Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Musings from my spinning wheel

I've reached the point in my spinning where I can sit and do it for many minutes without stopping.  I sit with roughly combed raw Shetland fleece on my lap and it all behaves and thin strong threads get wound onto the bobbin.  I can even pick off little lumpy bits as I go, and my drafting triangle actually looks like a triangle and I have a modicum of control over it.

I've realised that spinning must be like learning to play a brass instrument.  It is relatively easy and quick to get to a point where you can achieve something useful and recognisable and enjoy doing it, but then moving on and learning all the subtleties may take a lifetime.  I'm definitely in that first phase.  Yes, I'm creating a single ply yarn that is behaving as if it will nicely form a 2 ply yarn, but the thickness and amount and type of twist is definitely on my natural 'default' setting.  Depending on how the plied yarn changes when it is washed, it looks as if I'm going to end up with something about the thickness of Shetland jumper weight yarn, or what we Brits call 4-ply, but is of course just 2 single yarns plied together.  I remember reading something about why our knitting yarns have the names that they do - fascinating but complicated.  Perhaps the Americans are onto something with their term 'fingering' to describe this thickness of yarn, but then they mess up their system by using the term 'worsted', which actually means a 'type' of yarn, to describe a certain thickness of yarn.

Anyway, I sit there with my fingers learning how to create a nice drafting triangle and produce a consistent thickness of relatively smooth yarn, and my foot learning how to imperceptibly communicate with my hands to produce the appropriate speed, and part of my mind is free to wander.  Strangely I've not been thinking so much about forming a link with my female ancestors who would probably all have spun before about 1800, and some possibly later.  It might be because what I'm producing is probably about the standard of those women when they were young children and first learning how to spin on a spindle.

No, what I've been thinking about are the 3 generations of women before me, and the clothes they knitted and why they knitted them.  I'm the eldest of 4 children, so I have clear memories of my mother always having some knitting with her, and at any spare moment taking it up and making jumpers, cardigans and hats for us.  She didn't knit socks, and I think she may have knitted mittens, but not gloves.  She wouldn't have had time for those, since she was also a teacher and then headmistress, and worked full-time for most of her working life.  If we were travelling and Dad was driving, then Mum had her knitting.  While we had swimming lessons she was sitting at the side in that unpleasant warm humidity, knitting.  When I was a young child she did all this knitting because it was the cheapest way to clothe us in warm knitted garments.  It was utilitarian knitting, but done with creativity.

Just looking through the family photographs shows garment after garment that she or my Grandmother had knitted.  Here I am just a few months old, and I don't know which of them knitted this little lacy cardigan.  It does however look very similar to the cardigans that Grandma knitted for my own children.

This is in my bedroom, sitting next to a mural my father painted, a little older, but obviously about to grow out of the cardigan I'm wearing.  The cuffs are turned down fully, but the sleeves still don't reach my wrists.  That was one of the advantages of knitting garments.  They could be customised, and all of Mum's knitting had extra long sleeves with deep ribbing cuffs.  When we first got the sweater or cardi, the cuff would be turned back to the maximum, and the sleeve was probably still a bit on the long side.  As we grew, and in those days most children grew upwards more than they grew sideways, the cuff could be turned down less and then have no turn up at all.  That way the period of time for which a garment would fit could be significantly extended.

This must be one of my earliest nursery or school photographs with the cuffs at the 'turned back by half' stage.  This must have been a very utilitarian sweater, possibly even in a colour suitable for passing on down to my younger brother.  Most of the sweaters and cardigans Mum knitted for us had raglan sleeves, and she knitted the sleeves 2 together on the needle so there was only one lot of counting and both sleeves would be identical.

My maternal grandmother also knitted for us, and may well have knitted for Mum as well, but there aren't many photographs of Mum as a child and those we do have are of her in 'best' clothes so not much knitting to be seen.  My father's mother died when he was still a boy, so I don't even know if she knitted.  I suspect she did, if only for economy's sake.  I must ask one of my father's sisters, a woman who is a very accomplished knitter, who taught her how to knit.

What I do know though because Grandma mentioned it, and I've recently found a photograph, is that Grandma's mother knitted.  She needed to.  She gave birth to 20 children, although we think 5 were stillborn or died shortly after birth.  Her first pregnancy resulted in twin boys who were premature and died before they were 2 weeks old.  One of her other children, towards the end of her child bearing years, died as a toddler.  That left 12 children who reached adolescence, and Grandma would recite the names in order.  She was the youngest but 2.  The photograph shows 6 of the children, and I think I've identified them from the order of girls and boys.  After the twin boys died, she had a daughter and then 4 sons, and I think this photograph shows the next 6 children and must have been taken about 1920.

The boy on the left, in his suit, is Francis.  He died when he was just 17 having had his leg crushed in an accident at the colliery, and contracted osteomyelitis which killed him in those days before antibiotics.  The little girl next to him with long hair is my grandmother, Beatrice.  The next 3 children with short hair are actually girls from looking at their clothes.  I suspect there had been an outbreak of head lice, for which the treatment then involved cutting the hair.  The eldest girl at the back, Margaret, died when she was 21 during surgery for a brain tumour, the day after Francis died.  She had married when she was just 19, and had a 1 year old son when she died.  Her sweater looks rather small on her, and I suspect those long blouse cuffs are hiding the shortness of the sleeves.  Mary, the youngest is wearing a knitted dress with a collar of tatting.  I have one of the tatting collars my great grandmother made, but it's rather more elaborate than this one.  It's probable that the knitted dress had been passed down through some of the older sisters before Mary got it.

This family, the parents William Charles and Margaret Jane, experienced many of the significant social events of the late Victorian period going on into the first half of the 20th century.  Another of their sons also died in his teens of the Spanish Flu.  I'm pretty certain Meg didn't spin.  She was an amazing cook and I still use her recipes which were passed on to me through Grandma and Mum.  She raised Mum from the age of 2 to 15 after Grandma's divorce.  She didn't quilt either, although that was a common way for County Durham wives to provide bedding for the family and sometimes bring in a bit of extra money.  Grandma did remember that she made ragmats, either hooky or proggy, and the stair-runner was one such mat.  She also made many of the family's clothes, sewn and knitted.  William worked for most of his life at the colliery, although after the 1st World War when he served in France, in his early 40's, as a stretcher carrier, he stopped being a coal miner and became one of the colliery ambulance attendants.  I've heard a lot about Meg's life from my mother and grandmother.  It is hard to comprehend how hard such a life must have been, pregnant for much of her reproductive life, losing a number of her children, and having to provide for them all on a colliery worker's wage.
I wonder what she thought about when she knitted?

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Spinning - a really exciting event in my life captured in photographs

So you're one of my descendants checking out Great Grandma, or you've happened across this blog and seen it's about knitting and my female ancestors and what do you get - a first post about a difficult period in MY life, and then .......Spinning.

I'd better explain.  Last week I was in Stirling at the very first UK Knit Camp - hopefully the first of many.  Had a totally amazing, stimulating experience learning new skills, meeting lots of wonderful people from all round the world, turning an interest in rare and specific breed fibres into a passion, and taking my first steps into the world of spinning.

I had an afternoon in a beginners spinning class with Deb Robson.  Between the frequent yarn breakages and production of yarn thick enough to make a rope of, there were some very brief but peacefully ecstatic moments when it all came together.   I came home from Knit Camp with 4 fleeces in my car and the details of where to purchase my first wheel.  Choosing which wheel to get had been more straightforward than I'd anticipated.  There were a lot of experienced spinners around who were only too happy to talk wheels and I got to try a few.  One name kept cropping up, and when I tried one of them I knew this was the one for me.

First thing Monday the order was placed and then yesterday I got the phone call to say it would be arriving today.  Which is one reason why I was up to silly o'clock last night/this morning setting up and starting my blog, because I knew once the wheel arrived then the blog-birth might be postponed indefinitely.

Then, just before lunchtime this arrived.

The box, not the dog - she's a puppy spending her first year living with us.  This is a very perceptive puppy and the look on her face shows that she has sensed the enormity of the contents of the box, and is perhaps a tad apprehensive about the implications for her.

Husband was around - he'd been on 'post watch' while I did the morning training session with the puppy.  He seemed relieved when I said I'd take the wheel into the front room and assemble it by myself as part of the 'getting totally acquainted' process.  In fact so relieved that he went and sorted out all the tools the instruction leaflet told me I'd need.  I think he has some traumatic memories himself of 'us' with a box of bits from MFI or Ikea and an instruction leaflet that was either missing or written in Martian.

He needn't have feared - this was an Ashford Traditional Wheel from New Zealand, where they obviously have quite a different attitude towards instruction leaflets.  The diagrammatic instructions were actually clear and precise, and just before I got to the tricky bit I found there were also written instructions, in English (that's proper English, not translated from Chinese by a 5 yr old who can only speak Portuguese) that made things even clearer.

There was a bit towards the end that involved a bit of strength with a screwdriver, so I invited him into the front room and he agreed to demonstrate his superior muscle strength and prowess with a screwdriver - which he did beautifully, but he did prefer me to do the 'banging the pin into the crank hole with a hammer' bit, so that if the hammer slipped he wouldn't have to spend the rest of his life knowing that I had to look at the 'dent made by husband' in my wheel every time I used it.  He even managed a modicum of sincerity when I asked him if he didn't feel that the atmosphere in the front room was unusually calm for this sort of construction situation.

I should explain that some of my past encounters with putting things together have been exceedingly fraught and traumatic, so his caution is actually quite sensible.  Anyway, we ended up with a wheel that looked like the one I'd tried at Knit Camp, it's still daylight outside, and most importantly - there are no bits left over!

Puppy managed to slip back into the front room once the 'yet to be named' wheel was completed and decided to pose for the final triumphant photograph.

Knitting through adversity

I've kept this knitted vest for 20 years now.  I don't wear it any more, but I keep it safe and very occasionally I take it out and look at it, feel it, hold it next to my face and remember.

It was a project that started out with such excitement.  I'd created my own design using a Kaffe Fassett design as a starting point.  I still have, tucked into the back of the book, that original simple pencil drawn design.  We were living in Alberta, Canada at the time.  There for a year, husband in an exciting, challenging and time consuming job, and me in the tiny apartment with a toddler and a 3 year old and no friends.  I had a morning 'off', the car, my pencilled drawing and money to spend in the fantastic yarn shop across the city.  My inspiration for the yarns - the awesome, vast Alberta sky.

There I was in the yarn shop with my little pile of exciting yarns, some expensive silky ones, but I only needed one ball of each.  Escaping from a life that had its difficulties and totally absorbed in choosing my yarns, my paint palette for my sky-inspired vest.  The phone rang and one of the staff approached me.  It was my husband - could I come straight home, our son had hurt his leg and he needed to see a doctor.  My yarns were bundled up, the staff rushed them through the till and I drove home as quickly as I could.  There I discovered that my 3 yr old had fallen while playing in the apartment, trapping his knee as he fell, which twisted and fractured his femur.

Getting to the hospital is a blur.  Our daughter was left in the apartment with one of my husband's colleagues.  I remember my husband carrying our son into the hospital and then me being separated from them as I had to sort out the paperwork with our medical insurance.  This was a cruel shock to someone who had grown up with the NHS and no need to be kept from a screaming child.  There was initially some suspicion from the staff until the X-ray showed the unusual spiral fracture along the whole length of his femur that exactly matched the description of the accident.  Any other bone being fractured would have meant a plaster cast and taking him back home.  Fractured femur meant traction and a 4 week stay in hospital.

The first night was horrendous.  Husband had to go to work that night, daughter was in the apartment with one of husband's colleagues, I was in the hospital with our son who screamed for most of the night with pain from the fracture and muscle spasms.  I endured because I had to, but I don't know where I found the strength.  For the next few days there were some cultural difficulties and learning our way around a totally different health care system.  I lived in the hospital and our daughter joined me during the day while my husband was at work.  When I could I knitted.  I knitted up that sky coloured yarn that I'd been so joyously choosing while my son was breaking his leg.  I measured my day in rows, slow painstaking rows with 20 or more colours per row.

After a week our son was sleeping through the night so I started going home to sleep.  Every morning I bundled our daughter into the car and drove to the hospital, driving east across a bridge with the huge sky ahead of me, revealing to me my palette of colours to knit that day.  The morning skies and my knitting were my crutch through that month long ordeal.  As my son's bone knitted together so I knitted my vest.  At the end of the month the X-ray revealed that the traction which had chained him to his bed had done its job  After 4 weeks of knitting my vest was finished.  He couldn't walk, so he crawled.  He cried the first time we lowered him into a bath - after a month he was frightened of something that had been a nightly playtime of fun and laughter.  As we finally all drove home together he exclaimed at the bare trees.  When we had driven him to the hospital the trees had been covered with leaves.

A couple of days after we were all back home in the apartment, Kaffe Fassett came to the city to give a talk.  I'd booked my ticket weeks before, so off I went wearing my vest.  It was a good talk, wonderful images, inspiring and exciting.  I laughed when everyone else laughed.  I was normal again, a young mother with 2 children back at home, wearing a vest I had knitted, and in knitting had kept my strength and sanity.