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Joan – lifelong knitter for friends, family and those who need it

Aran knitting is my favourite.  I can do it in my sleep once I’ve got the pattern in my head

Learning to knit:  My mum was a great knitter, she and my aunt between them clothed me and my cousins.  My aunt was a great seamstress, my mother was better at knitting, so I always remember having little fluffy boleros.  My mother knitted for both of us, and my other cousin as well.  We were quite close in age so we were always dressed like twins.  At a young age we looked quite alike and we got mistaken for each other.

In primary school we got taught to knit and I remember knitting mittens and socks, learning to turn a heel.  In Glasgow the whole class had to learn to knit, boys and girls.  When it came to sewing or needlework, the boys didn’t do that.  There was a big tradition in Glasgow of men knitting.  I remember my grandfather saying that he had learned to knit in the trenches in WWI.  I never saw him knit though; he did watch making in his retirement, taking all the cogs and bits apart and putting them back together again. 

The first thing I remember knitting outside of primary school was a green V neck jersey for myself, for secondary school.  My mother talked me through the pattern.  After that, I don’t remember doing much other than tea cosy’s for the work sale in the church.  It wasn’t until the time we got married in 1975 that I thought knitting is quite a good thing to be doing.  I was always borrowing my mother’s knitting needles.  There was a lovely knitting shop in Broughty Ferry and my husband bought me a set of knitting needles and a bag and I still use them 40 years on.  The ones I use most often have the sizing worn off, but I know what they are based on their position in the case.  Because they’re metal they’ve got bent from tucking them under my arm. 

In the eighties I had my daughter, Lindsey; my mother knitted her christening dress and shawl and I did the patterned booties that went with it.  We lived very close to one another, so we would discuss what we might do.  I remember colour work coming in around then and I did a lovely turquoise mohair jersey with bright pink flowers on it.  I was ever so proud of that jersey.  Then the people at playgroup asked me to make Dennis the Menace jerseys for the wee boys.  I ended up knitting lots of red and black striped jerseys for them.  Lindsey was then at school so I was knitting grey cardigans with red buttons on, and ballet cardigans with ties that wrapped around and tied at the back.  I also did a Mrs Tiggywinkle jersey.  Her favourite was a ‘my little pony’ cardigan with a tail that was a tassel sewn on.  The colours were fabulous, a pale green background with grass and a pony on the back and the front.  She wore that for a long time, but when we moved house her best friends’ little sister inherited that cardigan.  I bumped into her years later, and she was still talking about it.

Knitting for welfare: I have a trapped nerve in my neck, it happened when I was knitting a black mohair jumper with a shawl collar for myself.  I had a pain all down my arm, across my chest, across my jaw and my lips were tingling.  I had to stop knitting all together as I couldn’t hold things properly.  There wasn’t any operation that would work, so I had to wait till it got better, or at least wasn’t so bad.  When I went to the pain clinic, the specialist nurse asked me what I would like to achieve, my goal was to get back to knitting.  I had to be very careful and start with little things like baby hats for the neo natal unit.  It was nice and lightweight, made with small pins, but I was only allowed to do half a dozen rows and then put it down.  This was very difficult as once I start doing something I’ve got to finish it.  I had to be very, very disciplined and take my time. 

After 2 years, as well as acupuncture I got back to finishing off the black mohair cardigan. The sense of achievement of finishing, you just wouldn’t believe. I got the wool originally from a charity shop for £6, but when I went into the haberdashers (the Sewing Station) I treated myself to a nice set of buttons that cost more than the wool. But I didn’t care. I still have it.

From that point I started knitting again, but only for a few hours each day – either afternoon or evening.  I like creating things.  I’m good at these things like baking, cooking, gardening and knitting all of which I learnt from family members.  It keeps that link between the past and present.  I don’t like to sit and do nothing.  If I’m not knitting, I’m doing something; I’m not just sitting mindlessly watching the TV.  I listen to music or an audio book and knit.  If it’s plain stocking stitch, which is exceedingly boring, I will have the telly on in the background and have a crime or adventure book on the go as well. 

I was in the craft group at church, we met once a fortnight on a Monday and we would knit things for the hospital or to sell at the different fairs.  If the hospital needed hats or little cardigans or blankets they would tell us. We did the ‘fish and chip’ jerseys.  Out in Malawi there are lots of children born who have nothing at all.  When they are born they are wrapped in newspapers so we started supplying them with what was called ‘fish and chips’ jerseys.  They’re knitted all in one piece, you start at the bottom and knit up, cast off a few stitches in the middle for the neck then pick back up and knit down the back.  You can knit it any size, any colour and any weight.  They became known as fish and chips jerseys as fish and chips used to be wrapped in newspaper.  We do bootees too, like little wellies.  Nowadays a lot go to a charity based in Glasgow which focuses on Eastern Europe as there are still children in the ‘stans, or refugee camps who have nothing. 

Knitting nowadays: My daughter does and doesn’t knit.  I never learned to crochet, though my mother tried to teach me.  It went in one ear and out the other.  If I don’t learn it straight away I’m not interested.  Lindsey is a bit like that, she couldn’t get it at first.  So we left it that I would knit anything she needed.  About 5 years ago she asked me for a set of knitting needles for Christmas, as she wanted to do an on-line course.  She was doing all these different squares and doing a small blanket.  I do all the knitting for her 21/2 year old son though, as she also works fulltime.  I’ve made him an Aran jersey and a hooded Aran jacket, as well as bobble hats, mitts – anything and everything. 

Aran is my favourite.  I remember making an Aran cardigan for everybody: my mother asked me for a white one, I had one, my mother-in-law had one, my mother’s friend had one.  Aran I can do in my sleep once I’ve got the pattern in my head.  I’m currently making an Aran for my husband.  I’m on the second sleeve.  I keep it my bag given to me by my grandson – Gran’s bag full of very important things.  It’s a textured rib, knit and purl on one row, then just purl on the reverse.  So it’s a much more open rib on the facing side.  The whole of the back is like that.  The front has cables and a lattice in the centre.  If you notice something’s not quite right after about 5 rows I undo it.  I can’t be doing with it.  The centre lattice has a double twist in each, and I noticed I’d only got one twist so I had to unravel about 10 rows.  I usually spot it before it gets too far – I just wasn’t paying attention. 

I belong to a knit and natter group that meets on a Sunday in a lovely little yarn shop called FankleFankle means to get something into a real knotted bundle, it’s very much a thing to do with yarn.  We swap ideas and it’s a gossip.  Normally we go on a Sunday afternoon but now we meet on-line and we can order things and Kathleen goes into the shop once or twice a week and then posts them out.  It’s a beautiful little shop, Kathleen puts together all sorts of ideas and before Christmas came up with knitted bunting and put together a kit to knit tiny little mittens that can be strung all together.  You put a sweetie in each mitten as an alternative advent calendar.  They’re made on 4 pins from tiny balls of wool in lovely colours.  I treated myself to one of these kits, but they’re very hard on your hands as they’re so tiny.  It takes me right back, as it’s the first time since primary school that I’ve knitted on 4 pins.  I had to have several goes at it; if we’d been able to meet f2f I could have asked someone for help, it’s not the same on zoom but it keeps my sanity going.  The knitting’s been a lifesaver during Covid.  This time last year I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, so my treatment was delayed till July.  I just finished my radiotherapy when my husband took a stroke, which affected his sight.  Knitting kept me sane whilst he was in hospital. 

Knitted Wonders:  I joined the WI and that got me knitting different things.  They have competitions locally.  The federation in the area have an annual show and you get points for all your entries, so to get your institute high up the points scale you have to enter as many different categories as you can.  I entered a child’s hooded jersey, a hot water bottle cover and a triangular scarf. 

I’ve mostly knitted garments though I’m currently making a wreath for my grandson for Easter with a bee, forget me nots and daffodils.  I’ve done others for different situations.  I did a few toys too.  One of my friends had a great niece out in Australia and she asked me to make something to fit in a cardigan pocket.  So I made five tiny little cats and a tiny koala.  I also did a red riding hood doll that turns into both the wolf and the grandma.  You turn red riding hood upside down and the big bad wolf appears from the skirt; then if you turn it around its grandma on the other side.  They’re very easy to do these things, they don’t take long though they’re fiddly. This year I’ve been doing little red hearts, as people couldn’t visit others in hospital or care homes.  One heart went to the person in the home/hospital, the other stays with their relative. 

I’ve never done any yarn bombing, but one of the Prestwick church groups knits angels at Christmas and puts them on the railings for people to come and take home.  The most public knitting I’ve done was when I was secretary for Broughty Ferry in bloom.  It was coming up to the hundredth anniversary of the end of WWI and one of my friends in Aberdeen had decided that she would knit poppies for an installation in her part of the world.  So I wondered if we could do something as a group that would involve our castle.  It snowballed, all the churches took it up.  All the churches had installations both indoors and outdoors as well as at the library, we had knitted poppy installations everywhere.  The local wool shops ran out of red wool and had to re-order.  People handed in purple poppies to remember the animals and the horses too.  Then there was a big debate over white poppies and whether to include them.  We felt that if people had taken the time to make and send them, that we should, as they stand for peace.

My artist friend got hold of some jute nets and we got permission from Historic Scotland to hang these nets covered in individual poppies from the curtain wall of the castle.  We had afternoons hand sewing them individually on to the nets at my house and the library and other venues.  We had pipers playing on the opening ceremony and children from the secondary and nursery school, the Lord Provost and the MSPs in attendance, it was great fun but a lot of hard work.  When it was over it went into storage, though a military historical society have now asked if they can have it so it will go to them.

Thank you to Joan for generously sharing her knitted life with me; you can follow her knitting adventures on Facebook or Twitter on @joan_chalmers

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Published by jencableart

Jen Cable is a mixed media textile artist who loves to draw attention to the outmoded, fabulous, awful and bizarre aspects of culture and everyday society

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