We sat down with Penelope to find out more about 'The Knitting Genealogist'
When did you learn to knit?
I was taught to knit when I was five, by my mum. She was a farmer’s daughter and, looking back, I realised I learned to knit in a kind of continental style – so I suspect this is how my grandmother and great-grandmother knitted. Mum was left-handed and I’m right. I sat on the front doorstep, knitting and was too lazy/impatient to knit anything with long rows, so I made this long strip of garter stitch from bright pink wool. Mum used the rest to knit my toy rabbit a pair of hot pants!
When a neighbour passed by, and asked what I was knitting, I said the first thing that came into my head: “A dog lead!” I couldn’t cast off, so never finished it; I was also a bit of a tomboy, so I think I forgot all about knitting soon after – I would rather be climbing trees and riding my bike. My mum died when I was a child, so I don’t recall picking up the needles again until I was in my twenties.
What was the first original piece of knitwear you ever created?
A bad Fair Isle for my husband, in the 1980s, based on one of the patterns in Paton’s Woolcraft. Typically, I was knitting one of the plain raglan jumpers but decided to go off piste and added in some Fair Isle patterning. It was too big for him, and looked awful, but he wore it with pride (or out of fear!).
When did you first become interested in knitting history, and which areas/periods of history most fascinate you?
When I was 18, I became involved in historical re-enactments, and got in right at the start of the movement that became ‘Living History’. I was one of only two women in the first ever living history camp. It quickly became obvious when we were doing events that we’d need to find a role for ourselves, and I wanted to be a craftsperson. I wanted to be a weaver but we couldn’t afford a big floor loom or travel about with one, so I settled on spinning, instead.
Interest in spinning led to an interest in the history of the wool trade generally, and much later, after Richard Rutt’s ‘The History of Hand-Knitting’ came out, an interest in knitting history. As a feminist, I was always fascinated by the role of women in history, and women in the textile trade were quite typical of women in society, generally.
When did you set up your blog, The Knitting Genealogist, and what topics do you like to explore on the blog?
I started TheKnittingGenie.com around 2010. I like to cover all kinds of things, and it is quite tricky as it straddles genealogy/history and crafts, so it has two distinct audiences, that sometimes overlap and sometimes don’t.
I have done a lot of research on the history of 18th and 19th century asylums and the crafts that went on in them; inevitably that has led to a lot of looking at the role of women in these societies – the Georgian era is my real passion.
One of my favourite posts ever was a look into the extraordinary life of a woman called Lorina Bulwer, who spent a few decades of her life in her local asylum and, whilst there, produced the most amazing embroidered ‘rants’ – like emails from the past. I uncovered some new material in the search for Lorina, and that led to the blog being recommended reading for people on the Workers’ Educational Association history courses.
Textiles generally interest me, but mainly knitting. I also hit the mother lode when, during routine research in the archives, I stumbled on the story of one of the ‘terrible knitters of Dent’ in an asylum in York, Margaret Thwaite. Margaret continued to try to knit during the seven decades she was incarcerated.
I also cover a lot of pragmatic things like how to sort and wash raw wool, and a great deal on natural dyeing – I’ve been dyeing since 1984. I’m still actively researching the old hand knitters of the Dales and inland ganseys, and write a fair bit about the history of the wool trade. I’m about to write a piece about Portuguese Knitting, as I have been knitting this way for a few years now; whenever I do workshops or demos, knitting at shows, it intrigues knitters so much that they want to learn how to do it!
Ebiezzer is Penelope's modern feminine gansey pattern from her book 'River Ganseys'.
Tell us about your position of Writer/Crafter in Residence at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming – what does that involve?
At the moment, we’re developing workshops we hope to run at the Museum, on various aspects of spinning, dyeing and knitting. I also visit other museums and heritage sites, and consult on their textiles. I’m interested in methods of supported knitting (knitting sticks and Shetland knitting belts) and am always happy to demonstrate these to curators/museum staff, with a view to helping them understand items in their collections.
This year, we took some of the Museum’s fleece (some from sheep in prize-winning flocks, which we’re very proud of) to Armley Mills Wool Week in Leeds, where we raised enough money for the Museum to cover the cost of shearing their sheep. I’m also now starting to source rare breeds raw wool, for our various demos, next year.
Your new book, ‘River Ganseys’, was published in 2015 by Cooperative Press. What was the theme behind the book, and what was the most interesting discovery you made while researching the book?
Coastal ganseys had been written about a fair bit, in several really great books over the years. But they rarely had the scope to be able to more than touch on inland ganseys, so we attempted to put that right with ‘River Ganseys’. Research there is ongoing. Our biggest challenge was finding old images of inland ganseys, because the rivers and canals were simply less touristy and scenic, and so didn’t attract the calibre of photographer, as could be found at the seaside!
There were so many interesting discoveries – as ever – but one of my favourite things was uncovering the information about the superstitions around ganseys in the Hull area (such as never wear green) and the significance of some of the motifs like the Eye of God, which was meant to protect a loved one at sea.
My great-aunt lived in a house inland, next to the river, that had a staircase that was brought from a vessel, and I always remember as a child being fascinated that she had an outside loo (literally a hole bored into the rock over the river) so indoors had a ‘gozunder’ (potty) which had the Eye of God on it... I also had the revelation that the famous Humber Star motif – the only gansey motif truly local to only one area of the UK – was probably based on the Methodist Bethel Star, so many of the old river mariners were Methodists.
What was your involvement with Cooperative Press’s recent reissue of the classic 1951 book ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’?
I wrote to the former publisher, who told me they had no plans to re-publish, but put me in contact with a lovely relative of Miss Hartley, one of the book’s authors, who held the rights to the book. She graciously allowed Cooperative Press to re-publish.
I set about researching Misses Hartley and Ingilby, so I could add an introduction putting them in context. For knitters, they were the writers of the classic book, but here in Yorkshire, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters’ was just one of over thirty books they published. Marie Hartley was an illustrator, and artist, trained at Slade School of Art. They had a wide circle of literary friends and were wonderful women.
I tracked down their archive at the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in Leeds, and spent time trawling through their papers. I also did some research at the Dales Countryside Museum – started by Marie, when she needed to re-home her huge collection of 19th century knitting paraphernalia. As I sat in the back room of the museum, I got chatting to a man who turned out to have been Marie’s neighbour. I wanted to give the writers their due and a context.
We also spent a considerable period of time at the Wordsworth Trust (they have the most interesting of the extant Dales knitting) and reconstructed the earliest dated glove, “G.Walton, 1846”. I worked with Tom van Deijnen and ‘Corvid’ to figure out how the gloves were made, so the book also includes the pattern. As a bonus, I also used my genealogy skills and tracked down the “G. Walton” – or the most likely candidate. So the book is the original 1951 edition, but with an added Introduction and Appendices. It was a labour of love for me.
Do you have a favourite design from your portfolio?
I’m working on a gansey at the moment, which is my favourite. It is reverse-engineered from my favourite photo ever of a gansey, that I found in a book many years ago. But I am trying out a new (to me) sleeve treatment, based on Swedish traditional knitting. It is quite sparse in design and elegant (I think). And a gansey I have longed to knit ever since I first saw the Victorian photo of it. I’m using a DK yarn instead of the traditional 5ply guernsey. I have a soft spot for my first-ever published gansey, a child’s Humber Star called Sunk Island, from a place on the Humber where a fisherman ancestor of mine, was born.
'Sunk Island' for children is Penelope's first-ever published gansey pattern.
What has been your proudest achievement?
Something not designed by myself but reverse-engineered – The General Carleton Hat. It’s a copy of a hat found in the shipwreck of a Whitby ship, sunk in 1785. So many living history people have made a version! It was published in ‘Piecework’ magazine in 2014. It’s a crazy-looking hat – I wouldn’t walk down the street in it! But people do... I reverse-engineered the hat by documenting the original in a dark display case, at the Captain Cook Museum in Whitby, and by using photos kindly sent me by other researchers.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received from another knitter or designer?
Work. Work hard. Never give up. Always moving ahead to the next thing.
Do you have a favourite yarn?
Currently, I am loving Dovestone DK from Baa Ram Ewe. I was lucky enough to be at their season launch where they launched some new colours, and the gradient natural greys Aran is to die for. I have a soft spot for them as their shop is close to the place my dad was born, but also they name the Dovestone yarns after places I grew up with. They just happen to be great yarns, designed and made in Yorkshire, using native breeds so as a handspinner, I love that.
What do you have on your needles today?
Three things. A Fair Isle for my next book, which has a ‘Yorkshire’ theme to it; something inspired but probably slightly off the wall.
The Dovestone DK gansey – I have knitted many ganseys but this is my all-time favourite (although I probably always say that).
And one of my ‘never-ending stockings’ with Wendy Roam sock yarn. I work on this at demos and living history events, but get distracted talking to people so, like Penelope in the Odyssey, have to unravel it afterwards and re-knit... I’m nearly at the toe. I think this is its third year.
Find more of Penelope's work at www.theknittinggenie.com