Snow On Snow

The Knitter, 131. © The Knitter, 2018


The most recent one in my series of pieces about nineteenth century designers/knitting manual writers is out in ‘The Knitter’ 131. It’s about the Yorkshirewomen, the Ryder sisters – another sister act, like the West Country’s Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin.  In all these pieces I’ve tried to uncover new or previously unpublished  information about my targets – enjoy!

Meanwhile, on the blog, I’ll be turning my attention to eighteenth century tape looms (British and American) and showing you a beautiful Georgian temple, a blog reader brought along to the Masham Sheep Fair, this year, to show us.

I’ll also be documenting the our 1770s’ English tape loom as well as my reproduction ‘Mifflin’ loom made by the brilliant Paul Parish; and writing a little about inkle and tape-weaving for living history.  (I can’t find anyone in the UK currently making these, but Paul will ship them to the Britishers – message/email me if you’d like his details).

Rare English 1770s’ fruitwood tape loom, from Derbyshire Peak District. Needs some restoration.
Nalbinded hat in Oslo stitch with ‘Little Dragons’ tape border.


We have nalbinding kits here, for anyone interested – a very brief ‘How To’ booklet, alongside some British wool and a shorter-than-most horn or boxwood nalbinding needle – because for many, it is easier to learn with a short needle.

I’ve been busy lately nalbinding, tape-weaving and knitting up a storm.


Next year I’ve got some slight departures coming up in pieces for some US magazines – including a nalbinding How To for neo-nalbinders, and a piece about an incredible craft-related item from, of all things, the Donner Party. I never said I wasn’t eclectic!  I’ve long been fascinated by the history of the Old West – especially the Yorkshire card sharps and sharp-shooters, the Thompson brothers,  (whose lives were slightly more colourful than the sedate Ryder sisters’, has to be said), and occurences like the Fetterman incident and the Donner Party.

Talking of snow; I decided to put my money where my mouth is, re. knitting being political, and the Quintillion Snowflake Hat (for snowflakes) is the result.  It uses 5 ply gansey but am about to test it in DK.  It’s an eco friendly hat because it uses up leftovers of yarn and is a weird Fair Isle/Gansey mash-up.  So it’s been a busy few weeks, with the nalbinding, weaving and hat sample knitting.  Lots of new things to look forward to, dear Reader.


Quintillion Snowflakes Hats




Like most Europeans, I had more than one ancestor killed in World War One.  Today I found my photos of one of them.  He died just over 100 years ago – my dad spoke of him when we were growing up, and his other uncle who died in 1917.


I thought it was very instructive to put the two photos of my grandma’s brother side by side.  Same young man, probably the same uniform, same hat. And maybe only two years’ difference, between the shots.  My grandma is the little girl on the right of the photo.  She adored her older brother, I was told. I can’t imagine how it must have felt, the day the family got that telegram.   There was no body found, no grave for anyone to visit.  Most of William’s colleagues lasted a few months in this unit. He lasted several years.  He is one of the names on the memorial at Soissons Cathedral. I’ve never been able to afford to go there so have never seen it. One day I’d love to.

My oldest son was born on a Remembrance Sunday and we gave him William’s name.

What I’ve always found striking is that you would think two decades not two years, had passed, between these two images being taken.  One is a boy; one looks like a tough, middle aged man.  I wonder if it’s the same hat in both photos?  The second picture is pierced round wonkily with a pin, and has his name written in ink, on the back and something my dad was told was a bloodstain. It does look possible.

Gunner William Boothman, Royal Artillery, X Battery trench mortars, (“suicide squad”), number: 107649.  He was my great grandparents’ oldest son.  He joined up the same day as his cousin, of the same name, also from Leeds.  The other William survived the war.


Politicians (donkeys) still sacrifice lions.  So – lest we forget.  Here is one of the faceless many.


Work For Idle Hands

Coming up to the final stretch, so to speak, writing the next book – which is going to be about the darker side of textile history.  At the moment, I have pieces coming out about the early writers of knitting manuals, which is slightly more cheerful territory. But I’m currently researching something much darker and so thought I’d share this snippet (image from a later period, but it gives you the gist).


Pre-Victorian, but full of the later nineteenth century belief that “the devil makes work for idle hands”, etc.  Whilst men were used in chain gangs, stone-breaking or road improving, or oakum picking (recycling tarry rope fibres); women were put to the task of sewing endless linen shirts, knitting stockings, or spinning line (flax).   Which shows you how soul-destroyingly boring they thought these tasks to be.  And also, how “improving” or “character building”.


From “The Morning Post”, (London), Monday, August 11th, 1817;

The system adopted by MRS FRY and the association which she has formed for reclaiming and improving the condition of the female prisoners of Newgate, has been eminently succesful. Within a period of little more than three months the women and girls have made nearly 4000 shirts, &c. They have knitted 220 pairs of socks and stockings, and have lately commenced the spinning of flax. The amelioration in their morals has kept pace with their progress in the habits of industry…

Almost twenty years on, Dickens was to describe a visit to Newgate in ‘Sketches By Boz’ (1836). He mentioned a piece of ‘pasteboard’ (cardboard) with quotes from the scriptures, propped against a wall in the dining hall.  Moral improvement seemed the aim.

He watched some of the women at lunch,  noting that one or two of them immediately picked up and resumed “needlework” after eating.  Dickens contrasted the women’s side of the prison where women seemed to be working, and purposeful – to the men’s where they “sauntered” around looking bored. So it seems Elizabeth Fry’s influence could still be felt twenty or more years on.

Check out The Knitter, Issue 129, for my latest piece on knitting history.  There are some more bits of knitting history coming up in ‘The Knitter’ so stay tuned – and I’m currently working on a very exciting bit of research on a Very Famous Incident, for a U.S. magazine – details next year, when it’s out.

1862. Female convicts at work in Brixton prison. By Mayhew & Binny. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

” A pair of stockings one of them with the needles in it…”

Gorgeous, probably British, pink waistcoat (not worm-eaten!) CREDIT: Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Currently working on my new book – a sort of horrible histories for people who like textile history.

And I found this source, a book about the extant records of a York pawn shop. I haven’t yet been to see the primary source, but have been working on some very similar, previously unpublished sources, I uncovered in various archives.

18thC or 19thC printed linen, own collection. Many workaday clothes were made from this kind of fabric.


George Fettes was an Edinburgh man who ran a pawnshop in the late 1770s on Lady Peckett’s Yard in York.

Pawnbrokers’ records, like debtors’, are often a fascinating insight into the lives (and clothing) of ordinary folk. In ‘The Worm-Eaten Waistcoat’, (self published, York, 2003), Alison Backhouse gave a compelling glimpse into late eighteenth and early nineteenth century York and its denizens.

Pawnbrokers could sell any items that weren’t redeemed by the deadline. Although Fettes seems to have been a lenient man, often overlooking his own deadlines.

A glimpse into the Pledge Book 1777-8 shows that some customers were frequent flyers, like Mary Metcalfe of Walmgate who pledged gloves 25 times. She was probably a glove maker, pawning her own stock, to survive in business.

Occupations of pledgers varied and include: a joiner, dyer, a travelling woman, a chandler, a Trumpeter 11th regiment (York was full of soldiers; often garrisoned randomly in pubs in the city centre); , “the deaf woman”, – a “quack doctor”. Pledgers came from beyond the city walls, as well. Poor Betty Bridgewater travelled twenty miles from Kilburn with a counter pane, “very much worm eaten”.

Kind-hearted Mr Fettes seems to have even taken in “worm-eaten” textiles.  Which tells us something about him, but also the fact that they maybe still had some intrinsic value; textiles being so hard to produce that the vast majority of the population were walking round in secondhand clothing.

A silver watch was pawned by the marvellously named Pendock Vame; an apprentice with Mr Firth of Coney St for 15 shillings on 18.7. 1777. The watch was redeemed but later sold because it was pawned again by John Turner of North St on 17th of November.  Some of the clothing pawned was surprisingly personal.  One common item of clothing often pawned were stays.

My stays, copies of c. 1790s-1800. Silk, lined with linen. Hand-sewn. Luceted handspun silk ties.

Here are just some glimpses of the clothes of eighteenth century York.

Hannah Priestley of Aldwark, on 14th July, 1777, accepted 11s 2d for 4 1/2 yds of new cloth, one new checked handkerchief, three pieces of new cloth, one checked apron, one cap and a pair of sleeves” (40)

On 2 Aug she was back with 12 s 1d worth of business:

one washing gown, one new tea kettle, one flannel petticoat, the yards of check, four yds if flannel also a Silk Petticoat Quilted.

Weirder items included:

A bird net

[pledged by Sarah Hill of Little Shambles, 21/11/77]

1 pair of black everlasting breeches,

[Pledge by Thomas Callis out of Micklegate Bar 13/11/78. “Everlasting” appears to have been a thick, maybe boiled woollen fabric, also used for sailors’ coats].

A glimpse inside a pair of stays. Wooden busk. I didn’t bother to match the lining – which is what you often see with 18thC clothing’s linings. Holes for ties all hand-sewn. These would be worth pawning in the 1790s.

For the knitters:

1 child’s gown and a pair of stockings 1 of them with the needles in it,

Pawned by Elizabeth Firth of North St in 1778 – they were pawned for a shilling and a penny, and they were unclaimed (43).

North Street was by the river and where many watermen and their families, of varying degrees of prosperity, would have lived. My favourite ancestor’s second marriage was at the church in North Street in the 1820s. All Saints has possibly the best medieval stained glass in York, even including the Minster – complete with zombies. Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

According to Alison Backhouse: “Saturday was the busiest day of the week for receiving pledges” (45) Followed by Mondays. These were also the busiest days for redemption of pledges; suggesting York weekends were quite fun.

1542 of the pledges were for just one shilling (5p) – 14% of the total number of pledges. A quarter of items would never be redeemed.

George Fettes sold unredeemed items by auction.

18thC or 19thC printed linen from my collection.

The Worm-Eaten Waistcoat, Alison Backhouse, self pub, 2003, York

Weaving Full Circle


Jonathan Seidel card loom with inkle weaving, draft from Laverne Waddington’s Complementary Warp Pick-Up book

I was very excited to contribute a picture of my new Jonathan Seidel loom to Laverne Waddington’s fantastic Backstrap Weaving blog, a few days ago. Picture can be found here:

Stoorstalka ‘Sunna’ heddle. For Sami weaving. This is a wide one! On Schacht inkle loom from Loch Ness Spindle Co.  The warp is still being set up, here. Smaller slots are for pattern (red) threads.

I’m currently learning inkle pick-up techniques, and have been switching between Susan J. Foulkes’ helpful info, and Laverne’s.  Susan’s books are mainly on Sami weaving which has a slightly different structure to Laverne’s  South American pick-up techniques. So I use different heddles – the beautiful horses one, below, is quite versatile, but I enjoy using the Sunna heddle(above)  for Sami weaving.

Heddle from Vavkompaniet:

I’ve been using the bands for all kinds of things; from a waistband tie for an 1800s’ linen petticoat, to straps for my bike bag, to impromptu hinges for the clothes horses. And just been enjoying the weaving.


Inkled hinges for clothes horse and waistband for linen petticoat (woollen band so I will replace with linen soon)

I always think it is aimless, fun weaving and then part way through, think of a pressing need for that particular band. Which is wonderful as it shows what a pragmatic thing this weaving is. You don’t need much equipment taking up loads of space. Between the Schacht and the Seidel looms I can do a great range of bands, and they seem to be permanently warped, with one thing or another, so are good value for money.

Saddle-bag straps


Have also booked onto this workshop  on Japanese Sanada-Himo band, at the Oriental Museum in Durham, with Susan J. Foulkes, later in the year.  Yet another rabbit-hole I’ve fallen down (an old one I’ve fallen down before) but aren’t those the best rabbit-holes?  band weaving is a window into various cultures; both universal, and a product of specific worlds. I am enjoying broadening my horizons a bit as so much of my work has been focused on the UK, it is good to get an insight into the wider world’s textile arts, too. As Billy Bragg said: “What do they know of England, that only England knows?” When I get back to researching in reserve collections and looking at textiles; woven bands  and ribands, will be a new thing I will keep an eye out for.


I started out inkle weaving because I couldn’t afford a ‘proper’ loom and ended up inkle weaving because I wanted to downsize and just get back to the basics of my craft (selling a wheel and a rigid heddle loom to finance this particular rabbit-hole). Like a continuous warp – it’s gone full circle.

Card loom by Jonathan Seidel. One of a handful in the UK. Using an old heddle I bought many years ago at a re-enactors’ fair. This is my first attempt at a pattern draft from Laverne Waddington’s ‘Complementary Warp Pick Up’ book.


Wool Sort 102 – Selecting Good Wool

Castlerigg stone circle, Cumbria. Where we went after Woolfest.

It’s the start of the season with freshy shorn fleece for sale, so I thought now is a good time to cover wool selection.

It’s been a few years since I went on about wool sorting. To my surprise, ‘Woolsort 101’ is still one of the most visited posts on this blog, so I decided to revisit it – today with the emphasis on wool selection. I won’t repeat myself re. wool sorting here, so refer to the old post if you’re new to this.  Info on what you’re actually looking for – things like, checking for soundness, etc, are there.

Bassenthwaite Lake, where we had lunch after Woolfest.

Woolfest on Friday. I came back with three fleeces – all to scour, but one maybe to overdye. All three were grey. One, a very, very pale grey Shetland I bought from Adelaide Walker. I have had many Shetland fleeces over the years, but this is one of the nicest. I unrolled it yesterday and it turned out to be very well skirted and well rolled. Then a Ryeland/Shetland cross, from a sheep called Rosie, who belongs to Maureen Brittan in Stafforshire –  thanks farmer, I always love to know the sheep’s name and so rarely do but of course, most of them are just Mrs Ewe,or Sheep 506, as farm stock they won’t often have names – we punters like it, though. And finally, a  Ryeland from Vickie Haddock, near Penrith in Cumbria.

I wanted coloured short wools. Although there weren’t even close to the number of top quality fleeces at Woolfest, as you can find at Masham every year – I swooped in early Friday morning, to get the best possible. That’s another good tip. If you want raw wool, try and get to the first day of a two day show. Another pointer is, go with a firm idea of what you want/need to be prepared to be swayed if you see something unusual/fabulous. Ever since someone gave me some Wensleydale/Shetland cross, I have been on the hunt for what I call Weird Cross Fleece. If I see WCF and it is sound – I pounce.

Shetland fleece, still rolled.

Incidentally – that’s a point. An agricultural show where farmers are showing their very best stock, is a good place to get great fleeces. The show winning ones are, of course, premium but not always spoken for. I did, only once, manage to get a Best in Show fleece from Masham Sheep Fair(Cheviot).
We met some woolly pals at Woolfest, including the wonderful Ellie from the Doulton Flock of Border Leicesters. I’ll be posting later in the year when Ellie has the lambs sheared, as we hope to visit and pick out a fleece. I’ve never chosen one ‘on the hoof’ so it will be interesting to see if Ellie thinks I choose the best one! So, look out for that post. For now, here is Sam the Ram Lamb. His mum didn’t want to be in the shot.

Doulton Flock’s Sam.
Shetland fleece, unrolled.

I am not a fan of longwools, usually – because I can’t comb wool, and don’t have the patience to learn when I can buy commercial tops. I love the way they look (lustre!) and spin, and I really love the way they dye; just don’t want to process them. But have recently fallen down the braid-weaving rabbit-hole, which I do around every few years, so want to spin something that will weave up nice braids.  Incidentally, met the Braid Society at Woolfest and now intend to join.  What a lovely, friendly group of people.

Which is the other point – these days it is easy to buy wool in person. There are wool shows popping up everywhere. (I remember when it was all fields round here). There are agricultural shows – and if you’re a spinner who has never got to one – a big recommend. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust sell fleece and of course, many local yarn stores now also carry fibre. Some traders act as sort of clearing houses to deal with nice fibre that would otherwise be unsold, and your humble mule, cross or meat sheep may also occasionally have a lovely fleece that shouldn’t be overlooked.

When I started spinning in 1984, all we had was the British Wool Marketing Board. You bought sight unseen from a narrow list of sheep breeds’ wool. I was extremely, unusually lucky almost every time. My first fleece was a Cheviot and, looking back, I now think it must have been great quality. I probably only ever had a slightly dodgy (as in kempy, and old looking wool) fleece once and that was a Jacobs, which is notoriously inconsistent, anyway. I still buy and love Cheviot today. Although Ryeland, which we couldn’t get easily then, is now probably my go-to shortwool, along with a local flock’s Norfolk Horn.

Here’s something shocking. In 1984, we’d pay around a fiver for a fleece. You can still get them for six quid or so, depending on the wool and who is selling. I still frequently pay even less than five pounds, if I buy a few at once.

Now I rarely buy sight unseen. I made that mistake a couple of months back as I needed some longwool for braid weaving and didn’t want to wait for Woolfest or the British Wool Show. So I bought from a farmer who ended up taking almost a month to send me the wool, only after I chased it up a couple of times by which time I might as well have waited for Woolfest. And, if I’m honest, comparing the wool I bought sight unseen to the fleeces at Woolfest from the same breed – Lincoln longwool – I wish I hadn’t bothered. Mine is flat, lumpen, not crimpy like the ones I saw and also got some straw which as VM goes in fleece, is one of the easier things to deal with – but at that price, I would rather not bother. I’m still on the lookout for some top end Lincoln longwool – as I’ve coveted it ever since we did a workshop/talk at the South Lincolnshire Guild, a few months back – on the way there, we fell in love with the landscape of South Lincs and I’d love some wool to remember it by!

Which brings me to the next point re. wool selection. Go to shows and even if you’re not buying; educate yourself. Use the opportunity of loads of fleeces in a small space, to learn about them, compare and contrast and just soak up all the info you can from simply looking and touching the fibre.

Vendor’s label on one of the fleeces I bought. Rosie’s fleece! Most of the wool we sell is very local to us so environmentally sound. But at a wool show, we can buy from further afield.

Take notes or better still, sneaky photos.  Also, record what you buy so you can remember later. Sounds obvious but I have been doing this stuff for years and still fall down on that one.


Impromptu wool drying rack. Light enough to cart round the garden and move to sun spot. Sunlight kills some pathogens on wool. All our wool is dried in the sunlight.

Yesterday I washed the Shetland from Adelaide Walker. I use a secondhand little plastic twin tub, meant for caravans and run an extension cable out into the garden which means I only wool wash on sunny days. It’s adequate but I think I need something bigger and better, like a ‘proper’ old twin tub – soon! Then we made a new, impromptu fleece drying stand as fleece prefers to dry with its weight supported. Leftover chicken wire cable tied to an old shelving unit, did the trick. Not pretty but it works.

Last tip on wool selection… if someone is unrolling a fleece to inspect it – watch them. Or rather, look at the wool. At Masham, the other year, I had an interesting experience, as I was after a certain colour Shetland, and there weren’t many left by the time I got to the fleece sale tent.

A woman pipped me to a fleece I’d have liked. I watched her unroll it to inspect, lurking just in case she didn’t want it – which, as I watched her unroll it, I realised wasn’t likely as it was a stunning looking fleece. It looked fine; like lace curtains letting the light through when she held it up to the light – exactly what you’d want to see. And even from a few metres away, I could tell it was (if it had no breaks and wasn’t funky or something) a very, very nice fleece indeed. She unrolled it, inspected it, then pulled a face… and put it back. I had a quick check for soundness but could see it was one of the nicest Shetlands I’ve seen… Reader, I bought it. Not everyone knows what they’re doing – but you can.

Leo the Lion, a solstice visitor to Castlerigg stone circle. He has a shrine!

“Knitting Isn’t Political”?

The Peterloo Massacre By Richard Carlile (1790–1843) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  A blue banner saying ‘Liberty and Fraternity’ is still extant.  See here:
Anyone in the fibre arts world would have to have been living under a rock, in the past week, to have missed the delicious controversy, involving a certain orange buffoon, here:


Reading through the comments, one point made by the pattern’s detractors, really got my interest.

Knitting isn’t political.

Yes, right.

Textiles have always been interwoven with political life and dyed deeply with partisan  lifeblood, like it or not.  We can see our humble textile arts as a sort of retreat and escapism from daily life; or a way of engaging with those things that trouble, impact or interest us.  We can also see it as both, at different times in our lives, as those things – escapism and engagement with reality – wax and wane.

But knitting isn’t political? Where to start?

Not just knitting, but all textiles are political. Revolutionary hats, tricoteurs, defying the stranglehold on economies and textile industries by the British Empire with a movement advocating homespun (America, India),  the Rational Clothing movement that segued into suffrage for women,  Garibaldi’s red shirts being dyed in the Yorkshire Dales, English Civil War and American Revolutionary Wars standards; in fact, banners and flags of any nation at any given time in history… Not political?

And then there was my own historical passion – the Luddites. At the height of the Peninsular War (and the Luddite rebellion), there were more soldiers posted to protect mills from attack here in Yorkshire, than there were soldiers stationed in the entire Peninsular, fighting the War. Textiles, on every level, whether mass produced or homemade, are always political.

Knitting has always been as intertwined with political life, as any other kind of textile.

From the banners at Peterloo, to the sea-green green ribbons worn as armbands by the Levellers, to the French Revolution’s “Sea Green Incorruptible” Robespierre, to the charka wheel, symbol of Gandhi, and beyond, the fabric of life is the fabric of protest.

Published in May 1812 by Messrs. Walker and Knight, Sweetings Alley, Royal Exchange. This cartoon may have been satirical.  Luddites sometimes  disguised themselves; although usually not in this way. Their ‘otherness’ to the establishment,  made fairly clear, here.  Via Wiki Commons.