This gold cardigan draws history through wool

Update: 01-11-2019

Knitting hones skills in analytic geometry, abstract al […]

Knitting hones skills in analytic geometry, abstract algebra and topology argues Esther Rutter, tracing the history of wool and knitting throughout the British Isles. Having grown up on a sheep farm in Suffolk where she learned to spin, weave and knit, Rutter is well qualified for the task. She is also an academic who studied English in Oxford. She points out that a gansey takes even experienced knitters more than a hundred hours, an average adult size made from rounds of at least 250 stitches and many have more than 300 stitches per round.

Over the course of a year, she knits her way across Britain, her journey taking her to the Shetland and Channel Islands, Jersey, Wales and the Border counties, all the while accompanied by her needles and wool as well as a sharp pen and inquiring mind. Mixing notes on the garments she is crafting along the way – sometimes perhaps too technical – she uncovers the history of the communities whose lives were shaped by sheep and their fleeces.

Wool shaped British history and its finances. It made the Cistercians rich and worldly and in the Middle Ages, British wool spun on looms in northern Europe fetched the highest prices in the Western world. The 14th century proclamation that the lord chancellor should sit on a bale of wool in parliament attested to its economic importance – the Woolsack is still in use in the House of Lords. Money from the wool trade built the monasteries in the 12th century and reshaped Scotland’s landscape and history. Six hundred years later landlords replaced the human population with sheep in the notorious Highland clearances reducing farmers to crofters.

Wool, she notes, has left its mark on our speech. “We spin a yarn. If we deceive, we pull wool over people’s eyes. We weave narratives as we weave cloth and our words for them are bound together.” Knitting, she maintains, is fundamentally about binding together not only binding wool to wool, but wool to sheep and sheep to place. Sheep breeds of which there are 60 in the UK display their origins in their names  the Cheviot, Suffolk, Black Welsh Mountain, Romney, Bluefaced Leicester, Cotswold, Swaledale while the word worsted used to describe smooth, tightly spun yarn appears to come from Worstead in Norfolk.

wool mixed yarn