fabric making it warmer. And the patterns evolved to be family connected, I suppose because the families knitted together and patterns passed down through the families. At one time I knew what some of the different patterns represented, but have forgotten now. Loved the texture of my aunt’s Arran sweaters, and the weight of the wool too. And I was always astonished at how my gran could turn a heel on a sock. So long since I have done any knitting that I have had to go back to single colour stocking stitch as the cable and the fairisle was too much for my poor old brain to cope with ( only because I like to watch films while knitting and was getting everything in a tangle) Anyway, I will try not to drown, unless I am wearing Arran that is identifiable, just so that I can perpetuate the myth.

      • M-C says:

        Both cables and colorwork thicken fabric in a way that’s very good for warmth. That doesn’t mean that beauty isn’t a factor when one chooses what pattern to knit, in fact I think it’s one of the main factors. Many traditional fisherman’s sweaters were also knit in ways that didn’t add any warmth, like ganseys or striped bretons.

        And of course one would develop family patterns over time, so to speak. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily unique to the family, it’s just a way to acknowledge something meaningful to you, or the person who taught you something. I like to dye ‘Sarah orange’, and use “Judith lace’, just like I make ‘Eva brownies’. I’m not related to any of them, incidentally. So the “acknowledgement pattern” is still in force, but now that most people’s world is larger than the family and many even reach worldwide with the net, it encompasses a much wider circle.

        Anyway, repeating a doubtful legend as fact is not helpful. If you feel compelled to repeat it because you think it’s a good story, at least present it as a story clearly. Just because it’s in print or on the net doesn’t make anything true, but it’s tedious to see such repetition.

        • Jackie says:

          Sorry that you find it tedious. I have been re-learning things that I knew and also realising my own mistakes. Looking online to see the origins of the myth it seems to come from a play in the early 20th century. But the same source also casts doubt on the jumpers being ‘fishermen’s’ garments. Also there are suggestions that initials were knitted into sweaters?

  6. Jackie says:

    PS I did my thesis before there were computers, wikipedia etc, so I studied from books, not the web, books on folklore and knitting and island life. Wish I still had the books now. They had wonderful photos in of people sat around in groups in sunshine all knitting, most working with four needles, all ages, all sexes. Also lots of info on spinning and treating wool.

    • Maryom says:

      I’ve read a similar thing re identifying fishermen through the patterns on their ‘ganseys’ – not necessarily individuals, but the place they’d come from, as before pattern books designs stayed in the place they were created. Jumpers from Fair Isle or Aran look very different to any other after all and I don’t think there was anything in British knitting similar to the ‘brocade’ stitches from, I think, Dalarna in Sweden.
      BTW – I have a book on Scandinavian knitting with an old photograph in it which shows a man and wife working together on a large piece of circular knitting

    • How wonderful! I would have loved to do a thesis on something as romantic as the history of those sweaters. No wonder you have such a brilliant imagination. My thesis was on savonious wind turbines for 3rd world use. (Also no computers; god, remember the microfiche?) I would like to tell you a little story. I have a 1959 mini seven which I drive in E. Oh the anoraks I’ve met who want to disprove the car’s age thru inane things like: “in 1959 that rivet should have been 1/4 “ to the right of that seam, so that proves it’s a 1960”. Why should it matter? Does it make my car less cute, me less sexy driving in it? I don’t think so. (Oh, but now feel bad about all the sweaters I shrunk in washes past) 🙂

  7. Thoma says:

    This link to a special knitting site of a man, who did a lot of research on this special subject might help:
    He also wrote about knitting tools used in those times and how to make them now, i.e.: http://gansey.blogspot.de/search?q=sheath

    Which needle size you are knitting with?

    I also wanted to let you know how I appriciate your drawings. Happy, that I stumbled about your blogs a long time ago.

    • Jackie says:

      4 1/2 mm needles, bamboo. They are lovely. Light but strong. I also have a random collection of crochet hooks from my mum, her neighbour and my aunt. Some are metal. I think one is bone. Must dig them out. Will have a look at the gansey man. And thank you.

      • Thoma says:

        Ahh, I forgot to mention the site of Gordon, whose humor and writing style I love a lot as well as his knitting abilities.
        Unfortunately it’s not so easy to transport his words to my husband, because sometimes the translation lacks a bit due to the sudden loss of the correct word- by heard I know the excact meaning, but sometimes it’s hard to find it in German without a dictionary.

  8. I love the idea of dead seamen being recognised from the patterns in their jumpers, even if the idea is more legend. Legends are always born of truth, anyway, so keep on knitting and blogging [and painting, of course], Jackie

  9. I love your posts, Jackie 😀
    I do love knitting but I’m terrible at it, my forte is crochet 😀 Any drowned sailors wearing my knitwear would be easily recognised, tangled in odd length sleeves and strangled by the too tight neckline, haha!

  10. Margarette Wagner says:

    feel compelled to add my 2 cents. Being a sailor , this all made great sense to me. It spurred a wonderful discussion with my husband on various cultures means to identify their seaman should the worst occur.( My daughter graduates this week from US Naval Boot camp and I am thinking a sweater is in order!). reading this has inspired me to do some research , read some books , look at some pictures. It also brought back sweet memories of my mother, I could almost hear the clicking of her needles. Last , I remembered I had some unfinished knitting of my own calling out from the back of a closet. I don’t know what you wish to achieve with a blog, but if it is bringing people around the globe together and making them feel like family. If it is sharing yourself and your art ,imparting a good story, fact, myth, legend or otherwise or just making us smile you are doing a wonderful job!

  11. Davena Hooson says:

    Here’s a lovely blog – he’s a friend of mine – all about ganseys, and much else. Hope you enjoy it.

  12. Jackie says:

    More on the great drowned sailor/ gansey debate. http://www.ganseys.com/?page_id=1698

  13. Deborah Reakes says:

    I vaguely remember The Shepherd’s Purse from visit’s to Bath when I was growing up, my Mum is a knitter and I’m pretty sure she used to take me there, although I can’t remember where it was now. I remember it being a lovely shop, full of earthy colours.
    I love Rowan wool, years ago I bought quite a lot of it with the intention of knitting a really complicated cardigan I’d seen in one of Kaffe Fassett’s books – the cardigan never got finished and the wool is still in the attic somewhere! There was an amazing exhibition of Kaffe Fassett’s work at The American Museum in Bath about 2 years ago, I love his use of colour and pattern. The exhibition was great and I got to see yarnbombing for the first time.
    I really enjoyed reading this post, the passing down of a craft from generation to generation is so special and makes such lovely memories.

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