Sometime last year, I started spinning 8 ounces of merino top. It’s done, finally.
Result is 7.5-ish ounces of 2 ply laceweight-ish yarn. (My scale will sometimes round down and sometimes up. And yarn changes weight due to its moisture content and we’re now into the dry season.) I’m very disappointed with this. Despite my efforts to spin a consistent yarn, it varies a lot in grist and twist. I realized that while plying, and wondered if I should just abandon the whole lot. I decided I’d finish, give it a wash and see what I had: after all, I could compost it. It’s also already showing signs of abrasion-wear. I should have done better sampling.
I have a life goal to spin a very, very fine yarn and work a Shetland-style ring shawl. I wanted this yarn to be a good solid step forward in that, and the way I feel about it, it’s been a rather large step backwards.
I’ll keep it around for a bit, though. One shouldn’t make decisions about tossing that much yarn when the light levels are low.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a copy of Sharon Miller’s newest book, “Shetland Hap Shawls, Then and Now”. I was interested in this because, while I’d previously read about the hap, I didn’t have a clear understanding of what it was, and figured this was a gap in my (admittedly limited) knowledge of matters lace-related that needed to be filled in. This is not a book appealing to all. Guilds may wish to invest in it for their libraries, as well as lace knitters who collect titles about their craft. I found it interesting: it filled in the gap.
The hap, it turns out, is the sturdy, all-purpose everyday shawl worn by the working class of Shetland and north Scotland and exported further south for general wear and use as a light bedcovering in sanitoria (Rather than the delicate, cobweb weight, all-over lace pieces we think of as Shetland lace.) According to Sharon’s research, the haps were simple pieces, in garter stitch, made from a woolen yarn about the same grist as modern Shetland 2-ply lace weight, perhaps heavier. Their design is simple: a square centre; borders in Feather and Fan pattern using coloured stripes; and a simple edging. Seeing that, I realized I’d already knitted one or 2. Instructions for shawls of this design exist in several sources. Off the top of my head I can think of two patterns by Sharon Miller; there are 2 in Sarah Don’s “The Art of Shetland Lace” (one uses cobweb yarn, which would not have been traditionally used for a hap); one in Rae Compton’s “The Complete Book of Traditional Knitting”; and one –-I think-- in Maggie Weston’s “Classic British Knits”. (Don't own that book and am going by memory of having seen it about 10 years ago.) All of these books are out of print. My mom used to have an ancient booklet from Patons with instructions for a hap – they called it a baby shawl. (I’ll bet that’s long gone from Paton's offerings.)
Illustrated with photos and hand-tinted postcards dating from between c1900 and 1950, the book presents Sharon’s attempt at providing a history of the development and decline of the hap, general instructions for working haps, and charts suggesting striping patterns for the border derived from the photos and cards. A knitter with some experience could easily make a nice shawl; the skill-level requirement for lace knitting is really very, very basic.
Included in the back of the book is a section of transcript of the Truck Enquiry of 1872, which clearly showed the grinding poverty of the knitters. Knitters went to dry goods merchants and exchanged quality finished shawls for more wool; labour was recognized through receipt of goods such as tea. Only very, very exceptionally was money ever paid. According the Sharon’s calculations, a knitter might receive payment equivalent to about 32 pounds (in 2005), or about $65USD for a 6-foot square shawl.
There are 2 things that struck me about all of this. Firstly, knitters knitted constantly. Constantly. They had to, to scratch out a living and to buy basic necessities of life.
Secondly, because the hap was so common, one would expect that there would be many archived in museums. (Just as one would expect many examples of the thousands and thousands of pairs of stockings knitting for the commercial export trade.) Sharon notes that she has found only a handful in museums; several of those are modern. Strange? Not really. Because the hap was so common and ordinary, no-one thought to keep them, or treat them with care. They would have been worn til only a rag, and then recycled as such –- perhaps to light the fire in the stove. After all, what do we do with our worn socks? Some of us will mend them, but eventually they are discarded.
One of the things I started wondering about is: what happened to all the shawls that weren’t good enough to be sold to the merchants? Given the number of haps knitted during the period when they haps were popular, and that knitters’ skills vary, and that life gets in the way to ensure that knitting doesn’t always turn out the way one wants (or am I the only person who’s gotten partway through a project and found that gauge shifted?) and so on and on, there must have been a few haps that weren’t up to standard. What happened to them?
Well, we’ll never know. Perhaps, I thought, they were traded with neighbours for needed goods – fish, vegetables, tea. Perhaps they were given to a needy relative. But certainly, given the poverty of the knitters, no shawl would have gone to waste. The work to make it would have been valued in some way, so that the shawl would keep somebody warm, whether the pattern was flawed or the size was a bit small or whatever.
This started me thinking about my recently completed yarn. No, it will never win a prize in a spinning competition. If something were made from it, it would not be featured in the pages of SpinOff. But perhaps, rather than composting it, the yarn could be made into something that someone would wear, and find comforting in some way, and appreciate for some reason. Perhaps the yarn is usable?
Note: Thank you to everyone –-you know who you are-- who emailed or phoned to see how I’m doing with SAD. Your concern is appreciated, perhaps more than you realize. It's a been a tough month on a couple of fronts. Perhaps one positive thing (for me) is that the weather has been very, very warm. Last year at this time we'd had snow for several weeks. Today I went to work without a jacket.