This week I left Fife and headed south. I was off to Leeds for a three-day residential, part of the excellent Extend Leadership programme run by engage that I’ve been lucky enough to be part of this year. On my way I stopped at the National Library in Edinburgh to take a quick peek at The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, relishing the chance to be back in this beautiful city. I love walking into the Old Town from Waverley – the world’s first and only railway station named after a novel – following the curve of Jeffrey Street (name for the founder of the Edinburgh Review) to the Royal Mile. It was lovely to see some of the City of Literature Trust’s illuminated lightboxes as I went – Canongate Stars and Stories is a project is one I dreamed up, planned and fundraised for, so it’s especially pleasing to see it literally up in lights! It’s free and on til March, so do get along to have a look if you’re in the city.
I knitted furiously on my way to Edinburgh, slipping stitches as the stations pass. Once in the NLS I collect the slim soft-bound volume from the desk, then spread out my knitting and notebook and laptop, claiming my space for the afternoon. I wonder how many folk knit in the Scotland’s National Library? There are certainly plenty of wool being worn there. Wool, or stuff that looks like wool, is everywhere. A young man with earbuds in has a grey Aran jumper, its thick cables roped across his shoulders. Opposite is a man clad in dark brown marl, stripes patterned in alternate stocking and garter stitch. His jumper looks handmade – I resist the temptation to ask. In the corner, a lady in thick dark cardigan with a wide waffle pattern shuffles her papers.
The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales came about when the editor of the Dalesman suggested that Ingleby and Hartley, who both went on to receive MBE for their services to the heritage of Yorkshire, should write a pamphlet on the region’s dying hand-knitting industry. Marie was born near Leeds, studied at Leeds College of Art and the Slade in London, and authored six books with her friend Ella Pontefract. Joan Ingleby was born near Ripon and came to live with Marie Harley at Askrigg in Wensleydale. They were chronicling an industry in its death-throes, and they knew it. In the Foreword they noted with both pride and sorrow: ‘We stand back and admire the knitters’ frugal lives. In the end the long-time threat of machine-made goods triumphed, and the industry finished’.
‘Keep short needles’. Three words said by Daleswomen to their children, urging them to work as close to the tips of their pins as possible. As they worked people counted their stitches and rows using the age-old sheep-scoring numbers yan, tan, tethera in place of one, two, three. They called the thick undyed yarn they worked ‘bump’; a common similar of the time was to be ‘as open as bump knitting’. ‘Striving needles’ competed to see who could finish their row first.
My heart quickens as I pick up the trail of ‘my’ gloves. There is a small oval photograph of their maker Mary Allen, born in 1857, a pretty girl with wavy hair, pouted lips and rounded cheeks. She wears a dark stuff dress, with a white frill at the neck and a cameo at her throat. Her pair, now hanging in Grasmere, were made especially for a visitor to the sale, drawn there perhaps by the grouse shoot there. Hartley and Ingleby note that Mary’s work is ‘a last flowering of the art of the old knitters – those people to whom skill in the craft was a birthright from past generations.’
It’s not my birthright, but I consider myself a tradition-bearer in a small way, knitting as these Daleswomen did. I’ve finished one glove and am half-way through its sister. The trouble with gloves is the need to knit a pair, identical in every stitch, although I feel that I’m knitting faster than I was at the beginning of the month. I almost didn’t start the second, but it’s a long was to Leeds and as the night hurtles by I can’t bear to be ‘haund idle’, the old east coast phrase for a woman who sits with her hands unknitting in her lap. Here’s a snap of the finished item – and I’m already looking forward to finding out what February’s challenge will bring.