It’s a little-known fact that parts of the West Country still preserve their traditional rural customs, and not only have the radical changes of the 20th and 21st centuries passed them by, but even the 19th century is seen as unduly modern – so much so, in fact, that this is the only part of the world where the novels of Thomas Hardy are seen, not as quaint relics of a bye-gone age, but rather as cutting-edge social commentary.
It comes as no surprise, then, while hiking across the barren heath land of Dartmoor, to come across itinerant gansey-wool merchants on their way to the great gansey wool fairs at Exeter or Barnstaple. They’re easy to spot once you know what to look for: the great baskets of wool-skeins on their backs, so large that from a distance they look like a man giving an armchair a piggy-back ride, and a set of 2.25mm double-pointed knitting needles in their hair, which is done up in a bun like a geisha who’s had an accident with a model helicopter.
They’re a less common sight than in former days; for the farmers took against them after some of the more unscrupulous pedlars took to following sheep about the fields in Spring with wool clippers, hastily clipping tufts from their backs before the dogs came after them, and then passing the wool through the hedge to their accomplices (which is, of course, why receivers of stolen goods are known as “fences”, and why you see so many strands of stray wool on hedgerows in early Spring). So unpopular did they become that country folk refused to wear garments made from their wool, and that’s why you only see pictures of fishermen wearing ganseys.
All of which goes some way to explain why, after buying the wool for this pullover from one such itinerant gansey-wool merchant whom I met late one evening in the tap room of the Pig and Poke, and fell into an absinthe drinking competition with (the pedlar’s drink of choice), I’ve just discovered that it comes from two separate dye lots… But how was I to know a one-armed, dirty, shabby stranger I’d just met in a pub, with an eye-patch, teeth like a piano keyboard and a bag marked “swag” was not to be trusted?
So there we are. A gansey made out of wool from 3 separate dye lots, which is something of a first for me. And hopefully a last as well! (D’oh!)