Having grown up on a sheep farm in rural Suffolk, where she learned to spin, weave and knit, Esther Rutter may have been destined to write her new book, This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History. It is a fascinating read, in which the author covers several UK islands as she traces the social, economic and cultural importance of wool to their histories. We were delighted to get the opportunity to quiz the author about her work…
What inspired you to write the book?
Two things: having a very boring job, and doing a lot of knitting. I've been an avid knitter since I was a child, and was looking for a book that told me more about knitting's history and cultural importance. When I couldn't find one in print, I decided to jack in my job and write it. Fortunately I was able to secure a wonderful agent in Jenny Brown through XpoNorth's annual Tweet Your Pitch Twitter competition, followed by a contract with publishers Granta and funding from Creative Scotland and the Society of Authors, which enabled me to travel the length and breadth of Britain to research and write This Golden Fleece.
Guernsey, Harris, Jersey, Shetland - many of Britain's islands have strong associations with wool, knitting and weaving, with each home to its own tradition. What do you think it is about these islands that makes this so?
First of all, many of these islands have been home to sheep for centuries if not millennia, so there has been a lot of raw fleece around to spin into yarn. Second, islands are often places where people need to combine lots of different skills in order to making a living - farming, fishing, running a shop, tourism, online businesses, to name but a few. Knitting is the perfect craft for fitting around other work, as it is small and light enough to be carried with you wherever you go, and repetitive enough to put down and picked up as time permits, and during my research I found people knitting whilst they carried peats, herded sheep, tended cattle, and waited for the fishing catch to be landed. Third, Britain's islands have long been important trading nexuses, providing ready markets for the sale of knitwear to buyers from across the world - and the best way of preserving a tradition is to share it.
What is the most surprising thing you discovered when travelling around Britain to research the book?
When I set out I didn't realise just how big a role knitting has played in this country's history. Lord Byron's maiden speech in Parliament was on the subject of knitting - specifically the experience of the hand-frame knitters of Nottinghamshire, who were the originators of the Luddite rebellions in protest against the mechanisation of their trade and subsequent devaluing of their skills. Whilst some knitters are very well-known - Virginia Woolf famously described knitting as 'saving of life' - I discovered several secret knitters, including Woolf's friend Lytton Strachey, who liked to make scarves for men serving in the First World War. It was also a revelation to discover that, whilst most of us don't wear a lot of pure woollen garments these days, many of our clothes are still knitted. Because knitting produces very flexible fabric that closely mirrors the curves of our bodies, it is the ideal method for making things like swimming costumes, tights and socks. As part of my research I even hand-knitted my own bikini - but to find out how successful that was, you'll have to read the book...
As well as knitting, your book contains insights on different kinds of wool and sheep breeds. How have different breeds evolved to give special characteristics to wool from different places?
Sheep are highly adaptive to their environment, and their fleece mirrors this. Britain's indigenous sheep, dating back to at least the Bronze Age, were of the North Atlantic short-tailed type, with a two-layered fleece, with wiry outer hairs that protected them from the wet and windy climate and warm, soft hairs closer to the skin that kept them warm. Today the direct ancestors of these small, hardy beasts can still be found on the island in the St Kilda which gave them its name. Soay sheep are 'living fossils' that can manage perfectly by themselves well on an island uninhabited by humans, since - among other things - they shed their fleece each summer, and therefore do not need to be sheared.
I want to get into knitting. What should I start with and which wool should I use?
I recommend a thick woollen yarn that knits up quickly; something like the Croft Shetland Colours aran-weight yarn from West Yorkshire Spinners would be perfect. The yarn is spun from 100% Shetland wool and dyed in beautiful colours inspired by and named for places on Shetland archipelago. The most difficult thing will be deciding which shade to choose: Ollaberry, Fetlar, Voxter, Bixter...?
Is there any kind of knitting more beautiful than Fair Isle?
Good question! But whilst Fair Isle colourwork is definitely the best-known of Shetland's knitting techniques, I also love the fine lace knitting that comes from Unst. Most northerly of all the Shetland islands, Unst is best know for its beautiful open work, a kind of lace knitted from very fine one or two-ply yarn. The delicate lacy shawls it forms are as intricate as the arching windows in Gothic cathedrals or ornate filigree jewellery, but yet soft enough to wrap newborn babies in - and fine enough to be passed whole through a wedding ring.
Photo credit: Chris Scott