Anyone who knows me, knows I am mad about the Outlander series, first the books and now the television series. And not just because of a hunky Scott… Oh shame on you for thinking it… No, it is mostly because I love history, especially Scottish history. I love reading and discovering what everyday life was like, especially for women and especially regarding textile production. It is not by accident I chose the Shetland breed of sheep to raise, or love to listen to Celtic music. I even took up the fiddle at age ten. And choosing to live in a 100 year old house has a special charm to me as I sometimes speak to the ghosts within its walls to ask advise or just enjoy the companionship.
This fascination with fiber began back when I took a weaving class in highschool, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. My teacher, Betty Johnson has no idea what treasure she brought to me, what world she opened up. It began a quest of self study, that has become my life’s work.
Now to the phenomenon of Outlander… The cool thing about it is that the central character does what I have been trying to do for decades, experience another time, smell the smells, see life through other eyes in another time. That is what learning how to knit and spin, animal husbandry, weaving, embroidery is all about for me, experience the fiber past, but in my own time.
During the colonial period, since England refused to allow colonists to purchase yard goods from any country except England, it became expensive. So many households went into production for themselves and their neighbors, growing flax, raising sheep, and processing the fiber, then creating clothing, bedding, curtains and most of the everyday needs of the household. We don’t know a lot of the details because these tasks were mostly left to the women and children and recording their tasks, how and what they did to contribute was not considered important history. Of course we know it is important. Often the economy of a village was based on bartering of these home produced goods. An excellent book was discovered then formatted with additional information called “A Tale of a Midwife” . One of my favorite books. This diary was discovered in a Maine archive and it chronicled a midwife named Martha in her daily chores of attending to the doctoring of her town and her fiber business she ran with her daughters during the late 1700’s. It was mostly in the form of record keeping, but what a wealth of information! I stumbled upon this book over ten years ago in a little Charlottesville book store during one of my little anniversary weekends with my husband.
So at times, I feel a kindred spirit in Martha. I juggle two careers as well… Instead of midwifery, I am a travel agent, and I own and operate a little fiber business… For my family and community, growing, processing and manufacturing clothing – mostly socks for the family and general public, and baby things for all the new additions my family is experiencing.
And I am like Claire in Outlander, living in a different time, but not needing to fall through stones to do it. And I get to learn and experience a little taste of what so many women before me had done… Keeping their families warm with their skill and their ingenuity and hard, yet satisfying work.
Lots of people over the years have asked me who had taught me to knit or spin. How did I get into the fiber business? Who was my inspiration?
Well, growing up, while my mom was a bit crafty and she knew how to knit, I never saw her with needles in her hand. Although there was the brief crochet phase in the 70’s when made a poncho. The less said about that the better. But I had a great grandmother who defied logic and produced many of these beautiful quilts by hand sewing. And she also crocheted. One year, she announced that she would crochet each of my sister’s and my brother an afghan for our birthdays. No small task as I am one of six kids. She asked that we tell her our favorite colors. I chose blue. And sure enough, on my 16th birthday, a package arrived. I opened it and the lovely blue and white granny square afghan was inside. Never mind that it did not match my bedroom. I loved it. It has been with me ever since.
It covered me while I studied for finals at LSU. I snuggled under it with my new born son during chilly midnight feedings. I wrapped it around me the night I found out my Dad dyed of a sudden heart attack at 49. It has followed me on all my moves, from New Orleans, to Baton Rouge, to Richmond, and small towns like Powhatan, VA and now here on my farm in Cumberland, VA. And you know, for the first time since receiving this wonderful gift, I have that blue and white bedroom. And the joy a hand crocheted gift inspired me to seek the opportunity to share that with others. So while my Great Grandma did not teach me stitches as she lived far from me in Pennsylvania. She did teach me the value of the love shared when some one takes yarn and pulls loops through loops to create something that can hug someone even far away.
So I taught myself to knit from a Woman’s Day Magazine. I learned all I know from books and later taking a class or two. My Art major at LSU has helped me learn about color-a great asset in dyeing yarn. And my Dad’s love of animals has spilled over to me as I tend sheep and goats, train dogs and raise rabbits and chickens. And every evening, I get under that afghan and knit.
This year, I am determined to do some research spinning. That is to explore different breeds of sheep and create some lovely knitwear. There is this great book by Sue Blacker called Pure Wool. In there is this lovely study of Gotland wool and this comfy sweater pattern. I yearn for that sweater and I happen to have a Gotland Fleece. I ordered it a year ago to experiment with and the time is now. I had my doubts about it but after looking at it again, I realize I have a real find. When the frosty black locks a tee teases open, they are lovely and so soft. So I am off and running. Stay tuned for progress. And I have several more fleeces in the wings. It will be a fun year!