Tag Archives: Knitting

Meeting Gandalf

“Confusing real matters with the machinery of the tale is a serious mistake.”     J.R.R.Tolkein.

My default method of coping with life has always been to retreat into an imagined reality, a made-up world of myth, magic and heroic deeds.  Eventually I read and loved The Hollow Hills (Mary Stewart), The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) and Earthsea (Ursula K LeGuin) but it all started with The Lord of the Rings.  In the autumn of 1976 I was at university in a city I hated, studying a subject I didn’t like which was going to lead me into a career I didn’t want.   What to do?  I could have transferred to a different campus, changed course or left and found a job that interested me.  Instead I chose to become engrossed in the fate of Middle Earth.  When the Fellowship of the Ring was formed, I was forced to decide where my loyalties lay.  I drifted aimlessly about in Further Education, squandering opportunities and wasting taxpayers’ money, all the time wondering whether I was more suited to becoming an elf, a dwarf or a hobbit.

In the end, I decided to develop a Gandalf-ian approach to life in general and dress sense in particular.  I binned my student uniform of jeans, sweatshirt and trainers and took to wearing long raggedy skirts, a cape and baggy boots.   These days, even though I am older and should be much wiser, I still channel my inner Gandalf when faced with a challenge.  Why?  Well, it’s not because I’m surrounded by short people with hairy feet who have a tendency to become invisible at awkward moments (although some of my friends tick at least two of those boxes), it’s because Gandalf is pragmatic, decisive and a strategist; and he knows the wisdom that comes from wandering ancient tracks and trails.  Also, I still have the cape and as there’s nothing wrong with it, no moth holes or rips, it needs to come out every so often and get worn.

 

I had heard a tale that the narrow lane at the side of the High Corner pub in Llanharan led to an almost forgotten landscape that could only be reached by foot.  A high claim in these days of off-roaders, quads and mountain bikes, and one which could only be proved by a boots on the ground exploration.  I had packed my creased and out of date OS map along with a picnic and my sketch book but then, at the last minute, had decided to switch bags.  The picnic and the sketch book made it into my rucksack but the map got mislaid in the transition.  Luckily all of those years when I orienteered (badly) has left me with something called ‘map memory’ so I knew roughly where I was going.  In short, this translates as uphill.  Really steeply uphill.  Eventually the tarmac lane petered out and a kissing gate marked the way into a field.  I stopped long enough to do a field sketch and tie some wool around my shoes so that when I came to knit a wallhanging of the route, I’d have yarn which had picked up some debris and would be coloured with what I call indigenous dyes but other people label mud.

 

The path turned west and was easy to follow across the sloping field.  A few sheep kept an eye on my progress as I moved past them but, surrounded by lush green grass that is the inevitable result of rainfall totals on the slopes of the Blaenau Ridge, they weren’t really interested in me.  The track was less steep now but still relentlessly uphill.  To the south the vista suddenly opened up and the flat lands of the Vale of Glamorgan, the cold waters of the Bristol Channel and even the North Devon coast came into focus.  Little white clouds scudded across the sky and the breeze felt fresh and clean.

 

Field Sketch

For me there is a peculiar joy to solitary walking in remote places.  On this particular day though, I wasn’t alone.  On the wooded slopes of Mynydd Coed Bychain (The Hill of Small Trees), a couple of riders on dark horses were making their way through the shadows.  Every so often they stopped and the rider in front stood up in his stirrups, scanning the horizon as if looking for something.  I watched them for a bit but it started to rain and I thought it wise to concentrate on my footing as the path rounded the curve of the hill and then wound upwards.  Ahead a rocky outcrop crowned the bluff and below, the valley widened as it ran down to the little settlement of Llwyn y Brain (Grove of Ravens) at its mouth.    A man stood on one of the boulders atop the cliff face, his form silhouetted against a greying sky.  Sitting next to him, alert, ears pointed forward, was a sheepdog.  I looked away for a moment to navigate a stony bit of track and when I looked back, both had disappeared and I was back to being in a lonely landscape.

The moors of Mynydd Portref are covered with windmills and the Ridgeway path doesn’t skirt them at any great distance.  They are quite hypnotic to watch and listen to and I was doing both when I met Gandalf.

“It’s good weather for them,” he said.

I was annoyed because I hadn’t noticed him approach.  If you walk alone in the countryside, you become quite alert to movement and sound but on this occasion, transfixed by the turbines’ sweeping blades, my alarm system had failed.  I turned to face the speaker.  Even though he had swapped his cloak for a red Berghaus jacket and the blue hat wasn’t as pointy as I remembered it, he looked like the Gandalf of my imagination, with a softly curling, greyish beard, tired looking eyes and a long walking stick grasped in his right hand.  He leaned his head back and for a moment or two we both watched the wind being turned into electricity then he turned and yelled over his shoulder, in a most un-wizardlike way:

“Margaret!  Get a move on.  We’ll be late for lunch!”

A bobble hatted woman with one limpy leg staggered into sight.

“Don’t feel sorry for her.”  He had seen the expression on my face.  “She’s not wearing proper walking boots.  Got some daft designer things on she bought yesterday and thought she could wear today without getting blisters.  All she’s doing is spoiling my day out. It’s not the first time.  I’ve had enough.  I really have.  I think we’ve reached the stage where as soon as I can, I’m going to leave her.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling awkward especially as Margaret arrived just as he had come to this conclusion.  I didn’t want to get involved.  I was busy planning the wallhanging map I wanted to make of my trek.

“Hello,” she said holding out her hand.  “Has he been telling you I’m holding him up? ”

“Not at all,” I lied.  Gandalf had wandered down the path and out of earshot.  “Trouble with your shoes?”

“No!” she exclaimed.  “Not at all.  I’m just pretending I’m useless so that he’ll dump me.  We met on a dating site a few weeks back.  He’s supposed to be kind and attentive with a good sense of humour.  Actually he’s a grumpy old sod and I can’t wait to be rid of him.  I think today could be the day he’ll finish it.  Must go,” she said.  “The more he sees me limping, the more annoyed he’ll be.”

As she disappeared into the distance and his shouts of “Margaret! Keep up!” faded away, I thought how probably it was best that Gandalf stayed where he belonged.  In my imagination.

 

Art in a Native Land

Northumbria Landscape

“Breathes there the man with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land.”  Sir Walter Scott

Before we left Scotland I was determined to see the famous stone circles of Kilmartin.  For some perverse reason our sat nav decided to ignore the obvious route of the A816 and instead took us on a panic attack-inducing, twisting, narrow lane towards the village of Kilmore – aptly named, we thought, especially after we encountered a full size bus hurtling towards us, the driver of which had more faith in his braking ability than our nerves could cope with.  Eventually we got back to the main road and as Kilmartin Glen opened up, we stopped at Carnasserie Castle.

Kilmartin GlenFrom the bottom of the hill, it looks like one of the ubiquitous stone towers that scatter the Scottish landscape but as you climb the slope, it becomes clear that whoever built this was sending a very serious message about power, ownership and the consequences of threatening either.  The tower is five storeys high and can be climbed.  If listening to the sat nav had been our first mistake of the day then deciding to take the spiral, unlit, un-handrailed, slippery-with-age stone staircase to the top of Carnasserie Castle – while carrying an acrophobic Jack Russell terrier –  was our second.  The views across the vast expanse of the glen were magnificent and certainly gave an indication as to why this landscape attracted the attention of stone circle builders.  Once we’d recovered from the climb, however, there was the terrible realisation that what had come up, had to go down.

stones at carnasserie castleThere are few better ways to calm jangling nerves than doing a bit of watercolour painting.  Once on terra firma I tried to capture the colour of the castle stones which from the bottom of the hill look a dour grey but up close are the most delicate pink – quite lovely if you are in a post-traumatic state.

Stone circle

Kilmartin was everything I had hoped to see in terms of landscape archaeology.  There are standing stones, stone circles and burial chambers everywhere.  Probably the biggest disappointment was that we arrived shortly after a coach load of American tourists, many of whom were of the opinion that the best way to appreciate the work of neolithic man was to lie on their backs with their legs stretched up on the sides of the monoliths.  Whilst I don’t have a problem if this is done out of spiritual necessity, it did mean that photo opportunities were limited.

Rear view of Rosslyn Chapel

More history lay in wait at our next destination as we briefly visited Rosslyn Chapel, rightly feted because of its stupendous carving but disappointingly famous because of its involvement with the plot and film of The Da Vinci Code.  We made the mistake of being there on a weekend in the school holidays.  If you’ve never been, Roslin (the village) is about 10 miles south of Edinburgh and you should make it your life’s ambition to get there.  Definitely a place for the bucket list but don’t stop at just seeing the chapel – there’s a lovely castle and some terrific walks through historical battlefields around the village too.

silhouette of bamburgh castle

Next day we drove to Bamburgh where the massive castle overlooks the wide, golden-sanded beach and from there we headed to Gilsland, once the outer limit of the Roman Empire.   It was here that I intended to make my next piece of Unlost Places art.  The idea came in two parts:  the first is captured in the photograph at the very top of the blog.  Nailed to the fence to the left of the tree was a dead crow.  Doing this is an old farming way of warning other crows to stay away from the field.

Chained stone The second part of the idea came when I saw this stone.  Here in Wales we chain standing stones too.  It is said that doing so stops the stone from wandering off and taking the path with it.

water colour of stone

This was the first time that I had done performance art as part of Unlost Places and my recitation of a poetic tercet whilst standing in the middle of a Northumbrian lane probably frightened off more crows that the old farming way.  Being so close to Hadrian’s Wall meant I was spoilt for choice when it came to making a larger piece of artwork.  Until, that is, we passed the Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh.

knitting

 

Creative Knitting is always a bit fiddly and you can never be sure it’s going to work out until the very last bead is attached or French Knot stitched.  And to those who think that maps are drawn with lines on paper all I can say is that for me, on a damp Tuesday afternoon in May, standing in the Temple of Mithras in the bleak landscape of Carrawburgh, this is how I understood my native land.

wall hanging

 

 

Soothing the troubled spirit

“Properly practised, knitting soothes the troubled spirit, and it doesn’t hurt the untroubled spirit either.”  Elizabeth Zimmerman.

In the 19th Century, some doctors would prescribe knitting for the relief of high anxiety and hysteria and undoubtedly, knitting – like many craft skills which require concentration and dexterity – has a calming, almost meditative effect.  Can you sense a ‘but’ coming?  I won’t keep you waiting in case you are prone to high anxiety and hysteria – but, what happens if you can’t knit?  I don’t mean that you haven’t learnt; that is a situation that is easily remedied.  I’ve yet to meet a knitter who isn’t willing to share their skill and for most people, all that is needed to master knitting is 2 sticks (the technical term is needles but to all intents and purposes, they are sticks with bobbles on one end and a point of the other), yarn and some measure of manual dexterity.  Mind you, if you search the internet there are lots of people who manage to knit with their toes but as I don’t know what the foot equivalent term of manual dexterity is, I’ll carry on about the people who can’t knit. (Apologies to the toe knitters for any offence caused.)

Knitted by Nell

My older sister, Nell, is a formidable knitter, socks and fingerless mittens being a speciality.  She designs her own patterns, does weird things called provisional cast ons, and waxes lyrical (and at great length) about the pros and cons of picot edging versus rib.  I’m not sure whether Nell’s spirit needs soothing but I am convinced that she views knitting as an intellectual adventure.  Without knitting, her hands would probably be picking away at the wallpaper in the pub where she and her compatriots currently meet for a ‘knit and natter’ session.  Social engagement is a wonderful by-product of most crafts, particularly the portable kind like knitting.

Knitted by Annie

My younger sister, Annie, couldn’t knit.  Over the years many people (including me) of varying experience in knitting and/or teaching have tried to help her overcome this handicap.  All have failed.  Whereas once Annie took a kind of perverse pleasure in her ability to ‘break’ experts, just recently she has found herself in some situations where the calming effect of knitting  would have been welcome.  Now that I am doing some sessions as a mentor of creative practices (more on this next month), I decided to volunteer my services again.  Curiously enough, stepping away from my previous skills of teacher/tutor/educator and instead using those of a mentor/guide/companion was all it took for Annie to stop thinking in terms of success or failure.  Her woolly pumpkin is the end of her being willing – even happy – to say “I can’t knit”  and the beginning of a creative journey that is full of possibility.

Dark Tonight (from Etifeddiaeth)

Nestling between the two extremes of sisters and their knitting skills, my wool and needles have a more niche setting.  I use free form knitting (often called Scrumbling) to create deeply textured surfaces which act as a foundation for layered embroidery, embellishment with found objects and appliqué.  This allows me to forget figurative representation and instead make some deeply personal and subjective interpretations of cultural geography.

Burial mounds on Brynywrach

My current project is a continuation of my MA dissertation which involved mapping the metaphysical features of landscape through poetry and mixed media art.  A book, creative walked journeys and a linked exhibition loom in 2019 so work has started on a wall hanging called ‘Run!’.  Incidentally, the title has nothing to do with dropped stitches and everything to do with the ill-fated attempt of the Silurian tribe of Glamorgan to escape the advance of the Roman army in the 1st century AD.  In an effort to make the knitting belong to the landscape it is representing I have done some solar dyeing with plant material harvested from the area.

White wool with natural dyes

In addition I have been walking/running over the ancient paths of the the Glamorgan ridgeway with wool tied around my shoes.  It gets nicely stained with what you could call indigenous dyes if you were being academic, but sheep poo is just as accurate a term.

Indigenous dyes

My doomed Silurians also had to climb a very steep ill in their efforts to get away.  One afternoon last month I repeated their journey, threw a ball of coarse Welsh wool down the slope and then wandered after it, knitting as I went.

Knitting in landscape

Anything that got caught in the yarn – moss, fleece and, yes, sheep poo – got knitted in.  By the time this wall hanging is finished it will also have lines of poetry that will tell the story of a people who met their end within sight of their homes to the east and safe haven to the west.  There is no picture which can convey that reality but I’m willing to bet that knitting will do it justice.

Looking towards home

So if you can’t knit yet – whether because you haven’t learnt or because you think you have some kind of congenital inability – maybe it’s time to have another go.  We knitters live in a world of excitement and joy, calm in the face of adversity and never looking for something to do.  Most wool shops offer lessons and workshops – sometimes with added cats like the wonderful Bramble Murgatroyd at Knit One in Dolgellau:

Bramble surveys her realm

About Knit one…

Lots of towns, villages and communities have groups which provide support and facilities for crafters of all sort.  My local area has established one to address everything from enabling artisan makers to counteracting social isolation by letting people learn skills from each other.  (www.craft.bridgendreach.org.uk).  There again, you could always join or start a yarnstorming brigade.  You need to have mischief making tendencies for this sort of thing and established groups are likely to be suspicious of anyone trying to push their way in.

Lily’s Posse Yarnstormers in action

If you’re still not convinced, maybe you should consider the words of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee:

“the number one reason knitters knit is because they are so smart that they need knitting to make boring things interesting.  Knitters are so compellingly clever that they simply can’t tolerate boredom.”