Whilst ‘The Knitter’ 122 is still in the shops, I thought I’d do a quick post on the non -traditional way I constructed the centre square of the ‘Hetty’ hap shawl.
Well, I say non traditional – it’s very traditional. Just in Lancashire, not Scotland! Fusion knitting is a thing, right?
One thing that inspired me to try and make a different-but-still-traditionally-inspired hap was reading about the Yorkshire and Lancashire mill girls’ in their vivid shawls – usually woven, with geometric patterns in vivid colours. A woman’s shawl was also a way to express her personality as it may be a less expensive item of clothing; something you could change up, a bit more frequently.
Many mill workers were Methodists or other types of Non Conformists, and in nineteenth century novels and letters, you can find sniffy comments about their ‘garish’ taste in clothing and penchant for stunning, flower-covered hats, trimmed with pretty ribbons, often worn to outings, high days, holidays and feasts (al fresco picnics, a fairly common sight in the Victorian countryside). My own family in the West Riding wool industry, were largely Methodists or Baptists.
I wanted to design a hap (practical, everyday shawl) that encapsulated some of the mill girl spirit. Not just to remember those countless mill workers in Lancashire and Yorkshire and elsewhere in England but also across Wales, Ireland and Scotland, too. Mill workers worked long hours, for low pay, in bad conditions and with everything stacked in the employer’s favour; not their’s. The women’s colourful shawls and feast day hats seemed somehow to transcend the grimness of everyday life, and affirm their spirit.
Way back in 1993, I saw something in ‘Spin Off’ magazine that piqued my interest and I always remembered it, in the dusty stacks at the back of my mind even though I’m no knitter of blankets, or squares. It was a ‘recipe’ for the perfect knitted square, based on a method used by Lancashire mill girls to use up leftovers from t’mills. This became my jumping off point for making a hap, but a hap with a difference. I never forgot this unassuming letter to ‘Spin Off’ and guessed it maybe described what was once a fairly common way of making a reliable square shape, using leftovers – but one that not all contemporary knitters know.
A year or two ago, I wanted to knit some blanket squares for the friend of a dear friend, to contribute to a large blanket with squares knitted by many members of a Ravelry group, and so sought out the Lancashire squares – and here it was. It was a snippet on the Letters page. Anne Campbell wrote from Mold, Wales, describing a way of knitting a square that her mother in law gave her in the 1960s.:
… She was told it by an old lady at the cotton mill in Lancashire where she worked as a girl doing cotton reeling. She said that when the thread broke or was knotted and tangled they were allowed to bring home the pieces of cotton. These she unravelled and knitted or crocheted into blankets or tablecloths.
‘The beauty of this pattern is that all the squares come out truly square. It is knitted on two needles in garter stitch, with decreases at both ends and three other evenly spaced decreases every alternate row.’
From Spin Off, Winter, 1993, pp88ff.
Errata in Spring, 1994 pointed out the method used multiples of 8 + 5 stitches, and gave a more accurate example.
Back issues of ‘Spin Off’ including these ones are available from here.
I was to discover the errata had errata, (ah yes, I know that glorious feeling) so I started experimenting by casting on various numbers, and checking whether or not I could make a Lancashire Square.
I managed to boil it down to a simple formula (Yorkshire-ificated the Lancashire square, if you like) which I apply to the first row and then knit the rest accordingly:
Pen’s Lancashire Formula = K2tog, 3(# + k3tog), #, k 2 tog
(“#” = “any even number”)
You need to asjust the number every other row, as you are decreasing sts away. You are of course, knitting the square from the outside in (or you’d be increasing, not decreasing, right?)
Although the pattern works with multiples of 8 + 5, officially; I discovered it worked with anything to which I could apply that formula, to so long as the number was even. To work the square, all I needed to do was pick a number, plug it into my algorithm and voila. The squares are worked garter stitch – alternating a decrease row with a plain, garter st row. And notice it’s ‘rows’ not my usual ’rounds’ so you do have a seam to sew up to make the square. If done in garter stitch with a balanced yarn, it wants to lie flat, which is a help.
So now the mudags will be available to folk who can’t get to wool shows in Yorkshire, this year!
And also, talking of dyeing, one of my (possible) Dawson relatives found this wonderful story about Longwood’s David Dawson, the 19thC Huddersfield dyer, who along with his son, Dan, developed the world’s first synthetic magenta dye. I’m still not sure whether or not my great grandma x 5, Betty Dawson of Longwood, was related to David and Dan Dawson, but given my thirty odd year long quest to wring vivid colours out of the natural world; it wouldn’t surprise me.
There was, too, the important firm of Dan Dawson and Sons of Milnsbridge. Old David was the first with the magenta dye. He could be seen regularly at the market on a Tuesday, with his head all dyed a brilliant magenta colour. They were first in these parts, I think, and I may say, in the world, to develop the new dye…
[The Huddersfield Examiner, April 1915, ‘THE DYEWARE TRADE IN HUDDERSFIELD IN DAYS GONE BY’, John Sugden, J.P].
What? Hang on a minute… he did what? Is there another way of interpreting that sentence? (And we are talking the 1860s, here).
The things some people do for publicity! Now I know we have only just opened our Etsy shop, but even I can’t face going quite so far as the irrepressible David.
Still, I can now add to my recent discovery of the York early Victorian gents walking round with lovely red lip salve – the thought of my (possible) relative, David Dawson – over one hundred years before punk, being the first Brit to sport magenta hair….
In David’s honour, I will of course, be synthetically dyeing some of our Norfolk Horn fleece “bright magenta”. But not my head.
Many thanks to Lindsay Dawson, for her intriguing discovery.
Well that was a surprise. Just opened my complimentary copy of ‘The Knitter’ which has been languishing under a chair for a few days, to see if my history of prison knitting article is in – and my hap shawl is on the cover! I had no clue. I will write some more about it down the week as it has an usual structure based on an old Lancashire trick, the knitters here might enjoy. It was inspired by the colourful (woven) shawls of nineteenth century mill girls in Lancashire and Yorkshire.
One other place you might need a practical, everyday, warm shawl in the nineteenth century was prison.
I had already written and was about to hit send on the following blog post when I had my nice surprise. The piece is: ‘Secret Stitches: Stories of Knitting in Victorian Prisons’ which can also be found in ‘The Knitter’ 122. Check it out! It represents a tiny corner of the research I’ve been doing for a couple of years for my upcoming book, which will take us into… let’s say the more gothic side of knitting history.
To accomplish this, I’ve been researching in the account books of York’s Debtors’ Prison, and, maybe unsurprisingly in the context, found some rather distractable debtors; who were supposed to be keeping accounts, but instead, wrote recipes and fascinating marginalia.
The debtors’ Day Books, and other paperwork survive in very small quantities; it seems that when prisoners were admitted, someone impounded their paperwork; business and domestic account books, invoices, receipts, and court judgements – as defaulting on a court judgement was what got most in debtors’ prison. Only a few debtors’ accounts have survived, and luckily, from my period of interest; late Georgian – early Victorian dates.
Considering the thousands of debtors who passed through York’s two debtors’ prisons in the 18thC and 19thC, only a small handful of York debtors’ records are extant.
Debtors often knitted for extra income, items which they then sold at the quarterly Assizes when the prisons and courts were thronging with visitors. I’ve been working on this for my forthcoming book, and have scoured the debtors’ accounts for information about knitting. Found none, directly, although what I did find was still intriguing.
One of ‘my’ knitting debtors, a York pub landlord, who ended up in the Debtors’ prison by 1841, wrote this intriguing recipe in his Day Book, in 1839. He was a man in his fifties, so this is probably a Georgian recipe. And don’t try this at home! I think the ‘marrow’ would be bone marrow from the leftovers in the pub kitchen, and ‘red bark’ may or may not be brazilwood – which could well be toxic.
But anyway, I enjoy thinking that middle aged men in York were walking round wearing red tinted lip gloss, scented with Bergamot! I have preserved my gentleman’s spellings. He was an early fan of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, polymath, and pub landlord. But born on a North Yorkshire farm where, it appears, there may have been one of the farm-based knitting schools. More of that soon. For now – for reference only – here it is. A recipe from the pages of a prisoner’s Day Book, 1839:
To Make Lip Salve Take 1/4 lb of Marrow when melted 1/2 Oz of White Wax 2 Oz of Raisins chop’d small 1/4 Oz of Sugar Candy A small bit of Red Bark to colour it with, Boil jently, or simer it for 5 Minutes then strain it through a bit of Muslin, when nearly cold add a few drops of esence of Bergamot to scent it.
For Hair oil despence with the Raisins and Sugar Candy and double the quantity of Marrow”.
Every year, I meant to get on the Nalbinding For Beginners workshop, run by the York Archaeological Society at the VikingFest. Every year, it sold out before I could get on it. But, I noticed a few years back, the course for Advanced Nalbinders didn’t sell out. So, a few years back, I reserved a place on it with only a few weeks to go, thinking:
“I’ll teach myself the basics, then go on the second course. How hard can it be?” Well, I discovered, nalbinding is pretty hard to teach yourself. I’ve never had a problem picking up new knitting techniques from video tutorials, and I found some excellent nalbinding tutorials on YouTube. But, pause and rewind as I might, I couldn’t get the hang of it. Just couldn’t. So, in the end, I gave in and didn’t go to the course booked. It’s inexpensive so not such a loss of money but still, really disappointing as I’d so wanted to learn this from the inspirational Mari Wickerts of Gothenburg Museum, who teaches every year during the Jorvik Festival.
Each year, I’d have another go at teaching myself. Each year, I’d fail. I had watched living history folk nalbinding, and they’d patiently answered all my questions and I’d think “When I get home, I should be able to do this, this time!” But no. Failed every time. Some things about nalbinding are counteriuntuitive for knitters, I have to say. And I alternated between over-thinking it, and not thinking enough about the right things…
This year – same old, same old. January comes around and I realise I forgot to book a place on the now sold out Beginners’ course. This year, like an idiot, I gave myself a massive task: I booked myself again onto the second course. I had 13 days to teach myself to do something I’d utterly failed at several times.
Using it in conjunction with Samato09’s Neulakintaat YouTube channel, I managed, over those 13 days, to just about learn to nalbind. I found Ulrike’s book filled in the gaps for me and I was also mesmerised by her account of the history of this craft; a precursor to knitting. Help and support can also be found on the Facebook nalbinding groups, and the Ravelry group Nalbinders of Ravelry.
I already had several bone needles, bought hopefully by husband at re-enactors’ fairs, as he had long hoped I’d learn how to make him a nalbinded hat/mitts for work. But as the days progressed, I realised none of my needles were quite right for me. And making my own was a craft too far, right now. Darning needles work well – especially for thinner yarns, but it is easier to learn, and develop some consistency, with thicker yarns at the start.
I wanted a needle about 9cm long; flat in profile, light and comfortable, and pointier rather than blunt – but not too pointy. Which reminded me of another peril of learning a new craft – you have to start with tools that you may have selected before you had even done the craft. And personal preferences are key, I think. Especially when it comes to needles and having consistent tension. Via one of the Facebook groups, I had seen beautiful needles made in Tranby, Norway, by William Solberg – and gathered he’d make them precisely to your specs. So, with a mighty couple of weeks’ experience but now firmly knowing what kind of needle I’d like, I bought an antler (reindeer?) and one of Mr. Solberg’s special ‘parrot wood’ (dyed birch?) needles – requesting one of a certain length and with two eyes, and these suit me much better than the needles I started out with:
Only two pieces of nalbinding are extant in the UK. One, a ‘sock’ (more like a slipper) from Viking York, down the road. The other, apparently, an eighteenth century baby bootee which is in the National Museum of Antiquities in Scotland. I haven’t been able to find a photo of this or any information about it yet. The jury is out about the eighteenth century piece til I can see it, but the Coppergate sock can be seen at the Jorvik Centre, and is made from a stitch unknown elsewhere in the world – so is called ‘York’ stitch. It appears to have been undyed white/cream wool with a narrow madder dyed edging and was found in a corner of one of the collapsed houses, at Coppergate.
I also intend to be running some workshops and one to one teaching over the summer – spinning, maybe dyeing, certainly traditional knitting. And when I trained to be a teacher all those years ago, we were told that it is wise to be a learner yourself. Every now and then pick a new to you skill and try and learn it. Whilst you learn it, take note on all the things you struggle with, or find difficult, or those things that get in your way. It makes a better teacher if you can revisit how it feels to be an absolute beginner, every now and then.
The day I knew I’d passed my PGCE and we officially got QTS (Qualified Teacher Status), I remember our course leader finally addressed us all as ‘colleague’. It was profoundly important, in the profession, and only someone who was qualified could ever be called ‘colleague’ by another teacher. People can be gifted natural teachers but that is rare. You have to learn how people learn as well as knowing how to do the thing you’re trying to teach. And you have to walk a mile in your students’ shoes, as well.
As I’ve been learning to nalbind, I’ve also been taking mental note of the process of learning itself. Long forgotten insecurities surfaced, like: If I ask this question in front of other people – will I look stupid? Why am I doing (certain steps of the process)?
At the start, I set myself a number of finite goals, all of which I wanted to reach, if I was going to do the Nalbinding Advanced course (which was, as it turned out, essentially Intermediate, anyway).
The goals were:
1. Learn Oslo stitch. (One of the simplest to learn). Basically, just figure out how to make a chain, and start, this stitch, like a crochet foundation chain.
2. Practice that one stitch until it is vaguely neat. Tension is an issue when learning, as for knitting!
3. Learn a second stitch. I didn’t know how many of the literally hundreds of possibilities, the other workshop attendees might have. As it turned out, some had been going more than a year, or years, with just one, so I needn’t have worried! By the end of my 13 days I could do Oslo, York, Korgen and Mammen stitch. Korgen was my most reliable.
4. Learn the first two connection stitches (known as F1 and F2). Although I spent some brief time with the F2 connection, where you pick up two connecting stitches, (Mammen), I spent 98% of my time mastering F1. It was into the second week before I even truly understood what a connection stitch was! At first, I thought it was the initial stitch when joining in the round, the first round to the second. It slowly dawned on me that you do a connection stitch every stitch you work, once beyond the initial chain/circle.
5. Learn how to start off in the round. This was hard! Learning to do a foundation chain first meant I had to ake my first hats from the brim (bottom) upwards. But it is easier to shape, and more typical of historical nalbinded artefacts, to start from the top down. I didn’t have this learning to work from a circle, in my original bucket list, but also managed to achieve this before Day 14. For a while, joining then starting the second round was hgely difficult for some reason, so I hit on the idea of joining it any old way just to get going, then switchcing colour for the second round, so I could figure out visually, what stitches were where. I quickly figured out to improvise over stumbling blocks, then go back and fill in the blanks in my knowledge, later. It was a good strategy.
It wasn’t till Day 6 that I could join in the round reliably. I just persevered. I had to get it, this time.
6. Learn to increase. (This was easy. Two stitches into one stitch from previous round).
7. Learn to decrease. (Again, easy. I’d allowed myself a day to master this but it took a few minutes).
To these I quickly added: Learn a start I can remember! It was one thing doing them with videos in front of me; quite another trying to do them without. I also wrote in my notes:
And by end of the crash course:
Make at least one small thing that is vaguely recognisable as nalbinding!
I wasn’t going to refine it much in 13 days but just needed to get the basics down.
In my notes to self, I wrote:
“Lots of ‘penny drops’ moments, but really just persisting. ”
Practice and more practice was the only thing that worked. When you have been practising a craft like knitting all your life, you have put in the hours long since, to make everything effortless. Learning a new craft, it is back to the start, which is kind of cool.
I figured that if I could do the handful of things I’d decided on, vaguely reliably, then I might be able to busk it and do the course. By the end of the 13 days, I had it so I only had one loop on the thumb, and was working confidently with everything else behind. I thought it was still a bit of a risk but went to the course, anyway.
On the day when asked how long I’d been nalbinding, I kept it vague, as I didn’t want to say “This is Day 14!” so just said something like “Only a short while!”
Now anyone who has ever taught workshops that are not for beginners in a certain thing, knows that although you can put out ahead of time provisos like: “Only suitable for people who can already knit in the round!” you will, inevitably, have at least one person turn up who, despite the ads, leaflets and emails, admits “I can’t actually knit in the round yet!” or “I tried but it was about ten years ago and...” It happens pretty well constantly. You end up trying not to spend the entire session getting that one person to the point they can participate at all – at the expense of the others in the room, who came already with the requisite skill level to benefit from the course. I didn’t want to be that person.
Yet at the same time, I wanted to be able to nalbind and in the round and was prepared to just sit there and busk it, if necessary, just to get the benefit of an interesting workshop and OK, if I couldn’t do something, at least I’d have seen it done and could go away and figure it. As it happened, I was able (just about) to keep up. I think a couple of the attendees had only learned the day before, at the Beginners’ class, so, technically, I had 13 times the experience of them!
On the day, I felt like the dumbest person in the room but regardless, I learned a new way to start off from a circle – a method I haven’t seen anywhere online, on blogs or on YouTube. Although I have for now reverted to starting with a slip knot and some backwards loops cast on to the nalbinding needle, as per knitting, then pulling the yarn through the loops, which works for me. I saw some interesting pictures of artefacts and learned much more about nalbinding in an Anglo-Scandinavian context, which is precisely what I was hoping to learn. And – over a month on – I can nalbind! I do it as a break from writing and knitting. It’s great fun as you work without patterns and I can see if I did this forever there would always be plenty of new things to learn.
We hope to be teaching a real, basic nalbinding how to, (or several) over the summer in one of the viking houses at the museum, if possible. Just the absolute how to get from not nalbinding at all, to doing a basic stitch. Mari is keen to keep the craft alive and hopes her students teach as many people to nalbind as possible, and hopefully we can do that. Will keep yous posted.