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.
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.
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.