Spinzilla2014collageOn impulse, I entered this year’s Spinzilla competition. Mainly because I’ve spent some time this year figuring out the sheer amounts spun in a day or a week by late 18th/19thC handspinners, and wanted to see if I could equal them; or even if the figures I’d arrived at were feasible. Also because I like putting my money where my mouth is. I know I can spin fairly fast but it was interesting to see how fast.

Because I hadn’t planned to enter, ahead of time, real life intervened. But that is good, right? Real life intervened for spinners since Clotho spun her first thread. Hand-spinners always had to spin between stirring the pot, feeding the kids (and hens!), sweeping the floor, going to the shops.

I entered as a Rogue Spinner (not in a team – what a maverick!) And came second. In the end I spun 13,704 yards in seven days. That comes to, on average, over a mile a day. I was pipped at the post by Jane Sheetz with a respectable 13,747 yards. I think I’m happy to take second place for the UK and Yorkshire! Within the teams there were spinners who got higher individual mileages still – several spinners topping 30,000 yards. I am fairly confident that if I enter next year I can top 20,000 yards. But am happy with coming second in the Rogues, which isn’t too shabby for a first attempt with no real ‘training’, forethought and too little preparation! In fact I hadn’t touched the spinning wheel since summer, when I had to spin an entire gansey in a matter of days. So no run-ups or training as such at all!

Spinzilla’s second year, and this was its first year with international entries. I entered at the last minute,  with only three days to deadline, and one of those days I knew I would have to spend preparing rolags for our living history day at Armley Mills; another day would be lost to being at the Mills. Which left me a grand total of one day to make rolags and prepare for Spinzilla! Foolhardy? Me?

IMAG0273(1)Why rolags, you ask? English longdraw is the fastest way I know how to spin. One day only gave me time enough to make just a pound of rolags from Lleyn fleece – I’d had a bin bag of this in my airing cupboard for a year, so time to get going! I had a few naturally dyed rolags left over from Armley Mills, too.  Spinzilla ran Monday – Sunday and needless to say, by Tuesday morning I’d run out of rolags. Which left me with a dilemma. I could spend half my spinning time making rolags or just spin worsted/semi-woollen or semi-worsted for the rest of the competition. I tried spinning worsted from commercially prepared tops, but when I measured the results quickly realised I wasn’t going to get the daily yardage needed to do well. So I ended up spending some of my spinning time drum carding or hand carding.  Next year, I’ll card for a few days before Spinzilla – so I can spin uninterrupted, either on the Great Wheel or the Chair Wheel.

Am fairly sure I can blow my own 2014 numbers out of the water with a fair wind behind me (and clearing the week of appointments beforehand! If I’d known I was entering I’d have re-scheduled a few things!) I lost one entire day of the competition, only being able to spin in the evening, and for a short while, due to an appointment that took up the entire day. In the end, I came only 43 yards short of the winner. Frustrating – as that 43 yards would have been more than made up had I prepared just one more day, beforehand, or say spun at midnight when the competition started (I went to bed and started the next day so missed my chance to get a couple of hours’ head start).  43 yards is very little spinning.

I’d assumed I stood no chance of winning, not having had much time to prepare, so it was kind of exciting to see how close I came to winning and at the same time, monumentally frustrating to realise if I’d just spun another half an hour I could have done it – let alone spun for part of all those hours during the week I lost to carding!

It was a brilliant learning curve though. It is easy to have opinions about ‘spinners of the past’ – without ever really testing out our assumptions. Spinning for a few hours a day felt relentless – imagine our ancestors’ lives of spinning, not just day in day out but year in, year out? By about Wednesday, I was waking up thinking “Oh joy – another few hours of spinning!”. Conversely, when I woke up on Monday and knew I didn’t have to spin at all, all day – I felt like spinning! And had to restrain myself.

Below is my yardage for each day. As you can see, on the best days (English longdraw with handcarded rolags) I was able to manage over 2 miles’ of spinning. On my worst two days, under one mile. Both of the slowest days were largely worsted spinning and with more interruption than spinning time. Whilst I can spin worsted in under a third of the time of a certain spinning blogger with much (self) vaunted speeds – I found worsted or even semi-worsted spinning to be painfully slow, compared to woollen. I am very tempted to do a fair bit on the Great Wheel next year and wearing a pedometer so we can test out Patricia Baines’ words: “… It is said that spinners who worked for the textile industry in Yorkshire and Lancashire walked the equivalent of 30 miles a week spinning wool…” [Baines, 'Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning', Batsford, 1977, p. 61].

Yorkshire spinners of the past – like those in the great spinning traditions the world over – fitted in their spinning between other tasks; household chores, field-work, etc. When you see folk opining about ‘history’ and going on about ‘professional spinners’ – let’s not forget our hand-spinning ancestors spun in the home, not factories and were not ‘professionals’ in the sense we understand the term, now. Spinning would have been constantly interrupted; and the week of as-flat-out-as-you-can-get-it spinning of the average Spinzilla team or rogue spinner, would be the same as our spinning ancestors’ week. Hours and days where you are somewhere else, earning money, or taking care of the kids! I will alternate Great Wheel with Chair Wheel for Spinzilla 2015 – because I can!  I spun every inch of this yardage on a Timbertops Chair Wheel but my favourite Spinzilla team were an Andean group from the Bolivian Paza Cooperative who knocked out an impressive 66,071 yards of pushka (spindle) spun yarn, coming in third place in the international standings. Because that is some serious spindling!

Here are my daily totals, with some pics of the yarn produced over the week. Terminology is always kind of nebulous, so for purposes of clarity – when I say “semi-worsted” I mean however I spun it, it was worsted-prep. “Semi-woollen” means: however I spun it – usually a sort of bastardised longdraw, not true English longdraw – it was woollen prep or woollen-ish prep.

I lost hours of good spinning time to drum-carding on my elderly David Barnett drum-carder. And also to hand-carding on my even more elderly hand-cards. Next year I will do all my prep the week before, so I can just spin, spin, spin during Spinzilla and then get a more accurate idea of how much our ancestors could really spin – with a fair wind behind them and a modicum of real life interruptions.    

Day 1: 2356 yards (Lleyn).  Monday. This day was plain sailing, as it was the only day I had nothing but hand-carded rolags to spin. (The drum carded batts seen below I made later in the week). Although you can spin from the cloud, from punis made from torn-off bits of drum carded fibre wrapped round a pencil, or many other ways – a well made, hand-carded rolag remains the true English longdraw spinner’s weapon of choice.  Interweave’s ‘How To Card Wool’ video shows Norman Kennedy hand-carding – and my method is probably closest to his. A well carded rolag will spin itself. For living history I have to churn out a lot of rolags quickly, and then will admit to using not very well carded rolags. If, when you hold it up to the light you can see through it “like smoke” as Mr Kennedy says – you have the means of fast longdraw spinning right there.

Lleyn and cochineal-dyed Boreray Day 2

Lleyn and cochineal-dyed Boreray Day 2

Day 2: 2128 yards (Including Lleyn and Boreray). Tuesday. I say ‘including; as most days I spun more than my ‘main’ focuses – odds and ends too and I can’t remember which I did on which days, now! That red Boreray is doubly expensive as it is one of the rarest of all wools dyed with one of the dearest of natural dyes. What to do with it? Answers on a postcard. It’s bloody scratchy. This is the day we ran out of rolags. Yes. Day 2. Lesson 1 – make more rolags! So now I spent several hours a day when I could have been spinning, drum-carding or hard-carding wool.  Lesson 2 – Whitefaced Woodland does not enjoy being drum-carded on my Barnett drum-carder.  Nor does the grey Shetland fleece I got at Masham Sheep Fair this year. Damn.


Logwood dyed mystery wool

Day 3: 1560 yards (Including commercial tops of black Shetland).  Wednesday. This pictured here though was some logwood dyed deep stash fibre. Some sort of commercial medium shortwool tops. Logwood was bought by the tonne in 18thC and 19thC Leeds. So this is kind of local history. I think I started spinning the Whitefaced Woodland too. I love this wool. I won’t be drum-carding it again anytime soon. But it is gorgeous wool. Lost most of this entire day to Commitments Made Before I Knew I’d Be Spinning This Week. Now seriously bored of white wool, too.

Day 4: 2040 yards (Including Whitefaced Woodland, grey Shetland, mystery cochineal dyed wool). Thursday. Now I was desperately having to card, or spin semi-worsted or worsted. IMAG0337(1)

Day 5: 1896 yards (Including black Shetland worsted). Friday. Slowed down by the carding and an unidentified finger pain so I kept switching spinning techniques and fibres all day, to avoid RSI.


Shetland semi-worsted

Day 6: 1532 yards, (Including black and grey Shetland and silk from deep stash -Maybe 12 years old! Still spun fine!)  Saturday and again a day of heavy interruption. More Whitefaced Woodland, and some angora tops. Angora cost me some time but I fancied a change plus it was more old, deep stash and I wanted it gone. This week it is already half a pair of Lovikka mittens.

Silk from deep, deep stash

Silk from deep, deep stash

Day 7: 2192 yards – (Including random bobbin ends from previous days, more deep stash silk tops). Almost all my wool and silk ended up being plied – usually around midnight the first few days – into 2 ply yarns. When I had plied the very last thing, I still had time left, so I added all the remaining singles odds and ends together on the Lazy Kate and counted them in the final total too. IMAG0352

TOTAL:  13,704 yards of wool, silk and angora, almost all 2 ply. Wools spun: Lleyn, Whitefaced Woodland, grey Shetland, black Shetland and several unknown medium shortwools from dye experiments. IMAG0366 Next year… I’ll be back. And this time – armed with more rolags!



Teasles seen on a bit of wasteland, near Escrick, North Yorkshire, yesterday.

They were growing deep into a high ridge of brambles; too inaccessible for us to go and get a closer shot, but here are some teasles in the wild.

On Saturday, we were Luddites at Armley Mills, Leeds Industrial Museum, for the launch of Wool Week. We were in the weaver’s cottage, built in 1790. It was absolutely fantastic and we loved it so much, we hope to return very soon, to have a proper look round the site. And hopefully, drop off some copies of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ in the museum shop. We spun on the Great Wheel, and had some fantastic conversations with members of the public – including one rather accomplished spinner who had a go for himself on the Great Wheel. People were especially taken by the repro Dales gloves we had on display and we had a lot of interest in ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’ (which contains a pattern for the oldest extant dated Dales glove, the ‘G.Walker 1846′ glove kept by our old friends at the Wordsworth Trust, in Cumbria. All this made me think we should make a separate page here, for ‘The Old Hand-Knitters’. I will link to it, when it’s live.

Small spindle wheel at Armley Mills

Small spindle wheel at Armley Mills


We shared our weaver’s cottage space with an intriguing small Great Wheel; either one for someone seated, or possibly used for children in a spinning school, originally. And also a large, freestanding skein winder.


This week I have been mostly spinning yarn for Spinzilla.  I only decided to enter a couple of  days before the deadline, on impulse. And had to spend one of those days preparing rolags to spin at Armley and another day at the museum, so didn’t have time to spin many rolags for woollen English longdraw spinning. As a result, I ran out of rolags on the second day and spent yesterday worsted spinning, which is considerably slower.

IMAG0273(1)Over the summer, I was trying to figure out precisely how much spinning the 18thC handspinner could churn out in one week. I took the “I can spin the yarn for a gansey in 30 – 40 hours” as a challenge and managed to spin the yarn for a gansey in 12 hours. So I thought maybe my worsted spinning was not a lot slower than my woollen. It appears to be considerably slower.

Heard from the editor of a certain magazine that the photo shoot for said gansey went very well and it is looking good in the shots, and on the model. That was a relief as when you spend so long on one project, you’re too close to it to see it objectively and I wasn’t sure whether I’d pulled it off. There was less spinning in a gansey than I’d imagined, though. And when I recover, I will definitely spin another – the saving in £s alone justifies the work.

When it came to Spinzilla, either way I discovered I needed to card much more than just 1lb of fibre for a week long spinning session. Next year, I will enter Spinzilla after a week of carding! I haven’t figured out my entire yardage per day, yet but will break it down for yous next week. It would be fun to enter the challenge next time with the Great Wheel and a mountain of rolags. But this time I have been spinning on the Timbertops chair wheel.

I had some leftover rolags from Armley and did manage to hand-card 1lb of Lleyn.  The smallest of these 3 baskets contains logwood and cochineal dyed Boreray. That small basket is a large bike basket – the big green box full of Lleyn is MASSIVE! All spun in under two days though. Shows how relentless the carding must have been to supply one spinner.

I am off to spend some of my precious spinning time drum carding a bit more Lleyn. Then I will have to spin whatever I can find, semi-woollen (or semi-worsted, depending on how you look at it). Too slow to give me any chance of winning, but at least by the end of the week I should have some wool spun! Which is a good thing, as I came back from Masham Sheep Fair with three fleeces that unaccountably followed me home: a Manx Loghtan, a Whitefaced Woodland and a very beautiful grey Shetland… And I can’t start on them til I have cleared last year’s backlog of Lleyn and Boreray!

Progress so far on my Pinterest board.

Some of Day 2's spinning - Lleyn (white) and Boreray.

Some of Day 2’s spinning – Lleyn (white) and Boreray.








The Tazzle Man


The Teasel Field, Plate 23. Sherburn-in-Elmet

A few months ago, at a car-boot sale in York, I stumbled on a very battered and dirty volume of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal. I maybe paid 50p for it, if that. The reason I picked it up was, I saw it contained an article called ‘The Yorkshire Teazle-Growing Trade’,  by R.A.McMillan.


Teazles are something you see here in Yorkshire in hedgerows. I know that some ‘wild’ plants are escapee cultivars from old textile industries.


R.A. McMillan illustrates the article with Walker’s “The Teasel Field” [156]. I have seen (without closely looking at) this picture a million times. And there was something astounding I missed about it. The picture was drawn two or three fields away from the house where I grew up and lived til my nineteenth birthday.

In the background, is my old village church and the churchyard where my grandparents and mum are buried.  I have looked at that picture so often – but never noticed. Too busy looking at the costumes! So right under my nose, all these years, was a book showing home. Things I wrote about in ‘A Pink Dog Lead’ happened just out of sight in Walker’s Teasel Field picture; the other side of that church! Walker famously conflated things in his illustrations and the cottages pictured there do not exist but are probably transposed from a point on the other side, and actually out of view. The house I grew up in was a farmhouse, in 1814, and may well have been no stranger to the teazles.

Some time ago a museum curator – who will remain nameless – mentioned to me that a very rare dye plant – I will not name –  had been found growing wild – somewhere I will not name –  in the West Riding. The last traces of a lost, medieval dye industry – still growing in the wild. As no-one wants it disturbed, it’s location remains A Secret.   Years ago, when we lived in the West Midlands, we knew the roadside verges and abandoned cottage gardens where we could find weld, every year. So this is no surprise to me, that our hedgerows and wild places sometimes have escapees that hint of a lost world.


I often find teazles in the hedgerow opposite my house, ten miles out of York. So have always been curious about them – but know very little.  I thought I’d share with you my gleanings from the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.


Apparently, teazle growing was not very well documented, but it appears to have been a huge crop in Yorkshire – all three ridings. It was only introduced to the county some time in the 18thC as prior to that date it was commoner further South.

West Riding Croppers from ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’ (1814)


Teazles were used to finish woollen cloth; the teazles were mounted in frames and when a nap was raised, highly skilled croppers like my dad’s Huddersfield-born  ancestor, cropper Tom Lister, would crop the nap to finish woollen cloth.  In fact it was a new kind of cropping frame that set off the Luddite rebellion. Suddenly, several croppers could be replaced by one not entirely efficient machine.

People used to think that teazles were used to ‘tease’ wool prior to spinning, but this was probably simply confusing different processes as teazles were in fact used in cloth-finishing, not pre-spinning processes. Teazles probably only started to be grown locally in the 18thC as the Yorkshire textile industry ramped up its production of fine woollens and wanted to source some of the materials needed, closer to home.  You can see teazles mounted on frames for use in Walker’s illustration. He wrote:




“They previously wet the cloth thoroughly in a cistern of water, and comb the wool all one way with teazles, which are fixed for this purpose in a small wooden frame. Some of these are arranged on the floor….” [picture above].


According to McMillan:


“The place where teazles were first grown in Yorkshire was the village of Biggin, a few miles to the West of Selby…. By 1770… it had reached Stillingfleet”.


In the 1770s, my mum’s ancestors all farmed or were farm labourers in Stillingfleet, and neighbouring Wistow, Ryther and Cawood.  Ryther and Cawood are the next villages along from Biggin. If my dad’s ancestors in the West Riding wool trade used teazles to crop the cloth; mum’s ancestors near Selby may have grown teazles.

I sit writing this somewhere in Stillingfleet parish and could probably, if I walked out now, find wild teazles growing in the hedgerow yards from my door.

Apparently, the Vale of York’s heavy alluvial soil suited the crop. And the Vale’s proximity to Leeds, centre of England’s woollen trade, was another factor.


Anyone familiar with this blog will know the Regency era writer/illustrator George Walker, whose ‘Costumes of Yorkshire’ (1814) is a frequent flyer. In 1813, Walker travelled the county, documenting the clothing of ordinary, working folk.  Walker is so fascinating as he was documenting the costume of ordinary people at a time when no-one was much interested in this. I have often used Walker’s illustrations for my work. Incidentally, the Sherburner in his picture is wearing the universal rural working class woman’s uniform of the red cloak. See my Pinterest page here for more UK and US red cloaks.


Walker wrote:

The Teasel, or Dipsacus sativua, is a plant much cultivated in the east part of the West Riding, though form the impoverishing nature of the crop, which requires two years to bring to maturity, it is seldom approved by the proprieter of the soil. It is however and article of essential importance to the Colthier, who uses the crooked awns of the heads of this plact for raising the nap of the cloth. In the autumn of the second year the heads of the plant are cut off, carefully dried, and after being fixed upon long sticks, are conveyed away for sale. Temporary sheds are usually erected in the teasel fields for the work-people employed, who not unfrequently form very interesting groups.


In his 1822 Trade Directory, Baines wrote that teazle-growing was “almost peculiar” to the Barkston Ash wapentake (Sherburn in Elmet is part of this area; Biggin a neighbouring village). [157].


One reason Sherburn may have been the centre of teazle growing was that it was on the direct road to Leeds that became the old A1 – the primary route between Scotland and England. Teazles were needed by the croppers like Tom Lister – who had moved to Leeds by the mid 19thC. Although the 1850s saw my dad’s wool trade  ancestors move from Huddersfield to Leeds, the same decade also saw a peak for the teazle trade; as machines evolved, the teazles could be replicated with machinery. Although there were still a handful of teazle growers in Sherburn by WWI.  R.A.McMillan suggests that whilst it was handy for the West Riding wool industry to grow teazles closer to home, they could never quite produce enough to be self sufficient in them and still imported teazles from the older growing areas, down South, like Somerset, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.


The Selby/Vale of York area was also a centre of woad and madder production in the 19thC. These would also decline sharply after the introduction of aniline dyeing in the 1860s.


Teazles were a biennial crop which made heavy demands on the soil and was labour-intensive to grow.  They needed constant weeding but the farmer would see no return on the crop for 18 months after sowing. Like any crop, if there was damp weather during harvest the whole crop might rot away and be useless. Yet if the yield was high – prices would be lower.


The fact it was high risk meant the teazle industry developed an unusual system, where the farmer would rent the land and a specialist teazle grower come in, and work the crop and bear the brunt of the risk. These were called “tazzle men”. The farmer would plough and prepare the land then the tazzle man take over. They would share the profits equally. Many tazzle men had other jobs. One Sherburn grower was a mole-catcher. [161]. Others shop-keepers, butchers as well as farmers.


Sometimes woad was grown between the teazles. (Madder was also often commonly sown with woad).  Plants were so tall they hid the harvesters from sight; and were harvested often by casual labourers – women and men. They were tied in bunches of around 50 and dried in temporary huts, like in Walker’s illustration. It’s interesting that the female labourers in Walker’s picture, are wearing blue (woad) and red (madder) dyed clothes, as both dyestuffs were grown amongst and alongside the teazles. Woollen cloth was often of a lower value than worsted, so it is possible the textiles they were wearing, were made from West Riding wool with a nap raised by Yorkshire teazles.


Most of the Sherburn teazles went straight to Leeds. According to McMillan, Leeds was “the chief finishing centre serving the West Riding woollen industry” [164].  Carting teazles to be sold was such a regular thing,  that the “frequency with which the various routed were travelled can be seen from the fact that… the horses knew by themselves which pubs to stop at on the way. This was sometimes a source of embarrassment when the boss decided to come along on the trip” [165].


I know the very field where Walker must have stood to do this illustration. Promise I will go there soon and see if we can find any teazles in the hedgerows.




The Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, Vol 56, 1984, ‘The Yorkshire Teazle-Growing Trade’, R.A.McMillanp 155 ff.

Blue: British Breeds 5 ply guernsey; burgundy: Frangipani 5 ply guernsey; Grey: Blacker Yarns Classic DK



Mithrandir Fingerless mitts


Simple diamond patterned fingerless mitts, knitted in the round. I wanted to use up leftovers of 5 ply guernsey yarn, but realise not everyone has that lying around so made the same pattern, with the same sized needles, using DK as well. As you can see, the guernsey 5 ply mitts came out slightly smaller and because the yarn is smooth the pattern motif pops a bit more. The DK ones are cosier, though.  The allover diamond is a common gansey motif, especially popular in Scotland and the North of England.


These are great for playing your ukelele in a cold student flat. Also good for cycling. And they make a great stocking present for xmas. A fast knit.


Size:  Average, adult. Motif repeat is 6 stitches so for bigger, add 6 and smaller, detract 6 at cast on, if you want to keep perfect motif repeats!


Yarn:    About 120 m of leftover 5 ply gansey yarn


Use 1 ball DK.  (131 yards, 120 metres)


Needles:   2.5mm and 2.75mm dpn needles or circ needles to get tension

Tension: 6 sts per inch, stocking st.



Using smaller needles and longtail method, cast on 36 sts. Joining in round without twisting. Place Marker at start of round.

Rds 1 -3:  *(P1, K1), rep to end round

Rd 4: Purl

Rds 5 – 12 : Rep from *, three times  (ie: til you have 4 bands of purls and 4 bands of ribbing).

Changing to larger needles, K 1 round

All subsequent rounds: Follow chart, starting with round 1.

Work 6 rounds. Then continue to work according to chart, whilst making thumb gusset.


Thumb Gusset

Rd 7: Establish thumb:    Mk 1purlwise, place marker. Work in pattern to end round.

Next Rd: P1, work in patt to end round

Next round:  P1, Mk 1 knitwise, M1 purlwise, Work in patt to end round

Next round: P1, K1, P1, work in patt to end round.


Continue to inc two sts knitwise, inside the 2 purl sts, every other round til you have 13 thumb sts. (ie: You are increasing every odd number round).  [51sts when thumb gusset is complete, including the 2 P sts].

When you have 51 sts, work one more round then leave all thumb sts including the 2 P sts on waste yarn or st holder.


Rejoin in round and cont to knit body of mitt in patt as established.

Complete diamond patt, ending with a round 1 when you have four complete diamonds (vertically).

K 4 rounds in plain stocking st (stockinette).

Using smaller needles, P 3 rounds.

K3 rounds.

Cast off.


Complete Thumb

Using smaller needles, PU 15 sts waiting for you.

M 5 sts from body of mitt.  [20 sts]

K2, P2 rib for 4 rounds. Cast off.


Sew in all ends. Make second mitt as above.


allover diamond

NB: Chart Key

Purple = Purl st on right side

White = Knit st on right side

ohkdboxGot a parcel, this morning. Getting parcels is always brilliant, but this was a particularly brilliant parcel.  Some print copies of ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’.

These will be distributed around the shops of museums in the North of England who helped us during our period of research. I will put up details soon.

On October 4th, I will be at Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds for the launch of Leeds Wool Week, being a Luddite (in costume) and will do workshops on great wheel spinning and ‘Knitting the Old Days Way’. (Details to be posted, soon!) Would love you to come along and learn about spinning and knitting the old Dales way.  Will have a few copies for sale with us on the day, so if you want to buy one – ask a Luddite!


If you are in the US, or  – wherever you are – it’s an e-version of the book you’re after, check this out:



From the Armley Mills Wool Week Ravelry page:


Join us on Saturday the 4th of October 2014 to help launch Wool Week here in Leeds. Armley Mills Wool Festival is going to be a really exciting combination of shopping and a celebration of our woolly heritage, with workshops, demonstrations of now rare skills and machinery, talks from well known knitwear designers and performances of rare knitting music from WWI and WWII. Held within a historic woollen mill which now houses an amazing collection based upon Leeds’ industrial heritage. This event is going to be very special. The festival is open from 11am to 5pm, normal museum admission price applies, some sessions may be charged separately. More details to follow soon……

Armley Mills Industrial Museum
Canal Road
LS12 2QF
Museum Website


The Leader of the Luddites, engraving, 1812

Mum and me. Too young to object to frilly dresses!


What was your first piece of knitting?  Mine was… a pink dog lead!

For many knitters, our craft becomes intricately purled together with their life stories and personalities. We all have a story in stitches; here’s mine.

Like so many women (and men), I learned to knit from my mother at around the age I went to school. No doubt she learned from her mother. And so on. So the way we knit is in the DNA unless your school taught you, first. I can never know my mother. So knitting is a way of connecting with her, and everything lost. Why we knit is at least as interesting as how.

Last year, I entered a short competition piece on why I started knitting, to Donna Druchunas and Ava Coleman’s “Stories In Stitches” site.  I was thrilled to get an email from Donna telling me I’d won and shortly after, two of Donna’s lovely books landed on my door-mat.

Stories In Stitches 3: World Wars I & II is now out. And very apposite with all the World War I commemorations coming up.


Why do we knit?  How did you start?  Here is a  version of the story I shared with “Stories In Stitches”.



I was ten in 1971. My mum had taught me to knit when I was five but I was a tomboy, and had little interest in it.  It must have been around 1966, she taught me to knit. Being lazy, I only wanted to cast on a few stitches. I remember it was pink wool, and as the narrow band of garter stitch grew, I had no idea what it was I was knitting. It must have been summer, as the front door was open and I remember I was sitting on the doorstep, knitting this… thing… when some elderly neighbours, the Harrisons walked past,  and they asked  me what I was knitting. Couldn’t think of what it was,  and always had a love for dogs as you can see from the photos…. so randomly blurted out:

“A dog lead!”


The pink ‘dog lead’ was never finished – don’t think I mastered casting off, that day as that was something I taught myself from books, years later. The only other memory I have of  childhood knitting is being asked to knit a square for a blanket, at the old Girls’ School, in my village (historic 1870s’ Board School building, currently under threat. See the ‘Save Sherburn Junior School campaign page, here).  I loathe knitting blanket squares to this day. Which is why I never do it.  Seem to recall the number of stitches changed every row; it was covered in holes and someone had to cast it off for me. It was humiliating, that knitted square. Mum was a competent knitter but more of a seamstress. I can remember her sewing a lot – but only rarely knitting.


Mum came from an old farming family in Cawood by the river Ouse  – my grandad (dad’s dad)  had a boat at Acaster Malbis and we’d spend time with him on it at weekends. In July, 1971, grandad died. It was round about that time, or a bit before,  mum got these knitting patterns for blue ‘fishing jumpers’, and was planning on knitting one for each of us. I think she was working on mine first. She’d knitted most of the body. I couldn’t wait to get it: navy blue and what I’d now call a ‘gansey’, although she worked from a commercial pattern.


Dad, Skipper the dog, and me

One night that November she died, unexpectedly.  Mum had severe asthma and we were used to her being ill, so thought nothing of it on the morning of November 18th, 1971,  a Thursday school morning no different to a thousand previous mornings, we thought, dad said mum was having the day off work as she felt ill and was in bed. He said she was asleep and not to disturb her. Being a disobedient child, I of course ignored that and before I walked to school, opened her bedroom door, to briefly check on her.  I remember she was wearing her favourite yellow nightie, and looked asleep so I probably just said “See you later, mum!”, shut the door quietly, and walked to school.


By the last lesson of the day, things felt…. strange. My teacher kept looking at me oddly. Years later she told me she had been told that last break that my mother was dead and had to carry on with lessons, as if nothing had happened. This gave her an incredible bond with me and years later, when I was at secondary school and a friend worked as a waitress, she said she met our old teacher and her first question was “How’s Penny?”


I also knew something was up as at home time,  Mrs Taylor told me my dad was waiting for me in the staff car park. Parents were never allowed to park in the staff car park. I could see dad had been crying, when I got in the car but he wouldn’t tell me what had happened til I got home.


Turned out, mum had died in the night – she collapsed in the bathroom and dad carried her back to bed, then rushed out to ring the doctor (we had no landline so he had to run to the village phone box). Our GP had been a specialist in asthma, coincidentally, as his young wife had also died of it, only the year before. So I can’t imagine what was running through his head as he got out of bed and came to our house. Mercifully, my brother and I slept through the whole drama. As another young man recently widowed with a child, the doctor advised dad to tell us mum was asleep so he could get us to school as normal and buy himself time to do the pragmatic things, like death certificate, funeral arrangements etc. (In those days funerals were usually in three days’ time).  So whilst I had been at school that day, mum was lying dead.


Months later, my aunties came round and sent me out to play at the bottom of our orchard. It was an acre of fairly heavily wooded land, with the house at the top of a steep hill and the end of the orchard at the bottom, so I couldn’t see what the aunties were doing til it was too late. They made a fire and burned almost all mum’s things. They did it when dad was out at work, thinking they were doing his (and us) a favour. They meant no harm – I couldn’t be angry with them. At the same time, it compounded my grief in many ways; having almost nothing left of my mother whatsoever.


All I had left was her sewing machine and a bag someone had stuffed in the bottom of a laundry basket, which had the half-finished jumper she’d been knitting for me,  in it. It had been 5 years since I’d knitted, but I thought I remembered how. I started trying to knit. But it unravelled. It seemed, the harder I tried; the worse it got. Until there was nothing left but a pile of wool.  I felt guilty I had destroyed one of the last things I had of her’s. At the same time, I knew she’d have said it wasn’t my fault. She had been the best of mothers – and loved us beyond all things.


And although I didn’t realise it for years and years, right there you have it – why I knit. Partly to reverse that unravelling of the last of her things; a way of getting back to her. A way to go home.


In my 20s, one of Maggies’ Millions,  I picked up a book, ‘Traditional Knitting’ by Michael Pearson. Utterly broke, spent my last penny on it. And read it obsessively. There was a hand drawn map showing my mum’s village. And lots of blue ‘fishermen’s jumpers’. Gansies. And I picked up needles and yarn and.. remembered how to knit. It just came back to me. Although it took me ages to realise I knit inside out and backwards.


Doing genealogy – another way to get back to the roots of things, and family –  I found out my mother’s mother’s ancestors were fishermen on the Ouse and Humber, as well as the farmers I had always known about. So maybe my strange, half-remembered way of knitting was a direct survivor of some mother’s mother’s mother’s mother – mum’s ancestors; Nettletons, Richardsons and Abletts; old fishing families from Partington, Sunk Island, Hull. All memory of them long submerged and gone by the time I was sat on that sunny doorstep in 1966, knitting my pink dog lead. A long band of garter stitch, to be used as a garter was the first piece of knitting mentioned by many a Yorkshire knitter in the past.


I have spent the past few years researching and writing about ganseys. I don’t have nightmares about unravelling my mum’s last piece of knitting by accident, any more. Largely because if I want a blue gansey – I can knit one, myself.


The last time my mother saw me I was a proper tomboy; never wore a skirt unless compelled, hated dolls, climbed trees and tore about on my bike. None of that has changed in the forty three years since we last saw eachother.  Apart from the climbing trees bit.


My mum, in the 1940s. Mary. 1924-1971.


So she would be shocked that I’m now a knitter. She was so proud to have a daughter – I was the only girl in my generation of  our family. I often felt guilty that I couldn’t please her by having clean hands, wearing frocks and ribbons. When it came to piano practice they used to have to come find me, prize me off the high branches of some tree in the orchard, and scrub my hands before the piano teacher would let me touch her piano. (My dad’s nickname for me was ‘monkey’ because I loved climbing so much). I knew, on some level, I must have been a bit of a let-down to her although of course, she loved us absolutely. But the knitting – that would more than redeem me.

We all have our own stories in stitches. Knitting is family, home – love so in a very real sense, it is our story. I don’t even know why I knit backwards and inside out. But I love it that I do. Someone – maybe my mother, maybe by great, great, great grandmother, who knows –  did it that way, too. I can never hear her voice again but when I knit, my hands are like her’s as I remember them and it feels like she is here again. And I am home.


Donna Druchunas

Stories In Stitches


Edwardian flags cycling gloves



Last month we were lucky enough to see the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, in Yorkshire.  Hardly been off our bikes since. And the month has been more Tour de France than Tour de Fleece, round here.

I forgot all about this pattern, til today when, cycling along, I remembered I’ll need to knit some new fingerless gloves for cycling this winter. Here’s a simple (and free) pattern I did for the lovely Blacker Yarns website, a while back. It works very well using 2 balls of their Classic DK.

Handspinners can approximate DK, too – there’s not a lot of spinning in these. Cotton might work, for summer.

It’s based on the common Scottish (and Yorkshire) gansey motif called “flags”. The first gansey I ever knitted was a flags pattern. The flags motif was used in a pattern for a cycling jersey in M.Elliott Scrivenor’s 1903 “Knitting and Crochet Book”. Just as soon as I finish the handspun gansey pattern, due to be published in a certain rather sumptuous U.S magazine (will put up links when it’s out), I’m straight onto working on a vintage style cycling jersey. I’ve been poring over images of 1950s’ cycling jerseys – love everything about them. Will be fun trying to approximate something special (in merino?) for winter cycling.

And here’s a little cycling fashion piece I did for ‘citycycling’ ezine, a couple of years back. Cycling has a huge role in the history of feminism and women’s clothing, as it became a catalyst for women’s clothing to change and become pragmatic.

To finish, here’s a photo my son took at the Tour de France. A total fluke as he had to hold his phone over the crowds’ heads and had no clue who he’d captured (if any of the peloton). But he got the Stage 1 yellow jersey, Marcel Kittell and King of the Mountains Jens Voight. Red spotted jersey pattern?  Maybe not. The Edwardian Flags Cycling Gloves would look nice in yellow, though…

Grand Depart, York, Stage 2, Tour de France.






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