Friday 4 October 2019

Review Of This Golden Fleece By Esther Rutter

Cover image courtesy of Granta
Imagine quitting an unsatisfying office job to spend a whole year to spend travelling around the British Isles to find out about the country's wool history and local patterns and traditions. That's what Esther Rutter did, and in doing so traced the meaning of thousands of years of Britons, right back to the Stone Age, spinning the hair of sheep and goats to knit and weave cloth and clothes.

Each chapter is centred around a particular garment Rutter decides to knit. She traces the history of it and its relationship with an area place or tradition, showing how people's use and affinity with wool has differed culturally depending on where they lived. 

Rutter, who has been a knitter for more than 20 years, writes lyrically, immediately drawing the reader into her descriptions of time and landscape. See her musings on some Shetland Heritage yarn she received the Christmas before her journey: 
"I took a sniff. A strong outdoor smell, rich and greasy, caught my nostrils. It was as unmistakably sheep funk, the same scent fro Heald Brow wood. Woolly fibres waved and snaked away from the yarn's central strand, black flecked with white, cream specks on brow. This was soft and study Shetland oo, the w and I clipped off the English word."
Author image courtesy of Jenny Brown Associates
Since the Bronze Age much of the country's wealth has come from sheep's fleece. Rutter begins her journey in the Wordsworth Museum in Cumbria looking at exquisitely patterned gloves knitted by Dentdale knitters, a place that falls within both the county of Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Dent knitters use a speed style called swaving, knowing that the more items they produced the more they got paid.

She goes on to more locations with her personal challenge to knit a different item a month including the Gansey - although the name hails from the Channel Islands it was worn by fisherman in many communities across Britain although local same-colour patterns would differ - a knitted bikini inspired by the knitted undergarment history of Hawick in the Borders, and a Monmouth cap.

During her journey Rutter discovers facts such as that the Soay is Britain's oldest native sheep breed dating back to the Iron Age; the writer Virginia Woolf used knitting to help her during periods of mental distress; that the spinning wheel was invented in China or India over a thousand years ago; and the earliest knitted item found in Britain is the Coppergate Sock from York, dating from the tenth century AD.

This is a great, well-written book that knitting and history lovers will enjoy. The RRP is £16.99. Thanks to Granta for the review copy - all views are A Woolly Yarn's own. 

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