of handkerchiefs

hankies

I have a terrible cold. When one is sniffling and snuffling and generally feeling lousy, there’s nothing more comforting than a nice handkerchief, of which, it occurred to me this morning, I possess quite a few. So I took some photographs of the ones that aren’t in use or in the wash.

Some of them are gifts . . .

felix
This one came from Felix

helen

. . .and my sister bought this one for me, probably when the Horrocks exhibition was on at the V&A.

I have acquired the majority of my hankies very cheaply in charity shops and on eBay. I find their workaday machine embroidery very pleasing. . .

motif

. . . and some were once bought in other countries . . .

lugano

(I have actually visited Lugano, which made this one a rather nice find)

For some reason this one is my favourite for actual nose blowing: I like its 1960s brown; its tesselated design, and it also has a really high thread count, which makes it very soft.

favourite

I have a few nice examples where the corners are edged with lace

laceedged

and of course, I have also acquired a few that are just too nice to use. This one is an interesting combination of drawn-thread work with machine embroidery.

machineanddrawnthread
drawnthreads

This one is very fine indeed . . .

fine1

. . . it has been torn, and rather inexpertly mended.

finemended

This lovely example of whitework and drawn thread work is the oldest handkerchief I own.

old1
old2
old3

. . . but the simple motifs and lines of this example make it my confirmed favourite.

best1
best2
best3

It occurred to me that the simple square of fabric that goes under the name of handkerchief has a long history as an everyday object, with many different meanings, and many different uses. Handkerchiefs are multiply functional and decorative: not merely for mopping watery eyes and noses, carelessly dropped or ardently retrieved they might act as symbols of romantic attachment and desire. Handkerchiefs are intimate and personal objects, and as such, might be means of connecting a wearing-body to a sense of place: as a souvenir, a handkerchief might be a tiny repository of memory and personal connection, or, unfolded from the pocket of an eighteenth-century lady or a twentieth-century airman, might disclose a sneakily concealed map of unfamiliar territory. As furoshiki they are a means of wrapping and transporting food or gifts, and they can be worn about the person in a multitude of ways. I imagine the head-scarf / kerchief springs immediately to mind. . .

Audrey In Paris

. . . but, when considering a kerchief as a garment, my first thought was of this portrait of Frances Burney.

Burney1780
Frances Burney by Edward Burney (1780). National Portrait Gallery.

Kerchiefs — a length or folded triangle of fabric that covered neck and bosom providing warmth, coverage, and decoration — were a familiar staple of eighteenth-century women’s dress. Oddly, this meaning of kerchief does not appear in Cumming and Cunnington’s Dictionary of Fashion History, and receives only passing mention in the OED. If you’ve read as many eighteenth-century letters and novels as I have you would find this omission curious . . . but the issue is probably merely one of shifting nomenclature as well as fashion. Kerchiefs in the 1780s grew ever more voluminous and diaphanous . . .

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George Romney, portrait of Catherine Clemens, 1788.

. . . and by the early 19th century these garments were referred to not as a homely English kerchief but as a carelessly elaborate French fichu

met2009.300.5604
Late eighteenth-century American kerchief / fichu in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Well, I have come some way from where I began with my own kerchiefs, which is to say that putting this post together has, for an hour or so, successfully distracted me from the realities of my cold.

PS: thanks for your good wishes: my first driving lesson was OK: despite much swearing and occasional kerb-mounting, according to my instructor I was “no too bad”. I hope to be back behind the wheel as soon as I’ve stopped sneezing.

three sweaters

frontyoke

I thought I’d show you my three new sweaters! First up is this lovely Fairisle yoke (bought for £16 on eBay).

yoke

This is a garment of a kind that is still being made in Shetland, and that you can find in Lerwick today in shops like The Spider’s Web. I think its a lovely example. The body has been knitted by machine, and the yoke inserted afterward by hand.

yokeinside

The blending of the colours on the yoke is beautiful, and the hand-finishing is exemplary, particularly around the steeked opening for the back neck.

backyoke

The garment is in great condition and shows no signs of wear at all. I fully intend to wear it!

Next up is a sweater that – shock horror – I just knitted for myself.

bowmontfabric

This garment is knitted in some wonderful yarn that I hand-dyed myself at a workshop at Lilith‘s studio four years ago – Bowmont Braf 4 ply. Words cannot express how much I love this yarn – it is springy and sheepy and robust . . . it has a deeply matt, slightly felted appearance, but retains a bouncy hand. Dyed up on it, colours appear soft and muted, as if already worn for a long time. Plus, the yardage is incredible. What’s not to like? Well, only the fact that its long-discontinued. (If anyone knows of a supplier of bowmont fibre please do let me know!). Lilith was very taken with the yarn as well, and our dyeing workshop was the beginning of our collaboration on the Fugue design, which she dyed up as a kit in her glorious Dreich and Lon Dubh colourways. Coincidentally, I know that Lilith is currently knitting an Ursula with her secret Bowmont Braf stash, and I can’t wait to see it.

Anyway, back to the knitting.

As a designer, I think its important to get one’s head around different garment-construction methods – I learned to design yoked sweaters by knitting yoked sweaters – and though I’m familiar with many different top-down sleeve constructions, I’d never tried Susie Myers’ contiguous method, which (essentially) allows you to produce a seamless, top-down, set-in sleeve without the need for picking up stitches around the armscye (which is my usual method). I read the contiguous ‘recipe’, browsed the contiguous threads on Ravelry, purchased a couple of Ankestrik‘s excellent patterns for informed reading, and decided to attempt the method by knitting a sleeve which was a combination of saddle and set-in. The idea was to familiarise myself with the contiguous method’s basic principles, while turning my precious stash of Bowmont Braf into a simple, loose fitting sweater that I could enjoy wearing everyday.

bowmontshaping

I’m happy with the sleeve shaping . . .

bowmont

. . .and indeed with the sweater (though this photograph, snatched between rain showers probably doesn’t suggest it). As my stash of Bowmont Braf was limited, I weighed the remaining yarn and divided it in two before starting the sleeves. This is a pottering-about, dog-walking sweater that makes good use of my lovely Bowmont Braf, and has taught me a bit about a different way of constructing a sleeve top-down! I really like it.

Finally, this amazing find came into my possession for a mere £1.04 via eBay.

shetlandfabric

It’s a beautiful hand-knit vintage Fairisle gansey in natural Shetland-sheep shades. From the way the yarn is spun, I’d say it was probably knitted post-war. The eBay listing described the garment as having been purchased many years ago in an ‘exclusive Edinburgh boutique’. I would speculate that this ’boutique’ was a shop that once stood in Morningside, whose owner sourced garments directly from Shetland knitters, and who has donated several items to the Shetland Museum. This is a really well-made sweater.

Like many such garments I’ve seen, inside the ends have simply been knotted and left to felt

knotted

The gansey has clearly been worn a lot, but is still in great condition. The only area that needs repair is this one cuff.

shetlandcuff

And as Mel said to me when taking these photos yesterday, “it fits like it was made for you.”

shetlandjumper

I’ll take good care of it.

forty things

trunkdetail

Yesterday an ancient wooden trunk turned up at my house. This was what I found inside.

trunk

Now, you may (or may not) remember that I turned forty a wee while ago. At the time I told my family and friends not to get me anything: I am not one for birthdays, plus at that time we were in the middle of renovating and selling our old flat and buying our new house. There was lots to be getting on with. But my mum ignored my request and, over the past few months, prepared me a trunk full of forty things to celebrate my birthday. Inside the trunk, each thing was wrapped and numbered separately.

numbers

How exciting! I cleared my desk and spent an exceptionally jolly afternoon unwrapping all the packages. I found many lovely treasures. . .

print
A beautiful Meryl Watts print.

liberty
libertybook
A blank book, bound in navy embossed leather, from Liberty’s.

. . . and things precious for other reasons

brick
Castleton Library was one of my Grandad’s favourite hangouts, and was also where I first learnt that singular thrill of choosing a book.

Opening the packages reminded me that there are few people who know you better than your mum. Who else is aware that I am equally fond of jelly molds . . .

jelly

. . . chickens

chickens

. . . and Spongebob Squarepants?

spongebob

My mum loves hunting things down on eBay, and I’m sure she really enjoyed herself bagging me some lovely vintage threads. . .

barbours-thread
threads
linenthread

. . . buttons

buttons

. . . and this amazing antique tape measure, which is still in perfect nick.

tapemeasure

All of these beautiful and useful items have already taken up residence in my new work-pod, along with this:

beehive

Now, I have looked at these old Patons & Baldwins bakelite yarn beehives many times myself on Ebay over the past couple of years, but have been unable to justify bidding on one. Now I don’t need to!

gauge
I love the old needle gauge on the bottom.

Finally, whoever invented Mint-Aero fudge is a genius.

mintaerofudge

What a completely amazing gift. Thanks so much, Mum.

pompoms in Balfron

20130609-203447.jpg

After some exciting developments on the relocation front, Tom and I went to view a house just outside Balfron yesterday. As we drove about the outskirts, I began to notice a few pompoms hanging from the trees and bushes outside people’s houses….then I spotted a whole jolly array of them along a hedge by the bowling green…

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…in fact, the whole town was festooned with pompoms….

20130609-203953.jpg

It was a such a beautiful, sunny day, and the jolly pompoms made the whole place seem quite magical. The house we saw was pretty magical too, it has to be said. Both of us were in no doubt at all that we could make our home there. The drawn-out complexities of the Scottish property system mean that we won’t know if this is a possibility or not for a wee while, but please do cross your fingers for us.

I found out later that the pompoms were part of FABFEST, 2013. Pompom contributions to the festival are actively encouraged, so I shall be getting my pompom makers out and whipping up a few to send tonight. And if you’d like to make a pompom or two to decorate Balfron, you’ll find more details and a postal address here.

.

respect


(Orkney and Shetland in Blaeu’s 1654 Atlas.)

I am not a Shetlander. I love Shetland, and I feel a connection to those islands and their culture that is (for me) profound and meaningful, but I am not a Shetlander. I think it is important for me to remember that, particularly as I am currently working on a collection of designs that use Shetland wool, and are all inspired by different aspects of Shetland and its landscape. In my previous job as an historian, I found it very useful to remind myself of the distance between myself and the eighteenth-century subjects I was working on. If you read a lot of eighteenth-century diaries and letters, you start to get to feel like you ‘know’ the people who wrote them. But you don’t know them, and it is really important to remember the distance that separates you from those folk, because that distance stops you from making foolish assumptions, and helps you to maintain respect.

I am not a Shetlander. But I feel a profound sense of irritation — that occasionally approaches outrage — when I happen across certain kinds of misrepresentation of Shetlanders and Shetland. Knitting books and magazines are particularly bad in this regard. There are many things that irk me in these knitterly accounts (don’t even get me started on the romanticisation of the truck system) but one of the things that irritates me most is the assumption that the islands are “remote” and difficult to access. Really? What does “remote” even mean? Shetland was not remote for the Vikings, and nor was it remote for the merchants of the 17th- and 18th-century Baltic. By the early 19th Century, commercial shipping meant that Shetland was actually much better connected than many English provincial towns — the sea meant that these islands were not remote at all. And what, really, is ‘remote’ about Shetland today? We are a nation of islands, and like many other parts of the British Isles, you can access Shetland easily by flight or ferry. No one ever describes the Isle of Man or Guernsey as ‘remote’ — but what’s the difference? It is, in fact, much more difficult for me to get to the Channel Islands than it is to hop on a plane to Shetland.

The assumption that Shetland, its people, and its culture, are terribly ‘remote’ feeds into a discourse of exoticism within which the islands are marked by a sense of arcane difference. And this is not only completely misleading, but, in making Shetland seem like some sort of antediluvian curiosity, is also profoundly damaging (and disrespectful) to its culture: a culture within which which wool and knitting play an important role. As I said, mainstream knitting books and magazines have a disappointing tendency to reinforce these ‘exoticising’ assumptions, and this is perhaps because (with a handful of notable exceptions: Miller, Starmore, Amedro, Johnston), they have been produced by people who know an awful lot about knitting but not very much about Shetland. Examples abound, but here is a recent one that I found all the more galling for being produced by someone whose work I otherwise like and admire.


(extract from Franklin Habit’s article in Interweave’s new e-mag, LaceKnits (2012). On the map, at least, the Shetland islands are correctly located)

In an article published recently in Interweave’s new e-mag Lace Knits (2012), Franklin Habit describes Shetland as “a windswept, sheep-infested archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland,” a statement which not only feeds into the discourse of the exotic, but is also geographically incorrect (Shetland is located to Scotland’s northeast). The article purports to unlock the mysteries of the origins of Shetland lace — but there’s no mystery about it: basic geography might also have enabled Habit to understand the connection between the first ‘Shetland’ knitting patterns produced by Jane Gaugain and the remote ‘sheep-infested archipelago’. (Gaugain traded on the North side of Edinburgh, whose ships, warehouses, and shops were, by the 1840s, stuffed full of finished Shetland goods, including fine openwork shawls produced by the knitters of Unst and Dunrossness) Describing Shetland lace, as Habit does, as “set-dressing for a high budget fairytale”, simply compounds the misleading idea of the islands as unreal, remote fantasy-places, detaching lace from its real (and important) role in Shetland as a constituent of the skills and materials of everyday life. Habit’s piece has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing what he acknowledges are ‘myths’ about Shetland lace simply by repeating them in lieu of historical fact. I found the lack of basic, accurate information in his article all the more odd, because it really is not difficult, even when one is located on another continent, to research Shetland knitting history and culture. In fact, unlike other parts of Britain, Shetland is unusually well-resourced in this regard. There is a wonderful archive, with a great online catalogue and other accessible material. This archive is staffed by an equally wonderful team of people who are more than happy to help anyone with an interest in any aspect of Shetland culture. Shetland also abounds with well-known, generous, and knowledgable knitters, who are more than happy to talk about their craft and its history. Why not just do some research?

If you have any interest at all in Shetland knitting, then there is no better place to start than with Real Shetland Yarns, a book supported by the Shetland Museum and which, in so many respects, is the complete opposite of Habit’s article. During Shetland Wool Week last year, you might remember that I mentioned the Shetland Stories competition — a project highlighting the importance of wool and knitted textiles to Shetland culture. Forty of these stories have now been gathered together in this wonderful collection, which is seriously the best book about textiles that I’ve come across since Vladimir Arkhipov’s Home Made (2006). Here, told in Shetlanders’ own words, is the story of Shetland wool. Each ‘story’ is short (just 300 words) and reading each piece in isolation gives you a snapshot of the role of “oo” in an individual life: an incident, a garment, an animal, a memory. The stories are brief, then, but their cumulative effect is profound. Taken as a whole, the book effectively unlocks the division of labour, and lays it out before you, introducing Shetland wool at every stage from husbandry through to retail. We learn of the care of sheep, of common grazing, of rooing and gathering hentilags, of carding and spinning, of knitting by hand or by machine, of weaving cloth, of finishing garments, of dressing shawls, of brokering, buying and selling, of designing and exporting. We see a boy’s perspective on the work that is going on around him; we see a girl being taught to knit by her father; we see men and women supporting their families through their craft; we read of knitted garments loved and hated; knitted garments that won prizes; knitted garments inspired by archeological finds; knitted garments that were worn by several generations of the same family, and are still being worn today. We meet Jacko the extraordinary caddy lamb, and equally extraordinary knitting heroines like Ena Leslie; we see vet, Debbie Main taking an impromptu ride on the back of a too-lively tup; we are privileged to peer into the pages of Hazel Tindall’s mother’s diary and to read Norma Anderson’s thoughts about her grandmother’s beautiful lace garments; we see young Eva Irvine, selling her family’s hand-knit hosiery in Lerwick, and catch a glimpse of of Andy Holt, working away on his pasap machine during the long winter nights on Papa Stour. Some of these stories are funny, some are deeply moving, but this is in no way a sentimental book. It is a real book. It is a book that shows just how important wool, and the creative skills associated with it are to the everyday lives of people in a community which is emphatically not exotic, not ‘remote’, but rather an ordinary — though distinctive — part of the contemporary British Isles. It is a book that instills respect for that community and the crafts and culture that are so important to it. It is a book that all knitters should read.

Jacko in his later years. Image ©Hazel Mackenzie, reproduced in Real Shetland Yarns, p.62.

Islay inspiration

I love camping: I suppose there is just something about taking the time to simply be in the outdoors that allows the world to insinuate itself upon you in the most pleasing way. And I find Islay a particularly inspiring landscape. I like to potter about just looking at stuff, and always come home with a head and notebook full of ideas. Good weather helps too, of course: being able to sit outside in the long, light evenings watching hares, and listening to the wark-wark of corncrakes is a delicious kind of treat.

The things I see around me in Scotland, and the photographs I take of them are certainly my principal source of inspiration. Oftentimes it is the “feel” of something in a photograph (or perhaps more accurately the memory the photographs invoke of the feel of a place, thing, or occasion) that sparks off an idea. Here are a few groups of images that may or may not work their way into a thought . . . that later works its way into a design.

Thrift, spent blooms, rocks and sand.


Kildalton






Bruichladdich






a pod of one’s own

We live in a typical, late-Victorian, Edinburgh tenement. It has high ceilings, and the rooms are reasonably sized, but there are not many of them. Most of the other flats in our building have an extra room which has been created by the division of the kitchen into two. But we kept the large kitchen, and took the unusual step of making a room in what most folk would regard as a cupboard. This room – known as ‘the pod’ – is the size of a single bed. Above head height is a stash of yarn and fabric and half of my (seasonally-rotating) wardrobe. Down below there are print-covered walls and book-covered shelves, a desk, a chair, and a computer. As it is small and windowless, there are no distractions: the pod has seen the thrashing out of many ideas and is a really good thinking space. It is also posessed of mysterious tardis-like properties — we have actually managed to fit a (small) sleeping guest in it, and, if there is something that we want to to watch on the iplayer, Tom and I and my knitting all get in it together (though things become tight when the animals want to join in). I wrote a book in the pod, and this blog, as well as all of my knitting designs are produced from inside it. It probably sounds a little peculiar to say that this tiny, windowless box is my favorite room–but it really is.

The pod has been a sort of faded-mid-blue colour for several years (we did what everyone does when they buy their first place, and painted every room a different shade). You can get a reasonable sense of the colour of the walls (as well as of the teetering terror of the upper shelves) from the picture in this post. (Were marvelous Messy Tuesdays really three years ago? Perhaps it is time to revive them.) Anyway, I have wanted to freshen up the pod up for a while, and particularly so now that my change of employment circumstances is imminent. My delayed birthday present was some paint from Farrow and Ball and we have spent the past couple of days sorting things out, and redecorating.

Sorting through things one has gathered generally prompts reflection, and this was certainly the case yesterday as I rearranged my shelves. As you might imagine, I am an inveterate buyer and hoarder of books. Now, in my mind, there has not been much buying and hoarding over the past couple of years, because I have had a stroke, but the contents of my bookcases show how far this is from being the case. Imperceptibly, a change has taken place. Rather than lots of books about eighteenth-century American politics, there is now a whole shelf of books about Scotland, and another one dedicated to the history and representation of the Scottish fishing industry. The woollen trade has its own area, and who knew that I had acquired so many of the pleasingingly idiosyncratic volumes published under the Shire imprint? I also seem to own everything that came off the Dryad or Odhams presses, and there are a disturbing number of gigantic tomes about fashion illustration and design. On another shelf, there are neuroscience textbooks, alongside memoirs of those who have suffered stroke, Parkinsons, and other conditions. Oliver Sacks has his own space, too, as I have, with increasing distaste, been working my way through his annoying essays with a view to writing about him at some point. (I regard Sacks in much the same way as my former colleague, Tom Shakespeare, memorably describes him: “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”)

I wrote a little glumly not so long ago about facing the fact that I was no longer an academic. But what my bookshelves reveal is that — as many of you pointed out in your comments at the time — I clearly couldn’t stop being one if I tried. I have many interests, and I love transforming the things that I am interested in into other things — words, photographs, sweaters. I no longer have an institutional context, and I am also considerably poorer than I was. Donuts are not everything, though: I still have a brain that works, a whole lot of ideas, and a pod of my own in which these ideas can take whatever shape I choose. I will never be happy about having had a stroke; about having to deal with its debilitating, chronic consequences; or about having to leave a job that, despite the many horrors of the ‘current climate’, I genuinely enjoyed. Yet I very much doubt that the working environment of UK Universities PLC was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she wrote about the hopeful prospect of women’s intellectual and creative independence in 1929. Perhaps, with a couple of years hindsight, I will be glad that I no longer have to implement national and institutional policy decisions with which I do not agree, and produce research ‘outputs’ so formally, always with an eye to the next assessment deadline.

In any case, re-painting the pod was an extremely good move. We are still working on the finishing touches (prints need hanging, the computer is not set up and, most unusually, I am writing this from the living room). Perhaps I’ll show you some photographs tomorrow.

protective clothing – can you help?


I am writing a feature about the history of protective clothing. As part of this, I’m conducting a series of short interviews with people who wear such garments as part of the work that they do. Does your job involve wearing a pair of dungarees or overalls, an apron, a tabard, a hi-vis vest, or a boiler suit? Would you mind having a quick email conversation with me about your protective clothing and how you regard it? If so, please leave a comment on this post or email me at the address you will find in the ‘get in touch’ section on this page. Muchas gracias.


Margaret Foster in the lab, 1919

comments on this post are now closed – thanks for your help!

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