The story of a sweater

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!

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6 thoughts on “The story of a sweater

  1. del

    I’m a sucker for red, so I love that yarn!

    So sad about the grey sweater…I bet it was lovely if people wanted to buy it right off your back 🙂

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      It was… and I’m with you on red…. but my poor sweater, with me through thick (and increasingly) thin. I do get ridiculously attached to some garments, but at least there was a reason in this case!

      Reply
  2. dressingmyself

    The closure of the knitting mill was very sad. That wool looked beautiful, but worse luck for those who lost their jobs.
    Your new sweater will be very pretty – gorgeous red – but I don’t think it will have that really special touch. Sorry. Of course nobody who hasn’t heard the full story will know that.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      The closure of the mill was indeed awful – particularly in an area where there are so few ‘real’ jobs. It’s always the same when an company folds in a remote area; the effect is out of all proportion. I suppose one of the reasons the sweater was important for me was that it was a memorial in a way. Sometimes cones come up on eBay, but it’s not the same…

      I sadly think you’re right about the replacement… I’ll just have to be happy with it being different!

      Reply
  3. Helen

    I still have some of Hunters of Brora yarn in my stash. I knitted a Cobblestone in some over Christmas for my husband and I have a February Ladies sweater out of another cone. I have 2 cones left and am treasuring them. Lovely stuff.

    Reply
    1. kate Post author

      I saw a post about it and was very jealous… I’ve got some bits and bobs left that ‘sort of’ match and I’m wondering how insane I’d look in a sweater with arms of different colours and another colour on the body.

      Very insane, I suspect.

      Reply

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