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!
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.