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Nancy – loves doing things for other folk

There’s only one thing I hate and that’s knitting socks, it’s the work of the devil

Learning to knit:  My mum taught me to knit, when I was 5 and in hospital.  I was so bored, even though I could read I needed something else to do.  She bought me the double knitting wool and a pair of needles and I made a scarf.  I very quickly moved on to doing other things as I was watching my mum who was always knitting.  My Dad taught me to sew, he had TB as a boy and lay in the sanatorium for over three years.  During that time he was taught to be a kilt maker.  He gave me my first sewing machine when I was 16.   It was second hand and made in the year that I was born, he serviced it and it ran up until a couple of years ago.  I did do a bit of crochet as a teenager, but I’ve struggled with it since having brain damage.  I can’t read the patterns.  I wish I could as it grows much quicker. 

Mum was taught to knit in the Shetland Islands during the war, as her dad was moved nearby.  She used to knit for a knitwear company, they would send her machine knitted jumpers up to the arm holes and she would add the fair-isle yoke for 50p.  My dad made a leather belt for her with a pouch for each ball of wool all around it.  She would stand there with her circular needle, never looking at the knitting whilst she chatted to neighbours doing a fair-isle pattern with over twenty colours.  In the early eighties I knitted a patterned jumper for my niece, but the wool loops on the back were never as flat and smooth as my mum could make it.  People still comment that they would just watch her knit for hours as she was so amazing.

I always struggled with a circular needle, but mum believed you weren’t a real knitter until you could use a circular needle.  There’s only one thing I hate more and that’s knitting socks, it’s the work of the devil.  I can’t’ get a rhythm with the four or five needles for the pattern.  There’s no reason for knitting socks.  My son wanted kilt socks to wear at an event at University so I made him a pair, but he never asked again. 

Mum also made our plain school jumpers as well as fair-isle jumpers for friends who asked.  She never took money for her time, just to cover the cost of the wool.  She just liked to see folk wearing them.  There’s many photographs of the seven of us in matching fair-isle jumpers that she made part on her own machine and part hand knitting.  I used to hand knit the rib for my mum before she put it on the machine.  I always used Fisherman’s rib so it would stretch back into shape if it got wet, or they went overboard.  It’s a twisted rib, and is more springy than a normal rib.  Every family had their own pattern so the men could be identified. They had different shades of blue too.  My family is a blue two, then each man would have a different pattern.  I have a lot of my gran’s patterns as she came from a fishing family (on my dad’s side).  My granny kept the first fair-isle jumper my mum ever knitted for her.  It was a mustard cardigan that she wore all the time.  I found it in the drawer after granny died.

Mum got dementia but she could still remember her knitting.  Right up to the day she died I would deliberately take her some knitting with a mistake in it, and ask her to fix it.  For those thirty minutes I would get my mum back. 

Neither of my other two sisters knitted.  One did crochet and a lot of embroidery; the other was a baker.  We used to go to a crochet group as kids, to make blankets for Africa.  After the first scarf, I did panels and made a skirt.  I worked out the Kitchener stitch myself from a book as I was struggling with the panels and I use it all the time now where I can.  To me, it gives such a good clean seam.  My school friend made a knitted skirt and it got longer and longer and longer when it rained. We still laugh about it.  She hadn’t ever seen anyone knit as much as my mum did. 

Then I moved on to doing jumpers and gifts for the family of hats and scarves.  I don’t know how many pairs of mittens I knitted over the years.  There was a lot of make do and mend during the sixties when I was growing up.  I remember wanting a pair of hot pants when I was 13 and my mother told me ‘I’m not paying that for something that barely covers your backside, if you want them you’ll have to make some’ so I made some out of an old pair of curtains. 

I made a shawl for my wedding day, it was a lace pattern.  A little thicker than a baby shawl.  I took some of the lace patterns from Fishermen’s patterns for shawls and turned it into a triangular shawl/wrap to go over my shoulders.  It got used by four other brides so over the years my dress was taken up, let out, taken in.  I think the last bride was my cousin and she might still have the shawl.

I made a polar bear rug for the first grandchild of a friend of mine at work.  They’ve still got it and it’s the third baby using it now.    I had no pattern so I just decided how big to make it as I went along.  I sourced a furry kind of wool and experimented.  As I was making it, it grew arms and legs.  It ended up so big that the head of the polar bear was bigger than my own.  I put calico on one side, so it wouldn’t slide on their wooden floor boards.  I attached the head with Velcro so it could be removed for washing.  I just invented the head based on Teddy heads that I’ve knitted in the past, so I knew what kind of sections would be needed.  I just manipulated it into the shape that I wanted.  I had made a sewn Teddy in school out of mohair over forty years ago.  The teacher was really worried as the fabric was so expensive so I made loads of templates before making the final bear.

Politics and Knitting My great grandmother came from a very humble background as a farmer’s wife.  She was a member of the church guild in the village where the Earl’s wife was also member.  She came every week and it was her that got everyone interested in the suffragette movement and brought Fawcett’s ideas to the group up from London.  She arranged for everyone in the group to go to a march in Glasgow.  My great grandfather looked after their five children as he realised that it was important to her to be able to go.  Some of the elders accompanied them.  They went on a bus, then a train, then to a boarding house for the night.  My granny said it was amazing to be part of something like that.  She cared passionately about women getting the vote and recognised that the key to hard working men like her husband getting the vote, was women getting the vote.  Before they went, they made banners and dresses with five pockets to carry everything they needed to go on the march. 

Before the poppy became the flower symbolising remembrance, the women of society came up with the idea of donating a single pearl from their own necklaces as a fund raiser for the Red Cross.  Women like my granny donated pearls from brooches and necklaces that had been handed down.  My granny’s women’s guild managed to send away 52 pearls.  It was a huge sacrifice for them, as they didn’t have much in the way of jewellery or money.  It was one of the times that knitting and sewing have gone hand in hand with politics.

I do knitting to fund raise for the Conservative women’s society.  We have a couple of events a year with a guest speaker as well as have raffles and a sales table.  I contribute knitted stuff and co-ordinate collection of other knitted items.  I mainly do toys (sloths, teddies, rabbits) as well as Christmas wreaths.  So when there is a female standing for council or another position we are able to support her campaign. 

Knitted Installations: I’ve done a lot of public projects with the Women’s Institute, the Brownies and the Guides but the biggest one was in 2018 when I was involved in an Armistice project.  It arose on a Friday night after a few glasses of wine with friends we decided to make an installation.  We speculated that we could make 1,000 poppies, but then one person put it on FB and the press picked it up.  In a couple of weeks we had 5,000 and then it grew and we thought we might get 10,000 and in the end it led to over 26,000 poppies being sent in.  It was a talking point for months. 

After that I wanted to do something for D day, so I made a poppy bride.  In the run up to D Day so many of the soldiers got married, but didn’t return.  I wanted to symbolise the foot prints of the men and their brides left behind.  I bought the dummy on Amazon and made a fitted dress out of an old one of my own and individually sewed on over 3,000 poppies.  My dad made me a wooden tray with cement foot prints.  The poppy bride went all over Scotland that year, finally a privately run military museum on the outskirts of Edinburgh asked for it, and it’s still there.

We forget how important the local economy is, lockdown reminded us of this.  In our town, Peterhead, we’ve been the biggest deep sea fishing port in Europe for the last forty years but we just don’t celebrate it.  During Covid a lot of local fishermen would sell fish straight from the boat and deliver to your house, like it used to be when I was a child.   I have a friend who is a trawler man so I knitted hats to give to the fishing crews as well as face masks with fish on them for his workers.  He asked me to make some knitted items for his best customers, so I took a couple of the fisherman’s traditional patterns and made fingerless gloves and scarves to go in with his fish deliveries.  I asked him to supply the wool, then I would make them for free so we could showcase what our community is about.  It showed how we pulled together. 

It’s the 100th anniversary this year of the herring fishing industry as well as that of the fisherman’s mission in Peterhead.  The mission would help any fishermen, now they mostly help Filipinos and Africans who have nowhere to live.  I’ve started making enquiries to see if people would be interested in marking it.  We were going to do a big display of knitted things celebrating our sea food last year, but it got delayed by Covid.  I’ve got a box of fish and star fish already done, we’re hoping to do it this year instead. 

Knitting and mental health: I just love doing things for other folk.  I’m involved in a few groups on FB, and local WhatsApp groups.  We use knitting to raise awareness of mental health or homelessness.  My church group does knitting for the homeless charity for Aberdeen, we make knitted hats and scarves, as well as collect coats.  I always believe you should try and help.  During Covid I got involved in making scrubs and face masks.  I also knitted hearts a lot of hearts, one for the patient on a ventilator and one for their family as a shared prayer. 

I’m a mental health advocate for my company.  I encourage people to try a craft, to try to make something.  I ran a learning lunch that was the most attended of the year.  It was a long time since I’d done any public speaking, so I wanted to talk about something I was passionate about.  I got fantastic feedback and comments.  I didn’t just speak about knitting and sewing but also about all the other crafts that my family has been involved in such as carpentry (my dad) and my stained glass work that I made when living in London.  I taught my daughter in law to knit when she was a teenager; my son and she were childhood sweethearts; she asked me to show her how.  Now they’re married they foster her younger half-sister.  She was always looking sad and withdrawn, but I showed her how to sew and her face just lights up now. 

Current Knitting: Knitting has waxed and waned a lot over the years.  When I was a teenager it wasn’t hip.  It was the older families that wore fair-isle.  We’ve only got one knitwear company left, but it doesn’t have a shop.  Once a year they open up the warehouse for a clearance.  You can’t get wool from them though.  I think back to my mum getting 50p per yoke yet they charge a few hundred pounds for their knitwear.

At the moment I’m making a mixed media picture and I’ve knitted lots of wildflowers.  I want to create the sense of walking through a blue-bell wood.  There’ll be trees and tiny wee blue-bells and forget me nots; they were my mum’s favourite flowers.  I’d quite like to finish it with free hand quilting, but I don’t know if it will work on canvas. 

I belong to a crafting group, we spend 2-3 hours together on a Friday evening.  One of my friends from there had thought knitting was boring until she became a mother.  Now she gets fleece from the neighbours’ sheep, and creates a lot of traditional stuff with a modern twist.   There are a lot of young designers that are into that.  Though quite often I want to comment ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’.  It was one of my mum’s comments to me when I made a dress that was too short. 

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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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