I made these quick muffatees from some leftover Wendy Guernsey yarn in shade 590 Crimson. The stunning red reminds me of the heroines in my favourite operas, Tosca and Carmen. Here’s the pattern for anyone who wants to use up a little leftover guernsey yarn – they would work in DK, too – but you might need to do a bit of due diligence re. the tension.
You Need: 1 ball Wendy’s 5 Guernsey yarn. (or leftovers from a guernsey project). Or: Use 100g 1 ball DK. (245 yards, 224 metres).
1 ball will probably make two pairs, so you may get a pair from leftovers.
2.5mm dpn or circular needles, or needles right size to get tension
Size: Average woman’s (Palm = 18cm, wrist = 17cm). NB There is a fair bit of negative ease – this stitch pattern is stretchy, so make smaller than you need. I had 1cm negative ease in my sample. If you need to add some sts to make larger, work a margin of sts in stocking stitch centrally placed below and above the thumb, so as to keep pattern repeats complete, horizontally. Or for even more stretch, work this panel of stitches in moss st.
Tension: Cast on 38 sts in pattern give glove with 17cm palm – 1cm of negative ease. Or: 10cm = 22sts in pattern
Using longtail or any stretchy but firm method, cast on 38 sts. Join 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).
K 1, P1 round.
Main Part of Glove Establish Pattern
All subsequent rounds: Follow chart, starting with round 1. Motif is multiple of 12. At end of rnd, you will have 2 extra sts. PM before the first of these. Work these 2 sts in stocking st when you hit them. You will place your thumb here, shortly.
Work 5 rounds. 2 sts from end of round 6; continue to work according to chart, whilst making thumb gusset:
Establish thumb gusset above your 2 plain stocking sts. When you hit first of these 2 sts: PM, K1, M 1purlwise, K1. Work in pattern to end round.
Rnd 7: Work according to chart. When you hit marker, K1, P1, K1
Rnd 8: This time when you hit marker, K1, P1, Mk 1 knitwise, M1 purlwise, K1
Rnd 9: Wok round hand in patt acc to chart. When you hit marker: K1, P1, K1, P1, K1.
Now continue to work acc to chart, and inc two sts knitwise, immediately inside the 2 purl sts, every other round til you have 15 thumb sts. (ie: You are increasing every even numbered round). [55sts when thumb gusset is complete, including the 2 P sts].
When you have 55 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 work in K1 P1 ribbing. K last 2 sts of rnd (the single K sts, one from each side of the thumb) together [37sts].
Cont working in ribbing, and moss st that final st – K one rnd, P it the next.
Work for 2cm or longer if preferred.
Cast off in ribbing.
Using smaller needles, PU 17 sts waiting for you.
M 2 sts from body of mitt. [19sts]
On next rnd, K2tog, work to end of rnd in K1 P1 ribbing [18 sts]
Cont in K1, P1 rib for 4 rounds. Cast off.
“I wish I was at home in my nice hole by the fire, with the kettle just beginning to sing!” It was not the last time that he wished that!
The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkien, 1937, Chapter 2.
Two years ago, I decided to do something not at all Living History, veering slightly into Cosplay. I decided to make one of my sons a version of Bilbo’s dressing gown, from ‘An Unexpected Journey’, the first film in ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy. Mainly because he’d made wistful remarks about wishing he had one. Also, because I wanted to make the Christmas presents for my older sons, to save money and so they would always have special things made for them, with love.
So I looked at sites to see who else had ventured into patchwork dressing gown territory and quickly realised surprisingly few people – even Tolkien geeks like myself – had done a similar project. All those online are lovely but where they seemed to miss the mark was in the colour tone/depth of hue – picking colours too bold, or light. I watched , re-watched and paused the scene with Bilbo wearing his dressing gown and started to analyse the designer’s colour choices. There were earthy tones of browns and burgundy, with some primrose yellow, pale but dull-ish blue, and dusky rose colours. All colours from nature. The printed fabrics also reflected hobbits’ love of nature; flowers and foliage.
Based on analysis of images from the movie, and other bloggers’ recommendations, I decided to go with making the gown using 2 squares and a rectangle – measured in inches because hobbits aren’t metric! The two squares would be 6” x 6” and 3” x 3”; the rectangle, 3” x 6”. I made templates from old plastic ice cream or margarine tubs, and added ½” seam allowance. I have a measuring gauge on the throat plate of my sewing machine (also pre-decimal because it’s on my 1956 Singer 221K) so I knew I could piece sort of accurately if I cut accurately and used the throat plate’s gauge.
When I started to piece the sleeves, laying out the patches on the cut-out lining, I compared my sleeve to the one in the film and realised there was no way the patches, the sizes recommended, would be right – far too large. So I revised them down to 16cm x 9cm and 9cm x 9cm, totally dropping the large squares. (Measurements include seam allowances. And I forgot to keep them imperial so when I re-make this, will revert to imperial!) Just counting down roughly the number of patches in the sleeves and body, from the movie’s version, it was apparent they were smaller than I’d thought.
I meant to do the sleeves like this and leave the body with larger patches, but when it came to it I realised the disparity in patch size from sleeves to body, would look a bit odd, so ended up re-cutting the oblongs and squares I’d already cut out, down to the smaller size. This doubled the amount of cutting out I had to do.
The original seemed to combine texture as well as colour; brocaded and other relief patterned fabrics, velvets and silks. Most of the other makers of replicas, so far, had stuck mainly with cottons – understandable as fat quarters are so readily available. But I was lucky, like a hobbit, to have a hoard of fairly rich looking silks and some brocades even a light green textured linen, from years of re-enactment and living history which meant I could incorporate texture, as well as colour, into my version. And yes, I’d happily make these on commission, but I’d have to figure out a fair price as it is incredibly labour intensive. Essentially you are designing and making a fabric, as well as a garment.
My self-imposed limitation was to only use up scraps I already had – so to make this for zero cost – with a rough colour criteria in my head as I sorted. I wanted this to cost as close to zero £s as possible and at the same time, use up scraps that had been lying around just in case, for years. Hopefully, we’d end up with a useful garment that would also clear a couple of bags of scraps from the airing cupboard.
So old patchwork fat quarters bought in a fit of enthusiasm a decade ago and never used; combined with recycled clothes and upholstery fabric and some living history fabrics were to be used. Surprisingly, my own palette wasn’t as far off the costume designer’s as I’d imagined it might be. Only think I lacked were rusty oranges/umbers. I resisted the temptation to buy any fabric. I knew somewhere I had the perfect offcut of burgundy velvet; but was unsure if I could lay my hands on it. So if I couldn’t find it, would have to buy that. And that was going to be my only expenditure. All threads I use as vintage; bought at car-boot sales. So I would use neutral cotton thread that came to hand. More than once in recent years, I was lucky enough to score huge boxes of 1950s – ‘70s threads at a car boot for derisory prices. For this project, I selected mainly ‘Silcarn’ brand and all the threads used had to be sound. Over many years of secondhand thread buying, I’ve noticed the threads that seem to degrade to the point they are unusable tend to be certain colours, which suggests their dyes are more corrosive – black and dark blues in particular. I always try and yank apart vintage cotton when I buy it and if it stays intact, I keep it – if it breaks easily, I discard.
Later, after I cut the squares, I sorted for depth of colour – ignoring each patch’s actual colour but sorting into two piles – darker and lighter. Then, when piecing each section, gave precedence to the darker patches, only using the lighter when darker ran out. In the end I used cottons, silk, linen, and the dark brown velvet was a recycled old smock-like top I’d had and not worn for years which turned out to be viscose and silk mix. There was a small amount of wool/cashmere leftover from a coat I made a couple of years back. I’d hoarded nice silk for years; leftovers from linings for re-enactment costumes and old tops I’d worn in ‘real life’ – if I got too fat for something made of silk – I never threw that out. Now the hoard came into its own. I can honestly say not a patch of this fabric is something I went out to buy; it was like something from The Shire, made from genuine scraps, leftovers and old clothing; not a single piece of the patchwork was something I went out to buy. All of it therefore pre-washed and shrunk, and some of it aged like fine wine.
There were some old fat quarters I’d cut into for a never-to-be-finished project. These were slightly too small for my smallest size patches, but I cut them into small squares anyway, and put them aside to use for the edges and shaping – particularly on the edges of the sleeves; determined not to waste a scrap. I used my vintage pinking shears – another £1 car-boot find – to cut fabric where I could, to minimise fraying.
Cutting out the squares – the first time – and rectangles took just over a day solid. I took apart an old dressing gown being determined not to spend a penny, not even on a pattern. This was one I was about to throw away anyway. The fleece was later recycled to make a cosy cat bed (after I unpicked half the dressing gown, laid it out flat, and used it to make a paper pattern). I could then make the lining and put it together first, before risking messing up the precious patchwork. I made a pocket in the lining. We slipped a repro ‘One Ring’ into it.
I laid out the patches roughly on each cut-out lining piece to make an approximate calculation of how many squares I’d need (adding on a rough extra 10% or so, for seam allowances between the patches). It looked like I’d need roughly 4 large, 20 medium and 20 small patches for the back.
I’d intended to use some burgundy velvet I knew I had somewhere, for the facing and cuffs but it stayed elusive so in the end, I had to relent and spend a bit of money. £12 on eBay for 2 metres of 100% cotton velvet, which, when it turned up was nice but not quite right right shade of ‘wine’. So back to eBay to buy some burgundy Procion dyes and fixative. Having to over-dye the velvet slowed the project down but it was already slowed down anyway, whilst I fixed the size of the patches. This gave me longer to arrange the patches on the front and constantly comparing to the Hobbit stills, I realised I needed a few more dusky rose colours and old golds as well as some olives. So a further raid of fabric stashes was done, more patches cut, and I was ready to finally piece the front. My mistakes had slowed me down enough to give me time to really figure out how to get the front as good as I possibly could. More haste, less speed. I pieced together bits of silk to make the piping round the edges, from scratch. Never made piping before but it was easy. To finish, I sewed a tag inside for him to hang it up and embroidered his initials in Dwarvish runes.
In the end, the burgundy dyes set me back under £10 which meant I spent less than £22 for the velvet edging; but ended up with enough for two dressing gowns meaning this one essentially cost £11. No doubt the burgundy velvet I knew I had will turn up again once I don’t need it.
In the end, son got this for Yule, 2015, but only just – so I had little time to photo it before I wrapped it up for him and we forgot to get a shot of him in it when he was home for Christmas. He went back to uni and we both kept forgetting to get shots of it.
In amongst the fabrics were some scraps of genuine 19thC printed cotton (mainly bird and flower prints) I bought in 2011 to make reticules as thank yous to Caro and Emma, for doing living history at Dove Cottage with us.
I’m blogging this now as I’m about to re-make it using a more 18thC shape for the gown (banyan). I’ll share the results here.
I wanted to go into detail on how I did this project as it is my favourite thing I ever sewed, and also – when I wanted to make one, there was a dearth of info out there so I had to largely wing it. Hopefully, this will help someone else tackle this project. Essentially, you need to draft or buy a dressing gown pattern, or pull apart an old dressing gown, or draft or buy an 18thC banyan pattern; then make panels of fabric (one for the back, two narrower for the front, and 2 for the sleeves). Then cut into the panels (reinforcing wherever you cut into by re-sewing) to create the shape. Then, sew together. The belt and edging were cotton velvet; the piping was homemade from silk, pieced by being cut straight not on the bias, which is how it was often done in the 18thC. It photographs almost white but is, in reality, much softer in hue.
I loved every second of this project, to the point I’m about to make another one, using the 18thC banyan pattern we drafted last year. This time, for myself. And mainly because I still have enough leftover scraps of various fabrics. My only regret with Bilbo’s Dressing Gown was that I didn’t make it from a banyan pattern, to give it more of an eighteenth century shape with a waist and flared out shape.
But anyway. I’m about to go there and back again – again. Wish me luck.
In Europe the handspindle was the only tool for spinning yarn until the early Renaissance, when the spinning wheel appeared. Simple spindles produced all the thread, yarns and cordage for household use, for commerce and for war, for at least 9,000 years. The handspindle met all these human needs: clothing, household linens, uniforms for the armies, cloth wrapping and cordage for packages, trappings for animals, rugs and tapestries, sails for all the ships…
Not many spinners know this, but there is one UK battlefield memorial stone that commemorates not just the men, but also the women, affected by the conflict. And it depicts a hand-spinner.
Saxton is where I used to go horse-riding with a friend, when we were teenagers (and I could borrow a horse) and Saxton church happens to be the burial place of Lord Dacre who died during the battle and was, according to local myth, buried sitting on his horse. (Not likely, I’m guessing. But captured our imaginations as kids).
At nearby Saxton church, is the memorial to the Battle of Towton, fought on a snowy day in April, 1461 – allegedly the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As kids, we were told the nearby beck ran red with blood.
As Brown Owl and Guide Leader in our village, in the 1960s, my mum used to be part of a memorial ceremony there every year so it was a place of some significance to me, growing up. If you are one of the Sherburn 1940s-60s Guides or Brownies, and remember this – do get in touch. Mary’s daughter, here.
Many years later, as a founder member of a re-enactment society, my husband had the honour of laying the wreath during the memorial ceremony, for a couple of years. No-one there but me knew it, but he was linking those ceremonies of the 1950s and ’60s, with the twenty first century.
I vaguely remember something about the laying of flowers with my mother, and as a keen rose grower/collector with maybe 100 roses, as well as a local, it’s entirely likely she may have grown the elusive, now possibly lost, ‘Towton rose’ at some point (see below). Again, I have some really vague memory of it, I can’t quite get at. The Towton rose was strikingly pied – both red (Lancashire) and white (Yorkshire).
Although there is a weatherworn (Victorian?) memorial stone up on the battlefield, a stone cross, where my mother and the churchgoers used to lay flowers annually if I remember rightly, there was never a monument to the battle, per se, until the early 2000s, when one was commissioned from artist Stephen Hines – after the mass burials on the battlefield were uncovered, up there. The memorial was carved on local stone from Morley.
My husband and a re-enactment group he formed, were instrumental in efforts to get a memorial placed at nearby Saxton churchyard. Around that time, I did a talk for the Towton Battlefield Society about medieval women and spinning, and unknown to me, in the audience was the then-putative memorial’s sculptor, Stephen Hines.
Imagine my surprise when we went to the grand unveiling, somewhere round about 2004, only to find the memorial depicted not only the soldiers who fought that day; but a lone, anonymous woman – with a hand spindle, to honour the women who lived and died, in this area and their contribution – whilst men were fighting battles; women were getting on with the real business of life.
Husband says one of the men on the memorial, is wearing ‘his’ repro 15thC helmet, which he lent to the artist, and apparently the faces of the soldiers are of local people, but I rather like it that the spinner remains anonymous, with her back to us.
We went up to look at the memorial again last Saturday, on impulse, as we were dropping one of our sons off nearby and had an afternoon to kill, before we picked him up again. There is a slight family history connection, in that the Warringtons, a farming family mine married into in the nineteenth century, farmed for some time at Lead Church; a tiny, medieval chapel in the middle of a field, not far from the battlefield. We didn’t attempt Lead Church on Saturday as we had the dog with us, and she is scared of sheep! As we stood taking photos of the memorial, a dog-walker came up to us and said he was there the day it was unveiled, and his kids’ photos were in the local press. He looked surprised when we answered – so were we. We were the re-enactors present, and my son was in the papers, as well. He was two, and wearing 15thC costume, so a shoo-in for the local press photographer. Nice to meet someone else who was there at the unveiling, as we stood in the churchyard.
Lead spindle whorls and loom weights have been found on the battlefield (not much evidence of housing, or spoil heaps, if I recall correctly – so these finds are just random things dropped in the fields, at unknown dates). Lead whorls are, of curse, found all over the UK and usually out of context. Yesterday’s battlefield becomes tomorrow’s pasture, arable or back garden. Although not so much at the blasted, rugged corner of Yorkshire that is Towton, so the presence of spindles up there is intriguing.
The local villages are badly gentrified now, but in my memory they are still like something from ‘The Famous Five’ – unspoilt, slightly tumbledown limestone houses with red and yellow pantile rooves, with pinnied elderly ladies in the front gardens, waving at us as we passed. As we drove there, I was recounting the names of the elderly ladies, I recalled from many years back. I saw every single name in the churchyard, later – one after the other.
The local ‘big’ family during the War of the Roses, the Vavasours, were devoutly Roman Catholic and carefully kept out of the conflict that led to the bloodiest battle in English history, happening on their doorstep. Again, I may have a very faint link to the 18thC Vavasours, so in a tangential way, this is genealogy, as well! Parish records in the area tend to start around the 1480s, so just after this period.
As kids, we’d often cycle up to the battlefield and hang around hoping to see ghosts. At my talk, was a gent who had not long since moved into a barn conversion at the other end of the battlefield, and he told me he had come along to the Towton Battlefield Society out of curiosity, because he kept being woken up in the middle of the night – by the sound of soldiers marching through the ground floor below! We were never ‘lucky’ enough to see anything up there, but it was bleak and very ‘Wuthering Heights’, so appealed to us as kids and later, as teenagers, we went up there often.
There is a sense in which almost everything we do in life is, to borrow Keats’ phrase, “writ in water” – it’s all ephemeral. So I rather enjoy the fact that somewhere, set in stone, is an oblique record of a talk I gave, probably nearly 14 years ago. We sometimes forget what an heroic effort it was, when every single textile in the world was made on hand-spindles or great wheels. And so the thing I love about the Towton memorial, is that it honours women, and spinning.
We still have gaps in our diary for talks for 2018, by the way. Current talks include: George Walker’s 1814 Tour of Yorkshire; History of Hand Spinning; Great Wheel Spinning; Land Girls; The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales and Yorkshire Ganseys. But we are happy to tailor a talk to your specific requirements. So message me here if you’re a group secretary trying to set up your schedule and if we can fit you in, we will!
If you come to one of our talks and want to memorialise it in stone – fill your boots!
1821 Thursday, 18th October [York]
Went over the bridge at 11 ¼. Went shopping with my aunt… Walked with my aunt around the castle yard (she wanted some knitted nightcaps of the debtors)…”
[Anne Lister’s Diary, p. 175 ‘The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister” (Virago, ed. Helena Whitbread)].
Reading Anne Lister’s diaries was my first glimpse of debtors’ prison inmates knitting to make a little extra money. Being in debtors’ prison was not free of charge. You could improve your food and accommodation – so long as you paid. Debtors would knit small items like night-caps,purses and stockings, and sell them to members of the public to make their lives more bearable.
Many jails had two sides – one for criminals, one for debtors. I have seen the nineteenth century York Castle jailer’s journal, where he records the location of burials of the executed prisoners. Under the paving slabs of this very yard. Anne and her aunt will have stepped on them to buy their night-caps.
The best source to give a glimpse into the 19thC debtors’ prison is Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’ – Dickens was no stranger to the sometimes bizarre interior world of the debtors’ gaol, thanks to his father’s time in the Marshalsea, in 1824. Read that for more insight than I could ever give you.
Researching my new book, which will be a foray into the darker side of nineteenth century textile arts; I came across this news story:
LANCASTER CASTLE. During the late assizes, the high sheriff gave an order to the governor of Lancaster castle, not to admit strangers within the walls of the debtors’ side… on the ground that the indiscriminate visits …during the assizes, might possibly introduce disease into the gaol. This was considered a great hardship by the debtors, as they had been accustomed to reap a pretty good harvest during the previous assizes, by the sale of articles of knitting, &c., such as purses, night-caps and other articles, which they manufacture during their imprisonment. The high sheriff was memorialised on the subject by the disappointed debtors, but in vain; the prohibition was not taken off until the assizes had terminated, and most of the visitors had left town.
[The Manchester Times and Gazette, Saturday, March 31st, 1832].
Over on the criminal side of the jails, knitting was sometimes smuggled out, to provide an added income, on release. Prisoners were often given yarn, technically the property of the Governor, to knit items whilst behind bars.
In 1843, one enterprising non-debtor inmate from Morpeth Jail, Ellen McGurch (“a character well known to the turnkeys”) was found on her release, to be wearing a shift with stockings sewn to it and the hem doubled up. In the doubled-up hem, were stuffed a quantity of muffatees. Apparently, “….the female prisoners, instead of knitting the stockings with the yarn given to them, make muffatees and other articles… carry them out of the prison with them, and then dispose of them for money or drink…” [The Newcastle Journal, Saturday, January 28th, 1843].
This is a post for the genealogists – about arcane Masonic documents hidden in tin boxes, and secret compartments in nineteenth century writing slopes and – lots of fun stuff like that.
Genealogy-wise, can you believe we have a tin box that originally belonged to my husband’s great-great grandfather, that a lovely step great aunt gave us maybe twenty years ago, and we have never thoroughly looked through? It was mainly full of paperwork – I had a rough recollection of it being from around the 1890s – having maybe had a cursory root through about 20 years back – and I had spotted something Masonic in it, so assumed it was mainly stuff from his Masonic lodge.
There were also a couple of smaller boxes inside, containing odds and ends, that we’d totally forgotten. Husband’s great grandad was something of an amateur scientist – one box contained a massive beetle he must have ‘collected’. That thing last probably saw a leaf in 1905. Luckily I’m not bothered by spiders and beetles but it did make me cautious, opening the three small boxes inside. Just in case.
Anyway, I was reading yet another Jack The Ripper book the other day (My Gx3 Uncle, with the glorious name of Charlie Varley, was York’s Chief Inspector in 1888, so I have a kind of vicarious interest in the goings on of 1888) and there were so many mentions of London Masonic lodges, I got curious and thought “I’ll go look through that tin box, and see which lodges are mentioned.” We know both his great great grandfather and great grandfather – who had the tin box after him – were keen Masons, and one of them eventually the Grand Master, we think, of a lodge in Kent when they’d left London. I had a vague recollection of this paperwork being from his time as Manager of the Author’s Club in Westminster, at the turn of the century. (He was a friend of the Scott Expedition photographer, Herbert Ponting – whose signature is also on a document in this box! I better scan it… And that is the story for another day as we think we own something very special that was given to great grandad as a child, by Ponting, after the 1911 Expedition).
Quick back-story: husband’s great great grandma died when her only child was a baby. That child was husband’s great grandad. After a couple of years, Great Great Grandad, re-married. There was one son from the second marriage. That son had a daughter and she gave this tin box of family memorabilia to my husband, many years ago, as much of it concerned his family, and she felt he was the rightful owner. Lovely lady.
Turned out there was only a little Masonic material in the box. I haven’t had time to scan the document yet, which seems to be certifying that G-G-grandad in law had been through the initiation ceremony for ‘X’ Lodge in Westminster – prime Jack the Ripper suspect territory, that little roomful of people, if ever there was any – but will put it up on here when it’s scanned, in case anyone stumbles on this and is interested in the Freemasons’ history. As well as the certificate, and a gold pentacle believe it or not, which we assume must be Masonic, there is a small leather pouch we assume he carried to meetings, with his initials and a Masonic symbol in gold tooling.
Also in the box were the deeds to numerous houses (if only husband owned one of the several houses in Pimlico, or Kent hotels we seem to have copies of deeds for!)
A tip to genealogists: look up your ancestors’ addresses on Zoopla or similar to get an idea of their current value. One of these houses is now worth a cool few million (it is now divided into flats and each flat is worth over a million quid, put it that way!) At the same time, go and look in the 19thC censuses at your ancestor and not just your ancestor, but his and her neighbours. Check out the occupations. This street was fairly ordinary in the 1870s – in fact, there was a pretty sordid murder 3 doors down in 1875 as I found by doing an address search in a database of nineteenth century newspapers.
Whenever I find my target on the Census I look at the immediate streets around. It gives you a real sense of your ancestor’s life. Obviously, Pimlico in 2017 is not remotely like Pimlico of the 1880s.
Many a gentrified street now peopled by the wealthy, was once simply lived in by coach-builders, factory workers and servants; ostlers and clerks.
Bear with me, gentle Reader, whilst I go off on a tangent for a bit.
Talking of clerks, I recently got interested in 19thC writing slopes. They’re a sort of portable desk – some have secret compartments. I like the ergonomics of writing on a sloped surface, so decided to get one to use, not as an ornament. Regency ones often have a drawer in the side and later, Victorian ones a secret compartment. Like this one in mine:
The slope, when it came, had a stunning blue velvet skiver (not unlike the vivid purple on in Emily Bronte’s slope, although I can only here find a picture of Charlotte’s) .
In the case of my slope, the velvet was rotten and had holes in where someone seems to have closed it hastily with maybe a dip pen nib still in there, that damaged the wood and badly abraded the velvet on both sides of the slope. So we stripped off the old skiver and replaced with blue leather, after filling in the gouges in the slope’s wood, and sanding it. That was painful to me as a textile historian. But I did it because I wanted this thing to use, not admire.
We did manage to keep the original Greek key skiver surrounding as that was only slightly damaged. There are compartments for paper storage (or sealing wax, or wafers, or whatever in the nineteenth century) behind both surfaces of these slopes.
The slope is hinged only with fabric so the central bit is reinforced – luckily I had some vintage, wide cotton tape which was perfect for the job. As you can see, I have the original glass ink well whichI was pleased about, given the fact I only paid £30-odd for the slope. It has lost its key but I’m told the locks are simple, and often an old key can be found that will fit.
What has any of this got to do with husband’s tin box? Well, in amongst the little box of treasures inside, we had totally forgotten about, was a wax seal. Son 2 and I experimented yesterday and he managed to do this (The black bits were caused by us having to light our wax from a candle. Victorians knew not to do this!):
For scale, with a penny:
Sons and husband now know that their family sigil is a parrot. Appropriate.
Also in the box were some notes by step great aunt. I guessed they dated from the 1960s or 70s as these , I’m guessing by Aunt Elizabeth were written in biro.
Apparently, one of her family names had a cockerel as their ‘sign’ and their motto, according to the notes was “Whilst I live, I crow!” Finding this, I assumed the gilt fob seal I found was a cockerel (bad eyesight and these things as TINY!) But in fact, it was a parrot. It would, of course, be unusual to find a letter addressed to someone with the same seal on as you found in a box of their possessions.
I did find several (sadly, empty) envelopes addressed to husband’s G-G-G Aunt, postmarked from 1875, which did indeed have a wax seal with a cockerel on and this may be what prompted Great Aunt to write her note – but in fact the step family only became family a generation after these letters were sent, so I think it’s a coincidence. Intaglio fob seals like these were no doubt mass produced. We also have a blank one in the box, so maybe sometimes people took them to be customised/engraved after they bought them. Others would have been produced with generic symbols and mottos on.
They will have been made en masse after the introduction of the Penny Post and letter-writing became cheap and accessible for everyone. Previously, it was cheaper to send a parcel and smuggle a letter inside it, than to send a single sheet letter…
After she died, Emily Bronte’s writing slope was found to contain wafers – a sort of gummed paper seal you’d use to seal an envelope – sometimes use in conjunction with wax seals, wafers meant for informal correspondence. Many of Emily’s have oddly flirtatious mottos – no-one knows who they were meant for. For most letters though, you’d seal the envelope with wax. The seals we have are maybe only 1cm long, if that.
I have been researching 19thC Birmingham pen-makers for another project, and had recently come across the profession – many of whom side-stepped into being pen-makers – of “Gilt Toy Maker”. (Toy = any small frippery). I suspect these seals were mass produced in Brummagem by Gilt Toy Makers.
Anyway, upshot is – the ‘family seal’ now lives in the secret compartment of our writing slope (alongside the previous owner’s interesting vellum recipe).
I only had time to hastily scan this – from everything in the box. Because I found the lady on the right’s clothing fascinating. But I’ll be scanning it all. The oldest photo in the box dates to around 1856. It is probably the oldest thing in the box. As a young man, the gent below, was a carpenter working on a church restoration (Very Thomas Hardy) and the architect photographed him. It is brilliant.
I will have to spend a couple of days scanning to get everything but yes. A genealogist can have a box of genealogical treasures in their house for twenty years and barely get round to opening it…
Mudags, aka: muirlags, Crealagh and craidhleag (creels) were egg-shaped baskets with a ‘post hole’, used for holding wool ready to spin. They are known to have been a thing in Scotland – and so, hopefully, Ireland, Wales and England too.
You placed your mudag close to the fire, for the wool’s lanolin to melt a little, and make fibre easier to spin.
This probably went hand in hand with the old Northern superstition mentioned by Wordsworth in ‘Song Of The Spinning Wheel’ – that wool spun more easily when the sheep were asleep:
Now, beneath the starry sky,
Couch the widely-scattered sheep;—
Ply the pleasant labour, ply!
For the spindle, while they sleep,
Runs with speed more smooth and fine,
Gathering up a trustier line.
Baskets are perishable. This kind of basket was probably made from willow; maybe sometimes, hazel. I think the mudag at the National Museum of Scotland is thought to possibly date ‘only’ from the 1920s or 30s. As the mudags were often kept close to the fire, the willow would dry out and sometimes old ones are scorched on one side.
We are lucky enough to live close to the river, and there are basketmakers of great skill in our village. I know they’re good because when I have taken their work to living history events or wool shows, other experience basket weavers often come up and comment how they’ve used a really unusual or old technique.
So we took a description and dimensions to them and they attempted to make a mudag but weren’t quite happy with how it turned out. I’m sure they were just perfectionists! Meantime, I had started a thread on Ravelry, asking the knowledgeable folk there about mudags and a kind Raveller in Scotland offered to sell me a mudag she had and wasn’t using. The parcel duly arrived – looking like a bubble-wrapped dinosaur egg! I didn’t give up the Quest to find a local maker, however, because I thought these would be a great thing to sell at wool shows, and in keeping with our demos on traditional spinning. Also the mudag is highly practical as a way to keep ready to spin wool in an airy condition – and will keep enquiring hands from rolags or tops. Useful for shows.
I thought briefly about making one myself but decided it’s a craft too far and besides, what with getting stock ready to sell over the winter, and writing my next book, and commissions, I knew that was unrealistic to find the time.
My local basket-weavers recommended a basketmaker in another village – and so I emailed him various links to pictures and descriptions and he said thought he could make one. And he did.
We went to pick up the mudag after a couple of weeks. The lovely basketmaker was concerned it looks a bit elongated but that is actually perfect for the table of our Great Wheel. He has been making baskets all his life – his family have been basketmakers since the mid nineteenth century in this area – and he said, he had never made anything quite like this. He had to make a former specially for this first mudag (which we have asked him to keep as we’re ordering more from him). He is confident that now he has made one, the next ones will be a bit less elongated.
He said his first ever baskets were for the local farmers’ potatoes. I realised that his father probably knew and did business with my grandad and great grandad as the farm where my mum was born is not far away. We have found what look like deliberately planted small stands of willow here, along the river – no longer harvested. Often the willow seems to be in little inlets or ‘ings’, some of which may have been dug out from the river bank. The basketmaker told us that until the 1950s, basketmakers here would pay the farmers who owned land abutting the river, a small fee to collect the willow every year. I know from an 1830s’ tithe map that my family owned a field or two in the ings here, and presumably this would have been a nice extra earner for the farmers, alongside renting out horses and ‘horse marines’ to tow the keels and sloops when the tow path ran along their land.
We forget there was once a world before cardboard boxes. With many small docks here along the rivers, as well as fishermen, and also so much good arable land and farming going on – there would have been a huge demand for baskets. Apparently, in the nineteenth century there were seven basketmakers in this small village alone.
The basketmaker’s family started in the same village as mine, and moved out roughly in the same direction as the years passed. We will, no doubt, have had ancestors who were friends, if not relatives (He mentioned one local surname I have seen was a witness, several times in the eighteenth century, to family weddings so we were at the very least, family friends). My uncle lived for around 60 years in the same village as the basketmaker – as he was a jockey, and left the village where mum and my aunty remained, a few miles away.
The baskets are still made in a workshop which is part of the now uninhabited cottage. I have long been fascinated by abandoned and empty cottages in this area, and would give my right arm for one like this. (If you have an abandoned croft going spare, you know who to give it to!) From the old, bricked-in doorway you can see it was two cottages knocked into one – still unspoilt by the hand of gentrification:
I’m not sure if mudags were even used in England, and if so, what they were called or how they were shaped. Sometimes Great Wheels had inbuilt boxes on the table. In the Walker engraving, the spinning woman has simply draped rolags over the table but of course, those being stored ready to go may well have been in some sort of container on the hearth.
All being well we hope to have some of our basketmaker’s mudags at Masham Sheep Fair, for anyone who wants to buy one, made by a professional basket-maker from a long line of Yorkshire basketmakers. And over the winter will be making an Etsy or Folksy shop to sell these and some other handmade goods.
Visit us at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming, and LEARN TO KNIT PORTUGUESE-STYLE!
Portuguese knitters work with the yarn tensioned round their neck, or secured on a hook attached to the chest. No special equipment is needed, but you can use a knitting pin (as in the pictures, here).
Knit and purl stitches are both made with the yarn at front of the work. Come along & learn how!
Portuguese-style knitting is efficient and comfortable. You can use this technique to knit on two needles or in the round; ordinary, bog-standard everyday one colour knitting or stranded knitting with two or more colours. Everything on my Ravelry project pages was knitted using Portuguese style knitting; ganseys, Fair Isle, vintage style knits – the lot.
All you need to bring is a current single colour knitting project you have going, on its needles.
Learn from one of the UK’s few experienced Portuguese-style knitters, (me!)