July 02, 2003

Traditional Knitting, by Michael Pearson

Recently a knitting friend of mine died after a mercifully short bout of cancer, naming me in her will to inherit her spinning wheels and anything of her books and yarn stash that I wanted. What a gruesome task. I'd known her for years from our monthly knitting group meetings, workshops and conferences we attended together. I still can't believe she's gone.

However, she left me this stuff to enjoy, read and use, not to pine over or treasure as a relic so after a week or two of avoiding the pile in my fiber room, I dug in. This was one of the few books she had that I hadn't managed to collect myself and I gobbled it right up in a couple sittings.

It's not a pattern book exactly though it has some patterns in it. It's essentially a compilation of oral histories about the knitting tradition in the fishing communities of the eastern coast of Britain. Sweaters called "ganseys" were knit by the women of the communities for their menfolk in the fishing industry and to sell on commission for a pittance to dealers as a means of getting some income to stretch out the little money they had to live on. The sweaters were traditionally made of a 5 ply fine wool in dark, navy blue with knit/purl patterning on them, usually only from the chest up since the stomach area was covered by heavy overalls worn to keep the seawater out. They were often knit with three quarter length sleeves to prevent the saltwater and wool from irritating and infecting the wrists. And each knitter had a distinctive pattern she knit or each community had its own set of patterns that defined it.

There are several books on this subject that talk of much the same thing in Cornwall. What makes Pearson's book so special is that he went into the archives of the historical societies of the small towns and got photos of the fishermen, the women on the quay knitting and the children knitting on the sleeves or plain bottoms to help with the family income. There are old photos of women gutting and packing herring after the boats have come in and the same women sitting on the empty barrels waiting for the catch, knitting. Pearson sought out the old people in the towns and villages to see if they had specimens left from those knitters and then copiously copied the patterns and took pictures of them. And he points out that these women were not engaged in some charming folk activity but were pushing starvation back from the hearth. The kids in the pictures often have a pinched, hungry look about them.

It's an interesting book filled with marvelous pictures and inspiring stories.

Posted by Deb English at July 2, 2003 07:13 PM

Miriam COATALEN said:

The pattern book you are mentioning seems extremely interesting. Would you please be kind enough to give me the references (and, if possible, also the references of the other cornish books you mention).
I'm French and very interested in the history of ganseys and in the photographs of the time. If there is anything I can do for you from France, please let me know...
Merci par avance

Deb said:

Miriam, I cant get the site to give me your address--send me one at debknits@mhtc.net and I will reply!


Michael Pearson said:

A year has past since your comments on traditional knitting... but a friend of mine sent me an email noting your observations. I want to thank you for the positive - and touching way you describe the discovery and the reading of my book.

I intend to review the possibility of a re-issue with an additional chapter or two about recent developments - social history surrounding the craft etc. (plus a few patterns which I have which I did not include in the first book.

Yes it has been a long time - I have a different life - in Australia where I lecture in design.
The recent upsurge in knitting interest, the recent conference which was held at Curtin University, (www.thespacebetween.org.au) and comments like yours has inspired me to dust off the pages and re-evaluate my contribution to the genre. I thank you for that spark of energy that has illuminated a corridor of my life which I have not visited for some time.