Once upon a time, there was a woolen mill in a small town in the far north of Scotland. It had been open for more than a hundred years and produced gorgeous tweed, fine and beautifully coloured, and generally made from wool from the Highlands and Islands. But it didn’t just sell tweed. It also sold knitting wool…
In the summer of 1998 I was in Sutherland and bought two cones of their lovely Aran wool, one in shades of grey and one in brown. The word ‘brown’ didn’t do it justice, though. There were flecks of maroon, turquoise, yellow ochre, bright blue.
I took them back to the croft, skeined the brown wool and washed it (it still had quite a lot of lanolin in). I left it to dry in the open air, then packed it away and took all the wool back to London, where I was working at the time. And they both went into my stash.
In 2004 I went through my stash and pulled it out. In the intervening period the world had changed; the mill had closed in 2003 (with the loss of 28 precious jobs) and I had gone freelance, finally left London and was living in Wales. I needed a big sweater, a warm sweater, and Hunter’s Aran yarn was right on the mark. I found a pattern in an old book of Yarnworks’ designs:
and I knitted it up.
It was wonderful. I wore it solidly all that winter, then I wore it for much of the next winter and the one after that. And the one after that. It was so warm that I could even wear it without a coat if it wasn’t abominably cold.
Then the wrists began to go, so I unravelled them, found some of the left-over yarn in the stash, and reknitted them:
And then I wore the sweater for another winter.
Often, people commented on it. I could be standing behind a table covered in other knitted things at a craft fair, and people would ask whether I’d also knitted the sweater I was wearing (yes, and it’s not for sale – grrrrrr). I wore it at a Rowan workshop and people asked about it; not bad for an ancient pattern and some wool from a sadly defunct mill.
But soon the inevitable happened. It developed holes. Large holes in unfortunately prominent places (well, unfortunate unless you happen to work in a rather – um – specialist area of the sex industry, I guess – cwwwhorr, hairy handknits). Even I had to give up at this point. I did try to felt it, but the yarn had just worn too thin. Sniff. And I’d used up the grey.
I tried compromises, but nothing quite fitted the bill. Then I went to Wonderwool Wales last year and saw some cones of cherry-red New Lanark Aran on the Woolfish stand, and I just knew.
I skeined it, washed it, found the pattern – and then I hurt my hand so I couldn’t knit.
But that is finally improving, I can knit a few rows a night especially if I use straight needles, and I am finally almost there (well, almost at the end of the first sleeve, but the front and back are done).
Of course, now the weather has decided it’s finally going to warm up.
I don’t care; it will be done for next year, and maybe I’ll be wearing it sooner than that, as we often have late February / early March cold snaps in Snowdonia. But will it stand up to quite the same level of maltreatment and sheer love as the original? I don’t know… but if I can’t have Hunters and their local wools, I can at least have New Lanark, the shade of Robert Owen and the growth of the co-operative movement. And a sweater in a fabulous shade of red.
I know it’s only a sweater – but it’s so much more than that. I hope!