Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Yorkshire Day Special - The Terrible Knitters Of Dent

William Wiberforce image courtesy
of Bridgeman Art Gallery
The first of August is Yorkshire Day, 24 hours to celebrate all that's great about this northern English region, from its history to its culture, food (Yorkshire pud anyone?) and its artisan beer. I may not live in Yorkshire any more but am proud to be born and bred a (South) Yorkshire lass.

This date was chosen to commemorate the work of Yorkshire MP William Wilberforce, who passionately campaigned against slavery. The first of August is the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire, which legally took place in 1834.

Wool has long played a part in Yorkshire's commercial and cultural history, with the region's mills, particularly in West Yorkshire, becoming a backbone of the industry spinning yarns to send out across the Empire. Whilst by the 1990s the wool industry was on its knees due to globalisation and cheap, foreign competitors, the twenty-first century saw the rise of smaller companies - such as Baa Ram Ewe whose first Yorkshire 4ply wool Titus is celebrating its fifth birthday - seeking to cater to the growing army of knitters who want British yarns spun and dyed in this country using local fleeces.

The popularity of wool has come full circle. From the 1960s onwards the population may have been bedazzled by cheap yarns from abroad made with petrochemicals but now wool has won out with its natural properties, local provenance and not an oil barrel in sight.

The Terrible Knitters of Dent

To celebrate Yorkshire Day here's an abridged version of a feature I wrote for a magazine a few years ago about the North Yorkshire knitters of Dent whose entire livelihoods revolved around knitting:

From dawn till dusk; alone or communally around a fire during long, dark, Winter evenings; whilst walking to neighbours or lying in bed; for the men, women and children of Dent knitting was a round the clock activity.

In the North Yorkshire Dales from the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century the domestic knitting industry was a vital source of income for rural communities. The village of Dent made a name for itself for producing high-quality hand-knitted stockings, jerseys, caps and gloves, knitted from local fleece. They used very thin needles for intricate lace and fair isle garments. Knitting, although not a lucrative business, provided much-needed income, usually on top of another family activities such as farming.

The economy of the area was heavily-reliant on sheep. Carriers would go round the Dales delivering wool (known as bump) and collect the items knitted from the last batch. Bump was oily and off white, marking the garments as from that region. Dent knitters' knitters reputation spread as far as the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, who said of them "They er terrible knitters e' Dent". In dialect this meant they were great knitters, not that they possessed poor knitting skills!

Image courtesy of Dent Village Museum & Heritage Centre
Children were expected to play a part in contributing to the family income and as such learned their craft at an early age whether they liked it or not. Adam Sedgwick, who hailed from Dent and rose to become a Professor of Geology at Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote in his 19th century memoirs that knitting schools were set up in farmhouses for local children. Poor children were taught knitting as a way of earning a living in those days when there were no factories or mines competing for workers.

Not all villagers relished their craft. In Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby's book The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, published in 1951, one elderly lady, Mrs Crabtree, recalled that in her childhood she and her sister were given by the family a quota of knitting to complete each day.  She usually took two days. One Christmas day as a special treat her father finished her knitting for her so she could go out and play.

Knitting was a social as well as a solo activity. Neighbours would gather together in the winter in front of a peat fire to share warmth and the local gossip. Dent houses had a wooden gallery at first floor level where knitters could watch others go by.  Sometimes the knitters would sing, knitting along to the tune's rhythm.

Needles were known locally as 'pricks' and the villagers knitted in a fashion called 'swaving', rocking backwards and forwards as they knitted. This was a different method from how we conventionally knit today. Industrious villagers would even knit when walking to run errands or visit friends. Double pointed needles could be held in a wooden sheath (known as a stick) secured by a belt, leaving the knitter to knit solely with one hand. This left the knitter free to do another task as well such as butter churning. Surely this was the ultimate in multi-tasking!

Knitting sticks were often personalised tokens of affection. A custom for courting couples was for the man to make a personalised knitting stick for his betrothed as a love token. The aforementioned Mrs Crabtree may or may not have been offended when her father made her a knitting stick in case she didn't get married and didn't therefore receive one from a lover.

The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales gathered much of the information we know today about Dent's knitting history.  The authors told the stories of the last remaining Dent residents who remembered the customs and knitting practices of the region.  "It was the elderly people who knitted to the last and with them have gone almost but not quite all memories of the centuries-old industry". 

As industry mass-produced woollen items at a cheaper price and villagers found alternative employment the local knitting traditions began to die out. Yet Dent still holds its crafty heritage dear, celebrating its past. The parish church contains a wonderful wool embroidery of the Knitters of Dent and Dent Heritage Centre displays information and objects from the village's textile history.

Coming soon on this blog ...

UK knitting holidays - including a very covetable one in Yorkshire - and the Autumn pattern collection from The Fibre Co. 




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