My (finally) finished shawl

IMG_4432

Remember the new-old project I wrote about in January last year? My aim was to knit a pattern I found in the archives at Southampton which dated back to 1867.

Round Shetland Veil

I’ll admit it – the project did get put on hold a little. I ordered and received the yarn in January 2014, and did a couple of swatches to determine my needle size and to familiarise myself with the pattern. That didn’t go as well as I had expected – it was really easy to make mistakes with the cobweb yarn and I found I needed long stretches of time and complete silence to make progress. So when I went to Australia for my three-month Institutional Visit I accidentally-on-purpose left the poor shawl in the UK…

The guilt got a bit much so when I got back I promised I would work on it. I started with a vengeance in June 2014. I worked fairly steadily on it for about two months before getting distracted by a pretty cardigan, some sock yarn that just had to be knitted and then Christmas gifts. When January rolled around I resolved not to cast on any new projects until everything already on the needles was finished. I didn’t quite stick to that promise, but by March it was off the needles! Hurrah! Considering I worked on it on-and-off (although mostly off) for ten months it’s pretty small. It did grow when I blocked it, but it still didn’t look like much.

IMG_4443

Looks are deceptive. This shawl is actually a lot. It is 53 repeats of a four-row pattern. Each row started off taking 15 minutes and ended up taking 1 hour (the length of the row gradually increased). That’s 96 hours on the body of the shawl, 9 hours on the border, and 2 hours sewing it together. I spent 8 hours swatching,12 hours making a sample version in aran weight yarn, 1 hour researching and buying the yarn. That’s 128 hours embodied in one shawl before even taking into account the research I did about the shawl, its designer, and the history of knitting.

The shawl isn’t just my time, either. It represents multiple histories colliding into one another. There’s Mlle. Riego‘s time designing the shawl in 1867, and relatedly, the leisure-time of the upper-class ladies who knitted from this very pattern. Then there’s the time of the Shetland women who made lace-knitting what it is, whilst they worked the land in the 1840s and simultaneously knitted in order to make an income. It’s the time of fashions, first seen in the Victorian era but now experiencing a resurgence as knitting re-gains popularity. It’s the time of the wool – grown and sorted in Shetland, spun in Yorkshire, posted to Bristol. It’s the time taken to learn a skill and do it properly, rather than reaching for a quick fix or buying a mass-produced item.

For something that’s only 4 months old, there’s a lot of history wrapped up in this little lace shawl. The process of making it taught me not only new knitting skills, but the histories and legacies of these skills too. I’m currently writing a couple of papers about what I learnt for publication, but between now and then I’ll do some short blog posts about some of the things I learned. Some of them are very practical and came from the process of knitting the shawl (such as the difference blocking lace work makes :-O), whilst others are more theoretical (such as how making can be considered as a qualitative method for social science research). For now, here are a few more photos of my finished shawl (Ravelled here).

IMG_4439

IMG_4437

IMG_4435

Mlle. Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiere

This poor blog has been pretty neglected for a while, so I thought I’d swing by with a short post to hopefully get me back into the habit of writing here!

Back in January I wrote about my latest new-old project. It’s still very much a work-in-progress, but it’s slowly coming along. It took me forever to get used to the small needles and 1 ply yarn, but I’m actually quite enjoying it now that I’ve got the hang of the pattern. I reckon I’m probably around 20% of the way through at the moment which isn’t so bad for a novice. There’s something quite humbling about working from a 147 year old pattern, especially when you think about how little the key techniques have changed, even if the circumstances under which it is knitted have completely changed. I’m constantly amazed at how clever the intricate pattern is and always find myself wondering how it was devised. Although I’ll probably never know exactly how the pattern came into being, I have been finding out a little more about the designer from whose book the pattern comes…

Mademoiselle Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiere was born in England in 1828 to an Irish mother and a French father. She had a committed interest to all forms of needlework – knitting, crochet, tatting, and netting – and allegedly published her first book at the age of 12![1]

However, Mlle Riego (as she preferred to be called) was primarily known for her tatting work. Tatting is a handmade lace, formed of knots and loops made of thin thread to create items such as doilys, scarves, purses or parasol covers. Overall Mlle Riego published thirteen books on tatting, and in the process introduced new ideas and technical improvements to the craft which are still in use today.

At the age of 23 she lists herself in the 1851 census as an ‘authoress and designer’ living at 106 New Bond Street, London. In the same year her work appeared in the Great Exhibition, in Class 19: Tapestry, floor cloths, lace and embroidery. Hers is entry No: 17:

Great Exhib 17

For this she won the Prize Medal for ‘the skill displayed in the imitation of old Spanish and other costly laces’ An illustration of the Prize Medal, along with illustrations of those won at 1858 and 1862 expositions, are included on the first page of the Abergeldie Winter Book.

Mlle Riego medals

 This is the book from which my Shetland lace veil comes from. The Abergeldie Winter book itself was published 1867 in London. It was priced at one shilling and contains, amongst others, patterns for a cape, shawl, socks, vest, and, of course, a veil alongside stunning illustrations by W.D. Hornsby.

Given her interest in the fine lacy work of tatting it comes as no surprise to discover that many of her knitted lace patterns are equally as complex and beautiful. It is not known whether she ever visited Shetland to get inspiration for designing her veil, but it seems more likely that she was inspired by a design that reached her ‘fancy warehouse’ in London. From here Mlle Riego supplied lace-making and embroidery materials, most likely to the wealthier women of London given the relatively expensive cost of the pattern books.

By the time she died, Mlle Riego had published a staggering 72 books on various needle arts. You can view some of them for free here: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/library/ldu/wsa.html

I only hope that in re-creating her veil I can do her wonderful work justice! Update to follow soon!

[1] The evidence for this is somewhat conflicting. Most sources claim that her first book was ‘Knitting, Crochet and Netting’ published in 1846, and that she published this at age 12. That would make her year of birth 1834. However, in the 1851 census she lists herself as being 23 years old, (giving the birth year of 1828) which would mean she was actually 18 when the book was published.

A new-old project

I love starting new projects, particularly new knitting projects. I quite like finishing them too, but I’m not so great at the middle part of it, hence why I usually have about 5 things on the go at any given time. I digress. I’m about to embark on a new knitting project, one that I’ve been planning for a while now. As many of you will know I spent a fair chunk of time towards the end of last year at the knitting reference library. The resource is split between Winchester School of Art (books, patterns, and printed materials) and the University of Southampton’s special collections and archives (objects, tools, ephemera, correspondence). It’s a huge assemblage which has been built from the extensive collections of knitter and designer Montse Stanley, the ‘knitting bishop’ Richard Rutt, and knitwear designer Jane Waller. All three were avid collectors of anything to do with knitting, meaning there is now the most fantastic resource available for the researching of social history spread over these two sites.

Image

I had been briefed that the collection was large so worked to narrow down my interests a little before arriving. Having recently returned from Shetland (Aug 2013), I thought that Shetland knitting, specifically lace work, might provide me with a good starting point. I wasn’t disappointed! Across the two sites I found books, leaflets, exhibition catalogues, research papers, and the most stunning items of knitwear I have ever had the privilege to see and handle. Sadly copyright protection in the archives means I can’t share my photographs with you here, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that the lace work there dating from 1820 was absolutely exquisite in its craftsmanship and had survived the years remarkably unscathed considering how delicate it was to handle. On several occasions I found myself audibly gasping at the things I unearthed, finding it impossible to conceive that something so beautifully detailed had been lovingly crafted by hand over one hundred years ago.

It didn’t take long for lace knitting to completely take over my brain. I’m fascinated by the delicate, yet amazingly strong structure it creates, with patterns so intricate it becomes almost impossible to see how they’re fashioned without a good deal of intensive examination. I can’t get over how something so fine can provide such warmth, or how people had the imagination to come up with countless motifs to adorn their latest shawl. The amount of time some of the must have taken to make is completely mind-boggling.

Several hours of sitting (and, of course, knitting) on the train between Bristol and Southampton got me thinking about the possibility of resurrecting an old pattern from these wonderful archives. Now tradition dictates that no true Shetland pattern ‘exists’, for each item is made using motifs and pattern repeats which come straight from the knitters’ head rather than a written pattern. But with the growth in popularity of both Shetland shawls as a fashion accessory and knitting as a pastime in Victorian England came the occasional written pattern. Whether or not these were ‘authentic’ Shetland patterns is debatable, but can be found published in book such as’ Mrs Gaugain’s minature knitting netting and crochet book’ (1843), ‘Mee’s companion to the work-table: containing selections in knitting, netting & crochet work’ (1844), and Miss Lambert’s (1985) ‘My Knitting Book’.

As I’ve already mentioned, copyright in the archives is somewhat tricky, but luckily for me Southampton have started the process of digitising some of their oldest texts. And they’re available here! A quick scour through revealed that the text I wanted – The Abergeldie winter book (1867) – was on the  digital archive, including page 24 which sports the pattern for a ‘round Shetland veil’. It’s not as complex as many of shawls I’ve seen in the archives or in Shetland museums, nor is it the more common square-shape. However, the main body of the work is made up of birds-eye lace, a common attribute of Shetland lace work. Unusually for books of the time the pattern is also illustrated!

I’ve decided to take the plunge and embark on my first piece of historical knitting by attempting to make this shawl. I really hope I can do it justice. In keeping with tradition I’ve ordered (and received) some beautiful Jamieson and Smith 1 ply heritage yarn direct from Shetland. I’ve done a bit of lace knitting before, but never with 1 ply yarn. The prospect is a little scary! If anyone has any advice, it would certainly be appreciated! Hopefully I’ll get a chance to swatch later this week and give the yarn a try. As and when I do, I’ll post a little update. In the meantime if anyone fancies joining me on a Shetland-inspired-Victorian KAL you’d be more than welcome! In fact, I’d love the company!

Image