This Golden Fleece by Esther Rutter – An enjoyable Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History

This Golden Fleece by Esther Rutter

This book is subtitled “A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History”, and it is just that, a personal account of knitting throughout the British Isles. It skilfully blends the history of knitting with impressions of the area, showing an impressive amount of research which is presented in a very readable style. Moreover, it also features Rutter’s own attempts to copy the knitting project which is specific to the area, a process which can require wool from the area or special tools. Thus, she attempts such diverse projects as a Monmouth cap, a fisherman’s kelp and even a successful knitted bikini!

This is a good humoured book which involved a lot of travelling to places such as Shetland and Jersey, as well as mainland places which have been traditionally associated with specific knitted garments over the centuries, from the earliest knitted footwear to be discovered to the kitting patterns of the twentieth century. There are many fascinating descriptions in this book, as the constant task of an immensely heavy and daunting project of a man’s gansey lurks in the background set against smaller tasks, some of which are immediate and of the moment, such as a Pussyhat for an anti- Trump protest. Each item of knitwear is honestly described as some are more challenging than others, and while Rutter is obviously a skilled knitter in many ways, she sets herself some daunting challenges! There is an enormous sense of place associated which each section of this book, as the author relates her own impression of the place alongside its knitting traditions and not only looks at the existing examples but also attempts her own versions. The illustrations in the hardback edition clearly show the complexity of the project. There is enormous detail associated with each tradition which is well expressed and extremely readable even to the non-historian.

I discovered this book by chance some time ago, and my daughter pointed out that she was at school with the author in Suffolk! I am not a knitter (I turn out many crochet blankets) but many female relatives were compulsive knitters, especially my mother, so reading this book felt like coming home in some senses. Although I could never see myself knitting as well, I have some understanding of the processes involved in producing the finished items. These are beautiful and thoughtful descriptions of a skill usually associated with women, often not as a hobby but as an essential contribution to family incomes. I appreciated the descriptions of the women such as the herring women who would walk along knitting and glimpsed something of the way my mother would knit and talk, watch television and read while turning out lovely garments.  I have also been to some of the places Rutter visited, including Shetland, and was very interested in the Wool Week that she attended, and how she chose to remember her visit.

Another lovely aspect of this book is the way that as someone who lived on a sheep farm, she wrote about the way fleece is treated from sheep to finished piece, including spinning. She writes about the difference between different sorts of sheep and their fleece, how it can be treated and what it can be best used for in knitting terms. Rutter has also researched the more rare sheep breeds that have survived more intensive farming, and how they produce fleece of different types, sometimes in very restricted amounts. This book, although well written as to be readable, features notes on sources listed at the end. It also features a Select Bibliography and an extensive Index, making this book a useful source of information for further study.

This is a book that I greatly enjoyed reading and one I thoroughly recommend to anyone with an interest in knitting, but also with an eye to social history especially in terms of Women’s Work. It would definitely be worth tracking down a copy!