Against stereotyping…

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)…


17 thoughts on “Against stereotyping…

  1. knitsofacto

    I have been laughing helplessly since the male voice choirs got in on the act.

    Another hearty recommendation for Pryce’s books from me. But not Shetland, oh no, why would anyone want to go there, it’s in the middle of nowhere! 😉

    (We’ve been planning a move to Shetland for some time, not happening yet but I’m hoping the place won’t have been overrun by incomers before we get there, so shhhh!)

    1. kate Post author

      Oh, I was completely serious about the male voice choirs. I think they definitely qualify as a threat, or at the very least they could give someone a dire warning – the Cor Meibion My Village certainly could. A bisected score in your bed, that sort of thing – maybe come round and sing Myfanwy very aggressively under your hotel windows at four in the morning. Lovely boys but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of them. Or I could have been reading too much Malcom Pryce. Really??

      When I got back from Shetland I immediately went on estate agent’s websites… good luck!

  2. Elizabeth

    I could write a great long list of all the strange comments that my knitting group (mainly 30-something women, meeting in a cafe/wine bar type place) have had. My favourites are: “Are you knitting for charity?”, and “Men don’t knit because it’s too difficult for them.” The poor bloke who said that got laughed at and told to go and pay a visit to the local museum to see the many pictures of fishermen knitting.

    1. kate Post author

      Hee hee, I love the last one! Bizarre…

      One of my group, travelling by train, acquired a small, fascinated but completely silent child. The child went back to her mother and asked ‘what’s that lady doing?’ The mother said ‘Something called knittings [sic]. Nobody does that any more.’ In clear denial of the evidenec of her own eyes. Dur.

      1. Elizabeth

        I will give kudos to the young teenage boy on the train between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth, who not only knew I was knitting, but also that I was knitting a sock. His friends looked somewhat confused by it all. I suspect he propbably has a relative that knits.

        1. kate Post author


          That was the very same train where my knitting friend was informed (indirectly) that nobody knitted – well the Shrewsbury to Machynlleth bit, anyway. I was on it once when I not only encountered another knitter, who moved seats so we could knit together, but a third knitter who’d forgotten to pack her knitting… it must be some special knitting train, except for the Ignoramus…

  3. Freyalyn

    Wasn’t there a Blackadder quote: “Terrorising the locals with close harmony singing”? Lovely post, and well said.

    1. kate Post author

      I think there was… those writers knew what they were talking about!

      (When you’d really like to hit someone with your niddy noddy, I find it helps to think ‘I’m blogging about this, I’m blogging about this’ even if I am thinking it, as it were, through gritted teeth.)

  4. Lydia

    I very much enoyed your post. I am a grandmother with three grandchildren. I do not have grey hair, or a rocking chair. The children’s books all have grandmothers who look about 100 years old with white hair in a bun and a walking stick. I have knitted since I was about five or six, and recently started spinning on my new Ladybug. I think because I love these crafts so much I expect everyone else to know about them too, especially when I look at Ravelry. However, this is not the case – I do only know one other person who spins and knits , my brother. Walk proud with your Wheels, Hold your needles high! That’s what I say…..

    1. kate Post author

      I wonder if that stereotype has ever really been true? My step-grandma could have gone for that physical image – I only knew her when she was really old – but she was a leftie bluestocking who’d been seriously influenced by hearing Virginia Woolf lecture and campaigned for another women’s college at Cambridge, among other things to boost women’s education. OK, she looked the cliched part but she’d have been more likely to hit you with The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 than a walking stick.

      Yo for your brother! We have a male spinner in our group, but I can’t persuade a very skilful male knitter I know to come along to our local-pub-based Knit and Natter. He says people will think he’s gay. I’ve pointed out that he is gay and everyone knows it, but it hasn’t made any difference. Maybe he just doesn’t like pubs…

    2. kate Post author

      Reply 2 – Do you have a branch of the Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Whatnots nearby? Forgive me if you’re already a member, but joining my local guild really opened my eyes – lots of knitting spinners. We do need more men, though…

  5. Guzzisue

    hehe, just read this blog as I pack my wheel ready for a quiet afternoon of spinning in a cafe bar, along with two young men who will also be spinning/knitting….we don’t have open mouths round here, we have people tripping over the pathing slabs as thwy watch the spinning wheels in the window instead of where they are going!!I’m old enough to be a gran but I’m a child free tattooed biker instead..there goes another sterotype 🙂

    1. kate Post author


      I did cause a few trips when I walked through the market a couple of months ago, including one woman who walked into a stall pole because she was too busy watching me. Roll on Spinning in Public Day…

      We’ve a quilting group in this village (in fact, we have two). One quilter has just finished an amazing quilt of a motorbike workshop. Excellent.

    1. kate Post author

      Well, you’ve got to laugh sometimes. I mean, it’s either that or take up silent killing and I don’t think Dolgellau residents would really approve of corpses lying about the place. Makes it terribly untidy (though we might make a TV detective series out of it).

      Nice to meet you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.