I was walking to the gym the other morning before work and saw something that made me think of some of Mum’s old tales of her early working life. Admittedly, it was quite early so I might have been mistaken. But I don’t think so.
A woman was walking down the street towards me. She was a bit older, I guess, and one of the regulars that I see in my made dash to get to the gym in time for my session. It’s a busy road, so there’s always lots of people, but some, like this lady, I see most mornings. Her and the workmen on the massive building site who are always incongruously well behaved and polite. But I digress. This particular woman was walking along, bag slung over her arm with the strap nestled in the bend of her elbow, looking quite intently at things other than the footpath. She was knitting. And I’m not talking about a scarf. This was something that required concentration to follow the pattern. Something needing skill, and tension control. Something I would struggle with if I was sitting down in the most comfortable chair in the world.
Very few people knit their own things these days – far fewer than those who sew, I think. Wool is just so expensive, and it takes so much time to either complete something, or get good enough to do it quickly. It wasn’t always the case. Knitting was once one of the essential skills of womanhood. Or, for the more upmarket, crochet to trim lace borders. It’s so much easier to just go to the shop and buy the things, knitted by people paid a pittance in other countries, or by machines. But here was this woman, so enthusiastic about her knitting – or on such a tight deadline – that even the walk to the station was used for it.
Mum used to tell stories about her working life back in the late ’60s and early 70s when it was not uncommon for women to knit on the train on their way to work. This was obviously in a time before the peak hour rush on trains meant travellers barely had enough space to put a book in front of their face, let alone manage needles, wool and pattern book, but it still can’t have been easy. My own abortive attempts at knitting ended up with tangles, dropped stitches, and mis-matched sleeves. Hate to think what it would have turned out like if I was on a train when doing it. Also hate to think about what my fellow passengers would think if I pulled it out. But apparently it’s not so long ago that you’d keep your ball of wool in your handbag and knit away happily for the duration of your trip. It’s not that much further back in time that it was not considered strange to buy a pattern to knit not just a jumper or a cardigan, but an entire dress or coat.
What has happened to the art of knitting? There was a bit of a revival a few years back, famous people taking up needles and making themselves wonky scarves that were never worn, but it never seems to have developed into anything. As the weather cools, I’m tempted to pull out last year’s shot at a cardigan and see if it can be salvaged. Because I need another distraction in my life – something to keep my mind off the looming lack of income if threatened redundancies at work mean I am no longer seeing the knitting woman of a morning.