The theme for this series of Sticks & String is knitting through history. Now, by theme I don’t mean that every show will be about some historical aspect of knitting, I mean that knitting through history will be the idea I have at the back of my mind when I’m planning each show, but don’t expect a thorough academic discussion of textile history.
When I started writing this essay I began to think about why knitting was important, and came to the conclusion that in the global scheme of things, hand knitting isn’t important. To individuals, however, it can be of immense importance. Those of us who knit regularly know how important it is, both to us, and to those who get the finished products. Knitting is much bigger than just ourselves or the group of people with whom we knit, or who end up dressed or using our handcrafts. Knitting links us through time to the people that taught us to knit, or whom we have taught or will teach.
In 2003 I travelled around Egypt, largely by myself so I could experience the country first hand, rather than through the window of an air conditioned coach and filtered by a tour guide. I floated down the Nile for four days on a boat just big enough for the four people on it, visited villages along the way. Of course saw the pyramids, Abu Simbel and the big sites around Thebes, but although I met lots of very nice modern Egyptians, I never really got a feel for those that had built all the monuments; they were the work of thousands.
It wasn’t until I visited Deir el-Medina that this changed. Deir el-Medina is the town in which the workers who build the tombs in the Valley of the Kings lived. It lies in the valley just to the east of the Valley of the Kings and you can still walk the path over the hills that the workers took each day. Although the houses are now only walls a few bricks high, you can still walk the streets of the town as the workers did three and a half thousand years ago. The workers who built the tombs, far from being slaves, were highly skilled, and well paid artisans who lived with their families in relative comfort. There are even records of the workers going on strike when they didn’t get all the grain they were entitled to.
Just up the hill from the town are some small tombs for the workers and their families, in the tombs are the usual paintings you would be familiar with from photos and documentaries (if you haven’t been there yourself). The difference was that these scenes were not being painted for the pharaoh or some other noble, but for friends and family members. Standing close enough it is easy to make out the individual paint strokes used to form a star, or depict a hieroglyph; and it is easy to imagine the workman standing there looking at the work he’d just finished and feeling pleased with his work. It was a much stronger feeling connection because it was something I could do too, albeit not with the same degree of skill.
It is the same with knitting. When I look at a hand knitted garment, I feel a connection with the person who made it. Whether it be a scarf that my aunt made a couple of years ago, or one of the knitted caps recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose, I know the knitter went through many of the same stages you or I go through when making a project. They picked up needles, found some yarn and cast on. They worked through the item, row after row, imagining how much the person who would get it would enjoy it, or how the money that it brought in when it was sold would help their family, or just thinking of how many other things they still had to do when they’d finished it. Whether it was made a few months ago, or four hundred years ago, the knitting links the knitter who made it and the knitter who views it.
With the possible exception of socks, generally when we make a knitted item, we make it to last. The effort we put into selecting the yarn and pattern, and then into getting the whole thing right, along with the countless hours it takes to make a knitted item, indicates that we’re usually not making something to be used briefly and then discarded. We make our things to last.And which of us hasn’t imagined what will happen with our knitting as the years pass, especially when making a non-fitted clothing item. We all know that a baby outfit will probably get used for six months or so and then grown out off. It might make a reappearance for subsequent children, but eventually it will probably either wear out or make its way to a charity shop. Jumpers and other garments will last many years, and will get worn many times depending on how fashionable or otherwise the wearer is. But there are some items that may well last much, much longer.
The Victorian lace christening robe that was made by a great-great grandmother and which has been passed down through the years, used for each child, then carefully stored away for the next, or the shawl a distant aunt wore on her honeymoon in the 1920s which now gets worn on special occasions. Many people have garments that are already approaching or exceeding 100 years of age, and which may last a few hundred more.
You don’t know what may happen to the finely crafted lace shawl you’re making now for a loved one, but it is easy to imagine that in 2107 someone saying “And this was made by your great-great grandmother for her daughter for her end of school formal, and now I’m giving it to you”. Or that the shawl may be carefully packed as a reminder of the family left behind on Earth as a descendant heads off on an adventure we can only guess at.
Our knitting is the long thread that links us through time, with knitters of the past whom we can know only through their work, to others in the future who will only know us by our works. A long thread indeed.