Teresa – tested yarn for a living

I’ll soon be the proud owner of a number plate with KN17HAT on

Learning to Knit: I learnt at school when I was 5 years old.  The first thing we ever knitted was a garter stitch scarf.  Then the second thing, which I can’t believe was the second item, we made a pair of mittens!  That wasn’t too bad, as we made it in 3 pieces, but when it came to the thumb my mother did that as she knew what she was doing, I didn’t tell the teacher though.  I was using the European method as my mother was helping me, which means I hold the yarn in my left hand and just flicked the yarn around the needle and pulled the other needle through to make a stitch.  Some of the class mittens were disasters, some came out all right.  It just depended how much support they got at home, we’d be expected to knit in class but we were nattering so you really got on with at home and you brought it back the following week.  It makes me wonder now how much the other parents did.  Now when I reflect on it, it’s fairly difficult, but Mrs Deerden thought we could do it, so we tried.

Occasionally in the afternoons when we were playing, she’d sit knitting on her machine that was set up in the corner of the classroom as we got on.  Times were different then, you could bring your knitting to work.  In the equivalent of year one, if you’d done a really nice piece of work you got rewarded with a go on it.  One week I drew an apple tree and Mrs Deerden really liked it and put it on the wall.  Then I did a second one the following week, so she let me have a go.  I was fascinated with it, you laid the thread across the needles and then moved the carriage across.  Then laid the yarn in the opposite direction and moved it back.  I loved the sound of it and the process of it.  I was absolutely engrossed in it so much so my tongue was hanging out the side of my mouth so Mrs Deerden called a couple of other teachers and the three of them were smiling at the classroom door all watching me enjoying the knitting machine. 

At home it was just us knitting.  My mother was taken from home (in Poland) at age 13 to work on a farm in Germany; she never saw her mother again.  I did have a neighbour that I would sit and knit with instead of playing out.  My brother wasn’t interested but he did have action men, so my mother devised a pattern so I could knit a jumper for them.  I didn’t do much knitting after that until I got into my teens.  Then I got ideas about jumpers I wanted to make.  I remember making a pale blue and slightly darker royal blue striped jumper whilst my mother told me what to do.  She had the design in her head, and I just followed her instructions.  She never ever used a knitting pattern, it was always her own ideas.  She’d measure me, look at the wool and work out roughly how many stitches to cast on, then add a few more to make sure it would fit loosely and not be too tight.  Then she’d tell me how long to knit for.  Quite often we’d do raglan sleeves because they were easier. 

I remember once at school seeing my friend Jill, she’d bought a lovely knitted cardigan/bomber jacket that I really liked.  So I described it to my Mother and we went to the Rochdale market and bought some brown chunky wool and she knitted one up.  We made it slightly different, I had a beige stripe and a white stripe that was one row of colour.  I turned up at school with something similar and felt very posh.  Jill didn’t seem to mind as mine was a little bit different.  I didn’t tell her my mother had copied hers, but it was appreciated that we both had something similar.

When I was growing up I remember when I was 3 or 4 my mum knitted me a dress.  Then when I grew out of it she pulled it all apart and knitted me a cardigan.  She knitted my father jumpers but I don’t remember her knitting much for herself, it was mainly for me and my brother.  Once when I was about 19, I’d gone to college and she’d thought she surprise me with this really vivid green jumper with a leaf pattern, with lurex running through it.  She’d virtually finished it and she was so excited when she showed it to me.  I didn’t dare say I thought it was hideous, I so didn’t like the colour and the sparkly bits were a bit itchy.  She kept on asking why I wouldn’t wear it and I just made excuses and eventually I had to admit it wasn’t really my thing.  I think it then got passed on to somebody else.

In my twenties it was quite fashionable to hand knit cardigans so I got into the hang of reading patterns and knitting things.  It’s nice to challenge yourself with different patterns, maybe with a pattern with a lot of lace holes in, or an Aran cardigan with cables and bobbles.  When you’re wearing your own garment it really fills you with pride when people comment on it.  I remember the first time I ever knitted with mohair I found it quite daunting because the mohair was quite long so that I couldn’t quite see if I’d formed the stitch right and I didn’t get the tension right.  I eventually turned up at work with a black mohair bolero.  Somebody that I worked with had something similar, but hers was really neat and tidy and looked more like a bolero than this oversize cardigan that I had managed to knit.  That’s when tensions became important to me and was an important learning step for the work that I did in the future.  I didn’t knit in mohair ever again, but from then I tried to get my knitting to cling nicely to the needle, not too tight but not too loose.  You’d be able to move the knitting up and down, getting a feel for how the yarn was knitting. 

I trained as a teacher, but the government then cut back so I didn’t go into teaching.  I saw a job at Wendy Wools and for a little while I worked in the warehouse as a temporary job.  But then I got talking to one of the Directors and he suggested that I came over to the design department and I had to sit down and knit with double knitting yarn to make a square.  It was all measured and they said it was just ever so slightly tighter than their standard, but they allowed me to have the job.  During that time I got married and so I became Mrs Sample, the sample knitter.  I sat knitting all day with yarn that came from abroad, that the Directors got from yarn fairs.  They would bring new yarns like boucle cotton, or yarns with a coloured thread wrapped through them, or pure angora, all sorts of things were placed on my desk. 

Knitting different yarns is fascinating.  I had to choose the size of knitting needles to use and write a report about how the yarn was knitting.  Sometimes it was difficult if it was a yarn with bobbles that were hard to pull through so I’d make a comment about that which could be used as a design feature.  In addition to knitting squares, we did use to knit small simple garments and do wash and wear tests so we could see how the yarn and the garment performed.  The reports were written on small cardboard tabs, we recorded the tension, the needle size and any observations like if the yarn kept splitting or about things that were going wrong or didn’t look right.  That would go to the Directors meeting where they’d select yarns which would go to the next season’s patterns a couple of years in advance. 

Once I was working there I’d buy yarns that couldn’t be sold to customers.  As it was being spun sometimes the balls would be a little lighter so would be put aside.  Or if there were more than 5 knots counted as it was being spun in a ball.  There was a lovely lady who used to sell them to staff.  I’d buy yarn for my husband.  I’d knit him a jumper for his birthday on the 2nd of December and then on the 3rd I’d start knitting again to make him another jumper or cardigan for Christmas just 22 days later.  Because it was a secret I was keen to knit it quickly and nicely so I was knitting in my breaks and as he worked nights I’d knit beyond 12 o’clock.  He absolutely loved getting them.  One time I did an Aran cardigan and bobble hat to go with it.  I did him an Icelandic jumper made out of chunky yarn that was similar to the Lopi wool I used to make one for myself. It had a totally different feel with barely any twist and it was quite soft.  It doesn’t split, it holds itself together. I still have bags of yarn with patterns pushed into the bag that I haven’t got round to knitting.  Now that I’m working at the Framework Knitters Museum that will inspire me to get knitting and clicking my needles.

Toby modelling

When I had children, I had a really nice French pattern book, most of them were with 3 and 4 ply so were really fine knitting.  The garments looked beautiful when they were finished.  Fortunately I had 2 sons, so the clothes got handed down so they got the wear out of them.  I remember I did one with a picture of a mouse, and its head was poking sideways.  A yarn company wanted children to pose for patterns, so I drove there with my second son.  The process of photographing seemed to take a long time, so I spoke to the lady at the desk and said I was going home, but then I was asked for Toby to put a jumper on and he ended up being on the front of a knitting pattern.  I’ve got the pattern and I did knit it, it had a lot of stripes of garter stitch.  At the time I was a little anxious that I’d not got the length right and I didn’t finish it.  I stopped knitting for them when they went to school as they wanted to wear the same kinds of things as their friends.  Though when he was older, I showed the picture to his fiancée to embarrass him.

When my eldest was little, my husband told me that he could knit.  So I found a very simple pattern for bootees in garter stitch.  So he thought it was a wonderful idea to make them for his christening.  I cast on the stitches and then he knitted away, following the pattern and kept on checking with me about what some of the letters meant, and where you’d knit two together.  He knitted the first bootee and that came out beautiful.  Then he set to knitting the second and by then he was starting to relax a little so his tension got looser.  The first one was quite small and the second was a lot bigger.  One barely fit his foot and we had to push it on, the other slipped on quite nicely and we had to tie it with ribbon to make sure it didn’t fall off.  They went in a special box with the christening gown which we’ve still got altogether.

I once knitted my father a lovely Shetland waistcoat with a lovely cable up the front and moss stitch up the sides in 4 ply.  I was really proud of it.  I gave it to my father and he seemed quite pleased though I never saw him wear it.  Later on, I went to visit again and a friend of his was wearing it.  She was a lot larger and the buttons gaped at the front.  I didn’t dare ask my father why he’d given it to her, I was horrified. 

When my grandchildren were born I knitted each one of them a jumper.  I made my granddaughter a jumper with a hood, and she had a little toy rabbit that I knitted a little waistcoat in the same yarn so they matched.  Then her little brother took the rabbit, threw the waistcoat away and now it’ his little ‘bunbun’.  I made her a circular knitted dress, that was knitted from the neck downwards. She liked it so much she even asked to wear it on hot summers days. Neither of my boys were interested but I’ve just started to teach my granddaughter to knit.  I did the first stitch on each row as that can get loose, then she knitted back and she quickly got the routine.  Then it was time for her to go home, but she still asks about it.  My neighbour has bought her some 4mm needles so we’ll get round to it again. 

When I was told you were coming and you knitted with wire that inspired me to have a go.  So I tripped off to a hardware shop and tested the wires and a white coated one seemed quite flexible so I bought that and some brass wire, both were 0.5mm.  It was fascinating to see how differently they knitted and how difficult it was as it doesn’t flow like yarn does.  I decided to devise some kind of loom with nails and little bits of tubing to shape the stitch and I made a sample of a wire square using that.  I bent the wire to form 4 or 5 stitches to form a row and then linked the next row into that.  I did manage to knit with the brass wire, but without any needles in sight by pulling the wire through.  The knowledge of how to knit and increase was put to use in the piece.  I’m busy writing up that experience and it maybe that I can produce a piece for the entrance way of the museum near the reception, but that needs to be vetted by the trustees.  Hopefully it can wrap around the column like ivy, with the brass bit growing up the column.

Recently I got two domestic knitting machines.  One of our trustees was from the family that added power to the knitting machines and almost destroyed the frame knitting industry.  He wanted this machine to go to a person who’d appreciate it.  This one has two beds, and the knitting is made in the middle.  It was quite dusty and needs some TLC before I can use it.  That same day I got a message from a lady in Derby who buys old machines and maintains them and sells them on.  I’ve done a little test knit.  I took it into the museum and a colleague used it to demonstrate how to pick up a stitch if one gets dropped.  At the moment it’s taking pride of place in my sewing room, which is going to become a knitting room.  Then as I was driving home, a car pulled in front of me and its number plate was KN17 (KNIT).  So the next night I looked on the DVLA site and found KN17HAT, so I’ve gone and ordered it.  In 2 weeks’ time I’ll be the proud owner of a sign with KNITHAT on. 

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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