Can one develop an addiction to pompom makers? If so, I fear I am sorely afflicted, for I am now the proud owner of several different varieties in a range of sizes — the most recent of which is pictured above. These tiny and rather pleasing contraptions will enable me to turn out miniature fluffy balls under an inch in diameter — which will hopefully add the final ridiculously festive finishing touches to these mitts . . .
. . . and these mittens
(I do apologise for the quality of these photographs — daylight is a rare commodity in Scotland right now.)
In other news:
If you would like to WIN a signed copy of Colours of Shetland, you have two opportunities to do so: first in the Visit Shetland December Newsletter, and second in the latest issue of Let’s Knit, in which I and the book both feature.
Finally, Tom is about to celebrate an (ahem) significant birthday, so we are taking a few days off and going somewhere really exciting to celebrate over a dram or two as old as he is.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TOM!
I confess that I am really looking forward to a wee break as I have been rather occupied of late, as you can imagine. For us, Tom’s birthday signals the start of the festive season, which round here is a time of maximum relaxation / pie eating / film watching / long winter walk-taking. Bring it on!
When we return I will have some Snawpaws to show you. . .
Until then x
Mel, Felix and I – setting up shop
Wearing our Deco cardigans, and ready for, um, action. . .
Susan’s stand was utterly delectable. Everything was displayed so beautifully.
Customers admiring Helen’s gorgeous wares.
Natalie’s fab herd-of-sheep stitch markers.
Jen and Nic having a giggle.
Lily France looking fabulous in the Betty Mouat sweater
There are two rubbish things about my present situation: one is suffering from post-stroke fatigue, and the other is worrying about the grim possibility of whether or not one is going to be suffering from post-stroke fatigue. I can tell you that there was quite a bit of the latter in the lead-up to Woolfest. This was the first time I’d attended any sort of public ‘event’ in my new professional capacity and I was (to put it mildly) concerned about whether or not I was going to be able to manage. Happily, I have three amazing comrades – Tom, Mel and Felix – who shouldered much of the burden, and thanks to them, everything was totally FINE. Things were very hectic, and the weather was insane, but I met many, many lovely people, and it was grand to see folk walking around in sweaters I’d designed, and being generally enthusiastic about what I do. It has been quite a weekend, so I’m going to take a few days off to relax now. In the meantime, I have released the Sheep Carousel and Tír Chonaill patterns as digital downloads, and I will be back in a few days with news about the availability of my kits, if anyone is interested.
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.
Here is the first thing I saw in 2010 . . .
. . . and here is the second . . .
Tom preparing the first cup of tea of the decade — a welcome sight on an incredibly chilly morning. We saw in 2010 in a tent by the edge of Crummock Water. There was a bright blue moon, a hooting owl, and a little malt whisky. We wrapped up warm.
Normal blog business will resume very shortly, but for now, happy new year, everyone!
There has been much talk over the past few days about the general handsomeness, and nobility of the ovine. Here is a supreme example. Just look at that marvellous phizog! So calm, so gentle, so self-contained, so . . .sheepy! I spent a long time admiring this fine herdwick at woolfest the other day, and find it hard to articulate for you quite how much I like him. He is a bit like woolfest itself, then, which has sort of left me lost for words.
It was the best fest because it was spent in the company of friends.
Felix & Monkl
Inside la fest there were so many people to meet, and I was particularly excited to run into Amanda and Lily, who was also sporting her paper dolls (Lily is absolutely lovely). It occurred to me after I’d seen her that the sweater I was wearing was made from yarn I’d got at last year’s woolfest: I acquired my bowmont braf from the man at bowmont braf. I was able to talk to him about the character of the breed, the properties of the wool, and the qualities of the finished garment it might produce. We also talked about the economic realities of small-scale yarn production, and the future of projects and flocks like his. I went away thinking about those questions, and inspired by both sheep and wool, designed and knit up my paper dolls sweater. These conversations are what makes woolfest so amazing.
(Shetland markings. Designed by Sue Russo and available from the Shetland Sheep Society)
The material and sensory impact of the interior of Mitchell’s livestock centre is completely overwhelming. Faced with all that bounty, its quite hard to stop oneself running around, shouting and cooing, squeezing yarn, fundling sheep, and throwing oneself at fleeces like a crazy lady. . . But I found an oasis of calm among the stands of the coloured sheep breeders, to whom I was repeatedly drawn. The proximity of the sheep themselves certainly had something to do with it, but I also really enjoyed chatting to the representatives of the different breed societies, particularly Joy Trotter, who keeps the Rivendell flock of Shetlands. After talking to Joy, I had a sort of moment concerning the sheer range of shades in the fleece of British sheep, and spent much of the rest of the day reflecting on this, and being inspired by these colours: the creamy blue-greys of the north ronaldsays, the choclatey browns of the jacobs, the soft, almost powdery ginger of the manx loghtans, and the breathtaking non-technicolour dreamcoat range of shetlands. These colours were everywhere: on the backs of lovely beasties, in the deft hands of spinners, in plump finished skeins of yarn, in beautiful knitted and woven items.
(Yes, that cake and those chocolates are fashioned from coloured Shetland. Delicious!)
It is fair to say that I am on a shetland roll right now, and that you will no doubt see and hear more of this in the coming months. If you are interested in quality natural-shade British shetland, I would warmly recommend getting it from Garthenor Organics. Chris King is such a thoughtful man who knows his wool, and this knowledge really tells in the finished skein. More of his yarn later, meanwhile, here is a picture of the only dyed stuff I took home:
I met the lovely folk from Artisan Threads last year when I was writing a piece in which they featured for Yarn Forward. Their sense of colour, and the feel they have for the process of natural dyeing is just fantastic. They have such a marvellous Autumnal palate, and I shall be doing something with their lovely muted shades this Autumn.
After the fest, we retired to the Bitter End in Cockermouth for some much-needed refreshment and de-briefing. Really, I can think of no better way to spend a Saturday evening than surrounded by yarn, in a good food-and-ale serving pub, in the company of friends, discussing the political economy of British wool. I will say it again: great women, great knitters. The excitements of the day were more than matched by a night full of stimulating conversation. When the menu came round, we all put our money where our mouth was, and chose lamb. I had such an amazing time and am still reeling and thinking — both about woolfest itself, and the conversations it provoked. I sort of feel like I spent the whole weekend following the narrative thread of John Dyer’s seminal 1757 Georgic The Fleece which traces the economic, political, material, and indeed intellectual journey of wool from the sheep’s back to the human’s. Perhaps I shall bore you with John Dyer — and the vexed question of how to produce poetry about “the care of sheep in tupping time” — on another occasion. But that’s me all fested out for now.
**Bee-bag competition winner will be announced shortly!**
Guess where I’ve been? We had an amazing weekend (more on the fest shortly) but I thought I’d begin with where it concluded — a walk up Blencathra. Dominating the skyline of the Northern Lakes with its craggy buttresses and dark gulleys, this is a really distinctive and deservedly popular mountain. Predictably, we plumped for the most famous route of ascent — up Scales Fell and over Sharp Edge — an exposed, rocky and (for me) hairaising arête along which one must pick one’s way with care, before ascending Foule Crag, whose name speaks for itself. You can see both edge and crag to the right of Tom’s head in this photo.
Being some kind of bloke-weasel, who scampers up and down mountains on a daily basis, Tom rather scoffed at the purported challenge of the edge. But I, who scamper a bit less, was not nonchalant at all.
One of the problems with Sharp Edge is that it is not as sharp as it looks — so much of it has been worn smooth by the weight of a million walkers’ arses. The smoothness of the rock certainly increases the difficulty of scrambling about an exposed ridge in heavy boots. At the end of the arête you can see the base of Foule Crag — yes, the bare rock face on which those two white specks / people are about to take their chances. I confess I got the fear. We let the other edge-traversers head in front before I took my turn.
Me and my arse had a little difficulty getting around what Wainwright refers to as the “awkward place,” and the base of the crag is the foule-est bit of it. . . but with some help from Tom indicating the tricky hand-holds, I made it across and up. Fun! When you reach the summit, you are rewarded with views North across the Solway Firth to Scotland, and to the South and West, the peaks and lakes of Cumbria are all laid out before you. The spectacular fell architecture of Blencathra itself looks pretty good from up there as well.
We came down via Doddick Fell — a route which Wainwright recommends and which we thought was superb. What a great walk! So if you are ever going up Blencathra with a choice of ascents and are feeling a little nervy about what th’edge entails, I would say just go for it — its really not as hard as it looks. And can I say there is nothing better than a good Cumbrian pie at the top of a Cumbrian mountain. . .
or a pint of Cumbrian ale at the bottom.
I’ve been tagged by two of my favourite blog buddies, Helen and Suzanne. Helen was kind enough to name me as a kreativ blogger (thankyou Helen!) while Suzanne‘s tag involves doing something complicated – nay, well nigh apocalyptic – with six bloggers and the sixth photo in your computer’s sixth folder. Now, I know that Suzanne was hoping that the number of the beast would actually turn out to be that of Jesus (my cat), but unfortunately it didn’t – I’ll just have to make my feline household god pose for you another day. Anyway, I picked the folder that is sixth alphabetically on my external storage (I stopped keeping pics on my mac since it went ape last year) and that folder was entitled Coast to Coast. Here is the sixth photo.
To add another random six to the mix, this photo was taken on the sixth of the twelve days it took Tom and I to traverse the fine northern country from St Bees to Robin Hoods Bay, following the well-trodden footsteps of Alfred Wainwright. What you see here are a few of the mysterious cairns that give Nine Standards Rigg its name, and the figure of yours truly, leaning against one of them.
Though it is not half-way in terms of distance, Nine Standards Rigg is the psychological mid-point of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. It marks the historic boundary between Westmorland and the North Riding of Yorkshire and also sits on the Pennine watershed. Westward, rivers flow toward the Irish Sea, but from this point on, they empty East into the North Sea. It affords spectacular views across spectacular country. To the West, you see the dome-shaped sleeping giants that are the Howgill Fells, and to the East lies green and lovely Swaledale. “The attainment of Nine Standards Rigg is an occasion for celebration,” writes Wainwright, “if you are carrying a can of beer, prepare to drink it now.” We did not crack open the ale, but I recall that I did guzzle two mars bars (obligatory walking fuel) shortly before this picture was taken.
On the matter of what exactly the Nine Standards are, many walking books say something like “their origins are shrouded in mystery”* before claiming (with sadly predictable Englishness) that they acted as a warning to marauding Scots with (one presumes) terrible eyesight, since wee Jimmy was supposed to mistake the stone “standards” for those of a waiting army. Wainwright pooh-poohs this notion, but notes that the cairns are clearly not Victorian follies as they appear on much earlier maps. I myself have seen them marked on eighteenth-century topographical surveys, but to be honest, I quite like not knowing just what they are. Because to me, the standards are simply the best kind of folk art — spontaneous built-things, marks on the landscape, structures and signs with a purpose quite other than that of human shelter or the shelter of beasts. They are incredibly characterful cairns — stubborn, stolid, querulous, even — and when we were up there, the original nine had been joined by some proudly teetering additions of much more recent construction.
Before this picture was taken, we had walked across the Westmorland limestone pavement– a landscape I love. Our path took us past stone circles, tumuli, and the mysterious remains of Severals Settlement. As we neared Kirkby Stephen, the Nine Standards came into view on the horizon, and I remember finding them just as evocative as all the other signs of earlier lives — earlier feet and earlier hands — that we had seen that day.
Well, before I spiral off an into orbit about the Wonder of Ancient Stones or something, let me return quickly to the photo. Tom took it with one of those crappy disposable cameras (pack-weight is a serious issue on a long distance walk) — and given that, I think its pretty good — all I did after we had it developed was scan, desaturate, and turn down the brightness (it was a bit flare-y). I’d also like to mention that despite my near-rapturous account of Nine Standards Rigg, shortly after this photo was taken, things took a turn for the worse as I reluctantly traversed eight hideously boggy miles across Whitsundale. By the end of the day, I recall that I was forced to turn to my thing of last resort in these situations — what I must do when the mars bars run out — which is to silently narrate The Love Match, scene by scene, in order to to stave off sheer exhaustion (seriously, don’t ask).
There are far too many blogs and photographers I enjoy to name just six of you. Please consider yourselves well and truly tagged if you are reading this, and dig out the sixth of the sixth of the sixth photo. . . . or whatever, and write about it. Fun!
*Re: the puzzling origins and function of the Nine Standards, while writing this post I discovered that this Kirkby Stephen scholar has apparently Revealed All in a recent publication. . .