Improv Sweater. Week 3: Musings on knitting, personal histories, and maritime heritage

Knitting is my connection to who I was, where I was, and also who I am, where I am, and whom I will become while here.

I was born in Toronto, Canada, but when I was a child, my parents moved me to their childhood home: the coast of Lake Erie, to somewhere between Simcoe and Port Dover, Ontario. It’s the shallowest of the Great Lakes, but is peculiar in that, historically, it had a vibrant fishing industry. With warm waters (there’s the benefit of that shallowness), the fish were populous, and people prospered off catching and selling them in their own modest ways for the better part of two centuries. Unfortunately, like the fishing industries on the East Coast of North America (I’m thinking, in particular, of our maritime provinces’), the Great Lakes fishing industry began to collapse in what I believe was the 1980s. Slowly, surely, fishing tugboats retired, were ghosts in a shipyard for awhile, and, without hope of resale or renewal, were scrapped for their valuable steel.

Port Dover’s fishing industry is slowly scraping by, bolstered a tiny bit, year by year, by the new demand for perch and Japan’s taste for smelt. The smelt is a tiny little fish, not very interesting, and rather unassuming; you certainly wouldn’t easily make a meal of it, but these are flash frozen, and sent to the other side of the world for frying and fermenting.

While my family was not a fishing family, many of my childhood friends came from fisherly backgrounds, and the local economies were highly dependent on this. I feel like I cannot help but be bound to this theme; large bodies of water, spreading out in expanse, at once welcoming and foreboding. Fishing, as many things in life, is a dangerous business, and frequently a cold one, too. Cold enough for sweaters, certainly.

It seems that knitting maritime sweaters is in my blood; wool, textiles and fisheries part of my heritage in some small way.

What a happy coincidence that Simcoe’s primary industry until the 1970s was the wool and yarn trade. There used to be wool mills up and down the lazy river that runs through it, and fields filled with sheep. Since the advent of the aggressive globalized economy, this trade has died out, but you can still find remnants of its success in books, in local crafts, and in some of the old mill stores that still exist in southwestern Ontario. It seems that knitting maritime sweaters is in my blood; wool, textiles and fisheries part of my heritage in some small way.

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Fisherman’s rib on my front porch in the sun. The colour variation of the yarn is very obvious in this photo.

As a teenager, I developed an interest in fishing ganseys and the oft-associated, though largely mythical “fisherman’s aran” (though, if you’ll take Alice Starmore’s opinion on it, arans weren’t used for fishing, which makes sense as they’re too delicate and prone to pulling). I began to be fascinated by knitting. I tried for years to develop skills, but my dexterity wasn’t there, and it wasn’t until I moved to England for the second time for graduate school that I really got the hang of it. I was in-land, in Durham City, but the water and the history was still in the back of my mind. My first project was a now-frogged scarf that was intricately, if a bit clumsily, cabled. Boom. Hello, fisherman’s sweater obsession.

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“Didn’t exactly work out, did it?” Or, learning not to use busy colourways with textural patterns the hard way.

 

 

I have knit a fair few cabled projects since then, and tried my hand at a gansey or two, with limited amounts of success and satisfaction. Cabling is fine. Gansey patterns are, for some reason, less easy for me. Even so, I’m deeply committed to challenging myself.

I recently moved to another place with a huge fishing heritage, though of Scandinavian rather than British heritage. Ballard is a neighbourhood in Seattle, Washington, with a still-vibrant fishery. I love seeing the freshly painted, loved fishing boats going out onto the Sound, knowing some of them are destined for as far away as Alaska. It’s amazing to me that they’re going so far, when my Great Lake is still comparatively so tiny. I feel more at home near water regardless of whether it’s salt or fresh. I love that I can continue this theme in my life; living near fisheries, near Big Water. Still, I’m expanding my knitterly interests; I actually see ganseys worn here, though more frequently micro-fleece and rubber rain suits. I’m broadening my knitting repertoire, and the accompanying history, to encompass this ever-evolving community. I love that I’m carrying on a tradition, and evolving this tradition; knocking on gansey utility through the 21st century.

I love… evolving this tradition; knocking on gansey utility through the 21st century.

The reason I’m telling you all of this isn’t just because I like to wax romantic about my past. I really do think that my integration into this community hinges on my understanding on where it’s come from, where it is going. By knitting this sweater, with its gansey motif, and its fisherman’s rib, I’m staying in touch with my past while welcoming my present and future. Knitting is my connection to who I was, where I was, and also who I am, where I am, and whom I will become while here.

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I’m learning new things on this KAL. I’m also really pleased with being able to see everyone else’s progress. All so different, yet variations on a theme! It’s inspiring to see how we can all take the same notion (knit a top-down sweater in one piece), and run with it. Being given encouragement, offering encouragement — what a feeling of community. Imagination is so powerful, and I believe really quite healthy, too. Amazing!

Tomorrow, I’ll be talking about an idea that’s been bopping around my head for a little while now! Stroke of genius or dated and silly? You’ll find out what it is, and you can feel free to tell me what you think!

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2 thoughts on “Improv Sweater. Week 3: Musings on knitting, personal histories, and maritime heritage

  1. […] Next time: I’ll be writing about the funny connections that run through my life with this particular sweater. I’ve moved from fishing community to fishing community, freshwater to salt, and yet my projects frequently have that nautical flavour to them. What’s new is the Scandinavian preoccupation I’ve developed over the last year or two. Funny that I should have moved to an old Scandinavian fishing neighbourhood with still-strong roots! You can now read about it here. […]

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