Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The Yarn Revolution

I realise now that my Grandmother has quite a lot to answer for! If, like me, your Granny knitted her way through the early 40s by making socks for the allied troops, and crocheted her way through the 60s and 70s making anti-macassas (used to drape on the settee) and the 80s making dishcloths and baby blankets then, as a modern day knitter, you too are owed a debt by your ancestor! The debt is not great in magnitude and in no way compares to the debt owed by many of our past world leaders and politicians, but it’s effect is felt pretty much world wide on a daily basis and continues to put the hair on the back of my neck on end and makes me grind my teeth every time I think about it. Whilst there is no doubt in my mind that my Nanny B was a capable and accomplished knitter (my goodness she knew how to turn a heal of a sock and how to make gloves in the round) and that it was she who would give me knitting tips and donate me her scraps and left overs, I now find myself blaming her (along with the majority of her generation) for being one of the perpetrators who inspired the now notorious urban legend ‘Knitting is for Nannas!’

Nanny B, was indeed the archetypal ‘knitting Nanna’. She would set her hair daily and always wore a pinny indoors. She made dinner at lunch time and had tea at dinner time. She read romantic novels and her house and garden were her castle. Everyday had its timetable, with each day of the week following its predetermined pattern. Monday was wash day and Tuesday was shopping day. On Friday, dinner was always Fish and Chips and my Granddad was allowed a pint in the pub at 12 noon. Knitting was given a time slot between about 2 and 4pm on some days, on others it was left untouched. The craft of knitting (and subsequent yarn stashing, pattern hoarding and needle buying) did not consume my Grandmother in the way that it consumes me. She did not wake up in the morning with achy hands from too much strenuous cabling the night before, she would never have stayed up far too late with a glass of wine knitting and chatting with her friends (only to have to unpick it the next day) and certainly wouldn’t have spent the amount of money I do on yarn. My Nanna’s hobby was not the result of a passion, but merely an expected and accepted pass time for a lady of her era.

During the 2nd World War, people contributed to the War effort by knitting socks and gloves for service men. With yarns on ration, the saying ‘make do and mend’ was born with many knitters unravelling old sweaters in order to re knit another garment. Yarn available was restricted to pure wool and fine crochet cotton. Knitting was seen as necessary money saving exercise and not the luxurious hobby we class it as today.

Although nylon was produced by DuPont in 1938, synthetic yarns were not widely available until after the war and by the 1950s the look and feel of knitting wool had changed quite dramatically. Most synthetic fibres, which are derived from coal or petroleum, tended to be a cheaper alternative to wool or cotton. With advances in technology blended knitting yarns were produced, yarns containing mohair, alpaca and even cashmere became available to the consumer. Around this time Haute Couture also played a major role in the growth of the hand knitting industry. Hand knitted ski jumpers and fitted ladies’ cardigans were de-rigor, with Vogue especially producing hundreds of fashionable knitting patterns. Washing machines replaced the scrubbing boards and mangles, gas and electric ovens were common place and pretty quickly house wives found they had much more time on their hands, time that could be used to knit and sew.

All this wonderful progress in the yarn world sadly escaped my poor Nanna B who continued to knit as if she still belonged to war time Britain, blissfully unaware of the yarn revolution which had unfurled in front of her. Anything synthetic was a definite ‘no no’ and anything a little luxurious such as Alpaca or Mohair was certainly far too expensive for her skimpy purse strings (and moreover almost certainly foreign) so that too was also left to go untouched by her hands, never to be trusted to knit something wonderful. So thus she continued with her woolly creations – itchy school sweaters that would rub a layer of skin from your neck within half hour if hastily put on without a shirt and tie. Pure wool socks that made your feet come out in prickly patches and gloves that of course made your fingers and wrists irritated and fidgety. I would say that my Nanna never knitted anything that wasn’t useful, never knitted something that was beautiful or that made people gasp in recognition of the skill and craftsmanship that had gone into it. She would never have attempted a cable or colour work and certainly wouldn’t have entertained the notion of adding a sparkly bead – all that decadence wouldn’t have been any good for anyone would it?

When presented with the new yarn choices from Rowan each season I find myself becoming nervous and excited, the expectation of what Rowan may have in store for me is always a thrill, so it was with baited breath that I opened my package that was duly delivered by our post lady early one morning recently. I usually save my jiffy bags to reuse and send on, but the one containing my Rowan yarn didn’t stand a chance, from the shreds of the packaging I was thrilled to behold the new yarns for Autumn - Rowan seem to have surpassed themselves with their choice of new yarns once again. There are two wonderful new additions to the Felted Tweed range (Aran & Chunky) which I’m sure will be an instant hit. There is Alpaca Cotton, so soft and tactile that when I first set eyes on it (and once I had finished rubbing it against my cheek and taking in deep breaths of its wonderful aroma) I wanted to search out my knitting needles and get going on a piece of knitting there and then – caught half way between my breakfast cereal and the school run! There is Lima, an amazing yarn that looks a little like a crochet chain and comes in a lovely palette of 12 traditional Rowan colours which reflect the Yorkshire country side. There is Silky Tweed, made from 100% natural ingredients and so soft and gorgeous that I would be happy to just drape a few skeins around my neck to wear as a scarf. Then, finally at the bottom of my shredded bag of goodies there was a ball of British Sheep Breeds in a DK weight. This yarn should (I decided last Autumn) be the absolute opposite of all that I hold dear in a yarn, the pariah of the yarn world! My preconceived ideas about this yarn – derived from years of dealing with my Nanna’s knits - was that it would be itchy, prickly and hive inducing. Incredibly this couldn’t be any further from the truth. This yarn knits up easily and evenly, it gets better with each and every wash, it is hard wearing and really warm and (having forced myself to use it) I am now a complete devotee. Amazing isn’t it, Rowan can even make British wool sexy – how cool is that!

I’m pretty sure that even these wonderful yarns would have failed to charm my Nanna B. If she were still alive today I am certain that she would still have that uncanny knack of finding the most uncomfortable unforgiving and ghastly yarn possible. She would still be venturing into the yarn store with her shopping trolley and asking for a nice sturdy, hard wearing, cheap yarn like she used to get during the war and would even still be using the same V neck pattern sweater that was produced at a time when the male models in the photographs stood in front of by-planes wearing knitted balaclavas and holding pipes in their gloved hands. I imagine that you think I am being a little hard on my poor Grandmother. She was – as all Nannas should be - a kind and caring person, she made amazing cakes and jams, had endless patience when it came to paper, pens and crayons, always looked out for me and my brother and I hold her memory very dear in my heart and will of course always love her. However (as I said right at the beginning) she has to be blamed for the bad press we knitters get. I am not, however, suggesting that my Nanna was single handedly responsible for the thousands of ignorant people who on a daily basis say to a knitter ‘I thought knitting was for Nannas!’ No, I couldn’t blame just her for a crime of that magnitude. I blame all those Grandmothers of that era who didn’t have a love affair with yarn. There were plenty of them for sure as I was not alone in being the chaffed, sore and itchy child in the school playground – there were many of us, all with Nanna’s who knitted out of necessity and not love.
Many new knitters are keen to stretch the boundaries of their creativity to produce individual and personal knitted fabrics and garments. The new breed of knitters wish to make an item to cherish, one that bears the hall mark of originality and the love and the time that has gone into it, yet one which also has a professional polish that makes one proud to own it. Rowan is at the forefront of this movement, the company continues to provide the knitter with a treasure trove of exciting yarns and patterns and has a larger workshop programme than ever before. The lesson that I have got to learn from the mistake of my predecessor is to teach as many people to learn and master the art of knitting. I have to try and pass on this yarn love affair to as many people as I can. I must continue to move with the times. I must embrace each new step in the evolution of the wonder that is yarn. I must attempt to make sure that future generations don’t know of the urban myth that once was ‘Knitting is For Nannas!’ Hope you will join me.......

Rowan International Magazine July 2009