Since visiting Shetland last month and buying some lace weight wool I have been looking at how knitting has developed as part of island culture. There are many traditional knitting patterns from various islands available on-line and while distinctive they also have much in common. Knitting seems to be an island hobby related to the availability of wool, the need for warm clothing and as a local source of income. So far I've found traditional knitting patterns from Shetland, Iceland, Fair Isle, Guernsey, Jersey and Ireland. I've put some links on my list for anyone who's interested. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with this information but it's fascinating to see how knitting has developed in these relatively isolated communities.
Although garments were first knitted for utilitarian purposes the knitters developed intricate patterns and colours which required intense work. Most of this work would have been done in winter, in relative darkness, by candle or firelight. And of course you had to spin your wool first. I watched someone spinning when I was up in Shetland. It looked very calming and restful but I was soon put off when the spinner told me how long it would take her to spin the small quantity of fleece she had with her - just a handful would keep her going for weeks. No wonder the invention of the spinning jenny was so welcome!
My resolution (again!) for the rest of this year is not to buy any more wool but to get through at least some of the stash I've got. The problem is of course that I keep going to places where wool is for sale and falling in love with it. Buying wool is highly addictive but I must go back and have a look at what I've already got - I think I will be pleasantly surprised and hopefully will fall in love with some of it again and get on with knitting it. I've got four items on the go at the moment and must finish at least one of them before I start any more.
A friend has asked me to knit her daughter a Christmas stocking to match the one she has. We've found a pattern on-line dated 1925 which looks exactly like the one she wants. So I need to go to a wool store and match up the yarn. There --- I've almost broken my resolution immediately, but in a good cause of course.
It's been a particularly stressful 18 months for various reasons - both home and work related. Looking back on how I have coped two things spring to mind - chocolate and knitting! I have no hangups about the chocolate habit, whatever has got me through all this has to be good and I've got it under control (I think!). Knitting however has added benefits. Once you've eaten that bar of chocolate it's gone. Once you've finished a piece of knitting it's there for ever, either to keep and cherish or to give away to someone who will appreciate not just the article but the time and patience that went into creating it.
That's the thing about knitting, it's creative as well as being calming. There is something so relaxing about the simple repetitive movement of needle in, wool round, needle through and stitch off. You repeat it time and time again and it develops a rhythm of its own. I started with squares which require very little thought, are small enough to finish quickly, and build up into something as large or as small as you wish - a cushion cover, a small blanket or a large afghan. Then I moved onto socks and these were wonderful. Again they are small enough to finish quickly, and small enough to carry around wherever you go. They require some concentration at key points but a lot of the time you can just pick them up and do a few rows. With the wonderful wool around they look fantastic and they make fabulous presents. Currently I'm knitting a scarf with 2 ply (lace) wool from Shetland and there is only 1 pattern row. That's just right for knitting on the train or at odd moments, without getting involved in a complicated pattern with lots of wool.
Knitting therapy really works for me. However agitated or worked up I feel about yet another thing that has gone wrong knitting never fails to calm me down. I knit on the train on the way to work and on the way home; I sat quietly at the back of a wedding service on Saturday and got my knitting out (I wasn't a guest but one of the bell ringers waiting for the service to finish so we could start ringing again). I have knitted in lectures and at presentations, not because I wasn't concentrating on what was being said but because having my hands and one part of my brain busy helps me to focus on what is being said. I have knitted on our narrowboat and on ferries. I haven't managed to get my knitting needles past airport security so I haven't knitted on a plane but am working on that one! When I next fly to China I will take some wool and use the plastic chopsticks that they provide with the airline meal. So if you see someone knitting in an unlikely place it might be me, particularly if I am looking calm and relaxed.
Why knotty knitting? My sister and I took our narrow boat from Furness Vale on the Peak Forest Canal to Chester a couple of years ago. It took us a week and we had lots of fun and adventures on the way - some of them will never be revealed. On arrival in Chester we, metaphorically, ran into a boat with several Dutch people on board. Both my sister and I had been knitting at various stages of the journey; I was steering into moorings and my sister was standing beside me knitting. We heard a shriek from the other boat: "There's a woman over there, knotting. Look, on that boat, she's knotting!" And so knotty knitting was born, in memory of that linguistic error which seemed so apt.
My interest in the women of the canals grew when I was looking for books about narrowboats and the lives of the people who lived and worked on them before they became part of the leisure industry. There are very few books written from the perspective of the women but many from an engineering or industrial view point. I wanted to know what it was like to live and work on a narrowboat, to bring your family up in one tiny cabin, to steer the boat, look after the horse, cook, clean, wash, have babies, all with a husband who was off brokering the next deal or loading cargo. At last I found a book and loved it for its tales of just this sort of life. The contrast between the lives of these women in the first half of the 20th century and my own where narrowboating is a leisure activity prized for its peaceful and gentle way of life couldn't be greater. What woman toiling away in all weathers, losing her children to the multiple accidents of a very dangerous life, and destined for an early grave, would ever have imagined that one day people would do this for fun?
One occupation which ran alongside everything else they did was knitting. Women steered narrowboats with the tiller tucked under one arm, a baby swaddled or feeding under the other, and both hands occupied with needles and wool. As I struggle into a tight lock or between moored boats I realise that for these women multi-tasking was not just a way of life it was a necessity. And so in tribute to these harworking, talented and forgotten women I knit whenever I can. Yes, I have managed to do it while steering, only for a few minutes and only when there was a perfectly straight stretch of canal and no other boats in sight. But my knitting and my love of narrowboats is intertwined and knotting is shorthand for this.
I recently visited my sister who has just moved to Shetland. Amazing place with a long history of knitting. Wasn't going to be tempted by all the fantastic wool on sale of course as we are in the process of gutting our house and I am having to hide my stash from my long suffering partner. So I didn't really bring much back but what I did is fabulous to knit. I went for lace weight - but am going to get my sister to bring me some cobweb weight when she next comes down. I am really into knitting with this fine yarn. I don't think I'll ever get round to knitting the cobweb weight shawls which are so fine you can pull them through a wedding ring but am happy to have a go at scarves with it. I also bought some more sock wool - well you can't not buy it can you?
So that's the knitting bit. The writing is coming on but just need to send some off to possible publishers. Have got a couple of short stories, some poems and three articles. The reason of course that they don't get into print is that they tend to stay on my computer rather than go anywhere else. So maybe I'll use this blog. Here's one for starters that I wrote very quickly as an exercise on a creative writing course with the Arvon Foundation.
Something old, something new,
Something borrowed, something blue.
My love was old, old as the hills, old as the sky;
My love was new, new as the dawn, new as the rain;
My love was borrowed;
Borrowed from the woman down the road whose bed he left to come to me;
My love was blue;
Blue as my heart when I shut the door behind him and picked up the post from the mat.