Yarns on Yarns

The Nordic child teaches the adult

the well heeled politely nod

and heed the warning

as the poor vote for more oppression

believing that old yarns and lies

will save them.

Simple cowl in alternating moss stitch and garter stitch. 100 grams of Aran weight wool, size 5 needles. Celtic pin by local silversmith, Tony Fitton.

I knit and weave this ancient yarn, heath tinted and Celtic hued, with tired hands, deeply immersed in a timeless pastime. Now mindfully, now mindlessly, knit one purl one, the art of ancient knotting soothes my disquiet. As the pattern turns more complex, a row of hieroglyphics looms ahead, demanding more attention, a knitter’s code from an another era. The emerging fabric begins to twist and turn in an interlacing helix as new cables form and cross paths. How did those women of olde translate designs from painted page or stone to yarn, the Book of Kells to knitting?

Post election blues

‘Knit with your hearts an unslipping knot’.  Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra. Act 11, Scene 11.

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We sleep, curled around each other like a loosely formed hank of wool, weaving hands, legs and toes, fingers threading through hair and soft skin: then we unravel, in search of cooler planes of sheet, only to reform like lost souls soon after.

Fishing and Knitting

My grandparents come from wild sea

One knits fine wool to wear

The other knots hard rope to fish

My grandmother was a quiet soul, her stern appearance not helped by her refusal to wear her dentures. She looked ancient before her time. She retreated to the front room early in the evening, to knit or read, or to keep warm in a softer space under a colourful crocheted Afghan blanket. Outside the winds roared across the strait, black ocean and wild tides tempered by isolated islands rising on horizon, Sphinx like, at dusk. Living in the oldest port of Victoria, she made a paltry income from her knitting. Heavy cabled Aran pullovers were bartered or sold to fishermen for a few shillings. Pure woolen garments were water resistant and insulation against the wild winds and inclement weather of Bass Strait. The textured cable pattern, apart from being decorative and evocative of another era, provided more thickness than a plain knitted garment. Perhaps she knew those cousins who ‘met their watery graves’ out at sea as they fished the wild Strait. Maybe she retreated into the rhythm of knit one purl one for sanity, privacy, a safe haven for hands and mind.

Grace and Charles Robinson with Cocky.

My grandfather was a boat builder who knew that sea, its tides, anger and calm. He worked with the sea and on the sea. In his spare time he tied knots from ropes, strong yarns of another kind. In his old age, he taught me to twist fine wool into chord, to create little pom poms and other trims and tassels. His skills, like hers, were timeless.

The Little Black Doll

One year, my grandmother gave my younger sister a gift. This was odd, as she never really gave presents to her grandchildren- the wild sea and the fish, flounder fish as big as a plate, and wild prawns netted from the incoming tide in the channel, were gift enough. The gift was a small black baby doll made of hardened plastic. She had knitted a costume for the doll- a little outfit of yellow and green wool in the finest of ply. The shirt was in moss stitch and the long shorts were in basket stitch, each alternating square less than 50 mm, with tiny buttons sewn down the front. The tension was precise, the hand stitched joining invisible. I was jealous, not of the doll- I was well over dolls as an 8 year old child- but of the beautiful fine work that my sister received, and will most likely not remember. Today, when I knit in basket stitch or moss, I think of Grace, my grandmother, the finest of knitters, the quietest of souls.

Global optimism cowl. Knitted one week prior to the election.

Knitting in the 1950s

It would all begin with choosing the wool. Every suburban shopping strip had a little wool shop in the 1950s and 60s, stocking the latest wools and patterns. Now those shops have long gone. Making clothes for the family was not a pastime or a hobby- it was often a necessity. I’m not sure if wool was as expensive as it is today, I doubt it, but the cost for one garment was staggered through the handy system of Laybuy. The cellophane wrapped wool was put aside in the back of the shop, all in the same dye lot, with just enough balls for the project. Then a little money from the weekly budget was set aside to buy a few balls as needed.

We knitted as a family and could knock up a jumper in a weekend, especially if someone was off to a party. My mother would usually cast on, do the ribbing, the sleeves and the neck, while my sisters and I would knit the main body, perfecting our tension along the way. We produced plain garments in stocking stitch, usually with 8 ply wool from Australian companies such as Patons and Cleckheaton.

It was a cool weather occupation and the annual accompaniment to the onset of late Autumn or the first frost. Even today, as the weather begins to turn, I search for my wool stash and begin a project, even if only to make a cowl or fingerless gloves. My mother, now 96, with stiff, inward curling fingers, a Viking gene she tells me, is calling out for plain yarn to knit. Now it’s my turn to cast on for her and do the first row. I understand her need; it’s ingrained in our history, our DNA.

Discards for small projects, found at op shops.

Knitting versus Kmart

I don’t have anything against Kmart, or other cheap stores such as Target or Big W. These stores have their place and provide basic and affordable goods. But somewhere along the way over the last 2 decades, these stores have made clothing so cheap that knitting has became an anachronism, a pastime of the well heeled. Industrial clothes are pumped out at such volume, exploiting cheap labour, that clothing is often bought on a whim and discarded without a thought.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicate about 500,000 tonnes of leather and textiles are discarded each year, amounting to 23 kilograms each, and only a fraction of this appears to be being recovered through recycling.¹

As pure wool or cotton yarn very rarely appears in most garments these days, this mountain of discarded clothing ends in landfill, a major plastic microfibre pollutant. The textile industry is the second largest global polluter after oil. Food for thought.

Information and quotes from Slow Clothing, Finding meaning in what we wear  by Jane Milburn.

I hear my yarn calling, “to knit up that raveled sleave of (post election) care.” Do you enjoy Knitting and Crochet dear reader or have you taken up the Japanese art of darning? Does winter draw you to craft or barley soup? Is knitting meditation and when does it turn stressful?

36 thoughts on “Yarns on Yarns”

  1. This just dropped in ere I was to be off on a Saturday evening . . . Have read it twice . . . and have to again ere I can say anything even as a vague thank you for sharing . . . for opening up, making us think and remember . . . Knitting: oh, I remember the 1950s when as a young immigrant girl I would not have had anything to wear if the needles had not clicked deep into the night . . . and I remember being in impossible financial troubles in my 50s when I knitted ten, twelve hours a day for some seven years to make endless 12-ply jumpers for Japanese tourists, cables, koalas, kangaroos et al to be able to pay the bills . . . I always did . . . .back to reading: I’ll return with something more sensible . . .

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    1. Thanks for reading twice Eha. It was still a little rough, so have edited out the crap. I feel like a novice at blogging, so rarely do I do it these days.
      What an amazing association with knitting you have had- especially returning to full time knitting to make ends meet in your 50s. I remember those native animal patterns. enjoy your Saturday evening.

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      1. Yes, I came back . . . late I suppose ’cause you had touched my heart and I simply hated one sentence in your post now seemingly gone . . . have you any idea, Fran, any idea at all – what seeing a promised post from you in the offing may do to a reader . . . each time surely knowing we won’t waste our time on this earth reading and thinking . . . please keep on as some of us may not have the gift to make all human passages feel alright . . .

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        1. Thanks Eha for your continued support. I will try. As my cooking is becoming a bit repetitive and as new passions overwhelm me, I’ll just go with the writing that pops up in my dreams. I think there might be another one- a continuation-on the Yarn story. Your support and comments mean a lot to me.

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  2. A lovely, thoughtful and well-writen post. I’ve just forwarded it to my wife who’s an avid knitter. I’m very fond of wool, perhaps because it takes me back to a time when we had a farm that produced some of the finest Border Leicester and Romney wool in the area. We had about 40 ewes that all wore jackets to protect the wool from the elements and that resulted in plenty of lovely clean wool. We would wash, pick and rove the wool in our small studio and sell it by mail-order to hand spinners here and there. Me, I prefer the loom although I’ve not sat down to weave in some time. Thanks so much for sharing this.

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    1. I hope your wife enjoyed it too Ron. You have some amazing life experiences- another great ‘yarn’ of your time as a sheep breeder of fine wool. I tried spinning once and it was a very nice pastime, but as I love colour, those who make natural concoctions to dye their hand spun wool, take it all one step further. I imagine your wool was lovely to work with in the loom.

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  3. Francesca–you are a woman for the ages. What a wonderful post. Growing up in New Jersey, where the winters were very cold, my backyard neighbor was an avid knitter. I would go to her house to babysit her two kids and she showed me how to knit. I so loved it. Then, I grew up, moved out of state and the knitting stopped. I wonder if it would all come back to me lo these years? Thank you for the wonderful memory.

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    1. Thanks Loisajay. I am sure the knitting will come back to you, just like riding a bike. If you wait until the weather turns cool, the urge will be stronger, and wool and needles can often be found at a charity shop. I can often not knit for years, but it always comes back.

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  4. Wonderful memories for me too, Francesca, as knitting was a time spent with my mum. She still knits too, but plain scarves to give away. I love the images you built up of your grandparents. How much we still have to learn from our elders.
    Your opening poem really resonated with me too, as I think it helps explain why people voted for a government that wasn’t offering them anything except to dangle the carrot of possible jobs.

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  5. This is beautiful. I’m afraid that my genes, on my mother’s side, tell me of no such honourable occupations. Instead I belt out a song without prior notice, write poems for people I love, recite long dead poets when necessary or not. My paternal grandmother was different. She did it all, bread, own pasta, ajvar, cakes. And she cleaned, she actually liked doing it! I try so hard to swing my genes this way but it’s a struggle. 😀

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    1. How wonderful you are magic one, to write poems for loved ones, belt out songs and recite a long poem…my mum was also very partial to cleaning, not a thing out of place ever, and I can happily say that I didn’t inherit this gene. I think my other domestic skills are overdeveloped to compensate for my other slovenly ways.

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  6. You make me sorry that I have never learned to knit. What a beautiful poem you have written to knitting and to creativity of the hands and mind.
    best… mae at maefood.blogspot.com

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  7. This post is so special! Made me think of yesterday.. oh how I remember those wool shops and venturing in with my mother. She could knit so beautifully.. I was hopeless! What a delightful lady your grandmother was Francesca.. Thank you for this my friend …

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  8. This made me cry, Francesca! It’s so beautifully written, and the photos so beautiful. My Mum was a knitter. When i had my children here in Australia, my Mum in England knitted fine, soft baby clothes and, later, jumpers for school and parties. They came in parcels with inner wrappings of tissue paper and my Mum’s lovely handwriting on the brown paper. I don’t think i appreciated then just how much love was in each stitch. Mum tried to teach me to knit but i was impatient. How sad that makes me now. This prompted me to photograph the knitted doll and woollen dungaree wearing tiny bear that my Mum sent to my girls but I’m unable to attach it. Nevertheless, thank you for your beautiful thoughts, Francesca. Maybe you need to add a good cup of tea to your knitting revery – in England tea was/is the antidote to all big problems. When the result of the Brexit referendum was announced my English cousin commented “oh dear, i think we’re going to need a bigger teapot!”

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    1. Jan – I popped back for a quick ‘hello’ and now you have made me cry . . . good tears – and I hope the Madam writing these ‘non-essential’ tales realizes how she makes people come together and feel good ! In Australia we added a ‘Bex (headache tab) and a good lie-down’ to the tea scenario 🙂 ! And don’t talk about the Brexit – am certain half the people had no idea whatsoever of the consequences . . . and that one may yet need that bigger teapot . . .

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      1. Indeed, Eha, i’m certain very few people understood the consequences of Brexit: a bigger teapot or one giant teabag, plus a good lie down 🙂

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    2. Thanks Jan, I know and recognise those tears. My mother in law, Marion, also spent years making little ribbed singlets, drawn in by ribbon, always pure white and in fine ply as well as little jumpers. I was so busy with life that I barely thanked her, I just took all those things for granted. And now I wish I could tell her. I’m not sure how you attach a pic here of the little doll and bear but you can always send it to me at

      morgana3761@gmail.com and then I’ll probably cry too.

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  9. A lovely post and wonderful memories. I learned to knit as a young nurse on night duty. I never knitted much for my children – the idea of all that hand washing quite put me off, but I did sew much of their clothes.
    These days I knit for relaxation – it’s very zen. I’m about to embark on a pair of socks using wool I bout in the Outer Hebrides, some say the home of knitting, a couple of years back.
    Your ball of Debbie Bliss wool caught my eye – I love her yarns.

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  10. This is a beautiful post Francesca. Even reading Cleakheaton and Patons brought back memories of jumpers my mother knitted for me in the 60s and early 70s after that I didn’t want to wear hand knitted jumpers. Not cool enough for teenage years. I love you how you knitted all this story together.

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    1. Not cool in the 70s and not cool now still, but I have a feeling there’s a new and growing interest in the knitted garment as an expression of individuality- nothing like those patons jumpers my mum and yours churned out staying true to the patter and colour. I went to a wool expo in the Coburg town hall a few weeks ago- it was packed!!

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      1. I think knitting is enjoying a come back. I have a friend Clare in Adelaide who knits and does patchwork quilts and travels and is a good cook. She is on Instagram as sewandsewstoo not sure if it public or not. She is linked with a lot of fabric, wooly people. I saw that you are on INsta on one post.

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        1. Yes, new to Insta, so still working out f it suits me or not. I still prefer blogging best of all so that my dream stories, which really take some time, can get an airing. Insta is nice for a quickie I suppose. I’ll check out your friend..

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  11. I am still processing the outcome and aftermath of the election, doing what I have always done for the past 3 years since my life became #frugalandfabulous. I love my old sewing box with its bits and pieces, and derive great satisfaction from mending. But not knitting, crochet or sewing. Despite the genes on both family sides. My mother worked as a seamstress in a local clothing factory before she married, my paternal grandmother’s family were tailors and seamstresses. I loved to wear knitted jumpers made by my nanna. I still have a tablecloth she crocheted. I have the urge, the nostalgia, my fingers delight in the feel of fabric and wool. Many vintage creations find a home here. But they aren’t made by me. My dad sewed my childhood dress up costumes, did my high school domestic science sewing assignments, and one time made me knit as punishment for some teenage transgression. My first husband bought me a sewing machine as a birthday gift. I gave it to my aunt. Maybe one day it will crystallise… I have knitting needles, a few books. I worry if I begin buying yarn I won’t stop.

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    1. That is such a delightful comment, that your dad did your domestic science sewing projects. Love that. The knitting thing could take hold very easily as you, Dale, have a eye for these nostalgic and timeless activities, watch out for those knitting needles.

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