Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Local Knitting Hall of Fame Moment - The Lismore Cable

The Lismore Cable - Finished Swatch
I want to share this Aran pattern with you - it's got a lot of sentimental resonance for me, especially this week which is my mother's second anniversary. It's called the Lismore Cable, and was designed  by Cyril Cullen, who is a Knitwear designer. He worked as a Social Welfare Officer in the "Dole Office" in Lismore when I was a child and he branched out into knitwear design for the American market to meet the demand for Aran knitwear. I alluded to him in this post some years ago when I made Shayne a cricket vest.

It was always  more popular Stateside than here at home, despite the fact that the clothes were made from appallingly scratchy pure wool,  very coarse and often replete with twigs and bits of grass and thorns, depending on the living quarters of the sheep.

My mother and many local women knitted for this designer and it was a veritable cottage industry. I guess it was a major success as he went on to leave the Civil Service and become a full-time designer, and he went on to live in Farney Castle in Co. Tipperary where he designed porcelain as well as knitwear.

Lismore Cable swatch blocked 
A friend found some of his late mother's patterns lately when he was doing a clearout, and gave them to me. I was fascinated to find some of the original Gestetner copied patterns and marvelled at the skill of my mother and all those 1960s possibly Desperate Housewives who knitted from home while raising their families in order to supplement meagre incomes.

I can't but think there was a certain irony in the fact that many of the home knitters like my widowed mother would have been clients of Cyril in his role as the Social Welfare officer. I wonder did they fear if they were too prolific in their output of jumpers would it have a negative impact on their pensions? The fear of "having your pension cut" was a very real one for people like my mother, who was a single mother through widowhood in the age when there were no supports other than the Widow's Pension and the Children's Allowance. I found a letter recently from the 1960's where her pension was noted to be 10/6 a week - that's 10 shillings and sixpence, or 55pence in old money, or about 70 EuroCent.

It can't have been easy, as they were under pressure to have the garments done in a certain timeframe, and the pattern sheet carries all kinds of dire warnings and admonishments of the consequences of getting the wool and/or garment soiled. Such transgressions had to be paid for by the knitter, and if a garment couldn't be cleaned to satisfaction the home knitter had to buy it for the cost of the wool. Now I know why my mother was always in a state to keep the wool clean, keeping it in pillow cases in the pre-plastic bag ubiquity era.

Tivoli Twirl scarf
I can remember her winding skeins of wool into balls, while I sat with the skeins on my outstretched arms, or else she used the back of a kitchen chair. It was a time where any extra household income was welcome, before Ireland joined the EEC (later the EU) and discovered prosperity, and certainly before the Celtic Tiger era.

ChaChaCha scarf
I guess many people think that the current recession might lead to a return to those not-so-halcyon days - but I think not, as Knitting is anything but an economic necessity now, and rather a luxury, given the cost of clothing vs. the cost of yarn and labour - so for me knitting is purely a hobby and a labour of love and if I am lucky to sell an item of clothing that's a bonus. I sold two scarves lately via Facebook, incidentally, to a Blogger friend, and got a great buzz out of it, but I don't think I'll be quitting the day job yet!

Some of the Frilly Scarves I made recently


Stephanie V said...

Oh, Catherine, that was such a poignant reminder of the connection we knitters have to the past. You are so lucky to have those tangible reminders to spark the memories. I remember when I was part of the N American crush on Aran designs back in the 60's. I knit my own first version around then. It was the beginning of my love affair with cables.
Well done on the frilly scarves!

Rudee said...

I am thankful for the rich patterns left behind, but truly sorry for the circumstances. I cannot imagine knitting to make a meager amount of money because truly, any project is a labor of love. Someone was making money here, but not the laborers. Shocking, I know.

I love the history of the fiber arts, including Aran with its intricate cables, Bohus Stickning for the stunning and delicate color work, and Estonian knitting for its gorgeous lace (complete with nupps so the finished product weighed more as that how it was sold--by weight).

It's interesting what women had to do historically to make ends meet.

Jinksy said...

This took me back - my Mum used to do knitting for some posh shop or other, earning peanuts for hours of skilled work...

Mimi said...

Love the story and the photos.
Rudee's last sentence is so true, and women still work in this way in many countries, Ireland included.
My mother knitted too, for a company but then she made some contacts herself and sold direct- much more lucrative!

Peggy said...

Hi Catherine, I used to knit arans way back in the 70's, I had forgotten about having to wind the balls from skeins of wool until I read your blog!
Our sheeps wool is no longer used for knitting wool as it is not soft enough for todays markets, our wool is shipped out to China and comes back as rolls of insulation (attic)!
I remember knitting with oiled yarn which turned white when washed.
We also had to sew up the garment and sew on the buttons, the £2.26d earned was for the fully finished product!!

Catherine said...

Girls - thanks so much for the feedback - I am really touched by the memories this post evoked in each of you - somehow similar yet unique. I can really see how ambivalent you feel, Peggy, about the skills and the hard work it was for what must seem like peanuts today - and yes, my mother was earning around a pound or two for the weeks of work, at least a week or two to make a jumper. Then her pension was so low it probably seemed like a fortune.
Rudee, you have a wealth of knowledge of the history of yarn - I am just discovering about our own heritage and about the Estonian knitting which I came across recently, and the others you mentioned I will have to look up! You would love Carol Feller's book with its history of Irish knitting fibres. There are a few artisan spinners dyeing and selling yarn here today.
Stephanie, you remember the Aran craze, that was what my mother and others were feeding into - the designers made the bucks, the knitters were making pin-money. There was a great resonance in having the cable pattern my mother once worked with.
Mimi, your mother had the right idea - I guess back in the day my mother was knitting it was more daunting to make a few bob and they wouldn't have had the confidence to source contacts themselves. But there are many women and men too knitting away in developing countries and selling their works for a pittance while middle men cream it.

We made the swatch for our knitting circle and it was lovely to see another knitter's version - she surrounded it with a moss stitch border and it was lovely.
Love to all, Catherine.

Marilyn Miller said...

Nice frilly scarves