In some rural areas of Angus it was customary for an infant attending school for the first time to be placed in the care of an older child. In the mid-1930s there was no transition period. A nursery then was a room where children were looked after by a nanny or governess.
On my first day at school I was placed in the care of Pearl who protected me, disciplined me, encouraged me and, most remarkably of all, introduced to the the art of knitting…
“Plain, purl, plain, purl…” she pronounced purl like her name.
“Na, na, nae like that, sic a quine,” she would tut-tut and demonstrate again and again, her nimble fingers manipulating the needles.
My first piece of work was a pair of garters which I proudly presented to my father. These were knitted in plain stitch, an inch wide and about a yard in length, and were wound round his stockings, which he wore with plus fours.
The stockings were knitted by my mother in wheeling wool, and sported snazzy tops which covered the garters. It took me some time to get the hang of the purl stitch, but thanks to Pearl’s expert tuition I was soon making little dolls’ bonnets in rib.
The word ‘purl’ is defined in my dictionary as ‘an inversion of stitches producing a ribbed appearance’. Its invention is credited to James Wilson, a stocking weaver from Strathaven, who was born in 1760. James became known all over Scotland as Pearlie Wilson.
Experts now claim, however, that the young Mary, Queen of Scots, was knitting ribbed stockings at the age of 13 while living in France – many years before Pearlie Wilson’s time.
The old drovers knitted stockings as they trekked; children, too, helped supplement low incomes by knitting doddie mittens. Songs – such as this old Norse knitting song consisting of rhyming numerals up to 20 – possibly lightened their task as well as keeping them from error: 1 Yahn; 2 Tayhn; 3 Tether; 4 Mether; 5 Mimph; 6 Hithher; 7 Litther; 8 Auver; 9 Dauver; 10 Die; 11 Yahn-dic; 12 Tayn-dic; 13 Tether-dic; 14 Mether-dic; 15 Mimph-it (potius mumphit); 16 Yahn-a-mimphit; 17 Tayhn-a-mimphit; 18 Tether-a-mimphit; 19 Mether-a-mimphit; 20 Jig-it
It was only in the middle of last century that knitting became a pastime with ladies in drawing rooms. Pattern books then became popular. One of the first women to publish these was Jane Gaugin of George Street, Edinburgh, who numbered members of the royal family among her customers.
Today it is difficult to find a wool shop where the proprieter can offer advice on intricate patterns. One could argue that there is less demand for knitted garments, and young working mothers simply have not the time to knit.
Jean Storrie Lewis,
76 March Road, Blackhall, Edinburgh EH4 3SY