Purl power: Why I quit my job to knit my way around Ireland and Britain
My deceptively simple hobby can sooth ills, combat injustice, even change the world
Relaxation response: Esther Rutter in a hand-knitted bikini
In 2017 I packed in my job and set myself the challenge of knitting my way around Britain and Ireland. I’d been knitting since I was a child, and I loved this handy, portable hobby that could be fitted around the rest of life, squeezed into my bag and brought out as a companion to an evening in front of the television, or to make long train journeys slip by more quickly. But I’d never given much thought to the whys and wherefores of knitting; to the people, culture and economy that shaped the yarns and patterns that I turned into hats, jumpers, gloves and scarves.
All this changed with a Christmas present. Inside a paper bag bearing the tag “Love from Mum” were four balls of Shetland heritage wool, ranging from white through dove grey to charcoal and a deep, peaty black. But unlike the yarns I usually knitted with – cheap, brightly coloured and superwash-treated for laundering ease – these took pride in their obvious wooliness. Their fierce haloes of fibres reached out towards me like an invitation – and a challenge.
Within knitting’s deceptively simple knit-and-purl lies the potential for soothing ills, strengthening communities, and speaking out
Armed with these bundles of yarn and a set of double-pointed needles, I decided to turn detective. For each month of the year I would learn how to knit a different historic garment from around the UK and Ireland, unearthing the story behind them and their makers as I went.
My first task was to re-create a pair of intricately patterned black and white gloves, hand-knitted in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1920s and now on display in the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere, Cumbria. Fifty kilometres to the southeast of Grasmere, Dentdale had a centuries-long tradition of commercial hand-knitting. Immortalised as “the Terrible Knitters e’ Dent” in Robert Southey’s tale of the same name, Dentdale’s knitters were known for their speed and skill – “terrible” meaning impressiveness.
In these sheep-farming valleys, many families supplemented their household income with proceeds from the sale of their hand-knitting. Over time, a special style of knitting developed to maximise speed while maintaining quality. Dales knitters moved to and fro with a swaying loll, known as swaving, caused by lifting the right arm to strike the loop on the left needle quickly and accurately, before slipping the wool over and the stitch off. Knitters sang as they plied the needles, repeating rhymes and ditties which, like rope-hauling seamen’s shanties, helped them to concentrate on their monotonous work. The original maker of these gloves, Mary Allen, was one of the last women in a 500-year tradition to earn her living by hand-knitting.
As I worked on the delicate diamonds that pattern the back of the gloves, I wanted to know more about these Yorkshire knitters as people. What were their stories, and how did they feel about their knitting? Today, little is known about them as individuals, but the textile historian Penelope Hemingway has discovered the story of one 19th-century Dentdale knitter who was admitted to York’s Quaker-run asylum, the Retreat.
Trawling through the asylum’s admission books, Hemingway discovered Margaret Thwaite, a farmer’s daughter who first came to the Retreat in the 1830s. Although Margaret was one of several siblings, she and her mother Ann lived together in an isolated cottage, away from their family and the rest of the world. When they were admitted to the Retreat, Ann was “in a state of mental excitement chiefly connected with religious subjects”, and Margaret herself was “frantic”.
As the years passed, Margaret remained in the Retreat, save for a brief release in her 20s. She was encouraged to knit, but though her doctor’s notes remark that she knitted “with a piece of string and pieces of wool and needles”, the result was “only a tangle”. But more than this: ‘If she cannot get anything to employ herself in this manner she rubs her hands together all day long till she rubs the skin off. Then she rubs away at the sore.”
By 1882, Margaret was nearing 70 and often had “a piece of tape or string and bit of wood in her hands”, with which she would go “through the manoeuvre of making a stitch in knitting, immediately dropping the stitch”. This was then “incessantly repeated”. Five years later, she was still sitting “all day long playing with a piece of string and wood”. She died in 1900, at the age of 85, having spent 64 years mimicking the motions of knitting in the Retreat.
Although knitting can be learnt from books, most knitters have the craft passed on to them in person. Through a relation, friend or neighbour, we are handed down our crafty DNA in the form of DK yarn, an abbreviation for “double knitting”. DK is often our first shibboleth – this type of yarn is light enough for inexpert fingers to handle easily but sufficiently thick to soon show progress.
The person who taught me to knit was the mother of my childhood best friend, more aunt than acquaintance. The daughter of a German woman who moved to Britain after the war, Suzanne filled her house with fabrics, books and pictures with a glamorous European flavour. Inspired by her heritage, she made my best friend beautiful hats, jumpers and dresses patterned with brilliant colourwork.
But she also had bipolar disorder. As a child, I was confused and frustrated by her changes in mood; sometimes she was frantic, talking in rhyme and exhausting with her energy. Other times, months passed when she could hardly leave the house. Through both, knitting was her steadfast companion.
While knitting alone could not cure Margaret or Suzanne, the potential for it to provide distance from mental or physical discomfort is well documented. In 2007, a study by Harvard Medical School’s Mind and Body Institute showed that knitting reduced participants’ heart rates by an average of 11 beats per minute, lowered blood pressure and lessened muscle tension. This was the same “relaxation response” observed when people did yoga or diaphragmatic breathing.
But more than this, it appears that knitting can help to lessen the after-effects of traumatic experience. In April 2004, a group of researchers from Cambridge University’s MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit examined the function of performing repetitive tasks to reduce people’s likelihood of flashbacks after experiencing trauma (in this study, video footage of car crashes). They concluded that those who engaged in activities like knitting suffered fewer flashbacks than those who did not.
What is it about knitting that can act as a kind of psychiatric guide or balm? Certainly, there is the repetition of familiar movements, but there is also the joy of creativity, the satisfaction in making, the immersion in a task that delights, occupies and challenges. For once we have mastered the basics, knitting is as simple or complex as we want it to be, as challenging or relaxing as we require. It demands of us only what we can give, and never minds being set aside for months, or finished furiously in an afternoon.
Rather than a salve, it is an individually tailored creative spur, a way of both shaping and communicating with the world. Knitted items comfort and warm; they can also speak. Their handmade-ness articulates love, time, effort and skill, given willingly by one person to another.
In this, knitting is not just a cosy hobby but a powerful tool that connects and communicates. Despite knitting’s old-lady-by-the-fire image, in reality it is as varied, vivid and alive as the millions of people across the world who wield their pins.
The invention of knitting machines precipitated the Luddite rebellions of the 19th century; knitters became icons of the French Revolution in the form of les tricoteuses; and the concept of “craftivism” continues to be at the forefront of political debate around issues of race, equality and environmentalism. In 2017 pink Pussyhats marched into the public eye in protest against the politics of Donald Trump, every one of them a hand-knitted symbol of resistance.
Within knitting’s deceptively simple knit-and-purl lies the potential for soothing ills, strengthening communities and speaking out. When consciously applied, knitting can – and already has – changed the world.
Esther Rutter is the author of This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History, published by Granta Books