Thursday, November 3, 2011

In honour of Wovember - and Wool

Kate Davies and Felicity Ford have started a campaign to honour the wonder of pure wool - and to try to prevent advertizers from naming things which have NO WOOL at all - or a very little bit (like 5%) as wool. Repeat the mantra: Only wool is wool, and wool comes from sheep.
I have two stories to contribute. I grew up in a knitting home. My mum was a knitter, and so was her mom. They knit very fast - I know that they held their knitting differently than I do, and I know that, had I learned this properly, I would knit more quickly. Be that as it may. It's too late now.
We had (still have) a local woollen mill - MacAuslands - where materials for home knitting were sourced. They also produced (and still produce) the 100% wool blankets we slept under, and under which we - and our children - sleep every night.

In addition to knitting for our family, my mum would knit mittens and socks for her lobster-fisher brothers. They knew the value of the warm-when-wet properties of wool. I remember, as a child, being amazed at the huge size of the mittens she produced for the fishers - and commenting on it. She explained that she was allowing for shrinkage. In a very short time these mittens would be fulled by water - and warm hands, and work - to a windproof, warm, individually fitting, enclosure for hands.
When I was older, I used to go out on the boat - once each spring - to watch the process, and I saw these mittens in action. They would be drenched in salt water - dripping - but would keep hands warm and flexible as they hauled traps, opened doors and pulled lobsters out of the "parlour", and then added pieces of the bait - usually rotten-looking salt herring - to the bait spike. Then the door would be closed, the trap would be lined up with its fellows on the washboard, and, when all was ready, be pushed off again by mittened hands, to lie in wait for the next lot of lobsters. Amazing that all these jobs could be done by hands encased in mittens! And I'll bet that their hands were warmer than they are in the stiff waterproof gloves they use now. 
Mittens were even worn for the more dainty jobs - like "sizing", or measuring the lobsters - the "markets" for the restaurant trade, the "canners" for the factory, and the "Michauds" (named for the Fisheries Minister who brought in minimum lobster size regulations) to be flung back into the ocean for further growth. I don't think the mittens were thick enough to prevent hands from being "nipped" by the lobster's claws. My uncles treated the lobsters with respect for the danger, and held them carefully.
Wool from MacAuslands came in natural colours - off white and light, medium and dark grey. But mittens and socks for fishers had to be white. Grey was bad luck - and when you make your living on the sea, you need all the luck you can get.

My other wool story comes from 2010, on a trip to Ireland in April. We saw sheep everywhere - wild on the hills and roads in Connemara, in fields in Galway, Clare and Cork - with their tiny, beautiful, lively lambs. I wanted so much to photograph them, but discovered that, in Ireland, scenic lookoffs or even places to pull over are few and far between - and rarely do they take account of people wanting to photograph sheep. So I have quite a few blurry photos taken from the moving Mac Dubh (our rental car) and a few shots from when we were walking past a sheep pasture. Then, on our very last day with the car, en route from Galway to Dublin, we saw a pasture with a stopping spot, and I finally got a chance to take my photos. Voila: the sheep and lambs of Ballinasloe.
I did manage to buy some real knitting wool, Donegal tweed, from Ireland, in a shop in Clifden. The ultimate souvenir.
Happy Wovember. Happy knitting with wool.

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