my tam – at Gawthorpe!

gawthorpeview

While I was away in Lancashire I popped over to Gawthorpe to see preparations for the new season’s exhibitions. Excitingly for me, my Richard the Roundhead Tam is included, – the first time my work has ever been displayed in a museum or gallery context. I can tell you that the thought of the tam being exhibited (and examined) weighed on my mind somewhat while I was knitting it, and because of this I was very pernickety with my finishing. I was heartened to read that Emma Varnam also felt similarly when producing her glorious Soliders Quilt Cushion!

Alongsisde the new knit and crochet designs, there is much more for visitors to Gawthorpe Textile Collections to enjoy as well:

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Rachel and her team are hard at work preparing the displays, including the beautiful beaded dress which you can see to the left.

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The collection includes many wonderful books of lace swatches, including this example, which Rachel Kay Shuttleworth has annotated in characteristically direct fashion.

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This amazing hexagon quilt is a recent acquisition, and joins the display for the first time this season.

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Here is Jennie Pitceathly, director of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, who I persuaded to snap a few photographs of me wearing my Richard the Roundhead tam, for you to see.

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Me and the tam, hanging about outside Gawthorpe’s very imposing front door. . .

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Then I said goodbye to the tam, which has now joined its fellows in one of the display cases.

I have received quite a few enquiries about the Richard the Roundhead design, and I wanted to be sure you all know about the background of this project. With support from Arts Council England, Gawthorpe commissioned me to produce the pattern, I was paid for this commission, and in return waived all rights in the design. I do not directly sell this design, nor do I profit from it. Its purpose, like the other patterns produced by Debbie Bliss, Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie and Jane Ellison, is solely to raise funds for Gawthorpe Textiles Collection. If you purchase this pattern, therefore, you are directly supporting one of the most significant textile collections in the UK, enabling Jennie and Rachel and their team to continue the work that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began, inspiring future generations about textiles and textile history. If you are a shop with a wholesale enquiry about the Richard the Roundhead pattern, you should contact Gawthorpe Textile Collections directly.

Gawthorpe Hall and its Textile Collection re-opens to the public on March 29th Please do pop along if you can!

Lancashire Weekend

maatmill

We have been away in Lancashire for the weekend. Tom will shortly be participating in a rather testing race, and the Bolton Hill Marathon provided the ideal training run. While he was off doing that, me and my parents visited Helmshore Mills Textile Museum.

mill

For someone interested in textile history this is a truly wonderful place to spend a day. Helmshore is one of those great Lancashire places whose very landscape and infrastructure tells the story of industrial development. The story begins with a small eighteenth-century wool processing mill, where locally hand-woven cloth was fulled and finished during the late Eighteenth Century, providing the uniforms for British soliders fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Waterwheel and fulling stocks are still in situ, and for me it was well-worth the visit just to learn more about this aspect of textile processing in the region.

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In the Nineteenth Century, Lancashire grew rapidly as a global centre of the cotton industry, and downstairs in Helmshore’s second mill there’s a superb interpretation which allows the visitor to get to grips with cotton in its colonial and imperial contexts, as well as in terms of local social history. There are also some fabulous historic machines to wonder at – including a Water Frame (above), which I’d never seen before.

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Until the late 1970s, Helmshore was a “shoddy mill”, producing a relatively coarse-cotton thread to be used in household textiles, and I had not appreciated the multiple stages of recycling that might be involved in its production. Cotton waste might be circulated and re-circulated through the different stages of production several times, before being finally spun into thread on these mules.

mule

It is wonderful to see these machines in action, demonstrated by their knowledgeable guides, and though it would be impossible (and undesirable) to recreate the appalling noise, dust and humidity that cotton mill workers had to endure, I do think that being in such spaces, among the whirring doffers, carders and condensers, allows one to gain a good sense of the former life of the mill. My Grandparents laboured in similar environments, and I came away with a renewed appreciation of what work must have signified to them.

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In short, I would heartily recommend a visit to Helmshore Mills, and the cafe, which serves tasty home-baked Lancashire fare – such as Eccles Cakes – is also excellent.

And, in other news:

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Tom came 16th in the hill marathon which was a very good result . . .

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. . . Bruce has hurt his nose, forcing us to construct a makeshift cone out of pieces of plastic pending a visit to the vet. . .

And, having arrived home across the border, I have now updated the shop with more Ecclefechan mitt kits.

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today’s inspiration

Kerstin+Olsson+modeling+her+Swan+design+Bohus+sweater
Kerstin Olsson in Karen Invarsson’s Bohus design “The Swan”.

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Twiggy iconic in Fairisle

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The McCartneys in Shetland

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Yoke design by Unn Søiland (1951)

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f57d1d79c1aa725d7a75f686668f709d
41f045b45d3665c76e18589d0920892e

Yokes, knitted & crocheted pre-1950

Can you guess what my next book is going to be about?

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. . .

motif

. . . 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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old2
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. . . but the simple motifs and lines of this example make it my confirmed favourite.

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best2
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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.

Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present

cover

Writing of the worn and mended Fair Isle sweater that Shetland knitter, Doris Hunter created for her fiancé, Ralph Patterson, who spent four years in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, editor Sarah Laurenson states: “Ralph’s sweater is much more than a physical object. It is a site of personal and political meanings containing traces of world events and the lives of individuals.” Sarah’s astute remarks on this incredible piece of knitwear speak much more broadly to the content of the wonderful book she has recently produced with the Shetland Museum and Archives. In Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present we discover the intriguing stories of creative, enterprising, and brave Shetlanders like Doris and Ralph within the many cultural and economic contexts that make Shetland textiles so unique. Drawing on the knowledge of curatorial staff of the Shetland Museum, academics and researchers from several Scottish Universities, as well as a wealth of local expertise, this book is an important testimony to the significance and impact of Shetland textiles worldwide.

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(natural fleece shades)

The crucial factor shaping the production of Shetland textiles from the Mesolithic to today is of course, the wool grown by its native sheep. A fabulous piece by Elizabeth Johnston introduces us to some of Shetland’s earliest examples of woollen textiles, while other sections of the book explore the the effects of the landscape on the development of the breed, alongside the realities of keeping a flock, and working with wool in Shetland.

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We learn that there are 57 names in Norn “specific to colours and patterns in sheep,” and gain insights into what makes Shetland “oo”, as a fibre, so very distinctive. Other things make “Shetland” distinctive too. Unlike, say, “Harris” tweed, (which refers to cloth woven on the island of Harris, but whose provenance is yarn spun from the fleeces of many different breeds and crosses, who may be raised in many different locales), “Shetland” is unique in its breadth of reference: to a particular group of islands; to the name of a particular breed of sheep; to the fibre those sheep produce; to the yarn spun from that fibre; and to the cloth, knitwear, and other manufactured products that are created from that yarn. Unlike “Harris” (an island ‘brand’ now famously trademarked and protected by national regulatory bodies), the broader resonances of “Shetland” ironically meant that it failed to gain the same protection. According to Sarah Dearlove in her important chapter on Shetland tweed, “the word “Shetland” and its use in the woollen industry in general has been the islands’ achillles heel.”

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(Shetland tweed labels)

And yet, although the cachet of terms such as “Shetland” and “Fair Isle” means that they are frequently exploited, in some senses that very exploitation has also ensured their continued prominence and visibility within the textile industry. As Sarah Laurenson puts it: “histories of Fair Isle knitwear have to a large extent been shaped by marketing stories which do not necessarily fit with with the ideas and identities of people in Fair Isle and throughout Shetland. However, these stories have driven the commercial success of the style. Without them, there would be no Fair Isle knitwear.”

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(early Fair Isle kep. Shetland Museum and Archives)

Shetland textiles are truly spectacular, and the book includes discussion of many important pieces, now housed in the collections of the Shetland Museum and Archives. There’s a great discussion of the incredible lace garments created by enterprising Lerwick hairdresser, Ethel Brown, and anyone who has seen Jeannie Jarmson’s prize-winning rayon tank top (depicted above on the book’s front cover) will not be surprised to learn that she hurt her hands in its making. Yet though these showstoppers are breathtaking examples of what makes Shetland textiles so special, it is also refreshing to read chapters focusing on the everyday. This is the forté of Carol Christiansen (curator of textiles at the Shetland Museum and Archives) and her sections in the book are genuinely illuminating. You’ll learn about the careful reconstruction of the woollen garments worn by the “Gunnister Man” by Carol and her team, revealling “crucial evidence for how early modern clothing was made, worn, and mended.” And while we are all familiar with the beauty of Shetland lace and colourwork, few are perhaps aware of the unique graphic appeal of the “taatit rugs”, which Shetlanders created as bedcovers and wedding gifts from the Eighteenth-Century onwards.

taatitrugs

Building on the book’s wealth of original research is Ros Chapman’s piece about Shetland Lace. Her chapter effortlessly mingles intriguing documentary evidence with tantalising anecdote: “there was even an exhibition of Shetland knitting held in a Philadelphia department store containing a reconstructed croft around which knitters, ponies and sheep exhibited their uniqueness.” Ros’s lively chapter is merely the tip of the iceberg of a wonderfully thorough research project into the history, significance, and practice of Shetland Lace knitting. She is clearly going to produce an important book which I’m already looking forward to reading.

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(Teenie Williamson (left) in a hand-knitted print o’da wave jumper)

Shetland’s knitters are, of course, at the heart of this book, and form the focus of Brian Smith’s and Lynn Abram’s contributions.

As Brian Smith puts it:

“It is important to remember, and easy to forget, that the people who knitted those tens of thousands of stockings and mittens, as well as performing other chores in and out of the home were Shetland women. It was an “honest man’s daughter” who came to Bressay Sound in 1613 with her knitting and got assaulted in the process; it was women who knitted the “Zetland hose and night caps” that Dutchmen were still buying there two centuries later; Shetland’s land rent was being paid from the women’s hosiery in 1797; they created the stockings and gloves presented to the Queen and Duchess of Kent in 1837; the “hose, half hose, gloves, mittens, under waistcoats, drawers, petticoats, night caps, shawls &c &c” in Standen’s Shetland and Scotch warehouse in 1847; and the Shetland goods on show in the Great Exhibition in 1851. And little cash they got for their pains.”

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(Sketch of a Shetland knitter by Samuel Hibbert (1818)

Brian and Lynn’s chapters unfold carefully researched, well-written, and nuanced narratives about the economic realities of Shetland women’s lives, and the part that knitting has played in shaping them. All of us who enjoy our knitting as a stimulating or relaxing leisure pastime should read these chapters to gain insight into what it really meant to be a knitter in Shetland.

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Brian’s chapters unpack the truck system (by which Shetland knitters were paid in goods rather than cash), which lingered on in Shetland well into the twentieth century. His account of the effect of collective action by the Shetland Hand Knitters Association, which was developed under the same post-war influences as the British Welfare State, is particularly interesting (and heartening).

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Lynn’s piece reveals the wide variety of ways in which Shetland knitters used their own enterprise to support their families in response to extremely challenging social and economic conditions. “We were more or less financially secure” recalled crofter Agnes Leask after purchasing a knitting machine in the early 1960s, “as long as I could churn out about a dozen jumpers a week.” Lynn’s chapter (as much of her work) is extremely important in the way that it suggests the public and social resonances of a craft which is too often regarded in narrowly private contexts. “Hand knitting,” writes Lynn “was far from a domestic activity undertaken by women in the privacy of their own homes. In fact Shetland knitting created social networks and . . . relationships which aided women’s survival in the face of economic crises, personal loss, and the vagaries of living in these islands.”

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As well as providing a rich overview of Shetland textiles and the history of their production, the book also introduces us to some of Shetland’s most talented contemporary makers and artists – Hazel Tindall, Emma Blain, Ella Gordon, and Donna Smith – all of whom are experts in their fields. These interviews suggest how Shetland textiles not only have an inspiring present, but a very bright future, a fact celebrated by Jimmy Moncrieff in his foreword to the volume.

I suppose I should mention by way of a disclaimer that the people mentioned in this post, who created and contributed to this wonderful book, are my good friends, colleagues and acquaintances. You would perhaps be very surprised if I didn’t like this book. But then I would be very surprised if you didn’t like it either.

If you buy one book about textiles this year, make it this one.

Sarah Laurenson, ed., Shetland Textiles: 800 BC to the Present (Lerwick: Shetland Heritage Publications, 2013)
ISBN 978-0-9572031-3-6


All images in this post are the copyrighted property of the Shetland Museum and Archives and are reproduced with their permission.

a day at Gawthorpe

Some days I wake up and I feel massively, incredibly lucky to have somehow landed here, in this curious new life, as a designer of hand-knits. Last Thursday was one of those days. Because I had been invited — along with Debbie Bliss , Jane Ellison, Claire Montgomerie, and Emma Varnam — to visit Gawthorpe Textiles Collection.

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Gawthorpe Hall. Left to right Emma Varnam, Claire Montgomerie, Jennie Pitceathly and Debbie Bliss.

Originally built for Lancashire’s prominent Shuttleworth family in the early 1600s, with a Victorian redesign by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, Gawthorpe Hall itself is extremely impressive. But the building wasn’t what we had come to see.

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Gawthorpe is home to an important textile collection, ammassed by Rachel Kay Shuttleworth. Born in 1886, and heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, Rachel Kay Shuttleworth used her means and her position to gather textiles from all over the world, and to disseminate information about the traditions and skills that were involved in their production. By the age of 26, she had gathered over 1000 items, and began organising, cataloguing, and sharing her collection with interested visitors. Today the collection that Rachel Kay Shuttleworth began over a century ago now comprises more than 30,000 amazing textiles, showcasing a diverse array of needle crafts from elaborately embroidered Chinese Emperor’s robes, to Mechlin Laces; from Bolivian chullos to Indian shawls; from embroidered maps to soldier’s quilts.

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We designers had been invited to take part in an exciting project. We’d been commissioned by Gawthorpe (with funding from the Arts Council) to produce an accessory inspired by an item (or items) from Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s collection. We began the day with a tour of the part of the collection that’s on public display.

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I particularly liked the display of Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s desk and work boxes, complete with blotting paper, original haberdashery and notions, and projects in various states of completion. You could imagine her having just left the room, to take a break from her lace work.

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One of the most appealing things about this collection is the way that the hand and mind of its creator is so apparent in it. Reading Rachel Kay Shuttleworth’s annotations and catalogue cards give a great sense of the extent of her vast knowledge about textiles and textile history . . .

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. . . as well as a flavour of her personality through her idiosyncratic – and strongly held – views.

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Rachel Kay Shuttleworth was also an incredibly skilled needlewoman herself, and the collection includes many examples of her work. I was particularly taken with this beautiful crewel work bedspread that she embroidered for herself.

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Begun in 1905, work on this bedspread and its accompanying accessories took Rachel thirteen years. She completed the project with a palm-tree flourish on Armistice day 1918.

After tea and cake (cake!) we adjourned to the library where Rachel Terry, the collection’s curator, had gathered an incredible range of objects for us to examine and be inspired by.

There were beautiful and intriguing knitted items . . .

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. . . and work involving other media and skills.

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One of the real highlights of the day for me was getting to examine some eighteenth-century pockets – of which the collection has several examples. You know I dearly love a pocket.

Here, Debbie and I . . .

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. . are checking out these beauties . . .

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. . .which date from the early eighteenth century and whose neat chain-stitch is still beautifully fresh and bright.

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Here, Rachel is showing us a tiny pocket . . .

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. . . which had been fashioned for an infant.

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And I was gobsmacked by the detail of the beautiful corded quilting on this pocket . . .

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. . . which had clearly been cut from an earlier garment. The fabric was certainly too glorious to waste!

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Can you think of anything better than hanging out in a library with great company, getting to examine beautiful historic textiles, and being able to learn about those textiles from their curators? Well, I certainly can’t. It was an amazing day. Now Debbie, Jane, Claire, Emma and I have to go away and have a think about the design we intend to create. The idea is that we all produce patterns for our designs, which will be available as part of a kit from Gawthorpe this coming Spring. I will keep you updated as to my progress with the project as time goes on. I also imagine it may be hard to keep me away from Gawthorpe . . . I definitely intend to be back.

I was deeply impressed by the collections at Gawthorpe, which really are superb, and are a definite must-see if you have a chance to visit this lovely part of Pennine Lancashire. It was also fantastic to spend time with my comrade-designers, all of whom were tremendous fun and none of whom I’d met before. But more than this, I was blown away by the dedication, knowledge and generosity of Jennie Pitceathly, Rachel Terry and their small team at Gawthorpe. “I have a vision,” wrote Rachel Kay Shuttleworth in 1912, “of a place of meeting where neighbours will come for many reasons to seek stimulating thought by meeting other active minds, to find refreshment and inspiration and a joy in beauty”. This truly is what Jennie and Rachel are creating at Gawthorpe, and I feel honoured to be involved.

Gawthorpe Hall – including the Rachel Kay Shuttleworth Textile Collection – is open to the public 12 noon-5pm, Wednesday – Sunday until 3 November 2013. The hall will re-open in the Spring of 2014, when our patterns and kits inspired by the collection will go on sale!


For more information and updates see the Gawthorpe Textiles website. You can also follow them on twitter: @RBKS_textiles


All images in this post are reproduced courtesy of Gawthorpe Textile Collection, and are not to be reproduced without permission.

thinking time

lerwick

Well, I had a fantastic time in Shetland. As I was on my own, I stayed in Lerwick. I really enjoyed meeting up with Shetland friends old and new, and pottering about toon.

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shutters

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But I was there to work — I have a couple of writing commissions in the pipeline, one of which involves producing a short history of Fair Isle knitting for a new (and very exciting) book about Shetland textiles. So I examined a lot of Fair Isle pieces, and I thought a lot about them.

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I saw some truly incredible textiles . . .

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. . . so many of which defied any idea of the ‘traditional’ in Fair Isle knitting.

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(This striking allover features 4 shades of Shetland wool and 3 shades of artificial silk)

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(Fair Isle motifs, but not Fair Isle knitting)

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(Fair Isle or . . .Tartan?)

So much to think about.

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The Sixareen Kep

Hello from Shetland, everybody! Wool Week is in full swing, and it has got off to a great start.
I thought you’d like to see the pattern we produced yesterday at the Shetland Museum — named and photographed by the workshop participants, and modeled here by the lovely Tania — the Sixareen Kep.

In the workshop I talked a bit about the way I tend to build up ideas and inspiration for a project, and I thought I’d share with you a little of the background to the design of this kep (cap). This was my starting point:


Stanley Cursiter, The Fair Isle Jumper (1923) Edinburgh City Arts Centre.

Some of you may remember this amazing portrait from the front cover of A Shetland Knitter’s Notebook, and I’ve also mentioned my fascination with it before here. What the sitter is wearing on her head is is a sort of fancy seafarer’s kep. I just love this hat – perhaps apart from the pompoms – and thought it would be an ideal use of Jamieson and Smith’s Shetland Heritage yarn, of which I conveniently had six balls – one in each shade.


(mmmm . . .tasty Shetland Heritage . . . )

The shape of Cursiter’s sitter’s kep also reminded me strongly of the Phrygian or Liberty cap — a symbol of freedom that’s perhaps most most familiarly associated with the French Revolution.


I thought I would like to make the main body of my kep red, rather than white, recalling the Phrygian cap.

Then I started thinking about the different kinds of head-covering worn by fishermen around the coasts of Britain.

These noble chaps were photographed by Hill and Adamson in 1847, just down the road from where I live, in Newhaven. The one on the left is wearing what I think of as a kep — the kind of tall ‘wursit’ hat that would have been familiarly worn by Scottish and English fishermen throughout the Nineteenth Century. While the Newhaven fisherman’s head-covering is evidently fashioned in a single colour, in Shetland, such hats would have been knitted in several bright shades:

In the words of Samuel Hibert, in his Description of the Shetland Islands (1822):

“The boat dress of the fishermen is in many respects striking. A worsted covering for the head, similar in form to the common English or Scotch nightcap, is dyed with so many colours that its bold tints are recognized at a considerable distance, like the stripes of a signal flag.”

The collections of the Shetland Museum abound with beautiful examples of such hats. These keps are knitted at typically tight gauges, and feature internal linings which would have made them incredibly cosy and windproof. With a little further poking around the Shetland Museum online archives, I found this description of some wonderfully elaborate examples, that were knitted up to an old design in the 1950s:

“Haaf hats were the type of hats worn by the crew of a sixareen at the haaf (deep sea) fishing, and were typically patterned with small geometric designs . . .The skipper of the boat wore a bright red cap, while the rest of the crew wore darker ones. This differentiated him from the rest of the crew.”

So with these resonances in mind — the hat in the Cursiter portrait; the red Phyrigian cap; the brightly patterned keps described in nineteenth-century accounts of Shetland; and the sixareen skipper’s red “haaf” hat — I knitted this:

My kep begins with a knitted-in lining, and the colourwork brim is knitted on 2.75mm needles. After joining the lining to the top of the brim, I went up a couple of needle sizes, knitting the main body of the kep at a looser gauge to make it drapey (as well as having great stitch definition for colourwork, because of the way it is spun, the Heritage yarn also drapes well). After knitting and shaping the body of the kep, I finished it off with a braid, made from 3 different coloured i-cords, which I plaited and joined together. Here’s the end result:

The workshop participants had a great discussion about what to name the hat — associations were made with Burra’s famous Papil Cross, the distinctive red geology of Ronas Hill as well as different aspects of Shetland seafaring. A vote was taken, and the name that won out was the Sixareen Kep.

So, the pattern for the Sixareen Kep is now available from Ravelry!

Many thanks to all who participated in the workshop: Victoria Wickham, Shelly Kocan, Tania Ashton Jones, Susan Freeman, Evelyn Mackenzie, Emily Poleson, Mandy Moore, Mary Pirie, Aileen Ryder, Outi Kater, Joyce James, Tori Seirestad, Charlotte Monckton, Ann Leibert, Mary Henderson, Monique Boonstra, Joyce Ward, Lesley Smith, Melanie Ireland and Jen Arnall Culliford.

Two days in Donegal

I am designing a few things at the moment with a yarn that is new to me. I really like this yarn – and surely the best way to find out some more about it was to visit the place where it is made? So, on Friday, Mel and I took a trip to Donegal.

The yarn is a 2 ply light aran (US worsted weight) called “Soft Donegal”. It is “soft” because its yarn base is an Australian Merino – and it is “Donegal” because it is processed with the colourful neps, burrs, or flecks that are a familiar characteristic of Donegal tweed. The processing and the end-product are what is traditionally “Donegal” about this yarn. It is manufactured by Donegal Yarns, and distributed by Studio Donegal.


(Tathams of Rochdale carding machine at Studio Donegal. I hail from Rochdale, and always like to spot their machines in a mill.)

I have visited quite a few mills, but this first time I’d seen a fully vertical operation – that is, a mill where all of the processing stages from raw wool to finished yarn are effected in-house.


(Francis introduces Mel to the raw wool.)

Donegal Yarns dye the wool. They mix the dyed colours into beautiful, complex shades; they add the neps (the tweedy flecks) and the wool then goes through several stages of carding and condensing before it begins to resemble what we’d call a ‘single’.

Different stages of spinning, tying, washing, drying and skeining follow before the yarn is finally ready to leave the mill as balls or cones.

Thanks to Francis, the production manager at Donegal Yarns, Mel and I learned all about the operation — as well as many things we didn’t know about yarn processing.

This machine closely resembles a giant pair of human legs and feet — it ensures the colour is evenly distributed through the dye-vats and is appropriately called a “stamper.”

Wool shades are mixed with tweedy “neps” by being repeatedly blown about together in an amazing fleecy snowstorm . . .


. . . the Scotch Feed (invented by Henry Brown of Selkirk in 1844) puts a nifty twist into “woollen” processed yarns, turning and realigning the carded wool in preparation for the next stage.

I am often stunned by the fit-for-purpose ingenuity of textile machinery and the tape condenser (invented in the 1870s) is particularly ingenious. The efficient transformation of carded wool into fine ribbons relies entirely on the slightly-sticky properties of the fibres.

Francis was so knowledgable and enthusiastic and very tolerant of our yarn-related ravings. (Thanks, Francis!)


(a badly out-of-focus shot captures Mel’s rapturous reaction to the end product at Donegal Yarns)

The following day we visited Tristan Donaghy at Studio Donegal, just around the corner from the mill. As well as distributing Donegal Yarns for hand-knitting, Tristan runs his own small and highly-skilled manufacturing operation, producing unique hand-woven cloths which are used to create beautiful home furnishing fabrics, together with a small range of clothing.

What Tristan doesn’t know about Donegal tweed probably isn’t worth knowing. He was extremely generous both with his time and knowledge, and Mel and I came away feeling we had learned an enormous amount.

We saw unspun sliver being woven directly into boucle fabric for a textured effect . . .

. . . we found out about leno and tuck selvedges . . .

. . . we learned all about the different processes involved in finishing a hand-woven scarf or blanket (adding a rolled fringe is much more complex than you might think!)

And then we went outside to explore our surroundings, and let all we’d seen sink in.


(Me, the BMC, and the Maghera waterfall)

We could immediately see the material connection between the yarns and textiles we’d been admiring, and the beautiful landscape of Donegal.






Such an inspiring weekend! Thankyou Chris, Francis, and Tristan! Now it is time for me to get busy with those needles. . .

* You can buy Donegal Yarns directly from Studio Donegal, or from stockists like This is Knit.
* Read more about Donegal Yarns and Studio Donegal in Carol Feller’s super book, Contemporary Irish Knits

worn

The best things in my wardrobe are made of wool. Some of these are ‘vintage’ items that have worn incredibly well. I thought I’d show you one of my favourites today.

I picked up this hand-knitted cardigan second-hand. From its shape, patterns, buttons, and the kind of worsted- spun Shetland wool that was used to knit it, I reckon it dates from the 1930s. 80 years later, it is still in fantastic condition. The right side of the fabric has that slight sheen that Shetland hand-knits seem to develop after many years of wear. There is not a single pill to be seen.

The strands along the back of the fabric have felted ever-so-slightly. The work is incredibly fine and neat.

But this is not a pristine garment. It has been worn a lot. Where this is most evident is under the arms. Here, movement and friction have created areas of felting on the fabric’s right side.

It is also a garment that has been cared for. There is a place on the back of one elbow where an area of about two square inches has been repaired. The darner has taken great care to match the pattern. You can see that wool of a slightly paler-blue than the original has been used. Here is the darn from the wrong side . . .

. . . and here from the right side.

These are clearly the repairs of a seasoned darner. The stitches are perfectly made, the fabric perfectly stable. I do love to see good darning. One of the most moving hand-knits I have ever encountered is a Fair-Isle sweater now on permanent display in the Shetland Museum. It belonged to a local who spent much of WWII as a prisoner. He wore this sweater constantly, repairing and re-repairing the areas that suffered from wear. A powerful document of his interment, as well as his Shetland identity, this sweater really looks as much darned as it is knit. It is very beautiful. Next time I visit Shetland I’ll get a photograph for you.

Here is another repair conducted by the hand of an inexpert darner – ie me.

Not only is this an example of my second-rate mending, but you can also see how difficult it is to find contemporary yarn that is a good match for vintage palettes. The brown colour I’ve used to darn is a Shetland that is close in hue to the original, but it is a blend with flecks of green in it. Like all of the colours used on the original sweater, the rusty-brown shade is very flat and solid. This ‘flatness’ is one of the many things I find interesting about knitting wool from the 30s and 40s. Those marled, heathered, or tweedy effects that we might think of as being ‘traditional’ are really of relatively modern ilk.

I love the simple construction of this sweater. The button bands are so neatly done that I originally assumed they had been knitted at the same time as the colourwork. Had the knitter actually purled those stitches back-and-forth instead of working in the round?

No they hadn’t – but they had conducted a kind of knitterly magic when picking up the stitches. Each cut yarn-end on each row has been individually bound down and woven in. It is an incredibly nifty piece of work.

Impressive! But how had the knitter secured the steek before cutting? When I looked closely at the armhole steeks (similarly neat, and flat) I discovered more about her method.

Upon careful examination I discovered some tiny cotton thread ends showing that the steek had been hand-sewn before cutting. While the majority were removed when the steek was completed, a few of these stray cotton thread-ends actually still remain in the armhole joins, as you can see at the centre of this rather blurry photograph.

The work is so neat, so very carefully done, that there is no bulk at all — hardly a hint of anything resembling a join or ‘seam’.

The sweater has very little shaping: there are some decreases in the arms, and a narrowing at the waist created by the ribbing, but there is no underarm gusset, or setting-in-of sleeves. The sleeves are, in fact set in to the armholes totally squarely, as you can see here.

This squareness is probably one reason for the increased wear that the underarms have seen – but the totally un-tailored sleeve actually fits surprisingly nicely under the arms — not much excess fabric at all.

The cardigan is a good, neat fit on me. I love it, and love to wear it. I’ll keep admiring it, repairing it, wearing it, caring for it. Maybe under my proprietorship it will be able to see another several decades of wear — just as it did with its original owner.

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