treasure

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Last weekend I had another successful bid at the Glasgow Auction (which is rapidly becoming my new obsession). The item that had caught my eye was this – a wonderful 1950s walnut sewing cabinet. I am very keen on these cabinets, and have been on the look-out for a nice mid-century one for a while. Now I have one!

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The cabinet is in excellent condition and will serve me very well as a by-my-knitting-chair-hold-all for my current projects and notions. An additional bonus was that it came complete with its original contents . . .

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. . .which I excavated this afternoon. I found . . .

Straight knitting needles . . .

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. . . patterns . . .

patterns

. . . needle gauge and row counter . . .

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. . . equipment for mending and darning “specially prepared for fine silk hose.”

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finesilkhose

. . . collar reinforcements and suspenders . . .

collar

. . . needle cases “frae bonnie Scotland” . . .

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. . . and needles for all purposes . . .

needles
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. . . buttons . . .

buttons

. . . .other types of fastening . . .

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. . . several special threads for stringing necklaces . . .

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. . . and all types of sewing cotton.

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The cabinet also contained a nurse’s dictionary from 1935 and this photograph from Largs. . .

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. . . which I have included here on the very slim possibility that someone may be able to identify it.

I have a special fondness for ancient haberdashery, and find so many of these objects curious, evocative and moving. Many remind me quite powerfully of my Grandma, also, like the cabinet’s former owner, a knitter on straight needles and a reader of Woman’s Weekly. I still use my Grandma’s darning mushroom and needle gauge and I like how these small functional things carry the memory of her back to me through use. But what have these objects been doing since their owner died, or had no use for them? The item of latest provenance in the cabinet dates from the 1970s. Have these things been sitting in an attic for forty odd years? Will someone a century hence excavate our Addi Turbos, our Chibi darning needles, our scraps of Wollmeisse or Madelinetosh, and feel the same way that I do about the JP Coats bobbins and the mysterious NYLUSTA?

In other news:
*I am extremely happy to report that an appendix-less Tom is now actually on his way home from Dublin! Much relief and general excitement all round. Thankyou very much for your kind wishes.
*After several days swotting up on the Highway Code, I passed my driving-theory test this morning. This is the first essential step to being fully mobile as it means I can now put in for the practical driving test. I feel ready. I think.

A chat with Tom of Holland

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I am sure that many of you may be familiar with the work of my good friend and woolly comrade Tom van Deijnen, also known as Tom of Holland. Tom is perhaps best known for his expertise in, and celebration of, darning, which he puts into practice in his classes and workshops, as well as his wonderful Visible Mending Programme. But though Tom is best known as a darner, he can turn his hand to just about any fibre art: he spins, crochets, knits and sews and his approach to all of these activities is incredibly thoughtful and curious. Tom cares about, and cares for, made items, and his work always seems to be prompted by a deep understanding of the processes of making. This is a man who not only wants to lengthen the life of a favourite pair of shoes, but who, in order to do this, will teach himself the art of shoe repair from start to finish. Everything Tom does seems to add vitality and meaning to the textiles that surround him and I find his work inspiring on so many levels. He is a superlative technician, with the focus and patience to refine and hone a method until it best does the job for which it was intended; he is a talented designer with an eye for structure and balance as well as a feel for textile history and tradition; and he is also joyously creative and clearly loves making for its own sake. All of these elements are combined in his superb new design, the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan, which he has just published. I just love everything Tom does, and thought it would be nice to bring you this wee chat I recently had with him about his work.

1. Tom, you have lived in the UK for many years, but are also “of Holland” . . . can you tell us a little bit about your background and where you grew up?

Yes that’s right. I was born and grew up in the south of The Netherlands. My grandparents kept cows and sheep, so I have had a woolly element in my life from very early on. I still remember the excitement of lambing time: my grandparents obviously were tied to the farm during this period, and visiting them then was always full with expectation: will new lambs be born tonight? Besides that, my mother is an amazingly good knitter. As a child I got her to knit me loads of jumpers. She allowed me to choose patterns and yarns myself, and I remember even as a kid I always wanted 100% wool when possible. Although I’ve always been very creative I wasn’t that interested in knitting at the time, although I was taught at primary school and also a bit by my mum.

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(a sock, hand-knitted and expertly darned by Tom)


2. I know that your considerable skills with the needle are completely self-taught — which craft first piqued your interest? And how did that lead on to your developing other needle-skills?

My first love, as a child, was crochet. I’ve made numerous doilies for my both my grandmothers. Most of them very small, but I enjoyed doing them – all completely free-style, I don’t think I even realised there were such things as patterns. I also enjoyed a spot of embroidery and needlepoint. However, as a teenager I became more interested in painting and drawing, and I did little fibre-related stuff until after I moved to the UK. In fact, anything knitting-related I learnt here, so I don’t even know many Dutch knitting terms. This makes talking about knitting with my mum a bit difficult at times.

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Tom’s Amazing Jumper – a showcase of many different darning techniques.

3. What was the first thing you ever darned? Can you tell us about the process and what you learned from it?

I have always done little bits of embroidery and other things like beading to hide stains on jumpers or whatever, but the first proper darn was my first pair of hand-knitted socks. After spending weeks trying to learn using double-pointed needles and understanding heelshaping, I was devastated when the first hole developed. But, with mushroom, darning needle, and some old needlecraft books in hand, I soon learnt how to embrace new holes, as they provided me with a new darning opportunity!

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Damask darns on Tom’s amazing jumper


4. And how did the visible mending programme come about?

The Visible Mending Programme started because I found others were interested in fixing up clothes, but it’s sometimes difficult to get started. So after getting questions about mending from friends and the general public, I decided I could provide mending inspiration, skills and services by writing a blog, running workshops and taking commissions and thus, The Visible Mending Programme was born. I like mending to be visible, as it’s a talking point which helps me explain to people why I feel it’s important to try to extend the life of a garment as long as possible, rather than throwing it out and buying yet another cheap piece of clothing that will disintegrate after a few washes. I see a beautiful darn as a badge of honour, to be worn with pride.

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(Tom explores different pattern ideas in his darns. The green darn in the centre is based on the Sanquhar or tweed “Prince of Wales” check.)


5. In a world dominated by disposable fashion, I find so many things to love about your visible mending programme, but one thing I find especially interesting about it is the way that it suggests that garments and objects, have time written into them — that things are not fixed or static but are always somehow in the process of becoming. I wondered if you could reflect on the way that mending adds, as it were, a certain temporal dimension to the mended object?

For me, I went through some kind of ‘continuity realisation’ when I took up spinning. Making at least some of my own clothes, made me realise that it takes time to make garments; and especially hand-knitting can take a long time. So when I started to darn more, I no longer thought that a garment was finished at the time when I worked in the last ends. Instead, darning keeps adding to the garment, so it’s not finished. It highlights there’s a story and a connection to that garment. I spent time, effort and skill in making it, and darning allows me to reflect on and trace the evolution of the making, and adding to it. Therefore, a garment isn’t finished until it is beyond repair. And even then it might be used as a cleaning rag or whatever. When I took up spinning, I started to understand a garment doesn’t start with casting on, or cutting the fabric pieces. There’s a whole process that happens beforehand, too. Fibre needs to be harvested and processed and spun up into yarn and perhaps woven into cloth, before I can start making the garment. In the olden days, all these things were done by hand, and the more I learn about textile history, the more I am in awe of the skills involved. At the same time, I’m also becoming more and more baffled that people have completely lost this connection, and don’t have the understanding of what’s involved in making clothes. Therefore, it is now possible to buy very cheap clothes on the Higt Street, and these get thrown out when there’s a small hole, or button missing. So this is something else I try to highlight with the Visible Mending Programme. I’d like to go back to an older mindset, where clothes and cloth were expensive, you only had a few, and you looked after them and repaired them until they were completely threadbare.

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Visible mend #11


6. Many of your projects suggest an admirably deep understanding of the real nitty-gritty of textiles: the internal structure of stitches, and the way that they behave. Can you tell us about the ways that your technical understanding of knitting and darning speaks to and prompts your creativity?

I guess I’m a real technique geek. I love researching techniques, and the best way is to try them out yourself. So I cast on, or sew a toile, and see what happens. It doesn’t always work out, and then I like to find out why I didn’t get the result I wanted. I often find that old techniques that take a bit longer have advantages over the shortcuts that people seem to prefer nowadays. Sometimes I get completely inspired by the research, so that’s how I ended up making my Curiosity Cabinet of Knitting Stitches, which is a showcase of old and new knitting techniques, some well-known, others obscure. On other occasions I get totally jazzed up by construction techniques (for instance Barbara Walker and Elizabeth Zimmermann) and I want to try that out. There is so much to explore and learn!

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Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: cast ons, bind offs, increases & decreases, selvedges.

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Tom’s Curiosity Cabinet of Knitted Stitches: eyelets, chevrons, lace


7. For many reasons, stranded colourwork just does it for me: I have a feeling you feel the same. Can you put into words what it is that you love about stranded knitting?

I do love stranded colourwork. On a practical level, I find it appears to knit up quicker, as you can easily trace your progress through the repeats, and trying to finish ‘one more repeat before I go to bed’ also helps. On a more conceptual level, I’m intrigued and inspired by the many knitting traditions that make up the stranded knitting canon. There is so much interesting history involved: development of patterns, development of construction techniques, social implications of knitting as a way to make a living, the changes in gendered crafts. There is still so much to explore and learn that can feed into my own work.

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Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #8


8. With Felicity Ford, you’ve been developing the Aleatoric Fairisle project – where dice-rolls determine the colours and stitch patterns you both knit up as swatches. Can you tell us more about the project and what it has taught you about colour and pattern so far?

The Aleatoric Fair Isle project (‘alea’ is the Latin for dice) was developed from our mutual interest in John Cage (a 20th Century American composer) and his use of dice rolls, the I Ching and other ways of chance to inform his compositions. He wrote a piece called Apartment House 1776, which uses snippets of music from that time. The end result is still recognisably based on the original music, yet at the same time completely fresh and modern. Felicity and I have used the same compositional principles in creating stranded colourwork that is still recognisably based on traditional Fair Isle, yet at the same time is fresh and modern. It has taught me a lot about colours in particular. Following certain rules we created, we select colours from 21 shades, using dice rolls. There are also rules on how to select the patterns (all are from Mary MacGregor’s book Traditional Fair Isle Patterns.) We started knitting exactly what the dice told us to do, but soon we both started to rebel and try to do things a bit differently. This is still true to John Cage, who also made a lot of subjective decisions whenever something didn’t seem right to his artistic sensibility. I’ve knitted eleven swatches now, and most of these need fixing in some way. Particularly our rule on how to come up with the shades for the contrast row (the row in the middle of the pattern.) Traditionally the contrast row was used to knit in some yarn of which you had very little for whatever reason: you may simply not have had enough, or it was very expensive to make, for instance, it was dyed with indigo. going through the Aleatoric process and feeling that rebellion makes you more aware of colour. It has made me more confident in choosing shades that work together, and also that you should add one colour which jars a bit with the others, to add some freshness and contrast. Lastly, the contrast colour should never break the pattern up.

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Aleatoric Fairisle swatch #3

9. And how has the Aleatoric Fairisle Project informed the design choices you made with your wonderful Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan?

One of the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches intrigued me. This swatch had the patterns placed vertically, and I was very curious to see how they would work horizontally. I tried it out in the Foula wool and I liked the way it came out. I think the Foula wool colours naturally harmonise well together, but from doing all the Aleatoric swatches I learnt a lot about finding a harmonious balance. Particularly the black needs to be used in moderation, as it’s such a strong colour and tends to dominate and throw off the design if used too much.

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10. Why did you choose Foula Wool to knit this garment?

I would almost say that the wool chose me! For a while I wanted a warm outerwear cardigan, and the Foula wool is perfect for that. It’s knits up quick, and after washing it it blooms quite a bit, so it makes a very integrated fabric.

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11. I think the colours, patterns and repeats of your cardigan are really beautifully balanced. The planning process of the design must have been considerable. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

I got my hands on some wool from Magnus, and the limited palette of seven shades actually made design choices easier, as there’s not too much to distract you. I already had the starting point from the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatch, and then when I knitted this up in the Foula wool, I found it quite easy to correct things, because there are only seven colours to play with. And in true Aleatoric style, I left a bit to luck and worked them out as I went along!

FoulaCardiganGussetSeam_medium

12. I find that knitting actually knitting a design can change the direction of my ideas about it, sometimes in quite subtle ways. Did anything change for you while making this cardigan?

Each time I make something, I start reflecting on the item whilst working on it. I often try out something new and see what I think about it. This often relates to techniques I’ve chosen. For this cardigan, I had a number of ideas on how to work out the buttonband and collar, and I kept changing my mind until I actually got to the point I had to do it. I settled for a moss stitch buttonband with i-cord loops for the toggles. Also, I had two options for the toggles, and the final choice could only be made at the end and I chose the opposite from what was my favourite up until then. Also the way I dealt with the knotted steek has changed throughout the knitting of it. In June Hemmons Hyatt’s The ‘Principles of Knitting’ she suggests that you could cut the strands really short and leave a small fringe on the inside. I tried this on one armhole, but I much prefer the second, and more time-consuming method, of skimming in the ends at the back of the fabric.

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13. I know you have tried many steeking methods, but are a great fan of the knotted steek. Can you explain what this is and why you like it?

I believe in having different techniques at my disposal, so I can chose the one that’s most suited for the job. As the Foula wool is a chunky double-knit weight, I felt that the more usual way of cutting the steek and folding the seams in and tacking them down would be too thick. Likewise your own method of the steek sandwich. If I had used this on the Foula wool, I would have very thick buttonbands. So I looked elsewhere. The knotted steek was the solution for me. I first used it for the Aleatoric Fair Isle swatches, as it can be really quick, as long as you don’t mind the fringe. Once you have knitted the steek and you’re going to cast off the tube you’ve knitted, then you make sure not to cast off the steek stitches. Instead, you let the steek stitches drop down all the way. You end up with a big massive ladder. Then you cut the strands, leaving equal lengths on each edge. The next step is to knot together the pairs of strands that are used in each row, using an overhand knot. In other words, each row will end in a knot. You can then easily pick up your stitches for the buttonband and not have to worry about accidentally manipulating the edge too much. As only pairs of strands get knotted, the edge has the same flexibility as the body of the fabric. Once the buttonband is finished (or the sleeve, of course,) you take a sharp-pointed sewing needle (a crewel needle works well) and skim in the ends at the back of the fabric. This makes for a very flat finish, no bulk whatsoever.

(Tom will be explaining more about the knotted steek technique shortly in a tutorial on his blog. )

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14. Finally, I know you are, like me, a great fan of wearing wool. Can you tell us about some of your favourite items from your all-wool wardrobe?

I have many pairs of hand-knitted socks, most of which have darns in them now. I am rather fond of a black scarf which I jazzed up with some Swiss darning to add small blocks of colour, and love my woollen trousers thatI made last year for Wovember. My Sanquhar gloves are great in keeping my hands warm for chilly days cycling, but the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan definitely takes current pride of place in my woolly wardrobe!

Thankyou, Tom!

You can find out more about Tom’s work, and his current teaching schedule here. And the Tom of da Peat Hill cardigan is now available from Ravelry.

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 . . .

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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. . .

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

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(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.

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

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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.

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drawnthreads

This one is very fine indeed . . .

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

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

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

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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.

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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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I’m happy with the sleeve shaping . . .

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. . .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.

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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

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

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

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I’ll take good care of it.

forty things

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

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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.

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

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A beautiful Meryl Watts print.

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

. . . and things precious for other reasons

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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 . . .

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. . . chickens

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. . . and Spongebob Squarepants?

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

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threads
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. . . buttons

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

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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!

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I love the old needle gauge on the bottom.

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

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

pompoms in Balfron

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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….

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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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