The tradition of Cornish Guernseys and knit-frocks
The Cornish style of knitting originated way back in the times of Queen Elizabeth the First. Admiral Lord Nelson made the Guernsey jumper a valuable part of the Royal Navy's uniform during the Napoleonic Wars. And Guernsey jumpers – or 'ganseys' - were even worn at The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Originally designed for fishermen, this is no ordinary jumper. In fact, it's quite extraordinary. Here's what you need to know about the tradition of Cornish Guernseys and 'knit frocks' – simply another way of saying, 'jumper'.
About the Guernsey jumper
During the 1700s and 1800s many Cornish women knitted Ganseys in between their daily tasks, to earn extra money while their husbands were at sea. The traditional Guernsey sweater was tightly knitted to provide a close, snug fit. Snugness mattered because that way you wouldn't get dangly bits of sleeve or hem snagged in a rope or in the jaws of a machine and potentially rip your arm off or get thrown overboard. When your jumper can't get caught in your fishing equipment, and your sleeves stop short of the wrist so they don't get in the way, life at sea is an awful lot safer. Shorter sleeves also mean your jumper didn't get wet, and the tight-fitting hem, neck and cuffs kept chilly draughts at bay.
Every Cornish fishing community had its own easily-identifiable pattern, some with fish designs and others featuring ropes and nets, herringbone pattern and even anchors. Families developed their own patterns, as did entire generations. The classic Guernsey stayed mostly plain but as time passed and the skills made their way steadily northwards, the stitches became more complex. By the time it reached northern Scotland's fishing villages the jumpers were smothered in complicated patterns.
The original Guernsey jumpers were square with a straight neck and they were also completely reversible, with the same pattern on the front and back. There were plain, non-patterned bands at the waist, so the jumper could easily be tucked in, and on exposed areas of the body, the patterning was the thickest and most complex, simply to help keep the warmth in. Making the patterns the same on both sides meant the jumpers lasted twice as long, with the wear and tear they suffered being distributed evenly.
Imagine using five needles to knit one jumper? That's how it was traditionally done, knitted 'in the round' from the chest to the back on two needles, then joining the pieces so they didn't get lost. The wool most often used was worsted wool, perfect for protection from the cold, wind, rain and salt spray. And you didn't wash your jumper very often, if at all. The people believed that the dirt gathered over the years helped to keep their garments waterproof, windproof and warmer.
As far as the colour goes seafarers, whatever their role, always wore dark blue. The dye used was natural Indigo dye, the only blue dye available until the late 1800s.
Mary Wright brings Ganseys back to life in the '70s
By the late 1800s Cornish hand-knitting was an important cottage industry and each small coastal village created its own distinctive patterns and names for their knit-frocks. But by the 1920s contract knitting – effectively a kind of poorly-paid piecework - had died out and Guernseys were in crisis. Then, in the 1970s, a woman called Mary Wright started asking elderly Cornish people what they remembered about it. The book that emerged is more than a fascinating picture of social history, full of fabulous old photos, detailed instructions and charts showing modern knitters how to make their own Cornish Guernsey thanks to thirty local patterns she resurrected.
Since then Mary, a specialist knitting instructor, has exhibited her work throughout the UK and beyond. If you'd like to buy a copy of her book and give a Gansey a go, here's a link to the book on Amazon. It was last reprinted in 2008, in line with the growing contemporary trend for knitting.
See pictures of inspirational Ganseys!
If you're feeling inspired to design and knit a Gansey of your own or knit one for someone you love, Pinterest has some super photos to whet your appetite, here. And if you'd like to buy some gorgeous worsted alpaca wool to knit with, we sell wool from our own alpaca herd.
The language of Yarn – The origins of knitting and crochet terms
Knitters and crocheters around the globe share a deep love of their craft, but they use different words to describe the details of the things they do. If you'd like to take a journey around the wonderful world of woolly words, walk this way.
Where does the word 'knit' originate?
The word 'knit' has been used in England for 1000 years or more. It comes from the old English word 'cnyttan', to tie in a knot. By the twelfth century the verb meant making string into a net, and by 1530 it was being used to describe something woven in a series of interlocking loops using two needles. The 1500s saw knit become a noun, first describing a basic knit stitch then describing knitted fabric itself.
What about 'crochet'?
This one's nice and simple. Crochet is derived from the French word 'crochet' which simply means 'a small hook'.
How about 'purl'?
The word purl comes from the ancient Scots word pirl, which meant 'twist'. A purl stitch is the second foundation stitch for knitting, and the word dates back to the fourteenth century. Originally it didn't describe the stitch itself but the beautiful gold and silver thread used for embroidery, often decorative edging work on knitted garments.
Where does 'yoke' come from?
The word yoke describes the fitted piece at a garment's shoulder and dates back to the 1800s. An earlier meaning referred to a wooden frame used to link two working animals together, and its origins date back at least 1000 years.
What's the history of 'intarsia'?
All knits involve just two stitches, knit and purl. But there are countless ways to use the two basic stitches to create new patterns. One of them is 'intarsia', which involves creating a multicoloured design from several different balls of wool.
Fair Isle knitting is intarsia work, where the knitter holds a contrasting colour behind the knitting. They then weave the edges of the contrasting colour into the edges of the main colour so there's no stranding over the back. Turn it inside out and you see a mirror image of the pattern from the outside. The word intarsia comes from Italy, originally describing a complex framed mosaic made of different woods. The first case of the English use of the word came about in 1867 and it finally became part of the knitting lexicon in the mid-1900s.
Where does 'swatch' originate?
Every good knitter creates a gauge swatch, a small square of knitting that works as a test-drive, using the same needles and yarn as you would for the actual project. It reveals what the final item will look like, and helps you to understand the number of stitches per centimetre. Swatch entered the English language during the 1500s, a name for the tag people fixed to cloth sent away to dyers. Owners could find their cloth amongst many other people's cloth thanks to their own unique swatch. These days a swatch describes any small piece of fabric.
Why's it called a 'cardigan'?
Some say an English person's home is their castle. We say it's their cardigan! In 1862 what had originally been merely a split jacket became the cardigan we all know and love, thanks to the seventh earl of Cardigan, well known as a sharp dresser. His knitted woollen vests, split down the front, kept him warm during the Crimean war, and thanks to his glittering military career the name spread fast.
What's the origin of the word 'raglan'?
One of the 7th Earl of Cardigan's commanding officers was the first Baron Raglan, Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, who lived from 1788 to 1855. He wore a loose-fitting overcoat with sleeves that extended all the way to the neckline instead of stopping at the shoulder, and the word 'raglan' originally became used to describe that style of coat. Now it's a sleeve thing, and most knitters would recognise a raglan sleeve.
How about 'ravel'?
Ravelry is a social network for knitters, crocheters, spinners and weavers. But the word ravel once meant 'to knit together' in much the same way as 'unravel' means to take apart. When the word first arrived in the English language, in the 1500s, it meant something entangled. Less than a century later it was being used to describe tangled yarn or thread.
When you knit or crochet, you tap into history
Every time you buy wool, grab your needles and tackle a new knit or crochet project, you're tapping directly into a suite of ancient words that reveal the origins of your craft. And that makes the whole thing even more exciting. You are not merely knitting or crocheting, you're making history.
The history of knitting and crochet as an art
Knitting isn't just a practical and effective way to make things to wear and keep you warm. It's also an art. Apparently, knitting began life in ancient Egypt before spreading to Spain via the Islamic Conquest and eventually spreading across Europe.
In the early days in Europe, knitting was something only the super-wealthy could afford. That explains why the earliest knitted items ever found in Europe came from the tomb of Prince Fernando de la Cerdo, the Spanish leader, namely a collection of stunning silk pillowcases dating back to the year 1275 or so.
Early Spanish knitting also consisted of religious garments made from extremely fine yarn. They often featured gold and silver thread decoration and were delicate things, mainly pillows, stockings, purses and pouches. Then the 1400s arrived and everything changed.
The knitting Madonnas – Dating back to the 1400s
In Italy and Germany, a trend arose for paintings of the Virgin Mary knitting while holding the baby Jesus. Nobody really knows why, but perhaps it was because knitting was becoming more common and also more fashionable among upper-class women. At the same time, the Pope's reputation was diminishing at the time, and the artworks may have been created to strengthen the reputation of the Catholic church.
The Virgin Mary is pictured knitting in the round, so the technique must have been familiar by then. As the trend for knitting took hold members of the nobility each chose their favourite Master Knitters, often highly skilled Muslim knitters who made some incredibly beautiful items. Knitting as art was set in stone, and knitting has been regarded as art under certain circumstances ever since.
Modern knitting as an art
During the '70s and '80s artists like Louise Bourgeois and Rosemarie Trockel carried on the trend for creating art in yarn. They harnessed knitting and crocheting as a feminist tool as well as an art, a way to connect the craft as women's work with domestic repression.
In the decades since then many contemporary artists have carried on using knitting and crocheting to talk about an incredibly wide range of themes, from politics to ground-breaking social change. Other artists have used knitting and crochet simply as a fresh and exciting medium for creating beautiful things, including the legendary Frank Havrah, AKA Kaffe Fassett, probably the best-known knitter on the planet. He's world famous for his stunningly colourful designs in needlepoint, patchwork and knitting.
There's the incredibly talented Haegue Yang, an artist who creates dreamlike sculptures from everyday objects including hand-knitted cosies. And Orly Genger, whose vast crocheted sculptures are more like landscapes, like land art than anything else. Her amazing 1.4 million foot long lobster fishing rope sculpture, for example, was installed in New York's Madison Square Park in 2013. And the Polish artist Oleg crochets powerful political messages, also based in the Big Apple.
Jim Drain started knitting as a student, now he incorporates knitting and embroidery into his sculptures to synthesise craft and art with contemporary culture and technology. His fabulous jumper designs look just like the patterns found in old 1980s video games and early computer tech. He also includes knitted elements in his amazing multimedia sculptures, fascinating angular creations made from webs of yarn that owe a lot to digital networks. And the remarkable Brazilian artist Neto creates huge installations that look like enormous crocheted body parts, using networks of crocheted yarn embellished with heavy things, which droop dramatically from high ceilings.
Next time you knit, remember you're an artist
Every time you create your own knitting pattern, knit without a pattern or knit something off-piste and unusual, you're making art. You might weave beads into your crochet or knits or use unusual materials to knit with, things like jute, string, rope and strips of cloth. If you've got something special to show us, we'd love to feature it here on our blog. Have you made anything exceptional recently, or had any exciting creative knitting and crochet adventures? If so, send a photo!
Medieval knitting – A hot new pastime
In Europe the Medieval era, AKA the Middle Ages, officially lasted from the 5th century to the 15th century, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West and ending with the Renaissance, the Age of Discovery. That's not far short of 1000 years of complex human endeavour, all neatly wrapped up in one short description.
It's hard to imagine knitting being hot stuff, a brand new, thrilling craft that swept the land. But we know that towards the end of the Middle Ages knitted goods became incredibly popular, dramatically so from the 1300s onwards, spreading like wildfire across Europe. No wonder the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is home to such a fascinating collection of ancient knitted items.
The ancient origins of knitting
Knitting goes a lot further back than the Middle Ages. The oldest knitted artefacts are socks from Egypt, dating from the 11th century, surprisingly complicated in design and very finely done. Some ancient artefacts look so very like knitting that it's hard to tell the difference, for example, Roman-Egyptian toe socks from the 3rd - 5th centuries, which used a 'Coptic stitch' that may have been knitting's forerunner. But the actual origin of knitting is probably the Middle East, from where it spread to Europe and later to the USA.
Knitting in the Middle Ages
Archaeological finds and medieval tax documents reveal the popularity of knitting in 1500s England. So many hats were being knitted at the time that special protectionist controls were put in place by the government. The Cappers Act of 1571 said everyone aged more than six in England, except "Maids, Ladies, Gentlewomen, Noble Personages, and every Lord, Knight and Gentleman of 20 Marks Land", must wear a knitted cap on Sundays and holidays, except when travelling. The act, therefore, helped protect the living of the countless cap knitters of England.
These caps were, “of wool knit, ticked and dressed in England, made within this Realm, and only dressed and finished by some of the Trade of Cappers, upon pain to forfeit for every Day of not wearing three Shillings four Pence". If you belonged to the middle classes your cap might be trimmed with ribbon to imitate the expensive silk versions worn by the posh and rich. These caps were knitted very like the French beret of today, 'in the round'.
Knitting trends from the Middle Ages onwards
Knitting fast became so fashionable and popular that knitting guilds started opening their doors, the earliest of them appearing in the 1300s. It took three years' special training to become an apprentice or 'journeyman', and to be fully qualified you had to create a series of masterworks to demonstrate your skills. These were often a cap, a woollen jacket, a pair of fingered gloves and a flower-patterned wall hanging.
Knitting was accepted as part of a refined lady's repertoire, also a socially acceptable way for posh people in financial dire straits to earn extra cash. The poor knitted too, to make money, and knitting was widely taught in orphanages and 'poorhouses'. The earliest knitting schools turned up in Lincoln, Leicester and York in the late 1500s, and hand-knitting for money was a big deal in Yorkshire well into the 1800s.
In the early 1600s a trend for knitted silk jackets called 'waistcoats' arose. Knitted by hand in plain silk yarn, the most expensive contained metal thread made from real gold or silver plus beautiful contrasting colours. Sometimes the complex silk panels were knitted abroad – mostly in Italy – then imported for people to sew together at home.
In 1838 the National Society's Instructions on Needlework and Knitting was published, effectively the world's first knitting instruction book. It was designed to help the organisation promote Christian education, especially among the poor. But pupils were taught how to sew and knit by their teacher because the instructions in these early knitting books were so difficult to understand.
Carry on the knitting tradition
Whenever you knit, you join the dots with people who lived a thousand or more years ago. Every time you cast on you're continuing a tradition that goes back millennia. No wonder knitting feels so natural – it's more or less part of the human condition. Fancy a go? Walk this way for really gorgeous knitting wool!
Britain's Brilliant Regional Knitting Styles
We're only a small nation, a little island, but we are fortunate to have a plethora of different regional knitting styles. Here's our quick guide to regional knitting styles in Shetland, the Yorkshire Dales, the Aran Islands, the Channel Islands, and Fair Isle.
About Shetland knitting
Shetland sweaters, made from local wool, are not bulky like cable knits or thin like merino. They're wonderfully light and airy, knitted to keep them warm in without weighing you down. No wonder woollies are so popular here – the islands are home to 400,000 sheep, out-numbering humans twenty to one.
Knitting is more or less in local people's DNA, done for centuries to make money and make warm clothing to keep the harsh weather out. Locals once traded knitted hats and socks with passing fishermen. And every island had its own unique knitting traditions. Unst, for example, is still famed for delicate lace-work and Fair Isle for its rows of colourful, intricate patterns, so very popular that these days youngsters who live on the islands actually wear knitted Shetland hoodies!
About Yorkshire Dales knitting
Sheep have been domesticated in the Yorkshire Dales since the Bronze Age, as long ago as 200BC, which means Dales farmers have had a very long relationship with the animals. In 1590 a knitting school was set up in York to teach the children of the poor to knit, a good way to make a living. But York was wealthy and there was plenty to do there as far as work was concerned. As a result, it disappeared into the countryside and thrived there. Throughout the 17th century, knitting spread faster across the Dales. 'Carriers' from larger towns like Kirkby, Richmond and Kendal would collect the knitted stockings made by residents and deliver a new load of wool, a 'bump', for the next batch of socks.
Everyone in the household knitted – men, women and children. Stockings were the most important product but they also made bonnets, hats, gloves and vests from the thick, greasy local wool called 'bump'. Some gloves and stockings made from fine wool were produced too, and it was these that featured distinctive Dales patterns. You can see some pictures here.
About knitting on the Aran Islands
The Aran jumper takes its name from the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Traditional Aran jumpers are usually cream in colour and feature dramatic cable patterns on the body and sleeves. They were originally made from rough un-scoured wool full of natural lanolin, which meant the jumpers were water resistant. You could wear yours wet and stay lovely and warm, very important for fishermen.
Knitting on the Channel Islands
Originally made on the islands for passing fishermen, so-called gansey sweaters – also called jerseys or guernseys - are still knitted to this day. It's even possible that the word jersey comes from the island of the same name. Worsted spinning was once a staple industry on the islands, and it didn't take long for their wonderfully warm, close-fitting garments knitted in worsted-spun yarn become popular with sailors and fishermen. The Guernsey is another version, this time a very simple square-shaped wool sweater with a famous straight neck, which meant it could be reversed and worn either way.
Fair Isle knitting
Fair Isle knitting is a traditional technique for creating complex patterns with multiple colours, vivid and bright. It comes from Fair Isle, one of the Shetland islands, and was most popular of all with the locals until the Prince of Wales decided to wear them, which made them particularly popular during the 1920s. Original Fair Isle patterns have a small colour range of around five colours, using just two colours a row, but these days the term Fair Isle refers to any coloured knitting where the stitches are knitted alternately in various colours, with the unused colours stranded across the back. No wonder it's also sometimes called 'stranded colourwork'.
Want glorious wool?
Love to knit? Know your needles
You adore knitting? You really do need to know all about knitting needles to do the best job first time, every time.
Why are there so many kinds and sizes of knitting needles?
Different needle materials are designed to support knitters by helping them handle the yarn efficiently and comfortably, with minimal repetitive strain on their hands. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and they're made from a wide range of materials because each material works best for a different kind of yarn. In fact the choice of often made by feel – what 'feels' best often works best.
What are knitting needles made from?
Knitting needles are made from a wide variety of materials, everything from the ordinary plastic and plastic-coated metal ones we're used to seeing to sustainable bamboo knitting needles, glass ones, even knitting needles made from bone. The more knitting experience you get under your belt, the better you'll understand, instinctively, the best needles for the project you're working on.
Three kinds of standard knitting needles
There are three types of standard knitting needles, each with their own special function, designed for knitting in a specific way. Every needle is classified according to its circumference and length.
- Single point needles, AKA straight needles – This is what we're used to seeing, a plain and simple straight needle with a point at one end and a knob at the other end to stop your stitches falling off. They're perfect for flat knitting, where you work one row after another. You finish one row, turn it round and go back again to finish the next row.
- Double pointed needles, AKA DPNs - Double-pointed needles let you knit tubes of fabric, for example socks and sometimes sleeves. Some people use four or even five needles to knit round in a circular movement to make a tube with no seams. Every row is counted as a 'round', and the final stitch in one round leading directly to the first stitch of the next round.
- Circular needles – A circular knitting needle is made up of the shortest needle tips just 4-5 inches long. They're joined together with a flexible cord and can be used exactly like everyday straight needles to knit back and forth, and also knit in the round to create seamless tubes. You can make long rows of stitches on the needle so it's brilliant for knitting large shawls and adult-size seamless jumpers.
Having said that, circular needles come in two flavours. Fixed circular knitting needles have their ends permanently fixed to the cord or line, and you buy them in a specific length and needle size combinations. The joint between needle and cord is smooth so your stitches can move smoothly from the cord to the needle itself. Interchangeable circular knitting needles are different, featuring separate tips and cords, where the tips screw into the ends of the cord. You can join them up in any combination of needle size and cord length, delivering an awesome amount of flexibility – you can knit a massive range of things this way.
When to use plastic knitting needles
Plastic is nice and warm, which means it's comfy for people with carpal tunnel syndrome and makes knitting a pleasure if you suffer cold hands. They have a flexible core that strengthens them, and because they come in bright colours they're great for kids learning to knit.
When to use metal knitting needles
Smooth and fast, the metal knitting needle is a classic. It's ideal for hairy or textured yarns because they slip over the metal smoothly instead of getting caught, and because metal needles have the sharpest tips, they're perfect for complicated lace work and cable knits, as well as ideal for making very fine stitches.
When to use wooden or bamboo knitting needles
Bamboo is 100% sustainable, always good to know. Wood is 100% natural. They're both smooth and strong but have a very slightly rough surface that means they work really well for hairy yarns, stopping the wool from sliding off the needles. They also happen to be warm to the touch, and the small amount of 'give' they offer means they're good for knitters with carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis.
When to use carbon fibre knitting needles?
Carbon fibre is very light, high-tech stuff with a clever non-slip surface, ideal for keeping hairy yarns under control. It's also very strong indeed, which means you get extremely fine, non-bendy needles that are exactly what you need to work with very fine, silky and lace weight yarns. If you're sensitive to nickel, they are perfect.
About knitting needle lengths
- Straight, single point needles come in a wealth of lengths: 18, 20, 25, 30, 33, 35 and 40 cm. In old money that's 7, 8, 10, 12, 13, 14 and 16 inches
- Double-pointed needles come in three lengths: 15, 20, 23 cm, or 6, 8 and 9 inches
- Circular needles are usually 20cm, 40cm, 60cm, 80cm,100cm, 120cm or 150cm long, very occasionally a whopper of 2-3m long
Now all you need is wool!
Now you know which needles to use, you need wool. Our popular wool shop, Little Wool, is home to loads of gorgeous yarns, some from our own herd of friendly alpacas. Go explore!
Baaaah! Why does Britain have such good wool?
Is it the weather? Maybe it's the geology, or the quality of the land, the way the land lies, our location on the face of the planet. Whatever the reason, Britain has long been known as the home of particularly good quality wool.
These days the nation is one of the world's biggest wool producers, generating a massive 22,000 tonnes of wool every year. There are 45,000 sheep farmers in Britain, between them looking after around 34 million sheep, which fall into 60 breeds, 25 of which are rare. But at the same time the country only has two wool scourers these days, people who clean the raw wool to remove grease, sweat and muck so it's lovely and clean. In total you have to go through ten different processes to transform wool to fabric, but despite the hassle an increasing number of people and organisations are starting to champion 100% British wool in all its beautiful glory.
Useful for a lot more than mere carpets and rugs!
Traditionally the idea is that British home grown wool is only any good for carpets. British wool is indeed very strong, with a high micron, but it's also brilliant for tweed and upholstery fabrics. There's more – a particular wool's use tends to depend on the breed it comes from, and where the sheep live.
As you can imagine because of the harsher weather, wool from northern and Scottish sheep breeds produces coarser yarns which are great for tweeds and interior textiles. The sheep living in warmer, dryer places like Dorset and Devon produce finer wool, softer stuff that's less harsh, the ideal for yarn for clothes. No wonder the UK's finest wool comes from the comparatively gentle, warm, calm landscapes where the Blue Faced Leicester breed thrives.
We've been breeding sheep in the UK since 4000BC or maybe even earlier, originally horned brown sheep like today's Soay. Preserved wool from the Bronze Age has been found, and it looks very like Soay wool. You don't spend at least six thousand years with an animal without getting to know it very well, becoming an expert in everything that keeps it happy, fit and healthy. Poorly or unhealthy sheep have poor wool. It takes experience and expertise to breed healthy sheep and keep them that way, and as a nation we've got plenty of that!
Where does British wool go?
Specialist wool merchants still trade British wool across the planet. More than half of it is sold to China, a fast-growing market that doubled between 2013 and 2015 and remains healthy. The remainder is mostly bought by other nations. Because the wool preparation process is so long and complex, comparatively little British wool stays in the UK from start to finish. It's often scoured and spun in China then sent back here to be woven.
A growing trend for wool from dedicated flocks
Cherchbi, which insists on gorgeous British Herdwick wool from a particular flock, isn't alone in its love for British wool. They also keep their entire supply chain in the UK. As Cherchbi says on its website:
" The Herdwick has a 1,000-year heritage and worthy reputation as Britain's hardiest mountain sheep. Reared primarily for it's specialty meat, the breed has EU protected food name status and appears on menus of many of the country's best restaurants. However the fleece is considered almost worthless and is sometimes burned.
Over four years and nine weave trials this low value fleece was transformed into a high quality cloth. Herdwyck No.10 is a pure wool, it's colour and texture derived from the distinctive Herdwick fleece. It is spun, woven and finished entirely in the British Isles.
The fleece originates in the Cumbrian Lake District and is spun into yarn in Kilcar, County Donegal. The spinning process is slowed giving the yarn greater strength. This is woven into cloth in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Extra picks are added into the loom creating an unusually dense weave. The tweed is sent to Galashiels in the Scottish borders where it undergoes specialist finishing. Finally, in Lancashire, the finished wool tweed is bonded to its cotton lining with a natural rubber core."
Buy British alpaca wool
We sell the most deliciously soft, gorgeous alpaca wool, 100% British from the field to our shop. If you fancy knitting something lush, it's perfect!
Canada's Salish women and their amazing wool dogs
What do you do when there are no sheep or goats, they live so far up the mountain it's too dangerous to catch and shear them, or the local tribes herding them are not keen to sell you the wool? You get creative. You make your fabrics out of dog fur.
The Salish Wool Dog was also called the Comox dog or Woolly dog. Now long extinct, it was a small, white, long-haired dog rather like a Spitz, bred by the native people who lived in what is now Washington State and British Columbia. So far, so ordinary. But the extraordinary thing about these dogs was their fur, which was unusually beautiful, soft and pale. In fact it was so good the tribe wove it into a beautiful, soft fabric.
The Salish Wool Dog was kept in packs of as many as twenty animals and fed on luxurious raw and cooked salmon, a precursor of a modern scientific discovery. These days we know for sure that fish oils are really good for a dog's coat. It's used widely by breeders and people who show dogs.
To keep their coats pure and white the dogs were prevented from cross-breeding, confined on islands and kept in gated caves, then sheared like sheep in May or June every year.
Incredibly thick wool and a strong fleece
The Wool Dog was selectively bred to create wool, while other dogs kept by the tribe were treated the same way we treat dogs today, as companion animals and hunting partners. In fact their 'wool' was so thick that the explorer Captain George Vancouver reported one could pick up an entire dog fleece by one corner and it would still hold together, something a sheep fleece just wouldn't do.
No wonder Salish blankets, made by the tribe from the fur of their dogs, were so highly prized by Native American tribes. In fact they cost almost as much as a slave, the ultimate in luxury. While the yarn quality of the pure dog wool was pretty good, the tribe often improved its quality and made short supplies go further by blending it with mountain goat wool, feathers and plant fibres.
Goodbye to the wool dogs
When the Europeans finally arrived in North America, the Salish Wool Dogs started to decline. There was better access to sheep. Hudson Bay blankets became a popular staple, sold widely across the new nation. And the Native American tribes were destroyed, displaced, forced to leave their homelands. The Salish Wool Dog eventually interbred with other dogs and lost the precious traits that made it so popular. By the mid-1800s there were no pure bred wool dogs left. And in 1940 the breed's last known descendent died.
All this happened so long ago that people eventually started to doubt the Salish tribe's oral history. But recent DNA analysis has proved dog hair is an ingredient in historic fabrics made by Salish weavers. Today all that remains is a strong oral tradition commemorating the dogs. A wool dog pelt was found in Washington D.C's National Museum of Natural History, a dog called Mutton who accompanied a scientist studying the tribes long ago. And a few photos of Salish people with their dogs have been unearthed. Other than that they're a lost doggie tribe all of their own.
Could you knit with your dog's fur? Have you tried? If so, what breed are they? We'd love to know!
Sheep of the month – The rugged, tough Herdwick breed
You might think that Brighton, in sunny East Sussex, is a balmy place where every breed of sheep can survive. But the Downland behind the city is home to a council-run conservation flock of almost 1000 sheep, many of which are Herdwicks and Herdwick crosses. The South Downs are not as harmless and pretty as they look – far from it – which means Herdwicks, Swaledales and cross breeds of both are the only sheep hardy enough to remain high up on the Downs, in the teeth of the westerly winds, all winter.
Welcome to our first sheep of the month feature. Introducing the Herdwick.
All about Herdwick sheep
The Herdwick is a domestic sheep native to the Lake District in Cumbria. The name comes from the ancient Norse herdvyck, which simply means 'sheep pasture' and reveals how old the breed is, dating back to the tenth century, maybe a lot longer. The Vikings brought their Herdwicks with them when they invaded the north, and by the end of the 1200s Herdwicks were a familiar sight in The Lakes.
Grazing these sheep keeps the fells bare, without trees, and the dry stone walls dividing the fells and valleys were mostly built to keep the sheep corralled. No wonder so many of the area's ancient words relate back to sheep and sheep farming. In fact to this day 95% of Britain's 50,000 or so Herdwicks live in the Lake District.
Herdwick lambs are called hoggs or hoggets, born mostly black then slowly getting paler as they age, ending up either pale or dark grey. Unlike many sheep breeds they have particularly stocky, sturdy, wool-covered legs. They don't have many lambs and their unmistakable grey wool is not as popular as wool from other commercial breeds, but Herdwicks are widely prized for their robust outlook, good health, ability to thrive on poor quality forage and tendency not to stray far. Their meat is famously strong-flavoured.
These are one of the slowest-maturing sheep breeds, no wonder when they spend their time as high as 3000 feet up the fells in all weathers. They spend the entire winter up there, in the open from December to April, grazing freely in their own 'heaf', a heaf being the familiar, small area a Herdwick won't move away from.
These sheep are so tough that they've been know to survive for several days underneath the snow, eating their own wool. And Herdwick wool is as tough as the beasts it grows on. It comes with coarse, thick, bristly fibres that stick out and can feel all prickly. The advantage of this is clear when it's cold, when you appreciate the most amazing protective barrier layer full of cosy, warm air, working on the same principle as a dry diving suit.
The Herdwick breed survives thanks to farming subsidies, and it is still widely found on National Trust properties, Places of Historic Interest and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These days the breed is iconic, so typical it's hard to imagine The Lakes without it. They remain more common in Cumbria than their fellow high country breeds, the Swaledales and Rough-Fells. But there's more. 2008 saw one Oregon sheep farmer importing semen from Herdwick rams into the US for the first time. In response, during 2013, Lakeland Herdwick meat was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status by the European Union.
Because it's so hard to dye Herdwick wool, it is mostly used for carpets. And because it is such an excellent insulator, it is often made into natural insulation for buildings, fireproofed first for safety. When they're crossed with Suffolk, Cheviot, Charollais and Texel sheep, the resulting lambs are worth more than pure bred Herdwicks.
What's your favourite sheep breed?
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What is Bohus Knitting?
Bohus knitting is a thing of wonder and beauty. But what's it all about?
It comes from a vintage Swedish knitting co-operative named Bohus Stickning, which operated as a cottage industry between 1939 and 1969. Designed to provide income for poor families in Bohuslän, Sweden, during the Great Depression, the resulting knitwear was sold to shops all over the world, with designs by people like Emma Jacobsson proving particularly popular. The work of the women of Bohuslän Province remains highly desirable, a knitting style loved by millions.
How Bohus Stickning started
Emma Jacobsson was the wife of the governor of Bohuslän. In 1937, when times were hard, a group of local women asked her to help set up a co-operative to improve economic opportunities for local low-income families. After some experimentation they decided on knitting, which didn't require special equipment, large amounts of space or much training.
Hand knitted clothes became their focus, and Bohus Stickning was officially opened on 12 th September 1939, led by the inspirational Emma Jacobsson. In the early days they made mittens and socks, sold by Emma to department stores in Stockholm and beyond. The wares proved so popular the women soon started making scarves, hats, sweaters, and jackets, specialising in women's clothing.
Bohuslän didn't have a tradition for knitting, so they started from scratch. The 1940s saw the characteristic Bohus Stickning style emerging, a series of gorgeous multicoloured patterns in lightweight wool or angora created using a unique combination of knit and purl.
As more women joined, more luscious designs appeared
Over the years Emma was joined by Vera Bjurström, Anna-Lisa Mannheimer Lunn, Annika Malmström-Bladini, Kerstin Olson and Karin Ivarsson, Mona Reuterberg and plenty more, with Göta Trägårdh acting as a fashion advisor. It didn't take long for the Bohus Stickning brand to take over Swedish fashion, worn by famous women like Helena Rubinstein, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly.
1995 saw Wendy Keele publish a brilliant book, Poems of Color: Knitting in the Bohus Tradition and the Women Who Drove This Swedish Cottage Industry. It drove a dramatic revival in the craft, and Bohus Stickning style work went international. In 1999 a master dyer working with the Bohusläns Museum, Solveig Gustafsson, decided to recreate a number of original designs and offered both the patterns and dyed yarns for sale. And the rest, as they say, is history.
A tradition that has spread the world over
Ever since then the tradition has carried on, through different people. At one point an angora rabbit farmer, Pernille Silfverberg, took over and expanded the number of patterns available. In 2009 Susanna Hansson and Wendy J. Johnson curated an exhibition called Bohus Stickning. Radiant Knits: An Enchanting Obsession, which opened at the USA's American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and it drove even more publicity.
These days knitters all over the world are creating Bohus knit masterpieces, and the style has become a legend in its own lifetime. You'll be glad to know what alpaca wool is the perfect yarn for the job!