In the comments on yesterday’s post, Heather linked to an interesting take on the “when is a tapestry not a tapestry” question from a tapestry weaver who strongly objects to the misappropriation of the term in reference to non-woven textiles. I am often struck by how textiles, more than other disciplines, seems prone to practices of woeful mis-naming, and the piece raises many moot points, particularly in relation to the gender associations of the terms “tapestry” and “embroidery.” I suppose this is what I was hinting towards yesterday in suggesting that the term “tapestry” has, in the popular imagination, a public, narrative dimension, that the word “embroidery” does not. It is certainly very sad that this is so, and the linguistic perceptions and politics of these terms in contemporary discourse seem to me quite difficult to unravel. But whether or not the nomenclature of the “Great Tapestry” has a masculine ring, one could certainly never criticise this project for its masculine bias. Women formed the majority of the talented stitchers, and not only are women represented everywhere in the tapestry, but individual panels are used to proudly celebrate the ordinary work of Scottish women in a way that is all too rarely seen in public contexts. A few weeks ago I climbed the Wallace Monument with my dad (who is a Wallace on his mother’s side, and is known by everyone as “Wal”). Half way up the tower we discovered the “hall of heroes” – a sterile space filled with the equally sterile busts of dead white men. While this room commemorates the achievements of Scotland’s philosophical, scientific, military, and literary blokes, there is not a single woman in sight. I scoured the information panels, and finally found Jane Carlyle, who received the briefest of mentions in relation to her husband. Jane and I were the only women in the room, and I wonder if she would have felt as irritated as I did. A wee girl, with a burgeoning interest in Scottish history, might find little in that room with which to identify, while her brother might be reinforced in his tacit belief that only men do important things. One of the many functions of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it seems to me, is as an educational resource and thank goodness that the project exuberantly and thoughtfully celebrates the important work of Scotland’s women authors, political activists, washerwomen, fisher-lassies, and knitters, and places that work in a public context, alongside more familiar “masculine” achievements.
On with some highlights.
Panel 99: James Clerk Maxwell One of many occasions where I was struck by the wit and inventiveness of Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs. The colourful waves of Maxwell’s beard capture his work on magnetism and electricity.
Panel 103: Shinty and Curling I was bowled over by the beauty and precision of the stitching on this panel, created by Susie Finlayson and Linda Jobson. Look at the tartan! The knitted hose! The herringbone woven jacket! The way the wrong side of the fabric is represented!
Panels 105 and 107: The Paisley pattern and Mill Working I found both of these panels incredibly beautiful and moving: the way the faces of the mill workers had been integrated into the famous Paisley pattern, the way the colours of the embroidery precisely echoed those of the Indian subcontinent in panel 92; the sense of energy and movement in the stitching and design . . . and, of course, the fact I was viewing these panels in a mill, in Paisley.
Panel 113: The Discovery sails from Dundee One of the many things I loved about this panel was that the trades involved with the expedition were depicted and celebrated: flesher, tailor, cordiner, weaver, dyer, hammerman, bonnet maker, baker, glover.
Panel 123: Women get the vote. This panel was stitched by the Edinburgh members of Soroptimist International
When Susan Gibbs recently contacted me to ask me if I’d like to be involved in a new project, I already knew I would say yes. I love everything that Susan does at Juniper Moon Farm, and was thrilled to have an opportunity to work with her. But when she explained precisely what this project was, I was totally blown away. Let me explain: the project’s starting point was the shared desire of Susan and her friend and sheep shearer, Emily Chamelin to raise awareness among knitters of the virtues of really good, hard-wearing wool. As you are all no doubt aware, this is the kind of wool I really love; the kind with which you can knit beautiful, classic garments that will last for years, if not generations; and the kind which is unfortunately often sidelined in today’s luxury-yarn dominated market. While buttery-soft merinos and merino-blends may well be lovely to knit with, they are often not the most hard-wearing. And certainly, when used for sweaters and other outdoor garments, the fabric knitted from such yarns has an unfortunate tendency to look ratty really quickly. As shepherds and shearers, Susan and Emily are often outdoors, and what you need for outdoor work is something properly fit for purpose: namely, a good hard-wearing woolly sweater. So Emily and Susan decided to produce this ideal sweater themselves, totally from scratch. They would purchase fleeces from the clients whose sheep Emily shears, prepare and spin yarn to their own specifications, commission a couple of sweater designs, and then enable knitters to become part of the process by producing these ideal sweaters themselves. I am thrilled to have been invited, together with the redoubtable Kirsten Kapur, to create a sweater design for Emily and Susan.
The fact that shepherding and shearing are male-dominated activities is almost too obvious to state. I love how the project’s logo proudly situates Emily and Susan as representatives of these noble professions, and one of the many laudable elements to this project is that a proportion of the profits will go towards establishing a scholarship to support other women to be trained as shearers. Seriously, there are so many things I love about The Shepherd and The Shearer, that I could gush about it for hours, but I am genuinely, truly honoured to be involved in a project whose whole purpose is to celebrate wool, and to value the work of women.
I’ll be posting more about the project and my involvement in it as time goes on. In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about The Shepherd and The Shearer, or fancy signing-up to be a knitterly collaborator (spots are very limited, and open today, I believe) then head over to Juniper Moon Farm, where Susan will tell you all about it.
On Friday evening, Tom and I went to see Neeme Järvi conducting the RSNO in Shostakovitch’s 7th. I don’t think I have ever seen the Usher Hall so full – there wasn’t a spare seat to be seen – with many emotional Russians among the audience. Personally, I think it is very hard not to be emotional when listening to the Lenigrad symphony – I hear it as a sort of musical equivalent of Hannah Arendt – and its direct context in 900 brutal and evil days is inescapable and terrifying. In all senses, it was a tremendous occasion, heightened for me by what I had been reading about the Leningrad album.
During the siege, there was a massive upswell of support for the people of Leningrad among British women – particularly those of the West of Scotland. In Airdrie and Coatbridge, the women members of the Anglo-Soviet Aid Committee raised a substantial amount of money to support those suffering under the siege. They wrapped this money in a tartan-covered album, prefaced it with a quotation from Burns’s famous song about solidarity, and sent it, together with five thousand signatures and messages of personal support, to the women of Leningrad. The album traveled across Lake Ladoga’s notorious ice road to reach the besieged city, where it and its contents were gratefully received. The women of Leningrad were so touched by the album, that, even in the midst of their hardship, they produced their own gift book to return to their friends in Scotland. This book was bound in gold damask embroidery, and filled with photographs, signatures, and drawings in watercolour and pencil. An inscription on the first page of the album read:
“We have been moved to the depths of our soul by the words of love and greeting from those distanced from us in far-off Scotland. We thank you for the help you are giving us in the struggle with Hitler’s Germany. Our husbands and brothers are cut off from us, our homes are in danger, our children are doomed to destruction or bondage. The women of Leningrad, just like the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge, have risen to the defence of their homes. We are proud that we have such a worthy ally as the people of Great Britain.”
The gift book from the women of Airdrie and Coatbridge is now in the Museum of Leningrad History, while the Leningrad Album is usually housed in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. However, to accompany the RSNO’s performances of the Leningrad Symphony, it is on display for a few days in the Royal Concert Hall. Manuscript gift-books are a special interest of mine as you may know, and this one is very special indeed. We went over to Glasgow yesterday to see it. I found it incredibly moving. I also found it heartening to be reminded of women’s solidarity on a day like yesterday.
If you are in or near Glasgow, the Leningrad Album is on display in the foyer of the Royal Concert Hall (at the top of the stairs near the gift shop) until tomorrow. If you are not in Glasgow, the RSNO have displayed a selection of pages from the album here.
(Yes, that is me above the jolly mêlée on Buchanan Street. I actually managed to pick my way through that crowd in flat shoes without a stick — at least as challenging for me as any hill. After two days of Leningrad-fueled emotion, I came home feeling quite uplifted).
I do hope that all of you reading this blog realise, by now, just how important you have all been to me over the past year. It has been a very strange and challenging time for me, but you have all been there every difficult step of the way. It has helped me enormously to read your encouraging and supportive comments, and at key moments, you all helped me to stay on top of things. You were willing to share with me your own experiences of loss, illness, disability, and the endless, weird frustrations of brain damage and fatigue. You assured me that I could deal with these things. Coping with serious health issues can put one in quite a lonely place, but, because of this space, I have never felt alone. I was incredibly moved by the cards and letters you sent to me while I was in hospital, and since then, the postman has continued to deliver things to me from my ‘virtual’ friends that I have found both touching and heartening. And, a few days ago, as the first anniversary of my stroke approached, a package turned up whose contents really floored me.
Check out my new felted-tweed scarf! What a thing of knitterly JOY it is! These mitred squares were designed by Pam; the co-ordinator of the whole collaborative enterprise was sneaky, wonderful Heather; and eleven other women were involved in its production. I had the pleasure of meeting Heather in 2009, but the other knitters / crocheters are only ‘known’ to me, to a greater or lesser degree, through the interweb. I have their blogs marked in my feed reader; I follow them on flickr; I favourite their ravelry projects; I read their comments here. A couple I do not ‘know’ at all, but they know of me, and cared enough about my situation to lend their hand to a shared project that might bring me love and cheer.
In my other life as an academic, I’ve spent a lot of time researching eighteenth-century women’s correspondence, their commonplace books and albums. I am interested in these books both as material objects and as works of collaborative authorship. Transatlantic gift-books particularly intrigue me as, on many occasions, the contributors to, and recipients of these books never met each other, but felt a close connection that was just the same as if they had been friends in person. Often, (and particularly in the case of the many Quaker women I have looked at) it was the bond of family or religion that first forged that connection; but women were also brought together in the material world of the letter or gift-book through their political affiliations, a love of gardening or stitch, poetic talents, or other shared interests. Contributing to a gift-book allowed dispersed communities of women to consolidate a virtual connection in and through a material object.
Now, academic folk like me can be sniffy about drawing casual comparisons between moments and cultures that are otherwise vastly different, but particularly since my stroke, I have been very struck by how close-seeming the worlds of the transatlantic eighteenth century and the contemporary craft-related internet can be. Myself and the makers of this lovely scarf ‘know’ each other because of our mutual interest in making things; our shared likes and dislikes, our favourite patterns or techniques, our tastes, our knowledge and our expertise. Just like an eighteenth century gift-book collaboratively produced by women who did not personally ‘know’ one another, this scarf is a material object that illustrates just how meaningful such ‘virtual’ connections can be. Though I have never met them, I can see the individual signatures – the ‘handwriting’ – of my friends in their personal choice of yarn colours or design, their different gauges, and their ways of making stitches. Like many an eighteenth-century woman, I am massively cheered and comforted by their gift, and by the shared affection it suggests. And certainly, this scarf is, to me, just as precious a thing as a gift book would have been to its eighteenth-century recipient.
I love this beautiful scarf, and I love what it represents. I am grateful to its makers, and, in a larger way, over the course of the past year, I have become increasingly, incredibly, grateful to the larger knitterly community of which it is such a heartening iteration. Sometimes it seems too easy to be sentimental about knitting, but, bloody hell, over the past year I have been in need of bucketloads of knitterly sentiment. I have indeed felt the knitting LOVE.
So I am grateful to Alice, Anne, Ashley, Babs and big Babs, to Christy, Carolyn, Erin, Heather, Lauren, Maryse, to Sarah, and to Pam. And I am grateful to all of you who come here, silently or vocally, and who have all, in one way or another, buoyed me up with your good wishes. Thanks for sticking with me over this hideously testing but, in many ways, strangely re-confirming year. Big knitterly love to you all.
I am becoming obsessed with the elaborately starched and stripey ‘costume’ of the Newhaven fishwives – and what it says about the ways in which the hard lives of working women might be reinvented as romance.
These mass-produced ornaments were extremely popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They come in several varieties, and turn up on ebay from time to time. I now find myself determined to get my hands on an ornamental fishwife (If I discovered one with a pair of knitting needles in her hands I just wouldn’t trust myself). Meanwhile, I have finished writing something polemical about the interdependent activities of fishing and knitting, and have today released the pattern for Tantallon. You can find it here or here. ( Massive thanks to Gretchen and Heather for lightning-fast test-knitting and astute pattern feedback). I am not putting any pressure on myself, but I am pretty sure that further designs with connections to my local landscape will be forthcoming.
I have been playing around with ideas about mending and darning for a forthcoming article, and have been turning up some interesting tangential things in various digital collections. Pictured above are “Chicago’s top models for 1922” who have been co-opted to advertise the novel innovation of the seam ripper. The caption reads “Ripping is a pleasure with Rip-Easy!” What’s interesting about this Iowa sewing company’s choice of marketing is that it seemed to be entirely directed at men. This photo, with its group of local lovelies, “pleasurably” ripping the seams out of silk and lace while displaying their ankles, most obviously speaks to the male viewer. That same year “Rip Easy” advertised itself in Boys Life Magazine as “the best and most practical device to help the folks at home with their home sewing. Send in 10c for a sample and Do a Good Turn for Mother.” Perhaps “Rip-Easy” assumed that men and boys were more likely to be fascinated by stitching gadgets than the women stitchers themselves . . or that blokes were simply more interested in the rather racy idea of women’s ripped seams. . . either way, I’ve not found any comparable advertisments in the women’s magazines of 1922.
Here is more racy mending, from a 1904 postcard. This stitcher is clearly an impressive multi-tasker: fixing a hem while reading The Sunday Magazine and giving whoever is watching her raise her skirts a wee thrill. No matter that it is much easier to stitch a hem if one is not already wearing it, to sit in a comfortable chair while sewing, or to use a pair of scissors rather than one’s teeth: the legs are what’s at stake here.
I’ve found lots of these mildly racy, early twentieth-century images of mending, and it isn’t that surprising. Associations between mending and s*x are conventional and familiar from centuries of genre painting and portraiture: a woman looking at the work in her lap gives a man an opportunity to look at her; a female servant bent over her darning displays her hands or chest; an idle stitcher clearly has her mind on other things.
but then I began to find an awful lot of these:
which took the s*xual politics of the sewing basket to a slightly different place. . .
You may (or may not) remember that, during 2009, I set myself a project to walk every day, and to think about walking. I initially attempted to photograph and calculate the distance of my daily walks, but this part of the project quickly fell by the wayside: it is difficult to take any sort of decent photo in the dark or in the rain, and I rapidly became bored with the pedometer — in fact, I found that the things that interested me least about my walking were how fast I was going, or how far I’d been. Other aspects of the project proved very thought provoking, however, and I shall try to group some of these thoughts together here over the next few days.
One of the issues that has preoccupied me consistently over the course of the project has been appropriate walking garb. In terms of my daily commute, I soon realised that walking everywhere meant abandoning heeled shoes, and selecting outfits that were smart enough to teach in, but comfortable enough to work up a bit of steam in, when rushing to the station and back. But weekends meant a different kind of walking — in the mountains. Over the past twelve months, I’ve really enjoyed experimenting with different garments and different layers of garments, in order to find the most flexible, light, versatile, and comfortable combination to get about in while walking up hill and down dale. It will come as no surprise to you that I favour wool for just about everything but the necessary waterproof shell. I stick this shell (comprising gloves, light jacket, and — at the very last resort — pants) in my backpack, but when the weather is dry, I enjoy comfortable wool-clad walking in all weathers.
You will note that my current walking shorts are cotton, but I do have a pattern to make myself some tweed shorts, and, when I’ve done so, I shall have an entirely woollen walking outfit. Now, you may attribute this to my inordinate love of all things sheepy, but my experience has told me that the warmth, wicking and layering properties of wool really are superior to those of any synthetic fabric. In wool, one does not stink, even after several days in the hills, and nor does one’s clothing produce enough electricity to light a fire when one simply moves about (Tom’s synthetic Ron Hill and Helly combo generates visible bright green sparks). My favourite walkers, like the legendary Alfred Wainwright, often also favoured wool. Wainwright’s son recalled that: “Dad always walked in his shoes and his suits . . . he had four suits, all tweed. His best one was for council meetings. His second best was for work. Third best for walking. Fourth best for gardening.”* Now, Wainwright had a tweedy sort of a mindset, and he was also a bloke. If, toward the end of his walking career, he had wanted to change his woolly walking uniform, he might have selected from the wide range of innovative clothing that was then beginning to be made accessible by the British pioneers of contemporary outdoor wear: men like Mike Parsons of Karrimor , Pete Hutchinson, or those two Newcastle guys who started Berghaus. Things are much more complicated for women, who, in both historical and contemporary terms, have not been served well by the outdoor industry. I have talked about this before, but I feel I must reiterate how consistently frustrated I am by the poor cut and design of women’s commercially manufactured outdoor clothing. It also bothers me that I cannot buy quality merino base layers without them being marked with some sign or other of what is assumed to be the feminine. Are their masculine equivalents decorated with footballs, tractors or other inanely gendered visual cues? No? Then why are all of icebreaker’s women’s merino tops daubed with fookin flowers? Why don’t these (otherwise admirable) manufacturers realise that it is perfectly possible to be feminine out of doors without being pink or ornamental? Size is also an issue. Because I’ve found that manufactured outdoor wear for women is always cut too large, and too poorly, I have resorted in the past to buying boys clothes.** In this respect, my choice of manufactured outdoor clothing is as limited as that of a Victorian woman climber, who would buy boys knickerbockers, to be worn in secret under her long skirts.
(wool vest, wool knickers, wool base layer, wool sweater, wool tights, wool socks, wool hat, wool cowl (thanks, Mel), wool gloves, goretex gloves, Rab pertex and down gillet, cotton shorts, wool skirt, leather boots. Crummock Water, Jan 1st, 2010)
Now, on the flat, or in a tent, it strikes me that a heavy skirt is not necessarily a bad thing. The thick woollen one I am wearing above, for example, is as windproof and cosy as a blanket. It is great for walking around Edinburgh in the current arctic windchill, and is also fantastic when one is emerging from one’s tent in sub-zero temperatures, like those we enjoyed on New Year’s eve. In such circumstances, a wool skirt can protect the legs with a warmth that cannot be beaten. But would I want to wear it out in the hills, or even carry it in my pack up a mountain? No I certainly would not.
Certainly, it is impossible to imagine ascending any sort of hill in the heavy hitched skirts Burberry recommended as a “practical” women’s climbing wear in 1907, let alone the garb worn by the women depicted in Charles Boutibonne’s painting above. While the seated woman is reasonably comfortably dressed in a wool skirt that seems to be hitched, pinned, and divided, the figure standing to her right is clad in a light walking dress of impractical cream hue. This woman is also clearly wearing corsets, as well as a gauze-veiled hat that would be both useless and indeed dangerous in such rocky terrain. Laced in her stays, she gazes with what is perhaps a certain degree of envy at the nimble child (an acceptably infantilised male guide for this all-female party) in his easy-to-wear shirt and breeches. And its a good job the group seem to have abandoned their parasol, because it would be completely useless in that wind. Now, there are things I like about this painting: its drama, its movement, and the way it depicts nineteenth-century women in a wild landscape, looking robust and physically capable (albeit inappropriately dressed). But it is clear that this painting — just like the photographs that depict women climbers during this era — is a sort of staged fantasy. It is all too easy to read nineteenth-century photographs of women’s outdoor activity as direct representations of reality, when, in fact, these images are governed by conventions of genre, and rules of respectability, just like Boutibonne’s painting. That early photographs of skirted women climbers are carefully staged for the public eye is a point is repeatedly made by Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, whose Invisible on Everest is one of the best-researched and most interesting of the many books I’ve recently read on the subject of women’s walking and climbing (those who are interested in further reading will find a short list at the end of this post). Rose and Parsons describe two worlds for the nineteenth-century woman climber: the public world of the valley, the chalet, staged photographs, and long skirts, and the invisible, private, and immensely enabling world that women experienced in the mountains: a world of enjoyable physical exertion, and clothing that was both comfortable and appropriate for the conditions. Rose and Parsons describe a “complex charade where [women] only appeared to follow dress codes whilst privately flouting them — along with many other conventions — as soon as they were out of the valley.”
Freda Du Faur — the first woman to climb New Zealand’s Mount Cook — regarded it as imperative to look feminine as well as physically capable, and was never photographed without a skirt covering her knickerbockers and puttees, as she is seen here. The redoubtable Lizzie Le Blond, meanwhile — who routinely climbed in knickerbockers and stockings — also felt it necessary to don her skirts whenever she was in public view. According to an anecdote relayed by Rebecca Brown, after a strenuous day’s climbing in 1908, Le Blond returned to discover that her skirts (which she had carefully secreted under a cairn) had blown away. She crept back to the village in her knickerbockers, and sent her guide to her hotel to fetch another skirt while she hid herself from view. The guide apparently returned with an evening gown, in which outlandish garb she made her way back to civilisation.*** While many of these otherwise intrepid walking women clearly felt the need to conform to conservative ideals of female respectability where their appearance was concerned, Constance Barnicoat, whose climbing achievements included an ascent of Switzerland’s Grosser Schreckhorn in the winter of 1911, was unusual in her open advocation of climbing in boy’s clothes: “skirts, even the shortest, are almost impracticable. I promptly sent for proper boys boots . . . and generally rigged myself out as much like a boy as possible with sweater, knickers, and puttees to my knees. . . whatever arguments may be urged against a boy’s dress for a woman anywhere within range of civilisation, those arguments do not hold good in such wilds as we went through.”**** Despite what climbing women might have said or did in public, then, in the paradoxically hidden world of the great outdoors they were whipping off their heavy skirts and restricting stays, and shimmmying up mountains in shorts and stockings.
For low-level walks, however, I still think a good skirt can be a good thing. Dorothy Wordsworth’s skirts clearly received a lot of outdoor wear (from the amount of walking and mending her journals describe), and I often picture her moving about the landscape in her skirts and stockings, observing Cumbria’s characteristic tricks of the light, and gathering mosses and lichens, whenever I’m in the Lake District. I also love this early twentieth-century Danish depiction of a be-skirted walking woman, which I think suggests a genuine sense of feminine ease and strength in the outdoors. As for myself, I have decided to supplement the deficiencies of contemporary women’s outdoor wear by producing an entirely home-made walking outfit. As well as the forthcoming tweed shorts, I am now in the process of knitting myself a serviceable, warm and hard-wearing base layer (out of some Jamieson and Smith Shetland lace weight). And after that, I intend to take on the interesting task of producing my own pair of knitted longies from scratch (rather than the two pairs of wool tights I’m wearing here)
*Hunter Davies, Wainwright: the Biography (1995), 123
**The women’s outdoor garments designed by Sheffield-based Rab Carrington are a happy exception to this rule.
***Rebecca Brown, Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering (2002), 50
****Barnicoat, “Where no Woman Ever Went Before” Wide World Magazine (March 1904), 566.
Arlene Blum, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (1998 ed)
Jill Marie Maclachlan, Peak Performances: Cultural and Autobiographical Constructions of the Victorian Female Mountaineer PhD Thesis, (UBC, 2004)
David Mazel, ed, Mountaineering Women: Stories of Early Climbers (1994)
Mike Parsons and Mary B Rose, Invisible on Everest: Innovation and the Gear Makers (2003) (Thankyou, John, for the recommendation of this title).
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2006 ed)
Recommendations of books any of you have enjoyed about women’s walking, climbing or general outdoor activities would be very welcome indeed.
We interrupt our regular proceedings with this cable. This is just to let readers of The Knitter know that I’ve a piece in the most recent issue of the magazine (no.13) — about the history and future of cable knitting. In the feature, I talk about Gladys Thompson, an old favourite inspiration of mine, and Lynne Barr, a confirmed new favourite. Barr’s Reversible Knitting is the most interesting and innovative knitting book I’ve encountered in an aeon, and I’m very pleased to say that I’ll soon have the honour of hosting Lynne here, as part of her Reversible Knitting blog tour. (Watch this space!)
While I was working on the cables piece, I became fascinated with the (now) familiar myths surrounding the Irish Aran sweater. What I found most interesting was how far those myths are associated with loss. I refer, of course, to the apocryphal idea that drowned Irish fishermen were identified by particular cables. It is no coincidence that this myth’s origin is in the 1930s (not way back in the mists of time) — the moment when the Aran sweater was first successfully marketed to North America. Since I wrote the piece, I’ve been doing some more research about Paddy Ó Síocháin (the canny businessman whose Galway Bay Company became one of most successful exporters of Aran sweaters to the US and Canada) and Muriel Gahan (the inspiring doyenne of the Irish Crafts Council, the Congested Districts Board, and the Irish Countrywomen’s Association). From the mid ’30s, Gahan helped to break the punishing cycle of debt in which the craftswomen of western Ireland were bound (a similar situation to that of the knitters of Shetland) by promoting their work, and paying them fairly for it. Gahan’s most successfully promoted product was the now-iconic cabled sweater worked in undyed báinín, (rather than the dark blue or grey wool in which fishermen’s ganseys — including those of Ireland — were traditionally knitted). While Gahan encouraged the talented knitters of rural Ireland in their creation of elaborate báinín ganseys, Ó Síocháin invented myths of ancient origin for the sweaters in his publications about the Aran Islands. In his book Aran: Islands of Legend , for example, Ó Síocháin footnotes the misleading idea that “the Aran gansey has always been an unfailing source of identification of Islandmen lost at sea” with a reference to his own company “full particulars regarding the handcraft products of the Islands can be obtained from Galway Bay Products, Ltd.”
To the Irish diaspora in North America, these sweaters were indeed powerful symbols of loss — not in the way that Ó Síocháin suggested, but rather in the imagined sense of a lost identity: old family connections, tribal belongings, a national heritage, the sense of place. Much like Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, then, the Aran sweater (as we now think of it) is an embodiment of something already lost, a material confection born out of absence, a singularly modern fantasy of what an ‘ancient’, ‘primitive’, ‘simpler’ way of life might look like.*
Knitters are fond of myths-of-origin, particularly those associated with family and place, and no matter how many times these ideas surrounding the báinín Aran sweater are debunked, the notion that a corpse might be identified by a stitch pattern carries a persuasive power beyond truth or fiction.** Today, you can still buy into the myth by purchasing an Aran sweater that claims direct clan associations and the comparison with the marketing of Scottish highland heritage is really an instructive one: whether or not one agrees with everything Hugh Trevor Roper says about tartan, he does bring home the way that textiles are singularly resonant “inventors of tradition”.*** I am still thinking about the way that Aran sweaters are “read” today, and may have more to say about this another time.
I also wanted to say a brief thanks to those of you who have sent me your good wishes, realising that something was amiss. At some point, I’ll find the wherewithal to write about what’s been happening, but at the moment am finding keeping blog business-as-usual really reassuring. Cheers, everyone.
*On Flaherty’s Man of Aran, See Lance Pettitt, Screening Ireland: Film and Television Representation (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1999).
**See Richard Rutt’s History of Handknitting, for a thorough debunking. The ‘myth’ still appears as ‘truth’ in many places, for example Debbie Stoller’s Son of Stitch and Bitch (2007)
*** Hugh Trevor Roper, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,” in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition (Canto, 1983)
By request, another treat from The Archers pattern book. Here is the fragrant Caroline Bone / Pemberton / Sterling resplendent in a knitted suit of lemon hue. In this frothy confection, she may well run the risk of being mistaken for one of Ian’s more outlandish Grey Gables deserts. . . and yes – it is floor length! Check out the saucy glimpse of 1980s ankle.
And imagine the never-ending horror of actually knitting it.
Curiously, 1970s and 80s knitting has been preoccupying me this week. The other day, my good friend Matthew sent me a copy of the January 1982 edition of Spare Rib, in which this amazing sweater featured:
I have to say that I love this — not only does it make me nostalgic for a certain kind of politics, its a reminder that knitting has always been associated with feminism, despite some claims about its more recent integration. The pattern is described as “a luknitics exclusive” and it seems that “Luknitics” was a business registered in in Perth in the early ’80s. I am wondering whether any of you know anything about Luknitics or their patterns? I really want to find out more . . .
Also, while on a trip to the butchers in Stockbridge yesterday, I nipped into a charity shop and scored 10 early 1970s copies of Golden Hands Monthly. A few of the craft activities are very much of their time (pasta art? aigh!), but there are lots of diverting, amusing, and indeed inspiring articles and tips, patterns and designs. I was pleased to find that all of the pull-out sewing and embroidery patterns were still intact, and that I actually really liked many of the skirts and dresses. I also found the Golden Hands knitting and crochet patterns so interesting that I’m starting to question my own taste. For example, there is something in me that really likes this crocheted bonnet-with-integrated-ear-muff:
. . . and I am fascinated by this vest:
The pattern also includes proud photographs of the back of the work, with all of the different coloured ends neatly sewn in, and claims the extra effort involved as a sort of victory for thrift: “with no weaving, you save yarn!” A writer for Spare Rib might have seen the costs of this garment rather differently, once the extra hours of labour were factored in. This really seems to be 1970s knitting at its most crazily time consuming. And yet . . . there’s just something really pleasing about all those tiny, different coloured hexagons . . . no . . . I. . .must . . . resist. . . intarsia. . .
Finally, here is an example of domestic time very well-spent — this is our Christmas cake, and that is Tom’s hand feeding it the first of many glasses of whisky. We had our stir-up Saturday yesterday (I believe Jill Archer’s stirring-up is actually today?). Tom uses the recipe in Jane Grigson’s fruit book, with the quantities of everything increased by 25%. I like a nice, big cake. Hope you have had a lovely weekend, too.
I am often struck by the liveliness and diversity of the world of contemporary domestic crafts. In very particular ways, the intermewebnet really has informally transformed the domestic into the public sphere. From their kitchens and computers, women and men all over the world are exchanging knowledge about an enormous range of practical issues and debates, sharing their messes and mistakes as much as their proud creations. These people are asking questions about consumer and gender politics, about the history of design, about process and about material practice. They are making things for beauty and for use: benches, pies, hats, yarn, toys, books, tools. Some people are examining the idea of domesticity and transforming it into art, while many others are finding it the basis of successful businesses.
With all this infinite variety, how is that the two least interesting faces of contemporary domesticity have suddenly become its public representatives? The two faces I refer to are the domestics-in-drag who need no introduction here, and those less pernicious, but no less prevalent ‘ironic’ crafters who read anarchy in every crocheted granny-square. In an article by Viv Groskop in last week’s Guardian, the conservative and ironic faces of the ‘new domesticity’ are held up as twin envoys of what is regarded by many (non-crafting) feminists as a terribly regressive trend. Apparently, both Jane Brocket and the Great Cake Escape are indicative of a ‘return’ to the pre-feminist 1950s, that simple time of embroidered table linen and hourglass silhouettes, when the clock struck four, and everything stopped for tea. According to Groskop, the activities of both conservative and ironic crafters reinforce rather than question traditional domestic ideologies, prompting the rather pointless query: “can domesticity ever be subversive?”
Now, I’m not going to have a go at the Great Cake Escape. At least these women are energetically camp and entirely self-aware. Unlike many so-called anarchic crafters, their irony seems less cynical marketing than witty interrogation—a stage toward something that might turn out to be more interesting. And (perhaps unwittingly) the juxtaposition of ironic with conservative crafters in Groskop’s article does reveal something more intriguing about them both than either are in isolation. Brocket is quoted saying that “anything which is very personal and behind closed doors and pleasurable to women is subversive these days.” Here, she neatly captures what was always really at the core of the middle-class English domesticity she celebrates and perpetuates: that is, the dark heart of eccentricity and taboo beating beneath David Lean’s “heppy” exterior. What I am getting at here is just how close net curtains are to fetish-wear, and anyone who has seen Patrick Keiller’s superb exposition of petit-bourgeois Englishness in Robinson in Space will know exactly what I mean.
Brief Encounter. Heppily unheppy.
But despite her incidental disclosure of the obvious proximity of pinny-porn to bourgeois deviance, there are several problems with Groskop’s article. The main one is that she hasn’t done enough research. She just trots out banal generalities about how baking and sewing are stereotypically ‘feminine’ without actually looking at who participates in those activities, examining how they can be empowering, transformative, critical and creative things, or looking at how sewers or bakers of either sex who share and circulate their knowledge can thereby find new means of social and political engagement. Groskop’s notion of domesticity is incredibly, ludicrously limited: for her, it just equates to cupcakes and repression. But if she had just looked underneath the frilly pinafore—ironic, conservative or otherwise—she would have found a whole world of witty, critical, talented, and engaged domestic crafters just getting on with their thing without congratulating themselves on how bloody ‘heppy’ they are the whole time. As one smart baking friend of mine put it “the creativity is in the recipe and the labour, not in the fact that you scatter dolly mixtures on top”*. While Groskop concerns herself with those dolly mixtures, the rest of us will carry on engaging with that labour, and that creativity.
*thanks, Clare B.