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!
Pam Connolly, owner of Beannaigh Traditional Handknitting, is a hardworking single mom with an old-fashioned cottage industry.