Knitting on St David's Day


Professor Moira Vincentelli examines an integral part of Welsh culture. In the summer of 2010, the National Museum of Wales acquired the ultimate romantic evocation of Welsh knitting. Dating from 1860, William Dyce’s painting shows two women knitting out on the mountains of Snowdonia; the standing figure is dressed in the iconic Welsh costume with red shawl and tall black hat. Both are knitting stockings. What kind of reality does Dyce’s image represent? In the 1860s such a costume had gained currency through the efforts of Lady Llanover who wanted to encourage the wearing of Welsh flannel and to create a distinct identity for her adopted country (she was English). She succeeded. The costume remains to this day the ultimate signifier of Welsh identity. The knitting is an additional part of the iconography. The image was widely spread most notably by the Welsh photographer, John Thomas, who photographed women dressed up in Welsh costume (from a supply kept in the photographer’s studio) and they were frequently shown with their knitting to hand. The icon was quickly translated into the burgeoning postcard market of the late 19th and early 20th century. egwf In spite of the apparent geographical connotations of ‘raglan’ sleeves and ‘cardigan’, both names are derived from aristocratic generals of the Crimean War (1854-6) and have no real connection with Wales. Nor has Wales given its name to any sweaters associated with the fishing industry, such as Aran or Guernsey, but Wales has some particular associations with knitting. As early as the 16th century the Monmouth cap or Welsh wig was a type of male knitted headwear gathered at the crown and sometimes with flaps over the ears. Between 1700-1900, however, Wales became known for its hand-knitted stockings, at a time when frame knitting was increasingly replacing hand knitting in many parts of the UK. During the same period Wales was a fashionable destination for intrepid travellers in search of dramatic mountain landscape, picturesque scenes and good fresh air. erfe In the Dyce image the isolated and rugged setting for this domestic craft might seem surprising but in the 18th and 19th century knitting was often seen outdoors. The eminent portability of the craft meant it could be done while minding animals or walking to market. Furthermore, while knitting is firmly established in the popular imagination as a female activity , men also knitted, especially where there was an economic benefit. As the Reverend John Evans recorded of Bala, “knitting being the common employment of the neighbourhood, for both sexes of all ages, even the men frequently take up the needles and assist the female, in labour, where the chief support of the family is derived.” By the late 19th century the hand knitting industry in Wales was in decline as factory production and even the sock knitting machine became widely available. Hand knitting became the domain of the domestic knitter and of women. Nevertheless the specialist tradition of sock knitting is carried on by the knitting firm Corgi (named after the Welsh dog). Founded in 1893 the firm is renown for its high quality socks. This is an extract from issue 43 of Selvedge.

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