When I did night shifts, we all used to sit there and knit to stay awake. It kept us occupied when the patients didn’t need us. You had to keep alert, keep your mind active
Learning to knit: Chris: Tess’s god mother, Aunty Joyce taught me to knit when I was 5 or 6. She was a really fast knitter, and I just asked her one day when she came to stay with us one summer. I’m a left hander but I knit right handed. After she went home, I just carried on and taught myself. She taught me the basic stitches: casting on, knit, purl and casting off. If you can do that everything else comes. The first thing I knitted was a pair of mittens in brown and blue as that was the only wool I could get my hands on. Then everyone else wanted a pair after that. Tess: Our mum knitted a bit too, there was always a basket with wool and needles sticking out of it. It always reminded me of the guillotine and I saw it as women’s stuff. So I certainly wasn’t going to do it.
Chris: I saved up any money I had and went to the local wool shop in Marple and chose a pattern. Joan Hilton owned the wool shop, she was very good and helped me choose a pattern, steering me to something that she knew that I would be able to do. Next I did a jumper, then quite a few more, including one with a stag on the front in dark blue and white, whatever took my fancy. No one else in the family knitted. I used to go into the corner and sit and just knit. I got more adventurous and learnt through reading the patterns, I taught myself to do fair-isle. The little information box of explanatory notes had enough to help me through. Over the years I did different styles and patterns but there weren’t many books or patterns available to find inspiration from.
Our older sister was really crafty, she makes felt animals. Tess: She made a huge mouse for my son James. Chris: She bought me my first knitting book, from Kaffe Fasset. That grew my interest. When I had a family I didn’t knit as much for a while. The materials weren’t so available, and there was a real decline in the knitting world. Then I moved to Bradford, the home of the wool industry, to nurse. After work there were stalls with loads of wool to choose from and I’ve never stopped since then.
Knitting really helped my mental health. I would come home from a really hard shift and sit and knit garments. When I did night shifts, we all used to sit there and knit to stay awake. It kept us occupied when the patients didn’t need us. You had to keep alert, keep your mind active. It’s really hard to stay awake. We didn’t discuss what we were making, we would just do a row and then put our knitting down and get up when we were called.
Now I tend to knit more blankets and hats. I learned to crochet and started to make blankets for my grandchildren. Our Grandma Armstrong knitted 9 blankets, one for each of us. Tess: These were full size blankets made of multi-colour squares. I used to think that our blankets weren’t very trendy as everyone at school had quilts. But they were made of real wool (not acrylic) so all our 9 beds had these lovely warm blankets. They were all different shades, some were brighter than others. We didn’t have carpets on the floor, we used to have that horrible plastic lino and the blankets really kept us warm in our draughty Victorian house. My dad still has two of them in the attic, Chris: and another of our sisters has one stashed away. Grandma died before the last two of us were born, but somehow she’d anticipated that and had already made us blankets beforehand. Tess: So she was with us, all throughout our childhood even though the youngest of us never knew her.
Chris: The happiest thing I’ve ever knitted is a blanket for my granddaughter with sheep on it. Another sister showed me the pattern. She’s a mid-wife and goes in a lot of people’s houses so sees all these blankets and hand-knitted garments. It’s amazing what’s out there now. She’s now made one too so between us we’ve made one in gold, one in pink and one in lilac. I’ve designed backs for the blankets in crochet as they look better. Just a simple random pattern using the same colours as the front. I showed her how to work out how many stitches she needs and how to work out the tension.
I don’t spend time with others knitting, it’s always been my solitary, quiet time. It’s when I stop for the day. I usually knit in the evening, unless I’ve got something specific to finish. I can watch television and knit as long as it’s not a complicated pattern. I’m currently making a blanket for my sister’s grandchild. She found a pattern from a patient with little raised bunny rabbits on and so I’m knitting that. There’s a bunny head for the baby to hold. It’s in an American book, they promote their crafts better than we do. I’ve just knitted several woolly hats that are crowns for our grandchildren. I like things that are unique, such as knitted spiders, I come across them in wool shops and department stores. One of my granddaughter’s got to have an operation, so next I want to knit her a colourful blanket for when she comes home.
I knitted for Tess’ son too – a postman pat jumper and doll, I loved knitting all the characters. Tess: When this jumper came, it was amazing, I was wowed by it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a piece of artwork and I wish I’d kept it. It was very difficult to get proper wool at the time (not acrylic). What it personifies to me is love. To actually knit and spend the time for someone else, it’s an emotional thing that shows real love for the person wearing it. It’s probably the best thing you can give somebody. But, no, I still don’t want to do it myself.
Chris: People tell me I’m a very fast knitter. I have my ball of wool on the floor, and wrap it over the needle with a kind of flick. Another sister bought me a gadget to put my ball of wool on, but I couldn’t get on with it, that’s my freedom, the floor is good enough. I made the tension square for your project out of my favourite colour, purple. I did a random combination of knit and purl stitches to turn basic stitches into something more unique. I did it three times to make sure I got it exactly 10cm square. I usually know straight away whether I’ve got the right tension or not, it depends on the wool. I very rarely make a mistake, but I always undo it if it shows. It depends where the mistake is and what it looks like, as that’s my mark on it, it shows it’s mine.
I’m teaching my grandchildren now. My daughter didn’t want to know when she was young, but she does now. Every time my granddaughters come, (ages 3 and 5), we do a couple of rows together whenever I see them. The three year old is more into it. There’s a lot more access to patterns, ideas and inspirations now. Though I’ve still not seen so many children or adults in knitted garments as there used to be. It’s starting to come back, there’s more access to good wool now than there was then. It did go very expensive and exclusive and niche for a while.
There’s nothing that you can’t do with a ball of wool. You can design anything that you want, shape it, choose the colours. I find it relaxing. I like the end product, when you give someone a hand knitted garment, seeing their joy and happiness.