Last night a friend and her 5-year-old daughter came to my knitting group to learn how to make scarves with a knitting loom. Every time this child has seen me knitting she has been enthralled and asks if she can do it. I was reminded of this and other archival photos of young girls knitting sweaters as intricate as mine.
Throughout the 19th century, girls as young as 3 or 4 were taught to knit and were tasked with putting the necklines and cuffs onto sweaters for sale. They knitted because they had to, but they frequently grew up to learn increasingly complex skills and to pass down their knowledge to their own children.
Learning to knit as an adult can sometimes be challenging, but to learn a traditional skill that has been passed down from woman to girl for centuries is enormously gratifying. You're never too old, or too young, to learn how to knit!
This season at my farmers' market stall, I've had a number of people comment on how brutally sheep are treated during shearing. They're very concerned that I use wool, are relieved that I don't sell fleeces, and ask about alternatives for fiber that is treated more humanely.
Three years ago, I applied to be a vendor at the PAWS-Walk, a local festival to benefit the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, one of our local dog and cat shelters. I was turned down. The reason was that I used wool in my handmade products, and they couldn't be sure that the sheep were treated humanely.
Now, I came to knitting in a roundabout way, starting out with training my dog to herd sheep. I've learned a lot in the almost 16 years since I started, and one of the things I've learned is that sheep are sensitive. They are prone to a number of diseases that can only be prevented by excellent care. The dog trainers at Ewe-Topia Herddog Training are incredibly protective of their sheep and ducks. Their sheep live well into their teens, far beyond the normal life expectancy of even the most pampered backyard pet.
Farmers raising sheep for their fleece (wool, and then yarn) will tell you how crucial it is to keep the sheep fantastically healthy and happy. A stressed sheep will not produce a fine fleece. Only the most contented, well-cared-for sheep will grow really great wool - just like us humans, whose hair will become dull and thin with stress.
In addition, only a really well-shorn fleece will be good to turn into yarn. Rough handling, stressed sheep, and abusive treatment will ruin an otherwise excellent fleece. Yes, the sheep need to be turned onto their backs. Often times they don't care to be shorn, and need to be wrestled into position. One of the most calming positions for a sheep is on her back, with her head resting at her side. Any decent video editor with an agenda can make this look brutal and abusive, but when you're there in the shearing shed, helping out and seeing it all in person, it looks much different: calm and controlled and reassuring.
So why shear sheep at all? Why should I give my backyard pet a haircut? A few years ago, Joe and Linda (Ewe-Topia founders and trainers) were given an unwanted pet sheep. She hadn't been shorn in years, and she could barely walk. She had a horrific skin infestation of mites and bacteria. She was so debilitated by disease that they weren't sure she would live. The reason? Her owner thought shearing would be cruel.
Modern sheep have been created by humans to produce wool. Through selective breeding, they now grow fleece year-round, like dogs with perpetually growing coats. They must be shorn, or they will develop horrible skin diseases and eventually die.
Any wool yarn that feels good in your hands can only have come from sheep that were treated well. If you're really concerned about the welfare of sheep, don't eat them. Lamb and mutton come from breeds of sheep completely different from breeds that produce wool.
So please be kind to sheep: buy good handknitting yarn made from wool! You can be sure that those sheep have good lives.
Having a "Gratitude Practice" is one of the best ways to vibrant health. I don't know if that's an actual quote, or who, if anyone, said it, or if it's even a "thing", but I believe it. Any time I'm feeling down in the dumps, I've trained myself to feel grateful for what I have.
When we run low on cash and I need to go to the food bank, I feel SO GRATEFUL for our local food bank, the great people who run it, and the community that supports it.
When I can't make it to an event at my daughter's school because I have to work, I feel SO GRATEFUL for the PTA and the moms and dads who make the time to volunteer so that my daughter can have great experiences.
When my apartment is a mess and I'm just way to exhausted to do anything about it, I feel SO GRATEFUL that I have a beautiful, safe, warm, and well-lit place to live, and that somehow the rent gets paid every month.
I've started a Gratitude Wall. I taped up a big piece of paper, bought blank index cards, and started writing and drawing all the things I feel grateful for. It doesn't exactly match my design aesthetic, but it's beautiful and along with Freya's kindergarten artwork it "goes".
I'm also going to pin this post to the top of my Facebook page. "Beannaigh", pronounced BAN-nah, means to honor, to bless, to salute. It means to feel reverence, amazement, and gratitude for what has been handed down to you. I'm going to add to this every week, to share the incredible blessings I am given every day. Please follow Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting on Facebook to find some weekly blessings of your own.
As I celebrate the 5th year of Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting, I've been thinking back a lot to how I learned how to knit. This dog, Ladybug, is how I learned to knit. It is a funny backwards story that started with an ad in the Seattle Sunday Times...
I'd had to put down my old dog in 2003, and friends were on the lookout for a new companion for me. If CraigsList was a thing then, I didn't know it - I still looked at the newspaper classifieds and checked out the Little Nickel. I was perusing the paper one Sunday when I saw an ad for an 11-month-old Red Heeler, "needs good home, $75". I wasn't looking for a herding breed, but the ad really stuck with me. Later the next day a regular massage client said, "Pam, I saw a dog advertised I think you should look at!", and she told me about the same ad. I told her I'd seen it, and how funny that she would have noticed the same one!
That same evening a dog-trainer friend called. "Pam!" she said, "I called about a dog I think is perfect for you!" It was the same dog, and she'd called the owners to find out all about it.
I still wasn't sure. I was pretty busy with my massage practice, and I knew Australian Cattle Dogs (heelers) could be a lot of work. I thanked her, and sat down to my evening TV time.
That same night, Evening Magazine featured a farm in Roy, WA where anyone could take their dogs, of any breed, to learn how to herd sheep. They talked about how great it was for dogs who were having problems, or who just needed to get out and work as they were bred for. I was sold! I immediately called the people who needed to rehome their Cattle Dog.
Ladybug was a mess. She had grown up in a backyard, with no socialization, never allowed in the house, never been on leash or in a car. There was a deep rut worn into the grass along the fence, where she would run up and down nonstop all day. Please don't think, "oh those awful people, how could they do that??" They didn't understand the breed when they bought their puppy, and they did the right thing by finding her a new home. They asked me all the right questions, and I could tell they wouldn't let me take her if I didn't know what I was getting into.
I didn't know what I was getting into! But the Evening Magazine story said anyone could come, so we went straight to Ewe-Topia Herd-dog Training. Long story short, I've never had such a soul-mate in a dog, and I don't think I ever will again.
But what does this have to do with knitting???
The sheep at Ewe-Topia are there to train dogs, but they also need to be sheared. When I volunteered to help at shearing, the woman who was doing the shearing brought some friends along to pick fleeces. I had no idea what they wanted - turns out they were going to spin the fleece into yarn! I thought that sounded just great, so the shearer gave me a couple of fleeces to take home. I signed up for a spinning class at Weaving Works - me with my dreadlocks and many piercings, among sedate older ladies all talking about what kind of yarn they wanted to spin and the projects they would knit with it.
What was I going to do with my yarn? I had no idea. I found a fabulous book titled "The Knitting Goddess" (I had been a classics major in college), bought it, and taught myself how to knit by making a sweater. They all said I couldn't start with a sweater, but I did and it is beautiful!
Long story short: it didn't take long before I made the connection between my Irish heritage and the fabulous Aran fishermen's sweaters, and then the meticulously patterned fisher ganseys of Scotland and England. I wanted to knit them all! And I wanted to knit them before they disappeared. So many traditional fishing villages have disappeared, and their fishermen's sweaters with them...I didn't want to see these old ways die.
So I created a business...
I lost my Bug Dog in 2008. She wasn't old, but had terrible knees. After multiple surgeries on both hind legs I had to accept that she couldn't recover, and for reasons of quality of life I let her go. It was heartbreaking, and it reinforced my determination to always adopt from a rescue and never buy from a backyard breeder.
But in a funny roundabout way, Ladybug brought me an amazing and thriving handknitting business, and so to her I say "Beannaigh": I salute you, I honor you, and I bless you.
When I first launched this website, I thought for sure I'd come up with something great to share every week. At that time I was becoming a single mom, growing my business to support my daughter and myself, learning all about social media marketing and how to increase online visibility - WOW, there was a lot to learn!
I've always known that I'm a bit old-fashioned. I was always the last in my peer group to adjust to new technology, and I'm still most comfortable with a good ol' paper calendar. At this moment I am 42, but I swear my parents in their 70s are more tech-savvy than I am! I'm now at least somewhat active on my Facebook page, learning about Instagram, intrigued by Pinterest...so now it's time to give blogging a real try.
If you've visited recently (or at all!) you've noticed that my last post was in 2014. YIKES! I've been a little embarrassed to have a Blog page at all with so little activity, but I'm sticking with it and planning regular posts about being a working mom, knitting for dogs, keeping foster kittens out of the yarn, and how very much I love the work that I do. So many of you think that it isn't possible to live and raise a child on a handcrafting income, so I'm going to share what makes it work for me at least once a month. Women have been making this work for a very long time, and it's really hard, but it is possible.
Please visit again soon, share these posts, and check out Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting on Facebook! Now that I've finally become comfortable with the 21st century, Facebook is the first place I announce news, new projects, etc. I also offer a monthly email newsletter - just send me a note through my Contact page and I'll add you to the list.
This gansey sampler is sized to fit an 18" doll (my daughter "loans" me her American Girl doll for displays!) As you work on your first gansey project, you will notice it scrunching up quite a bit, especially if it is fully patterned. A tiny sweater like this one actually looks totally ridiculous until it is blocked. You can simply pin it out to its finished size, but the traditional method of using a woolly board gives a much nicer finish. Since miniature woolly boards aren't made, I use a combination of pinning with a 3/8" diameter, 15"-long dowel and a set of size 6 12"-long double-pointed aluminum knitting needles.
After soaking your gansey and pressing out all remaining water, slide the long 3/8" dowel through the sleeves. Make sure the dowel is positioned exactly along the shoulder seam. This gansey has a perpendicular Scottish shoulder strap, with a cable that runs continuously from the neck to the wrist - this makes it easy to see. Pin into the carpet just below the dowel; the pins will allow you to stretch the sleeves while keeping the gansey in place.
Next, slide 2 double-pointed knitting needles into the sleeves so that they extend about an inch into the body on either side. Firmly stretch the sleeves, especially at the gussets, and pin just above the needles to keep them in place. If you used traditional gansey yarn you will have to use quite a bit of pressure - don't hesitate, this stuff is called "seaman's iron" for a reason! Make sure these needles are positioned exactly along the underarm seam from gusset to wrist - this will prevent any twisting of the finished sleeves.
Slide the last 2 double-pointed knitting needles into the body and position them so they cross over the sleeve needles and extend above the gussets. Stretch the body to its proper dimensions width-wise, making sure the needles are positioned exactly along the side seams. Pin just inside the needles to keep them in place.
Cat-proofing is optional, but highly recommended! My cat, Midnight, leaves most of my knitting alone unless it is on the floor, and especially unless I have been focusing on it intently on the floor! We live cottager-style in a tiny apartment so I don't have the option of blocking in a room I can keep him out of, but fortunately overturning the laundry basket over a small project keeps him away from it. Most cats might be more determined, so be creative!
This is my first summer as the mother of a public schooler! The worst moment of the school year was in September, when my 6-year-old came home and told me all about the "bad guy in school" drill they'd had. All the good experiences Freya had in kindergarten can't quite take away the unease that day caused, but I am still really happy with the school we chose for her.
Plenty of my home-schooling friends have questioned my choice to send my daughter to public school. Besides the frank necessity of generating some income, and private schools being beyond my means, I have another and more deliberate reason: I want my daughter to have as many opportunities in life as I can provide.
This has nothing to do with academic achievement. I could certainly home-school Freya to a higher academic standard than she is offered in public school. Any child can (and should!) learn manners, how to wait politely in line, how to share her thoughts without interrupting, and any other aspect of civility, at home.
But if she wants to pursue a higher education in an academically demanding field, requiring a lot of study, discipline, and a familiarity with "the system", I want her to be prepared for it. I do NOT believe that public school is the only one way to learn this, and I do NOT think that a homeschooled child will always be less prepared than a public schooled child - far from it! But by attending public school Freya is learning how to be a part of "the system" if she wants to.
I am deeply concerned about some of the social interactions she has had already. I am fully aware of how lucky she was to get a really excellent teacher, and how quickly my mind could be changed by the assignment to a really bad teacher. I absolutely do not want Freya to have to take standardized tests, which start in the second grade. But I am here to guide her through these things, to explain the behavior of other kids, to describe the purpose of exams, and to teach her how to navigate "the system".
And believe me, I won't hesitate to pull her out the moment this no longer works!
I would love to hear how other parents are making your children's education work for them and for your family, or if you don't have kids how your early education experiences affected your adolescence.
Stornoway (http://www.stornoway-lewis.co.uk) is a port on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, a small group of islands off the west coast of Scotland. The lives of the women in rural 19th-century fishing and farming communities was incredibly hard. In addition to gutting and packing fish, maintaining a home and kitchen garden, cooking and cleaning and raising children, they were often contract knitters - earning just enough for their families to get by.
When I read "kitchen garden" I think of my containers of compost on my apartment deck, where I grow herbs, kales and lettuces, tomatoes, peas, and beans. I think of the lovely P-patches just opened in my neighborhood, or my parents' beautiful vegetable garden, or any other version of gardening in our comfortable culture. For this woman on Stornoway, gardening was enormously demanding and vital for survival. She would have put many hours of hard labor into growing just enough potatoes and a few vegetables to feed herself and her children while her husband was away for weeks at a time.
The peat she is carrying on her back would have been the only source of heat in her small home, and the only means to cook. Here she is knitting as she walks - there are countless photographs of women knitting as they go from one task to the next, because the only other time they had to knit was during hours of darkness, and they would not have used candles.
This woman was probably a "crofter", renting less than a quarter of an acre with a tiny stone house from an English landowner. These families were entirely dependent on their tiny holdings for their survival. The income from fishing or farming went to paying the rent; the family ate what they grew and caught, and any cash earned from knitting was used to buy the necessities they could not produce themselves.
These old photographs fill me with gratitude for the life I have! Looking at the dark navy yarn in this woman's hands, I am so grateful for my strong lamp and the means to pay for the electricity to light it. I sit in a cozy rocking chair while I knit, listening to the dishwasher and washing machine doing my work for me. While knitting does indeed supplement my family's income in important ways, we do not have to depend on it for survival.
I wish I knew this woman's name, and which patterns she might have knit. It is because of the work of these women that I now have a means to support my own family, and I hope you will help me to share their stories so they are not forgotten!
I wasn't expecting this shipment to arrive until Wednesday! It is always a delight to get another box of gansey yarn from Cornwall, England, and this is the largest order I've made so far. Being a commercial handknitter is actually a downside when it comes to shopping for yarn - most knitters eagerly go off to visit local yarn stores when they want to start a new project. Because I buy my yarn wholesale in large amounts, I get really really excited when I break a circular needle or lose some stitch markers - I get to go to a yarn store! But receiving a big box from England with new colors for new designs and projects more than makes up for it.
I am still new at being a "cat person". We got Midnight the day after our 16-year-old Jack Russell Terrier passed away last March, and I was pretty concerned about how a cat was going to fit in with my life as a traditional handknitter. I keep my yarn out on shelves because it is beautiful to look at, and fortunately Midnight leaves it alone and has become my beloved daily companion during many hours of knitting. He "helped" me unbox my new yarn this morning and immediately made himself comfortable in one of the boxes. He was thinking, "Quick, get the UPS guy back and we can visit Frangipani!" We still have to visit online: www.guernseywool.co.uk.
This traditional English fisherman's sweater is based on the oldest known published gansey pattern, printed in Weldon's Practical Mirror in 1880. It was made available to the ladies of the area who wanted to make a charitable contribution to the local Fishermen's Mission. Many of the traditional fishing villages had begun to decline by the late 19th century, and the crofting lifestyle was becoming more difficult for the fishing families.
It is unclear from the 1880 article what purpose the completed sweaters served, whether to be given to fishermen who had no one to knit for them or to be sold to supplement their incomes.
The original pattern was a fun challenge to decipher! In the style of the day it is written entirely in narrative form, with no paragraph breaks and in only one size. The textured pattern is known as "Bird's Eye Stitch", and is found in various arrangements in Cornwall and all around the coastlines to northeast England. The bottom edge, however, is quite unique. Called a "welt", it consists of 2 patterned flaps which, when overlapped at the sides, creates a durable and elegant edging that is a nice substitute for ribbing.
The doll-sized sampler shown here is knitted in Frangipani's 5-ply Guernsey Wool in Pistachio, a lovely soft unisex green. My pattern will be in three adult sizes, and will be available at my farmers' market stall this fall!
Pam Connolly, owner of Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting, is a hardworking single mom with an old-fashioned cottage industry.