Women and knitting

My earliest memories of knitting are my grandma carefully recreating beautiful French patterns for me and my younger sister – on my mum’s instruction.  I would have the blue version and she the red one. My Nana on the other hand was much more slap-dash, re-knitting stripy numbers from unravelled garments, the stripes were arbitrary, paired together by chance. Her trade mark was overly long sleeves! It went without saying that grandmothers knitted and grandfathers did the gardening! My mum, a ‘60s feminist was not interested perpetuating this skill so I never learnt. I often think this is why I was so drawn to the skill as I became older, a kind of adverse attraction.

I always find it comforting to sit with women whilst they were knitting, it seems like such a calm thing to do, the rhythmical clicking of needles and patient casting off – a garment emerging from someone’s hands – the tension varying from knitter to knitter according to how they hold the wool and needles. When I visited my Swedish friend’s mother, she taught me yet another technique of knitting the Scandinavian way – which confused me further! Hand made things seems all the more precious nowadays when they are made so rarely and I always imagine what was going on whilst the knitter was making them – like a letter being written in a certain place and time, knitted fabrics transport me back to sitting with the knitter, imagining what they were thinking about, where they were in time and location. When I was at university, those of us who specialized in knitwear for our final collection were considered the brave, slightly blithe ones – you never knew how the knitting would come out – so much depended on the yarn, machine and your own expectations! The tailors played it safe, planning everything down to the last millimetre but us knitters – we could always steam out a couple of centimetre on the press if things didn’t go to plan!

 Nowadays I think we are beginning to value traditional craftsmanship – or craftswomen ship more than in the past and value this craft as works of art, attributing it with more credibility. However, this was not the case in the past which means it is often very difficult to trace the authors of older pieces.

This led me to think about women in the knitting industry – past and present as the knitters are all too often forgotten. When you begin to look at the old photographs you can see the camaraderie of the women, such as the Scotch Fisher Girls – linked arms, wide smiles in what must have been a very hard life. They show the empowerment that women experience when they work closely together as a team.  My mother-in-law can remember going to see these women when they came to Yarmouth in the early autumn (they followed the trawlers who in turn followed the herrings in their migration down the North Sea coast) when she was at junior school as they were quite a spectacle to behold. The girls would be ready and waiting in the harbour, knitting whilst the fish were unloaded so that they could be gutted, cleaned and packed into barrels ready to be sold.

Images of Scotch Fisher Girls

Women were considered to be bad luck on-board a fishing boat and so the fishermen’s wives and daughters were given other duties in the fishing industry. One such “job” was to knit the wind and water proof Gansey jumpers that the fishermen wore under their work”slopps”. Such pride was taken in this craft that the most highly skilled women often became revered within their communities and several of their patterns can still be traced and attributed to them today. Esther Nurse is one such knitter, who came from a fishing family called the Middletons and another was Emily Codling who was apparently so fast at knitting that it would only take her a fortnight to knit up an entire Gansey jumper. Although it is worth mentioning that the Gansey knitters were not exclusively women – there were some men – (apparently even a grocer), but for the main part it was the women folk who knitted using knitting shields to hold their work in place whilst performing their many other daily chores.

My own research photograph taken at Cromer Museum.


When I worked at Benetton and Burberry in Italy, almost all the technicians who graded the patterns, worked out the yarn consumption, tested the yarns etc were women. The programmers who operated the computers were usually and still are men, but the knitters and linkers were women.

There is a great culture of knitting in Italy, based around Perugia and the river Tibur, also in Veneto to the North East and on the flat “pianura” plains of  Emiglia Romagnia.  These ladies know about yarns and stitches; they even have words in dialect scomar for example is the Veneto word for the knitted taping used on cardigan plackets. They also know how to make stitches work, how to avoid ribs pulling in too much, or wobbling and what to do if a yarn knits with an uneven tension.. In many ways, this knowledge is similar to the way recipes and ways of cooking are passed down through generations. In fact, one of the most knowledgeable knitting ladies at Benetton gave me some of her cake recipes before she retired!

(can we print this in B&W?)

Images courtesy of Maglifcio Franca Patumi, Italy

When I first visited the Franca Patumi knitwear factory, just outside Perugia, in Italy, it reminded me of the feeling I used to get when, working with the ladies in Benetton. Immediately when I stepped inside the flimsy metal doors of the “capannone”, there was the familiar, metallic smell of the steaming press, damp wool, stacked up boxes of knitwear ready to ship, and rails of jumpers crammed full of pins, ready to be adjusted! The radio in the background playing saccharine Italian pop and all areas wer  immaculately clean (probably because it was run by women!) There was a busy but calm feeling that you get when you know you’re in safe, expert hands. Franca Patumi is a family business, like so many Italian small scale manufacturers. Family members are at work at different jobs in the building, everyone chipping in and helping out;  someone’s child needs collecting from netball practice – so an aunt runs out to collects her, as her mother is busy working on a pattern. On certain days the expert technicians come in to work on the latest prototypes. They have decades of experience between them working for the top Italian luxury brands, these ladies know how to make miracles happen! But the feeling of sisterhood is inspiring and uplifting. There’s a lot of laughter and good humoured banter, but they get the job done with pride and efficiency. Last time I visited we needed to try a jumper on a male model so they went to fetch a boy from the neighbouring office building as we didn’t have any in the factory! There were whoops of appreciation as he tried on a very flattering slim fit jumper – it was great to see the tables turned for a change – especially in a country which is often seen as quite sexist.

I wish I lived nearer so that I could pop in to Patumi when I’m having a solitary day working on my own as whenever I visit, I come away with a smile.


Group photograph of the women who work at Maglificio Franca Patumi, Italy.

Further reading:


Patterns for Guernseys, Jerseys & Arans;  Fishermen’s Sweaters from the British Isles by Gladys Thompson