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Matthew – a critically endangered frame knitter

I turned off all the lights and tried to knit by candle light but the quality just plummeted

Learning to knit:  My grandmother started working at the Framework Knitters museum and made some great and long-term, close family friends there such as Milla.  She did the circular machines and he did the frames.  My first trip round the museum would have been in the first few months of me being born.  I even had a birth shawl made at the museum for me, it was a navy blue background with a white layer of lace in front of it.

I’ve been a part of the museum since I was fifteen and have had machine knitting in my life for eleven years.  I was never one to do amazing in school, not being academically gifted in terms of grades.  For year ten work experience my mum suggested asking Milla to be part of the museum team.  I got a little bit of experience on the sock machines; it’s a really easy place to start as all you need is to wind the handle.  I had to spend the first two days of the week with those who hadn’t bothered to get work experience placements as the museum opens Wednesday through Sunday.  If I remember rightly it didn’t even count as work experience as I didn’t get to do a full 5 days that lined up with the school week.

Not long after that I did my Duke of Edinburgh awards through the boy’s brigade so I signed up as a volunteer in late 2010.  I started learning to use the frame knitting machines at the museum in the winter when we’re closed for machine maintenance as part of my skills component for the silver award.  I asked Milla to teach me, assuming he was going to focus on the circular machines but he took me straight onto the frames.  With the frames, you can either learn them properly or learn them quickly.  Milla (and now I) always teach people to do it properly so it took a good while to actually start knitting.  I started off with knitted lace, eyelet hole type of work.  On the frames it’s very easy to pick a stitch up off the needle and move it on to the next needle to make simple shapes.  Early on, and with very little co-ordination I did my name in lace across it. Most of my role now is demonstrating, but I do make quite a lot of things as well.  I primarily focus on different lace patterns as you can get all sorts of effects dependent on the direction you move the stitch and the spacing.  More recently I’ve got a lace bar working.  The advantage is that you can transfer 30 stitches in one go so it really speeds things up.  When the original knitters realised that they could do that, it led to bigger and better shawls. 

I got a friend to teach me hand knitting to add context to my role here as framework knitting stemmed from hand knitting.  I can do it a little bit, but I’m not amazingly good at it.  Mostly I do frame knitting; I’ve got two circular sock machines of my own at home; a rotary V bed that is operated by a turning handle with a really long reach and I’ve recently got a domestic knitting machine.  It turns out that it’s the same brand as my Nan had (knitmaster). 

At the museum we encourage people to be creative and do what they enjoy.  So everything I do fits in with that.  I like the things I make to have a use but I still like what I make to inspire other people and look nice.  My ideas come from traditional pattern books, mainly from the museum artefacts to fit in with the rest of the museum.  Sometimes when I’m being filmed I just improvise and experiment.  I start free-flow and then make decisions based on how it looks.  I continue if I like it, if not I add what I think is missing; for example leaving spaces or adding dots.  I do follow a few crafts people on-line.  I can then bring different techniques that I see to test how I can push the machines.  Ever once in a while I see something that I might be able to do on one of our machines, like modifying a hand knitting pattern for a bunny so I could do it on the sock machine. 

I’m now starting stockings as with our refurbishment I’ve got a frame ready.  I’m going to knit a plain pair first.  One pair I make will become the Ruddington community stocking for people to sew a little pattern or their initials on it.  They won’t match and I don’t want them too – but it will make a lovely feature for the museum.  I’m going to make another two on our finer gauge machines.  One will be sewn and one left flat to hang in the manager’s office at the museum.  They are going to be as close as I can make them to the samples that we have on site.

I’ve made all sorts of things using my own machines at home.  Recently I did a pair of Argyll socks. I made a sample one to show how it would turn out and then I made its pair in a live demonstration to about 250 people.  I plan out in advance the stitch size, the stitches, how to bind it off at the end and where the buffers and flat zones need to be.  I don’t usually make a matching pair of socks; I’m the kind of person who always wants to try something different so by the time I’ve made the first one I’ve got some new ideas and I don’t want to do it again.  I’ll try a different heel technique for example.  There’s no point knitting the whole thing, I do the part I need to experiment.  I re-use a lot of the yarn as it keeps the cost down and also eliminates waste.  For example I make the diamonds (in the Argyll pattern) out of odds and ends left over from other projects.    

Knitted wonders: I did a 14 hour continuous piece of knitting to raise money for the museum, by replicating the original knitters’ work day.  I started at 8am with a radio interview and finished at 10pm at night.  I knitted free flow, lace patterns randomly, having fun.  It looks very, very tatty but this last piece was when I turned off all the lights and tried to knit by candle light like the framework knitters would have done.  Earlier the piece was very nice, but by candlelight the quality just plummeted.  For the last hour I just knitted through without stopping despite needles and yarn breaking, for course after course after course, I raised almost £1,900.

My latest project was working with a local primary school to make a big shawl.  It was done with smaller designs contributed by every child.  I mapped their designs onto a piece of graph paper to include something from everyone.  It was a big thing to plan and there are mistakes, but I try my best to fix them as I go along.  I’ve never been good with the sewing side, so it’s easier to fix things on the frame rather than afterwards.  I’m now working on a museum NHS appreciation piece.  There is a series of little hearts in the middle of a big lace heart.  By the time I finish there will be the NHS logo added using Swiss darning.  

Looking ahead: Framework knitting has been critically endangered for decades.  There are very few framework knitters out there, even overseas.  It’s almost exclusively a UK craft now.  A few years ago I was the only frame knitter left, with 20 machines to use.  I started building up a team of enthusiasts from scratch that’s now up to 7-8 people.  The teaching was originally informal, but we now meet on Sunday mornings before we open to the public.  It takes months and months of practice, slowly building up, to learn how to do one thing and gain control over the machine.  It’s really rewarding when you see someone do a first perfect row, not a single blemish.  That makes it worth it to me. 

I still remember my first demonstration at the museum.  Milla had not long left and I was on my own.  I was that nervous that I almost couldn’t knit.  I’d not long turned sixteen and I have a bit of a stutter and I could barely talk or do anything even though only one person was watching.  Now I could happily handle a room of 20-30 people, or I can demonstrate live to 250.  More recently I’ve started a job at Nottingham Trent University using their Dubied machines.  I’ve realised that my historic expertise is still relevant to the latest machines.  In fact, the older machines are a finer gauge than the new ones with 20 -28 stitches per inch rather than 14.  For me, starting at 15, to now understanding this incredibly expensive piece of kit, that has opened my eyes to what could be possible.  I’m not quite sure when it happened, but I seem to be on a career in the knitting industry.

Visit: The Framework Knitters Museum in Ruddington is a unique surviving example of a 19th century framework knitters’ yard that has been lovingly restored as a living history museum.  The Knitted Lives project will be live at the museum from 22nd to 24th October 2021.  Come and join us in a celebration of knitted wonders and horrors.

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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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