Knitting history is a special corner of textile history, for me, as it tells the story of ordinary people. Knitting was – and remains – something seen as disposable; comparatively cheap to make, so gets used up, worn out and discarded.
Pieces of knitting turn up in the archaeology, and finding out about and reconstructing these can tell us something about our ancestors; not the royalty and aristos whose expensive portraits preserved their tastes and fashion – but our ancestors. Sometimes, a once-common item of clothing may fall out of the collective memory, surviving in one or two obscure images, or a lost record somewhere, and when an example of it turns up, that gives us another piece of the jig-saw. You can be so familiar with an image, you don’t see what’s obvious in it, for years. I only noticed the orange and white banded hats of the whalebone scrapers in the George Walker (1814) image above, after I had seen a similar 1780s’ hat in a Whitby museum exhibition of knitted items on loan from the Polish Maritime Museum, put two and two together and realised I was looking at a now forgotten piece of occupational costume; not just a random, slightly eccentric hat.
In fact, the General Carleton Cap was in danger of being assumed to be of Baltic origin, despite being found on a Whitby-owned ship, (it was a ship that traded between the Baltic and England) although I hope I have now put it beyond doubt that what we are looking at is a piece of Yorkshire knitting and retrieved this hat’s most likely provenance.
In the current issue of PieceWork magazine, I’ve tried to tell the story of the 1780s’ Yorkshire-knitted hat, found in the wreck of Whitby ship, General Carleton, over two hundred years after she sank. I have also figured out a version of the hat, which was based on notes I took from looking at the original hat when it was on loan to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby, a couple of years ago. It was not possible to do a stitch-for-stitch reverse engineer as I wanted to make the pattern accessible to as many people as possible, so chose a commercial yarn with the closest quality I could find, to the original. In fact, the original appears to have been made from a handspun which has a grist somewhere between DK and Aran. Rowan’s lovely Aran Tweed yarn was used for my published version, but I hope to bring out a more precisely reverse engineered version later in the year, which will require handspun. I think the original colours were probably natural light, natural dark, and an orange-y madder; a bit like this. The madder was probably less faded. The orangey colour is the result of several things – including a too-hot dye-bath, and maybe using hard water: madder gives true red with soft water.
I think the chance survival of that single hat on the sea-bed, of banded natural and orangey/red colours, probably is the final, lone survivor of thousands of similar hats. Which implies they were made on a commercial scale. Consider the whalebone scrapers’ hats in George Walker’s illustration, above. This image, courtesy of Yorkshire Ancestors, was taken from a first edition so we know the colours of the hand-tinted plates are true to the artist’s intentions. It does start to look like an occupational costume.
When I had written my article for PieceWork, and sent off the pattern and sample General Carleton hat, I was idly wandering through Manchester Art Gallery when – by some fluke – I spotted an engraving of a watercolour by Joseph Mallord Turner, called ‘Marine Dabblers’ (1808). Check out the hats on the mariners to the right! (And possibly echoed on the child, far left).
The Carleton hat was knitted no later than 1785. Turner in 1808 and Walker in 1814 seem to have been recording a similar hat, possibly partially thrummed, with a small tassel, and bands of contrasting colour. We know 17thC English sailors wore thrummed caps. So this is possibly a descendant of those thrummed-all-over ones in 17thC woodcuts.
And – yet again – note the sailors are – as ever – sans gansey. As they always are in 18thC and early 19thC illustrations.
The other lesson we can take away from this is: a knitted item may have been worn by hundreds, even thousands of people, and yet there may only be one extant example that is a chance survivor.
For a much more in depth look at the Carleton hat, and the pattern that reproduces it in Rowan aran, PieceWork’s annual knitting issue, January/February 2014 is now available digitally or in hard copy. I hope some of yous, who enjoy my ramblings here, will enjoy it. And if anyone is brave enough to knit this – send us some pictures!