‘Since the Bronze Age, much of Britain’s wealth has come from sheep’s fleece.’
This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History
By Esther Rutter
Published by Granta
Here’s a code I never cracked but you might. Have a go. UU/OOO, UOU/OUOO/UUOOUU/OOUUOO. Any ideas?
Once you’ve worked out that O is for over and U is for under and the slash means a turn or change in the needle direction, you might have worked out that what we are talking about are shorthand instructions for nålebinding. Nålebinding? you ask. Of course: any book about the British knitting that didn’t include nålebinding would be a poor book indeed. How else did you think the Vikings made socks?
Personally, I’ve got through my life so far without knowing anything about Viking socks or how to make them. Nor would I know where to find the kind of wool they’d use (Lopi yarn from Iceland’s only commercial wool producer, using lightly spun from flocks of sheep that hadn’t been interbred for a thousand years) or, to be honest, anything at all about Britain’s earliest knits. But I know somebody who does.
To Esther Rutter, writer in residence at St Andrews and author of This Golden Fleece, knitting a Viking sock with just one needle – because that’s what nålebinding is – was just another of the challenges she has set herself over the course of a year. Others included knitting her dad a gansey for his 70th birthday and a hap, or traditional shawl, for her first baby. Off to Thurso, Guernsey, and Cornwall, she goes to find out about fishermen’s ganseys, up to Shetland for the baby’s shawl (though she only finds out she’s pregnant while she’s there). These and all the other stops on her journey round Britain also knit together the past and the present, the social, historical and the personal, in an altogether engaging way.
In one sense, I’m the last person who should be reviewing this book: I’ve never knitted a stitch, know nothing about knitting techniques, or what is what is involved in, say, handloom weaving. The stitch-sliding trickery of ridge and furrow cabling for her dad’s gansey, the wrist ache involved in using heavy 15mm needles – such things will be forever unknown to me, just like the entire syllabus of the MA in knitwear at Heriot-Watt. So how does a book like this even appeal to knitting ignoramuses like me?
The framing device of a monthly chaptered quest helps, but Rutter also tells the reader just enough about herself to make it more than just an abstract search for knowledge: we have, after all, to care about this person whom we’re following round Britain, and she emerges as a genuinely nice person. This balance can be a difficult one – too much of the personal stuff and you wouldn’t be able to see the wool for the ego, too little and the non-knitter loses interest – but Rutter (just like Clare Hunter on needlework in Threads of Life earlier this year) gets it absolutely spot-on.
Whatever aspect of the story she is dealing with, Rutter usually offers a historical overview, fusing it with a more specific piece of social history, and usually adding her own description of learning a relevant skill. To take one example, writing about the wool industry in the Borders, she touches all the requisite bases (the Border abbeys, the Cheviot breed, Hawick, Pringle etc) but she’s soon off making her own discoveries such as meeting the world’s only hand-frame knitting apprentice, or and heading to Nottingham to find out more about Luddism. Back in Hawick, she takes in latest knitwear designs, talks to a retired knitwear mechanic, a knitwear designer and, with a nod to the town’s swimwear exporting past, decides to knit the nearest thing she can to an “itsy-bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka dot bikini”.
This loose framework gives her the freedom to roam: she’s good on knitting’s links with language and literature, but is particularly strong on its role in social history. Did you know, for example, that funeral stockings – the ones people were buried in – used to be given as wedding presents or as gifts to children (thanks, mum) until as recently as the 20th century? Or that knitting, at least in Cornwall, Yorkshire, Wales and the Channel Islands, wasn’t a gender-divided occupation? Or that in west Wales, groups of women would often spend a couple of weeks at a time wandering the country gathering wool from hedgerows? I didn’t.
And yet wool and knitting is a hardly niche subject, at least in these islands. Male historians may have downplayed its importance, bur it’s easy to see how wrong they were. Take the Vikings. How do you think they got here? Weaving the 85 square metre sails of their ships required 165,000 metres of yarn, or the fleece of 2,000 sheep. A single sail took two whole years to make.
Wool remained central to English and Scottish history: in the Middle Ages, it was easily our biggest industry. The best quality fleeces were to be found in the Cotswolds, though the vast and richly ornamented churches of Suffolk (where Rutter grew up next to a sheep farm) are also testament to the wealth wool brought there too. Centuries before the Industrial Revolution powered up the wool mills of my home town of Bradford, wool brought England out of disaster. When England’s king Richard was captured in 1192, the enormous ransom of 150,000 silver marks (the equivalent of £2 billion in today’s money) was mainly provided by the sale of the Cistercians’ entire wool crop. The Cistercians were big wool men wherever they went: in 14th century Melrose, for example, the abbey’s flock alone numbered 17,000.
Nearly all of these riches are gone now. Fleeces are no longer golden when, on the international market, their price can drop to as little as 10p. But the world of wool is, Rutter shows, an entirely intriguing subculture. It is the mark of a good writer that they can communicate their own fascination, and maybe even spread it, and this debut book marks her out as a non-fiction writer worth following. Essentially, knitting is about making something from – well, if not nothing, then at least something you could hardly imagine creating anything from – a grey, greasy clump of raw wool. It’s about spending time and providing memories and, usually (because most knitters don’t knit for themselves) providing a gift of love. And even though I’ll never sample the joys of Shetland Wool Week, spin a fresh raw fleece or, ever learn to knit, at least I can understand that.
This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History by Esther Rutter is published by Granta, priced £16.99.