I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently.
We had our monthly Sunday Market Spinners group in Dolgellau, and as I was lifting my wheel down from the upper room of the (rather lovely) cafe where we meet, I noticed the expression of two middle-aged walkers sitting on a sofa by the stairs. They looked quite normal – big boots, maps, intelligent expressions – but their mouths were hanging open. One walker nudged the other walker and said in what was supposed to be a whisper ‘there’s another one – like a fairy tale.’
I’m not out of a fairytale, and yet I spin.
And while I’m on the subject, I’m not a nana – grandmother for anyone who doesn’t recognise the term, or the silly Shreddies campaign – and yet I knit.
(Quite apart from the lazy assumption that only grandmothers knit, since when, anyway, did ‘nanas’ automatically look like this? I know quite a few funky grandmas. Not a blue rinse among them – though one does have bright red hair which I suspect isn’t entirely natural.)
Which are a couple of the reasons why I get so cross when I come across silly stereotyping, especially from people who should know better – and who, as knitters, must have encountered similarly daft stereotyping themselves on more than one occasion. I’m often reduced to chuntering by articles in American magazines about knitting in the UK, for instance. I don’t think I’m being territorial – well, I hope I’m not – but the frequent errors and assumptions often drive me bonkers. And the shame of it is that they are often easily checked and easily challenged.
Last year I went to Shetland with a couple of mad knitting friends. We were on a pilgrimage, if you like, and we all fell in love. But we’re not romantics; we all live in Snowdonia, so we encounter the reality of other people’s romanticism every day. This is us in Shetland:
Oh, all right, it isn’t.
While I was there I learned a lot, and I also came to understand a part of the world I had only previously been roughly familiar with a little bit better. Through talking to people, though being in the Shetland Museum, through meeting spinners and knitters I began to understand a little bit more about the complexity of the history of knitting in the islands. When I came back, I did some further digging into things I wanted to learn more about, like the wretched truck system by which knitters were essentially held in thrall to suppliers and dealers. It wasn’t hard; there’s tons – and I mean tons – of stuff available online. You don’t have to sit in dusty archives or university libraries any more (though you can if you want, of course).
Now, I am getting particularly fed up with articles about knitting and Shetland which make stereotypical assumptions about the craft, the place, the – oh, don’t get me started. Take the location for instance – is it ‘remote’? Well, I suppose if you live in the mid-West USA (and this isn’t aimed at any particular author), it might seem remote, but then so – probably – would my village in Snowdonia. Your mid-Western farmhouse would probably seem remote to me. Having partly grown up in a place where it was a seven-mile drive / walk with the sheepdog and the pet lamb for a pint of milk, I don’t find Shetland remote in the slightest.
It’s an hour and half’s flight from Glasgow, for heaven’s sake. There are shops. (I remember my mother standing in M&S in Inverness, looking around and saying ‘but where is the lambing ointment?’, but I wouldn’t have classified our croft as remote. Remote was a shooting lodge in such difficult terrain that the two children had their own resident teacher.) My point is that it’s all relative, and that all you really need to do – apart from checking an atlas and making sure you’re actually describing a place as being in the right spot – is think for a moment or two.
And even though you might be talking about the past, don’t transfer assumptions. Perhaps – just perhaps – people used the sea? After all, most coastal places have a rich trading history, and Shetland was (and is) particularly diverse in its range of trading contacts…
This got me thinking further. When I went to university in Cambridge I encountered lots of people who had, quite literally, never been further north than that chilly city in East Anglia. One of my archaeology supervisors had a particular battle trying to get them to understand that what was (apparently) true today wasn’t necessarily so in the past. I remember one person who thought it would have taken about the same time to travel a route in prehistory as it would today (nope, no cars in the Neolithic, and let’s not even consider wild forests and the general absence of major highways), and many who couldn’t understand how somewhere as ‘remote’ as Orkney could possibly have been so significant. He used to swing the atlas upside-down, move it so that the centre was no longer London, and watch people’s faces. Generally, they got it. It’s all relative, and all you need to do is switch your brain on. There’s no excuse for not doing that when you are writing for publication – is there? Hrumpf.
So, what with one thing and another, I was possibly being over-sensitive on the subject of stereotyping. Possibly.
When I came down the stairs of the cafe again, having gone to retrieve my bag and following another spinner plus wheel, I was – well, I’m not sure, actually, whether I was really amused or irritated. Irritated at first. The couple still had open mouths. The woman started to say something, and her partner said ‘Shh – we’re [indistinguishable word, probably ‘in’] Wales.’
Where, of course, people are well known for luring coffee-shop commentators down dark alleys and duffing them up with daffodils. And that’s before we set the dragons on them, let alone the male voice choirs.
It’s such a shame people don’t look at reality a bit more. There was nothing remotely ‘fairy tale’ about either wheel – a Majacraft Little Gem and a Louet Julia – or about either spinner. Oh, OK, I’m fibbing – I was wearing a dress with a long train and a conical hat with veil streaming from the point. Damn.
Here, by the way. is the modern version of the somewhat posed photo above, seen at Wonderwool Wales:
That’s more like it.
And if anyone fancies a quick hallucinatory trip into a world where stereotypes – of both Wales and Chandleresque thrillers – are hilariously twisted, I can strongly recommend Malcolm Pryce’s books, especially Aberystwyth Mon Amour (not to mention Last Tango in Aberystwyth and the Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth)…