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?

1 comment:

  1. I loved your post! And your photos!
    Kisses from Portugal