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Denim 13: 30 June – 6 July

D140706a If you’ve ever wondered what working in the Caithness Archives is like, picture the scene in the Lord of the Rings where Gandalf goes looking for an ancient text among the Minas Tirith records. It’s exactly like that, except that occasionally—once a month, say—we have a bath and comb our beards, unlike certain wizards I could mention.

Archives work is not always as glamorous as the movies would have you believe; most of the time, to be honest, we deal with the equivalent of Victorian supermarket receipts. But this week I’ve been handling some genuine crinkly-crackly parchment deeds dating from the 1550s, touching history with my own hands.


A rare photo of Gordon at work

Parchment is stretched cow skin. Like your own skin, it has a rough, dark outside (the hair side), and a smooth side which never usually sees the light of day while the animal has a pulse. It’s such amazing stuff that the words really do read as fresh and clear as if they’d been written last week.

Courtesy of Highland Archives

And unlike modern paper, parchment lasts for centuries. Which brings us to my favourite fact about the medium: it’s so durable that the nuclear industry is putting some of its most vital information onto parchment, because they know it’s going to last. So one day the Gandalfs of the future will be searching for records of radioactive waste by candlelight, not rings – though I suppose it’s all about power in the end.

D140706cDespite some heroic knitting this week, I didn’t quite finish the gansey. (Disclosure: summer caressed Caithness with light fingers on Sunday, so we went for a walk on Dunnet beach. It was stunningly beautiful, but since the summer breeze didn’t so much make me feel fine by blowing through the jasmine of my mind, as make it hard to keep upright while it stripped the bark from trees, we didn’t linger.)

I’ve an inch and a half to go on the cuff, and then all I have to do is darn in the ends and wait for autumn to arrive. (About a fortnight, on current evidence.) I’ve deliberately made this one a nice, roomy fit, so that if I ever fall from an airplane I have an emergency parachute handy.

Finally this week, commiserations and congratulations to Judit from this parish – commiserations because she’s recovering from an operation to her foot, and congratulations because she’s finished another stunning gansey, in violet, which you can see here. The pattern is from Rae Compton’s book, page 56, George Mainprize’s gansey.

15 comments to Denim 13: 30 June – 6 July

  • Judit M./ Finland

    Gordon, many thanks for you mentioning my new “gansling “. Congrats to Denim !
    Best regards!

  • Lynne

    The gansey looks wonderful, can’t wait to see it modeled! And, thanks ever so much for sharing the archival and parchment information, I read that part aloud to our visiting U.K. cousins and then we had a discussion about whether the hide of sheep was ever used as parchment since they were most likely more plentiful than cows. (On second thought, how would WE know how plentiful anything was in the 1500s)!
    We would love a Caithness breeze right now, it’s 9:30pm and still 26C !

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne,

      Ah, you’ve caught me out! That’ll teach me to write in a hurry. Yes, “parchment” is, strictly speaking, any animal skin, though usually cow and sheep were used; vellum is the word for calfskin, and was softer and lighter, and what I meant to say. Sheep were indeed very common in Britain, were indeed the backbone of the English economy for centuries—many of the wonderful medieval and Tudor churches in Norfolk and Suffolk were built with money from the sheep trade with Europe.

      Unlike the archives of Minas Tirith, documents in real life were folded like the one in the picture, to protect the writing which was important (it had to be for it to be written down), usually about who owned which bits of land. The hair side is harder to write on, and tended to become the “outside”. If you look closely at the enlarged image of the document, you’ll see lots of tiny pinprick dots dappling the surface—that’s where the follicles of hair used to grow.

      Also, if you look closely, you may see a partial fingerprint imprinted in the seal…

  • Judit M./ Finland

    Hi Gordon,I was happy hearing that my gansling had so many visitors :). Did you change the program of this site?-I can not answer directly to Lynn , I wanted to say thanks for her kind comment. And what is your next project?

    • Gordon

      Hello Judit,

      Another 50-odd views so far today!

      The site was recently moved by the host company to a new server, and for a time we lost email and had a few other glitches. To be honest, the site is becoming way more complicated than we can handle, as non-techies. Using it is a bit like hiring a car at the airport and finding it shooting out of control on the wrong side of the road, and you can’t figure out where the brakes are; sooner or later you’re going to be standing at the side of the road scratching your head while smoke pours from under the bonnet, wishing you’d paid for roadside assistance.

      Next project is going to be a gansey for an old friend from school, once I’ve done the maths…

  • Jane

    Many congratulations on the new gansey, very nice design and lovely colour and lustre. Also I am totally admiring of Judit’s latest gansey, in fact of all her pieces, and again another beautiful colour.

    It’s a bit of a pause for thought in this modern computer age that writing on parchment or vellum has been embraced again for its enduring properties! It is true, the old ways are sometimes the best ways!

    Meanwhile refreshing sunshine and showers in the South, a great relief after the heat. Two young deer have appeared to browse the bird table in the garden, and the peachick is filling out nicely, a beloved only chick always with his mum.

    Looking forward to the next gansey!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane,

      Back in the old days, paper was made from linen rags, which has a low level of acidity; modern mass-produced paper is made from wood pulp, and is very acidic—which is why a newspaper goes brown if you leave it on the windowsill. So things stored on paper won’t last for as long as you need records of radioactivity.

      Electronic records sound like the answer, except that file formats and storage advices keep changing—try reading a Word 2.0 document on a floppy disk and you’ll see what i mean! (And, as someone once said, in the future people will see a compact disk with a map to the treasure and say, “Hey! Nice coaster…”)

      Mind you, while i think parchment is a great solution, you can’t exactly run it through a laser printer! So I like to think of the scribes of the Nuclear Archive Monastery producing illuminated manuscripts, with dragons and gargoyles, and one day art critics will rave over the Book of Sellafield, instead of the Book of Kells!

      I wonder what sort of parchment a peachick would make…?

  • Judit M./ Finland

    Hello Jane and many thanks for your kind remark on my knitting. This last gansey is a present to one of the surgeons who operated on my foot in May. The colour is his favourite. Just know I knitted an other pullover to the other surgeon, his favourinte colour is green. I will send the pictures to Gordon for “readers ganslings”. Both of these colours were strange for me at the beginning, as I always knitted in white or in some sort of blue or gray. But the more I knitted the more I loved these colours.
    Best regards and happy knitting :).

  • Jane

    Chick would only make two square inches of skinny paper, although it would smell beautifully of sunflower seeds. Now the rat which haunts the pond at dusk is an entirely different matter! Mild horticultural attrition is in order, I can tidy, you can run, but you can’t hide, something like that.

    I have a small confession. After the hefty winter gardening, I have been sitting staring wearily into middle distance at night, the knitting resting in the bag. With the completion of Denim, Judit’s gansey and the mention of the great Rae Compton, the fingers are finally at work again. It’s a great relief!

    • Judit M./ Finland

      Hello Jane, nice to hear that you are knitting again. I am with crutches since 9 weeks after the foot operation and the green “gansling” is ready, the pictures of it are arrived to Gordon´s parish. By the way the pattern is from Rae Compton´s book- once again :). Wait and see…

  • Charles

    Have a wee secondary project on the go knitting in Aran on 4mm needles. When I go back to it I feel like I’m knitting with telegraph poles wearing boxing gloves. Reid you’ve ruined me with all your cursed encouragement!

    • Gordon

      Hi Charles, you know, I was wondering who’d been going round knitting telegraph-pole cosies! Small is beautiful, that’s our motto. – remember, God knits everyone’s DNA individually on 2.25mm needles, and if it’s good enough for the Supreme Being…

    • Judit M./ Finland

      Charles, take it easy ! I knit with 3 mm needles and enjoy knitting .

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