This weekend I’ve been knitting diamonds – adderback diamonds to be precise. I love this phrase for knitted sqaures turned on their point, each one touching its neighbour. They are a distinctive feature of Dentdale gloves, and they are pleasingly easy to knit. I can seem them emerge before my eyes, reducing the need to constantly consult the pattern.
I’m over half-way through one glove, with 15 days remaining in January to complete the pair. The first one is always the hardest, and the slowest, to knit so I’m not too worried about meeting my deadline. I’ve also got two long train journeys to fill with knitting, ten hours of uninterruupted necessary sitting as I trace the east coast mainline from Leuchars to Leeds and back.
As I shape the diamonds, I start to wonder about the women who made gloves like this to earn a living. Who really were the knitters of Dent, terrible and otherwise? I turn to Penelope Hemingway’s The Knitting Genealogist for clues. Could there be a better name for one dedicated to uncovering knitting’s history? The Penelope of Homer’s Odyssey spends her evenings weaving and unpicking Laertes’ shroud, delaying her suitors as they vie for her hand in marriage in her husband’s long absence. Hemingway is a West Yorkshire name from the heart of the county’s woollen industry. To hem is to seal the edges of a textile with your needle, making it fast.
Penny Hemingway has traced the story of Margaret Thwaite, a nineteenth-century Dentdale knitter incarcerated in York’s asylum The Retreat. She finds that Margaret, admitted as a teenager, was a Dalesman farmer’s daughter. Although Margaret was one of many, she and Ann lived alone in a remote cottage, away from the rest of their family and the world. When Margaret is admitted to The Retreat, her mother Ann is described as being ‘in a state of mental excitement chiefly connected with religious subjects’; Margaret herself is ‘frantic’.
As the years pass Margaret remains in The Retreat, save for a short period of release in her twenties. Her doctor’s notes of 1838 say ‘now and then she does a little needlework, but it is so badly done, as to be of little use.’ Pen Hemingway, with her expert eye for knitting turns of phrase, suspects this ‘needlework’ is knitting. By the time Margaret is in her fifties knitting has become a fixation: ‘She has been induced to employ herself at knitting, but the work she performs is more a tangled web, which, like Penelope of old, she pulls out as fast as she does it’. Fourteen years later, there is no change: ‘she still knits away with a piece of string and pieces of wool and needles producing only a tangle’. But more than this: ‘if she cannot get anything to employ herself in this manner she rubs her hands together all day long till she rubs the skin off. Then she rubs away at the sore.’
By 1882, Margaret is nearing seventy and often ‘has a piece of tape or string and bit of wood in her hands, with which she goes through the manoeuvre of making a stitch in knitting, immediately dropping the stitch, this is incessantly repeated’. Five years later, and she still ‘sits all day long playing with a piece of string and wood’. She dies in 1900, at the age of eighty-five, having spent sixty-four years trying to knit in The Retreat. Penny Hemingway reckons that the piece of wood in her hands is a substitute for the Dales knitter’s stick to hold her needle.
Margaret’s story is haunting, and it reminds me how we turn to crafts to calm down our racing brains. Has knitting been therapeutic for you?