I knit. I love colour. Two simple statements, but the fact is that my very earliest memories have to do with colour and with knitting. I was not yet three years old, gravely ill with pneumonia, lying on a bed in my grandparents’ home, while the doctor fussed in and out and my mother sat knitting steadily, reassuringly, by my side. Her yarn was brown, but the floor and walls blazed with the vibrant hues of kilims. I recovered; we continued our interrupted vacation and returned to Scotland.
A few years passed and I joined the Brownies, learnt to knit and got my badge. And no, the required knitting was not of the my-first-scarf variety, but a baby’s sweater, no less. I’ve been knitting ever since.
Knitting is not my Winter activity, it’s my constant activity. All kinds of knitting, all kinds of items, but hats are my default knitting. Hats in progress are scattered throughout the house to be worked on at any opportunity. By each chair, next to the bed, in bags hanging on available hooks and knobs, in the car, and always at least one ziplock bag with yarn and circular needles in my travel bag. You just can’t get into too much trouble with a hat. It will fit someone, for sure, and will never go wasted.
Hats are my gauge swatches where I try out new techniques. Hats allow me to indulge in wild colour. They never bore me as round and round I go on my circular needles. Hats are obligingly quick to knit, happy to use all my scraps of yarn. And they do pile up so cheerfully!
Silent and solemn as ever, my clear-headed Jason is very good about wearing a hat so that I have a record of it, as well as memories of the scene, something I’ve learnt to do in recent years, having failed to do so in years gone by.
And he’s not my only helper – various of the hairies and furries are always very eager to get involved.
This year’s hats are about to be sorted. Some will be gifts, but most will leave home to travel where they are needed to bring a little warmth and colour into lives.
Poseidon's been pouting, Zeus has been raging and now Aeolus, god of the wind, has joined in. They've been trying to outdo each other all weekend. Rain, lightning, thunder and wind. Not your gentle Zeus-snoring breaths, mind you, not fluffy little clouds ruffling the water, but great gusts of violence. Tempests. Squalls. Gales. Call them any name you like.
Lord Beaufort would have been in his element. Lord Beaufort, who survived being shipwrecked as a lad because someone messed up a chart, and who grew up determined never to have that happen again. Can't say I blame him. I've no desire to make Poseidon's acquaintance either. Anyway, Lord Beaufort went on to do great things after his bad experience, not least of which was becoming a Rear Admiral and a Sir, and generally going up hugely in the world. And while he was achieving all this, he also made time to tinker about with his Wind Force Scale. In use all over the world, it describes the effects varying wind strengths have on smoke, trees, water and so on. It makes for interesting reading, and gives you some idea if you're about to have a really rough go of it.
"Wow, look!" I'll exclaim, gazing out upon a froth of wavelets dancing with little white horses, as I consult my printout of Beaufort's Scale. "I reckon that's a Beaufort 3. Maybe even a 4."
Not this time though. Not on your life. The Pagasitic Gulf has been battling a Beaufort 7 at least, more like an 8 with distinct notes of a 9 at times. Olives are raining down off the trees, bits of geraniums are flying about. The hairy and furry members of the household have the right idea. This calls for restful calm within the house, with tea and munchies, a book and some knitting. And friend Sally's cheesies are just the thing.
4 oz butter – softened
8 oz grated cheese*
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1-1/2 cups flour – sifted
Preheat oven to 350 degF
Mix butter, cheese and seasonings.
Add flour and form into a dough.
Roll out and cut into straws.
Or use a cookie press if you like to get really fancy.
I simply roll the dough into small balls and flatten with a fork.
Bake on a greased cookie sheet for about 25 minutes
*Notes on cheese
Use an Extra Sharp Cheddar cheese if possible.
I don't usually have this available, so I add a good amount of cayenne pepper.
Chili powder works just as well.
These are very popular at parties.
They keep well and are great with soup.
OK, so I lied, they don't keep long in this household!
Kate Davies, whose writing is always most interesting and informative, has sparked some lively debate with her blog posts of September 21 and September 23. Her discussion makes mention of “women with multiple demands on their time” and reminded me of a particular chore which women of previous generations were expected to include in their daily household tasks. The maintaining of clothing and domestic linens in good condition, pretty much a never-ending task, required various forms of mending, among which the darning of holes played a large part. Along with the iron (my blog post Iron Age) a household would have its darner. This would be dropped into the sock, or held at the back of the damaged piece of fabric to highlight the hole and provide a backing for the repair work. My mother’s olive wood darning egg fascinated me as a child, though to be honest I do not recall her ever using it, and is no doubt the reason I collect darners.
The variety of darners is endless. This humble tool was made in many societies, in all manner of materials, both for local use and as souvenir items, often reflecting some aspect of the country or region of manufacture. Some were designed so that the tops unscrewed, allowing needles to be stored in the handles.
They could be egg shaped; the most common appear to be eggs-on-a-stick. Plain wood was usual; indigenous woods might used on souvenir darners; painting in colours or designs made the darner more cheerful, perhaps relieving some of the tedium of the task, or at least catching the eye of the buyer. Mushroom shapes were always popular and lent themselves to decorative painting whilst there’s a touch of whimsy in these darners, rather reminiscent as they are of a foot.
Glove darners were tiny, and essential if a lady was to maintain her gloves in good condition, while much larger darners would have been used in the repair of trousers and jackets.
This patented gadget was intended for the repair of stockings; the handle unscrews to reveal a tiny latchhook. By contrast, an advert in The Modern Priscilla of January 1911 urges those who “want to quit darning” to purchase their stockings instead, which, mind you, were guaranteed only for four months. After that, I suppose you either bought new ones or reverted to the hated task!
I found this bundle of handknitting samples in a fleamarket in Texas. All are made of cotton; some of them have name labels attached. Are they from a school? And if so, during what year of schooling were the girls (for it most certainly would have been girls) expected to learn these skills? The work is well done, in fine gauge, and must have been quite time-consuming. There are samplers of beautifully worked stitch patterns, while four of the swatches show examples of darning. All necessary skills for a young woman back in the day.
So important were needlework skills that cheerful scenes of domestic bliss, and particularly mother/daughter learning activities were frequently depicted on the packaging though I have my doubts as to the eagerness on the part of daughters. Sons of course were spared!
The foreword to The Sunlight Book of Knitting and Crocheting published in Chicago in 1912, trills:
“A woman is never quite so captivating and utterly feminine as when her lap is filled with a fleecy cloud of yarn, and from beneath her darting needles falls away some soft, pretty knitted affair.”
Several years ago I was discussing knitting with an elderly village woman, now long gone to her rest. She rummaged about in a chest and produced this perfectly round sea-washed pebble, which she gave me. “What use have I for it now? I don’t want to remember those days.” She’d always kept an eye out for suitable stones, she told me, to use for darning her late husband’s socks. He’d been a shepherd, constantly wearing holes into the many socks she’d knitted him. She made it quite clear that sock knitting was a chore: preparing the fleece, spinning the yarn on her drop spindle, knitting the socks, and then the never-ending darning. All done mostly by lamp and candlelight, and after the hard work of the day. Knitting was not for her the pleasure it is for so many of us today.
In addition to her mending, the housewife of yesteryear frequently had to “make do and mend”. Every scrap of fabric and clothing was precious, particularly during and after the two Great Wars of the 20th Century. Women’s magazines carried regular articles on ways to remake clothes, such as cutting a man’s shirt down into baby clothes, or unravelling a damaged sweater in order to salvage the yarn for another project.
Many of us repurpose fabrics today, though for the most part more from a sense of using a wonderful textile, or having something unique, such as this bag made from a thriftstore vest, which in turn was sewn from patches of ethnic Indonesian cloth.
My darners are no longer used, but what stories they could tell!
Thessaly is often referred to as “the bread basket of Greece” as its great plains allow for extensive agriculture. The region has been known since ancient times for sheep and goats, with nomadic tribes shepherding their animals to grazing grounds according to the season, although many nomads have abandoned their traditional migrations in favour of a more settled lifestyle.
The horses used in the Trojan War were said to have come from Thessaly, where wild horses may still be found. It’s probable that nomads clinging to the necks of horses gave rise to the notion of a half man, half horse who came to be called a Centaur. Imagine a remote and stormy landscape, fog swirling around rugged peaks, winds sighing and shrieking their unearthly noises through the valleys, and suddenly a horseback rider appears!
Goats are important to the local farmers, many of whom keep large flocks of these animals. It is not uncommon to see them being herded to fresh grazing lands, and as goats eat just about anything, the prudent villager has to be on the alert when the unruly animals pass along the road lest some choose to munch on garden plants.
This is a rural area; the farmers work long, hard hours, often out in the open at the mercy of the weather, and subject to all the problems associated with raising animals.
I always enjoy being caught up in these mini-migrations, and I find it very amusing when the occasional irritable townie vents his frustration and raises his blood pressure because he’s held up for a few minutes.
The herders, some on horseback, call out to each other as they battle to drive the churning mass onward, but goats do roam and are easily distracted. Herdsmen on foot leap about as nimbly as the goats, using their sticks and crooks to urge the animals back into line.
The noise! Shouting, chanting, whistling, the constant honking of car horns still don’t overpower the clanging and the clinking and the tinkling of the bells each goat wears.
And then, suddenly, it’s over. The road is clear. The last animal has been hurried off to open land.
And all the while Mt Pelion, summer home of the gods and stamping ground of the Centaurs, gazes silently over the Peninsula where, driving home late at night, after a jolly evening with friends and a glass or two, you might just find yourself chasing centaurs through the olive groves.
The Pagasitic Gulf has a fairly good natured temperament, but as the saying goes, still waters run deep and in this case they do quite literally for the Gulf’s depth is about 100 meters in most parts. Though usually calm, the Pag can be moody, showing flashes of anger just when least expected, particularly after Poseidon decides to get his trident in a twist. Rather high and mighty is Poseidon, conscious of his position as one of the Twelve Gods; his realm is the sea and he’s a touchy character. Very. Poseidon is quick to take offense, and even quicker to vent his fury, striking his three pronged weapon to cause earthquake and tsunami, shipwreck and drowning. For my part I’ll take his raging seas any day rather than his earthquakes.
The waters of the Pagasitic can boil up in no time, frequently subsiding just as swiftly, but when Poseidon’s tantrums are out of control, the sea might rage for days, depositing all manner of debris along the beaches and among the rocks. Plastic, that prince among pollutants in all its forms, nets, ropes, wood, medical waste bearing foreign labels and doubtless dumped at sea, bottles, branches, logs, shoes, clothing, toys, to name but a few. My dog Sophia, keen swimmer and beachcomber, supplemented the toys we constantly bought her, by retrieving various playthings and balls from the tangled messes hurled onto the shore.
After one particularly fierce storm when Poseidon was completely out of control, I noticed a piece of green knitwear twisted tightly around some vegetation. Intrigued, I retrieved the mangled bundle and set about separating the knitting from the twigs and pine cones, burrs, thistles and bits of root gripping it. A very damaged, hand knitted sweater was finally freed. I was rather upset at first; it was difficult not to think that maybe a life had been lost. But then again, why should that have been the case? It could just as easily have been blown overboard, or accidentally dropped into the sea. Or been swept by a wave off the beach. Washed away in a heavy rainstorm. What about the person who’d lost it? Was it their only sweater? Sophia and I walked home, and I placed the matted little heap on a table to dry in the sun.
The next day I picked off some of the seed pods stuck all over it. This sweater has been in the water a long time. It’s faded in parts, badly ripped, it’s brittle and disintegrating, but it has a story to tell and I’m trying to understand it. There’s a temptation to indulge in a flood of metaphor and sentiment with regard to it, with waffle about unraveling and dropped stitches, and being battered by life, about what it was and what it no longer is, but the fact remains that someone went to the trouble of making it, and somehow it got lost. The fact remains that it’s handknitted, and that one seldom sees handknitted clothing here any more. The street markets in Europe have seen to that.
So where did it come from, this little sweater? And by whose hands was it made? The yarn is wool, it’s quite badly degraded, but it appears to have been handspun. This makes me think of Albania where I know women who spin beautiful yarns on drop spindles to knit for their families. The garment is knitted back and forth in pieces, which have been seamed together; the sleeves are set in; the neckband is crocheted. The yarn has been held double at all the cast on edges – a technique commonly used in Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey and parts of the Middle East. A close examination reveals no damage to the cast on edges, which is interesting in that other areas of the sweater have been torn. The cast on stitches are fairly rigid, they have very little elasticity, which again brings Albania to mind.
The workmanship would win no prizes, but this is a utilitarian garment, made to serve a need. It is not the work of privilege, if I may phrase it so. The hands that drew upon age-old knowledge and techniques to make it, that did so with love and concern, created a garment that links all those of us who knit. Who knows how far it’s traveled?
The long narrow Pelion Peninsula projects hook-like into the Aegean Sea, curling its tip in a warm hug tightly around the waters of the Pagasitic Gulf on its western coast. The gulf is very deep; its waters conceal many a wreck, both ancient and modern, not to mention the treasures lost by would-be conquerors and pirates. Wonderful beaches and inlets abound, several of which are accessible only by boat, where the happy sailor may find his own particular bit of paradise.
The gods of Greek myth took their summer vacation on Mt Pelion at the head of the Gulf for they knew a good thing when they saw one.
The Pagasitic’s waters are usually calm, their gentle winds making them popular with sailors though they can erupt in fury when disturbed by strong gales. The sea reflects every colour presented to it in weather fair or foul, constantly changing hues depending on cloud cover, proximity to sand and rock, to flower, bush and tree. Spectacular sunsets explode in all the fiery colors and fade away over shades of blue, green, turquoise, navy; storms and rain have their own striking palettes.
The Pagasitic Gulf fascinates me with its beauty and history, inspiring me to knit this shawl.
The ancient Greeks sought to explain thunderstorms as resulting from the temper tantrums of Zeus who liked to hurl thunderbolts around when enraged. Not known for fidelity to Hera, his wife, the mighty god was rather fond of larking about with nubile nymphs, causing Hera considerable grief. Tempestuous were the rows which resulted. We seldom experience a thunderstorm in Summer, whereas now, as we move ever so slowly into Winter, we have had some spectacular ones, with more expected; maybe Zeus and Hera are regaining their energy in the cooler weather.
Zeus rumbled and grumbled all night long, stumbling about from North to South, from West to East in an ever-changing pattern. Just as we seemed assured of a heavy downpour, the great mass of cloud shifted its attentions across the Gulf from us and a massive hailstorm destroyed almost all the almond crop in Farsala.
Here on the Peninsula we know better than to trust the weather reports completely, and a common response when one asks about the weather forecast is: “Look out of the window.” The Pelion Peninsula is rugged and rocky. Gorges and gullies abound. Rivers and streams flow from the mountain’s ravines, particularly during the Winter rainy season when many a summer-dry river bed can turn instantly into a raging torrent, bringing floods and landslides in its wake. The area has so many mini weather patterns that it’s probably a meteorologist’s dream, or more likely his/her nightmare but it’s always interesting.
Zeus and Hera have clearly not resolved their differences this morning. Ominous black clouds sulk in the North, and though we can’t see Mt Olympus from here, I imagine the atmosphere’s pretty bad up there.
Summer is reluctantly drawing to its end here; there are all sorts of little reminders that winter is sneaking up on us. The cyclamen has begun to appear. Tiny clusters at the moment, but in a few weeks there’ll be large areas of these delicate pink plants with their distinctive flowers and leaves.
Most of the swallows have already left, but one particular swallow clan and their offspring remain. These have returned to their large communal nest on a balcony for the third year now. At least I think it’s the same extended family. Apparently swallows mate for life, and this group has certainly done its bit for the swallow population with three sets of hatchlings this season. This is probably why their flight has been delayed as the last of the baby swallows have only just left the nest. I suspect ma and pa are quite anxious for the youngsters to build up their strength so that they too can journey along the ancient and perilous migration paths.
Busy, busy these parents have been for months, zapping past my window from the first glimmers of dawn until they’re mingling with the emerging bats at end of day. I’m delighted that their mud home has remained unoccupied so far during the long winters, for I’ve noticed that these sturdy dwellings are often taken over by winter squatters, and once that happens, the swallows shun the nest.
I haven’t yet been able to identify the housebreakers which are small and somewhat sparrow-like, but they certainly do disrupt the swallow housing developments, and make an enormous mess of droppings from the high-rise apartments they have commandeered under the eaves.
Swallows feed on the wing, catching insects in mid-flight, but they flash by so quickly I’ve never yet been able to capture a decent photograph. Instead, here are pictures of a spotted flycatcher returning to her colourful home in the roof with an unfortunate grasshopper – dinner for the three raucous fledgings she was nurturing in June – and dessert of some sort of grub.
She spent the whole summer only a couple of feet from my study window, so I was able to watch her preparing the nest with cheerful snippets I’d made available. When I sew, I try to trim seams outside in the garden, while small pieces of yarn from knitting projects get tossed out the windows. These bits blow around and are quite often picked up by birds to weave into their nests.
Mama flycatcher was quite selective in what she chose to use, with a strong preference for red.
As for Raki, he was enthralled by the spectacle, and spent long periods chittering indignantly at the comings and goings, and although the nest is now empty he still stares hopefully up at it. But soon our feathered winter vistors will arrive and we all look forward to their antics.