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Week 5: 2 – 8 February

9how5a
It’s been a hectic week, what with one thing and another (and weather – what’s that all about?), so apologies for the delay in getting this week’s blog up. It’s bad enough having to alternate between the real world and the imaginary one I spend a lot of time in, but when you throw Scotland into the mix it all gets a bit much. I’m creating parallel universes in my head, and that’s bound to muck up the time-line sooner or later.

So I thought I’d devote this week’s blog to something I’ve been saving for a snowy day, namely being rude about the clergy. Well, all right, not the entire clergy – fine body of men and women, on the whole, I expect – but just one: Richard Rutt, former bishop of Leicester, author of “A History of Hand Knitting” originally published by Batsford in 1987.

9how5bNow what, I hear you ask, annoys me so much about the bish? Well, for an answer I suggest you pick up a copy of his history and turn to pages 129-134. Here, in a section titled “Fisherman’s Knitting” he turns his episcopal attention to the place of ganseys in the history of knitting. Now, of course, it’s important to bear in mind that he’s writing a history, the first of its kind apparently, so he’s naturally inclined to take an academic approach; but it’s a shame he isn’t more generous to his sources.

How patronising is this? “Some of these books, notably Rae Compton’s The Complete Book of Traditional Guernsey and Jersey Knitting (1985), have shown a sense of history, but only Mary Wright, in Cornish Guernseys and Knitfrocks (1979) has tackled the history of the subject seriously. Like Michael Pearson in various publications that culminated in his Traditional Knitting (1984), all these writers have concentrated on the technique of knitting the fisherman’s jersey and on collecting patterns…” (p.129)

9how5cNow, speaking as an historian (author, I’ll have you know, of the best-selling Radnorshire in Old Photographs which briefly topped the best-seller lists for books about, er, Radnorshire in old photographs) if there’s one thing history teaches us, it is that interpretations of history are a matter of fleeting opinion. It’s all a point of view, and every generation comes along and reinterprets what their parents thought was true (remember when the British Empire was regarded as a Good Thing?).

So, for myself, I’m delighted that Gladys Thompson and her successors devoted their time to collecting patterns and not “tackling the history of the subject seriously”. Who cares? Which would you rather have? A history book about a dying art, or an instruction manual on how to recreate it, and renew it? That’s the difference between history and craft, and only a historian like Bishop Rutt would say the history of a craft is more important than the craft itself.

And here’s a challenge for all of us: “Though Gladys Thompson and others already mentioned … have stimulated a limited revival of handknitted jerseys, one rarely sees a garment of the quality worn 50 or 60 years ago…” (p.134). To arms, citizens! (Aux armes, citoyens!) Or to needles at least (“Aux aiguilles a tricoter citoyens!”).

Mind you, the rest of the book’s pretty good…

4 comments to Week 5: 2 – 8 February

  • Suzanne Muir

    ““Though Gladys Thompson and others already mentioned … have stimulated a limited revival of handknitted jerseys, one rarely sees a garment of the quality worn 50 or 60 years ago…” (p.134).” Pish to the bish! Total codswallop. Truly fine gauge knitting (if, indeed, this is what the Reverend Rutt meant), with tailored detail, has become a bit rarer, but it still has its devotees. There are also plenty of knitting masochists who have as many as 4 or 5 fine gauge traditional knits (Fair Isle or gansey) on the needles at the same time.

  • Aaron Lewis

    If you read Rutt carefully, you will note that he never learned to knit using a knitting sheath, (or even a kntting pouch) despite the importance of that implement to the history of knitting.

    Similar careful reading of Gladys Thompson shows that she did use a kntting sheath in her knitting despite not specifically saying so. In GT’s day, knitting sheaths and gansey needles were associated with poverty, and thus not appropriate for ladies. GT used a knitting sheath, but she did not talk about it.

    By my math, GT was knitting as many as a dozen fine ganseys per year, and she did this for years. Yes, she used a knitting sheath to protect her wrists.

  • =Tamar

    Rutt’s book is valuable but he does have a few, um, slanted opinions. His appendix on the first written sock pattern annoyed me because he couldn’t figure out the heel, so he stuck in a modern heel and sneered at the original. I acquired a copy of the original and figured it out. It was full of typos, yes, and it took me months to work it out, but once I figured it out, it turned out to be a usable design, just unusual.

    I hear some of the lack of history in the earlier books was due to publishers, for instance absolutely refusing to let Mary Thomas put footnotes in because ‘it would make the books not sell.’

    I’ve been comparing patterns for “the” Channel Islands guernsey given by different writers. I’m waiting for my copy of Compton 1985 to arrive before I make any strong opinions.

  • Thanks everyone for the posts, and the information.
    @suzanne
    Although I’m firmly wedded to my Guernsey 5-ply and my 2.25mm needles, I’d love to try something finer, 4-ply and thinner needles. I look at the pictures of the some of those fine Norfolk ganseys like a lonely bachelor poring over a lingerie catalogue… (Or is that too much information?) Oh yes – and “Pish to the bish” – ! I love it – & may have to get some T-shirts printed with that slogan.

    @Aaron
    Interesting point about the sheath being a stigma for the gentry, as it was only only used by the poor. I wasn’t aware of that, though can quite believe it. Of course Gladys Thompson deserves all the praise and honour going, being what they used to describe when I was at school the “fons et origo”, or where it all started for me.

    @=Tamar
    I haven’t had much experience of the media, but on the rare occasions they stray into an area I know something about I’m always amazed at how inaccurate they are. Yet I still tend to accept what they say on other subjects! It’s the same with the bish – although I question what he says about ganseys, the rest of the book reads OK to me – but that’s probably because I’m reading it as a non-expert. Of course, we’re all entitled to our opinions, but I wish he hadn’t been so dismissive of people who were, after all, doing something different to him – and, ultimately, more valuable (to me, anyway). Mind you, I never read footnotes unless they’re at the bottom of the page…