Research can lead a writer down some unexpected avenues of discovery. While researching my novel, Leap the Wild Water, I bought a spinning wheel and taught myself to spin wool. I wanted to see just how much time it would take for one of my characters to knit a pair of stockings from raw wool. I got to really like spinning wool, its very relaxing, but I failed to master the art of knitting stockings.
It’s astonishing to think that such a laborious task as stocking knitting once played a big part in the Welsh rural economy. In fact, wool manufacture was the most prolific industry in Wales from the Middle Ages to mid-19th century.
Unlike today, when the cost of producing wool outweighs the price it fetches, wool was once a prized commodity, and the textile industry in Wales provided an income of sorts for countless households. From the poor cottagers employed in carding and spinning wool, to the enterprising farmers who housed weaving looms in lean-to sheds, called ty-gwydd, on their farms; there were few who were not involved in some way.
Many women of rural Wales were proficient spinners and highly skilled in the art of knitting. They were able to produce knitted garments for their own family’s needs. Despite the time-consuming labour involved in carding (usually done with teasel heads) and spinning the wool into yarn prior to knitting, many were able to support themselves by knitting and selling stockings. Such was the demand for their knitted stockings that a Walter Davies, in 1799, estimated that annual production ran to approximately 192,000 pairs.
Many stocking knitters sold their wares at local markets; some would stand along the stage-coach highways to sell to passing travellers; others sold to the local ‘stocking man’ who would collect from them each week. These ‘stocking men’ travelled far afield and over the English border to sell the stockings in the markets of large towns.
It was a common sight to see women knitting as they walked along the country lanes or hilltops. Great distances had to be walked in those days and the time taken was usefully spent on knitting. Yarn hooks were often used. These were s-shaped hooks; one side would hang from their apron strings while the spool of wool was attached to the other. Knitting sheaths were also popular; suspended from the hip, they bore the weight of the garment being knitted. These were handmade and carved, and given as love tokens, much as the Welsh love spoons were.
Farmer’s wives had an abundant source of wool for knitting, but poor cottagers had to source their wool by gathering the waste wool lost from the sheep amongst the gorse and bracken of the hilltops, or rubbed off along stone walls. This too was a laborious and time-consuming task but to have enough wool to meet the family’s needs, or to make a little extra money, was essential.
There is a scene in Leap the Wild Water when the wool gatherers arrive from the coast to gather waste wool from the mountain tops. The arrival of the wool gatherers was a much anticipated annual event. They would travel many miles with enough provisions to last them a week. Their journey entailed sleeping under the stars or sheltering in derelict barns by night, on route to their destinations. I would have loved to travel alongside them.
The knitting circles which have become so popular in recent years aren’t a new thing. Knitting evenings were a common event for past generations. Candlelight being expensive, numbers of people would take turns to congregate in each other’s houses of an evening; to knit, and gossip, and entertain each other with stories from times gone by.
Home-made dyes came from the surrounding landscape. Here are just a few, should you fancy experimenting for yourself;
- Lichens were an abundant source, giving colours from pale green to deep pink, depending on whether they were picked from the mountain rocks or trees. In the 19th century, both women and children made money from gathering and selling lichen to merchants. In 1816 it was being sold for one and a half pence a pound. It was believed that lichen-dyed socks would prevent the feet from sweating.
- Bruised sloe berries boiled with the wool gave a rose colour.
- Elderberries with an alum mordant gave a bluey-green.
- The roots of bedstraw and tormentil, which grow in abundance in spring-time on the upland hills of Wales, were some of the few plants which would produce red.
- Gorse bark, flowers and young leaves produced yellow.
- Bracken, another abundant plant on Welsh mountains, gave brown.
- Dandelions produced magenta.
Just imagine how much time went into making one pair of stockings or a shawl! Yet, the domestic industry of stocking knitting only began to decline in the mid-1800’s with the advent of the railways and advances in knitting machinery. Then, machine-made hose became cheaply available in village and town shops and it was no longer economically viable as a living.
Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.
You can read about the books or purchase them by clicking on the links below.
Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd
The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd
Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/73tq302Ov71
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