January project: to knit a pair of Mary Allen’s Gloves in Shetland Heritage wool
Wool: Jamieson & Smith Shetland Heritage Naturals wool, worsted spin 4-ply in white, black, light grey and dark grey.
Needles: double-pointed 2mm needles
Casting on: 4th January 2017
White. Light grey. Dark grey. Black. Four shades, four skeins of wool. This is how the new year starts, with 480 yards of four-ply Shetland wool, worsted spun, and four double-pointed needles. My wool comes from one of seven hundred Shetland crofts, and should really be called oo: the w and l is clipped from the English word in Shetlandic.
I’ve spent an hour fondling and photographing this yarn and a layer of sheep grease lingers on my fingers. I’ve been putting off start to knitting, as I’m a messy knitter whose yarns twist and tangle. I also find it hard to stick to patterns, changing colours, adding stripes, and meddling with stitch counts. Three times I have made hats so misshapen as to be unwearable: the first needed hot-washing to shrink it down to size. I ended up with a dense Rastafarian cap with a crown so tight I had to cut it open to fit my head inside, inadvertently creating two felted earflaps. My family called it a Rasta tramp hat.
I’ve had better luck with gloves (pictured above), working from the V&A’s archive to knit several pairs of 1940s Fair Isle mitts. The fingers are stiff and sturdy, thick enough to keep you warm on the top of a Munro in winter, and when I wear a pair people seem impressed that I’ve made them myself. ‘I’d pay money for those’, they say, but though I’m flattered I have no intention of going into business. It would be false economy: weeks of knitting in exchange for a few quid and the heartbreak of letting them go.
So my year of knitting around Britain will begin with a pair of gloves. I’ve been casting around for a interesting yet achievable historic pattern, searching websites and surreptitiously thumbing knitting magazines in the newsagents. At Christmas I pitched up at my in-laws house in Grasmere, and there, in the museum’s darkest corner, I found what I was looking for.
Hanging in a little wooden case were three pairs of beautifully patterned hand-made gloves . Knitted ninety years ago and more, their slender fingers are checkerboard black and white, the palms and backs patterned with ‘adderback’ diamonds. The wrists are ribbed, and each wristband records the names and dates of the people who wore them. The oldest here were made for George Walton of Deepdale in 1846, and the most recent by Mary Allen in 1924.
My father-in-law then takes me down into the museum’s archives, brining up buff boxes and blue-grey folders full of things relating to knitting. When I open the first box, I find nesting inside four needles, two balls of wool, and a small scrap of black and white knitting. The needles are rusted and three of them still hold loops of yarn, the fourth lying in wait beside them. The balls of wool have been hand-wound, tiny baubles in black and white. Here is the beginning of someone else’s glove, with their name and date knitted in – E. Rawnsley, 1926. A copy of Mary Allen’s gloves, begun two years later.
Next to the needles is a box of modern magazines titled Knitting Tradition, and here I strike gold. In 2011 textile historian Sue Leighton-White painstakingly worked out the pattern charts for these same gloves, and here they are, accompanied by Sue’s article ‘The Needle’s Music: Handknitters of the Dales’. The Dales in question are those around Dent, where Cumbria catches the edge of North Yorkshire. Until the early twentieth century, many families in these sheep-farming valleys supplemented their income through hand-knitting. A special style of Dales knitting was developed to maximise speed whilst maintaining quality: knitters moved to a fro with a swaying loll, known as ‘swaving’, caused by lifting the right arm to catch the loop on the left needle quickly and accurately before slipping the wool over and the stitch off. They also sung ditties and rhymes which, like seamen’s shanties, helped them to concentrate on this monotonous work. So revered was the Dentdale style of knitting that those who did it became known as ‘the Terrible Knitters of Dent’, a phrase made popular as the title of Lakeland poet Robert Southey’s story published in the 1830s. Terrible, in this context, more akin to ‘awesome’. Mary Allen was one of the last in a five-hundred year tradition to earn her living by hand-knitting in this way.
Sue Leighton-White’s pattern for these gloves calls for 174 yards of four-ply real wool yarn, one ball each of Black and Porcelain, and a set of double-pointed needles, size zero – a mere two millimetres wide. These instructions leave no room for error; they are so exact that even a minute mistake in the original is replicated. The pattern then notes ‘the knitter may work his or her choice of name, initials and date, as is characteristic of these gloves’: I will work my own name into the gloves.
I grapple with the pattern charts to plot my name and this new year’s date. The graph squares are minute, and although my name isn’t long I’m unsure if it will fit onto the wristband. I’ve not used graph paper since school, and my eyes and shoulders tense as I count the tiny squares, each one a twelfth of the width of my little finger. The letter E followed by a flower, then R – u – t – t – e – r. 2017 I have to shrink, shortening the gaps between the letters to fit the band. It takes me fifteen minutes, but I’m pleased to be able to squeeze in my initial, surname and date in the traditional way.
Now I need the right needles: two millimetres and nothing more, double-pointed so I can work them in the round. I only have 2.75mm double-pointed needles and wonder if I could get away with using these instead. But patterns this fiddly are unforgiving, and for the first time in my life I take the advice of every experienced knitter and make a tension square. The pattern says eleven rows of thirteen stitches should make a square inch of knitting: when I work them on the 2.75mm needles the square measures one-and-a-half inches, fifty percent too large. I fish out a pair of single-pointed two-millimetre needles and try again; this time the inch is perfect. I can begin my challenge in four strands.