Thursday, March 23, 2006

I Used to Knit

Lakes, 2002I was searching my archives for a particular photograph tonight when I ran across the shots I took during a trip to the English Lake District back in 2002.

I was there for work, believe it or not, acting as The Smiling Face of the University on a tour for alumni. It was a dream assignment, as I'd wanted to see that part of the world almost since birth.

Beatrix Potter (one of the District's two most famous residents, the other being Wordsworth) was the first writer whose name I learned and sought out, and her drawings are undoubtedly one of the reasons that my retirement fantasy includes a stone hearth under a thatched roof in a green valley. I'm not sure how I'm going to get there, or when, but one of these days I'm moving to some part of the UK or another.

My pictures from the trip are a source of frustration to me now. I'd only had my first camera for about three months, and I had no idea how to use it. I saw shots all around, but I couldn't capture them. The most advanced picture I took was a self-portrait at Ruskin's grave in Coniston. The remote-release is hidden in my right hand.

Coniston, 2002

Most of what I got was decidedly in the tourist snapshot class. Such wasted opportunity. Sigh.

If you know the Lake District at all, you know it could just as truthfully be called the Sheep District. Aside from a petting zoo or two, I don't think I'd ever in my life seen a sheep up close and personal. Now, I was surrounded by...millions? At least tens of thousands, surely. I shot about 600 frames during the week, and if you look carefully you can see at least one fluffy, grass-munching poop machine in most of them.

We had a fantastic travel director, a local woman named Janet, who was so deeply in love with her part of England that even the stuffiest members of the group fell under her spell. She was passionate about local farming and husbandry, and so we learned an awful lot about sheep breeding and the sad state of the local wool industry. In this day and age, she told us, the modern demand for Lake District wool was so small that most of the annual clip was burned instead of being sent to market.

I'll give you a minute to recover from that one.

Near Sawrey, 2002

All those sheep, all that wool, and the only evidence of its use that I saw was in a small National Trust Shop not far from the Beatrix Potter Museum. In an effort to find some outlet, any outlet, for local wool, the shop was offering knitted garments made from local fiber and a small selection of yarns spun from same.

I distinctly remember looking at the yarn, and remarking to a fellow tour member that "I used to knit," and then walking out of the shop without buying any yarn.

"I used to knit." I think about that now, and I wonder how I can have said it. How I can have used the past imperfect with such finality. As though the idea of never picking up the needles again could be contemplated with anything other than shuddering horror.

I think there's a line one crosses, a subtle line, on the day one changes from a person who knits into a knitter. It's not quite the same as Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's distinction between knitters and Knitters, because I'm not necessarily thinking of the acquisition of technical prowess. I'm thinking of the difference between a person who thinks knitting is a nice way to spend some time, versus a person who becomes actively disturbed when kept away from his needles.

I'm thinking of the man who looked at those skeins on sale in Hawkshead, dark and lustrous in the light of a watery English September, and walked away because he had no use for them. I wonder what ever happened to him?

41 comments:

Ted said...

He figured out who he is.

ambermoggie said...

Hi Franklin, we've just been up to the lake district today visiting family. The sheep are still there and surrounded by snow. There are quite a few more decent places to get yarn now lucious yarn for the person who used to knit:)) There is also an event Woolfest 30th June/1st July http://www.woolfest.co.uk/fest.htm
B&B available no charge for fellow knitters who now knit and we only live an hour away

Anonymous said...

I almost couldn't finish your post. THEY BURN WOOL!!!I I am having a mid-life crisis and quit my job about 18 months ago, live in NYC= destitute; thus, no buying yarn for almost that long.

I have been knitting from my stash, but you cannot begin to imagine the suffering and gnashing of teeth every time I see new yarn. It's almost enough to make me go back to my old job.

Sister Sue said...

Don't let Franklin fool you too much. I've seen the photos from that trip and they are marvelous. Maybe they don't meet Franklin's standards, but they are a far cry from your average tourist photos. Trust me. He's good even when he doesn't mean to be (or doesn't think he knows how to be). But gosh, don't you love the modesty? What a sweet fella.

Carrie K said...

The pictures look plenty good to me too, Sister Sue.

Burn Wool? They Burn wool? Good God.

That was a man in transition who said that. Luckily that statement applies to almost all circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Franklin, I have a picture of you from that trip sitting on the mantle over one of my fireplaces. Your smile greets me every time I come home.

Why have sheep if not for the wool? I hear they aren't very good conversationalists.

Joe said...

The transition you describe is the same one folks in Alcoholic's Anyonymous have been trying to describe for decades.

Let's buy a boatload of land over there and have a retirement compound of lovely homes.

Ahhhh.

Aidan said...

I'm so sad. I can hardly see through the tears. They burn wool. How barbaric. I would have thought burning wool was one of those things civilized people didn't do: urinate in public, ask a lady her age, order a steak well done, and burn wool. Yup. It's right there on the list.

I must go to my happy place now.

Marj. said...

I think the sheep ate "that man" and he was reintarnated as your woolly guest, Dolores!

Ann said...

Why look! It's Delores' cousins - Hyacinth and Rose.

I hope that these days they sell the wool to Creskeld for British Breeds yarn. Or heck, even GIVE the stuff to Creskeld! What are those....Herdwicks?

Nice pics, I thought. Nothing to sniff at. Not excessively touristy. I mean, you have a remote in your hand, not a pint, and you aren't wearing an outfit that screams tourist. I'm actually fairly impressed by the detail on the stone behind you. Not easy to get that much detail on those things, and you can clearly see the knotwork.

Ah well! I'm already looking forward to S&W.

pacalaga said...

The burning wool part wasn't as upsetting to me as the thought of you leaving that little museum without even a token skein to support their industry. I haven't vacationed since I took up knitting again in earnest, but I've decided that I'm going to need to buy a little yarn to knit something to commemorate each trip in the future...
And when you ask where That Guy went, I believe he evolved.

Geogrrl said...

I'm puzzled: what breed of sheep are they and what's wrong with the wool that there's no demand for it? Is it coarse and only good for rug yarn? What?

Celtic Knitter said...

Nice pic of you . . . and look at the cool celtic knots on the gravestone behind you!!

Ragnar said...

How does Dolores feel about being classified as a "grass-munching poop machine?"

And I don't want to freak anyone out, but other than the wool that's specifically cultivated for fiber, most surplus American wool is also burned. It's cheaper than paying someone to haul it away.

Vivienne said...

It is Herdwick sheep in the Lake District, and Beatrix Potter was instrumental in saving the breed from extinction.

I knitted with Herdwick wool once for a school project on wool - my mother had made all my other knitted samples for me, but she said I had to knit the Herdwick myself. It made my fingers bleed.

Apparently it makes excellent carpets. It might even make good jumpers if you can wear it so that the garment never touches your skin, and don't mind it being bullet-proof.

Sue said...

ragnar is correct. Sheep are generally classified as meat, wool or dual purpose breeds. Lots of sheep are raised for meat only; their wool is too coarse or too short to do much with. Often it is too expensive for the farmer to try to sell or process the fleece especially if the fleece is not of high quality. My hay supplier has a couple of years worth of fleeces if anyone wants them. Check out http://www.westernmaryland.umd.edu/sheepandgoatbreeds.htm
for an excellent description of sheep and goat types and breeds.

Mhairi said...

Hey Franklin, there's a few of my knitting group that go to Woolfest (or wool heaven) each year and have a fab time.
The blackface sheep in Scotland are reared for meat (very fine it is too), and apparently the wool is too coarse to spin into yarn.
I'm having a giggle here - you are looking very handsome in your photo taken in the Grave yard, but must be the only visitor to the Lake district to wear a suit and not hiking boots and a woolly jumper!
Talking of Woolly jumper - if you know Wallace and Gromit (and woolly jumper the sheep) - I think of Dolores as Woolly's wild American cousin.

Carol said...

Even your bad photos put other folks' good ones to shame. Love the self-portrait, you handsome, hairy, broad-chested, slim-waisted dog, you!

Linda said...

He's getting a second chance at Life as a Knitter so don't waste any more worry on him, nice as he was.

alliesw said...

Ah, thank you for this post! Like Tabitha Twitchet in one of Potter's stories, I admit to being an anxious parent--and sometimes an anxious knitter, but definitely a knitter. I was once a person who knits, and then, for too long a time, a person who used to knit, with that same sort of remorseful seeming finality...and now I read Peter Rabbit stories to my daughter and knit and knit, and I, too, hope to retire to a thatched roof, and a few sheep, and lots of wool! Thanks!

Donna S. said...

I was just referred to your blog. Verrry interesting. Just reading the last few entries looks like familiar ground to me. My son lived in Boston for a few years, then Chicago. I enjoyed visiting Boston.....loooove Chicago (plus only 5 hour drive). Now he is in Atlanta.

Anonymous said...

On my one trip to England, long years ago now, I was in a mysterious non-fibery state of life. I saw wool shops in Brighton and York and didn't go into either. :-( I can't believe that now - and I would agree with your thought about transforming from one who knits to a knitter. I can't imagine not knitting now. Needles and yarn have become a necessity.

We didn't get into the Lake District, but around Stratford and York, we saw many, many sheep. Maybe some of that wool is being used now? (And I would love to retire to a cottage in England . . .)
Sherri

Mel said...

Does it really matter what happened to him? Isn't the current incarnation better?

Holly @Home said...

Fantastic comedy spoof on radio here of life at Wordsworth's cottage.....all bonkers with names like Colerick who lives in the cupboard .The best bit being Wordsworth's seemingly odd relationship to his sister and her constant sitting on his lap .Mum's memory of said place is that it was nearly all private land and you could look but not step foot on any of it .A few old Quaker Meeting Houses were her favourite memory .I think Kaffe found yarn Nirvana highrer up in Scotland.

sal the spider said...

If it were not essential to shear sheep from a welfare point of view it would not be done at all (other than "proper fibre" sheep) You have to pay for a shearer and then the fleece has a market value of approx zero. I could fill my entire house with fleece for free but for spinning most is of highly dubious quality. However great for peg loom rugs etc. I think "that man" is with the woman who took her entire stash to the charity shop a coupla years ago coz she "quilted now"
Sal x

Rabbitch said...

He's paying for his transgressions now, by playing host to Dolores.

Payback's a bitch, baby.

Rob said...

Yup, most of the sheep around here are meat sheep. And wonderful mutton and lamb it is too: Border Lamb is famous across the UK!

Jill Smith said...

Interesting. I had a slightly different take on La Harlot's definition of non-capitalized and capitalized knitters. I thought it was more the willingness to take The Great Leap and steek or knit yards of lace or some other feat of knitterliness, rather than the actual skill required to do it.

Granted, it's a pretty fine point. But I've been wrangling with lawyers over annual report language of late, so I guess I've got my point-spotter set to "fine," or perhaps "infinitessimal."

Mary said...

When I was in Scotland last year, I saw the same situation. If I had seen wool, I would have bought it, but there was none to be found! Maybe in another part of the country, but we covered a lot of land . . . I'll just have to go back and look some more!

lavender.rosemary.sage said...

Not sure how it happened to me, but somewhere in the last six months I discovered the needles. Now, burning?...Sorry can't get my head around that one.

Frayed Edge said...

We should start a petition forcing Congress to make the burning of wool a felony. I think I am crossing the line. I am angry at my lawn and warm weather for pulling me from my needles. I think I may plant a yarn full of flax.

Sarah said...

I had a very similar experience just a few days ago, remembering a trip to Shanghai. All that lovely Asian yarn!

Jean said...

Speaking as Vivienne's Mother - too right I made her knit the Herdwick. My Mother gave me the yarn and I made a complete sweater for my husbasnd, and my fingers took months to heal.
That which comes off the back of the sheep is not necessarily snuggly!

dseely said...

I do feel the actively disturbed if separated from needles (or my spinning wheel) for too long. That's probably why there is almost always a sock in progress with me.

Jean said...

This post brought tears to my eyes -- not because of the unbought yarn. I suspect, as other commenters have hinted, that it may have been unusably bulky and scratchy. But for the excellence of the pictures. After THREE MONTHS.

My brother-in-law is currently trying to teach me how to tell a camera how to see what I'm seeing. He's got an uphill job. And that leaves the major problem: how to SEE in the first place. Which is what you can do.

You're right about Ms Potter. She's brilliant. My husband, however, who has a taste for all things obscure and French, differs on the subject of Girodet, and wishes he could see the exhibition currently spread before you.

Love Jean

Vivienne said...

The date 2002 has just clicked with me - in 2002 they may have been burning the wool. In 2001 the Government was burning the sheep, in that whole ghastly state-sponsored farce of Foot and Mouth.

David said...

I believe he was locked in the linen closet.

HPNY Knits said...

selma, (hm.. Franklyn..) its time to call Knitters Anonymous!
:-)

by the way- why "The Panopticon"

Nancy said...

If you think Herdwick is tough to knit, try spinning it!

I innocently bought some at Straw Into Gold (RIP) back when I first started spinning. It seemed nice and smooth when I stroked the fibers, but OHMYGOD when you spin it, it just turns into scratchy rope.

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Angela Dixon said...

I really like your writing style. Such a nice Post, Can’t wait for the next one.

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