Esther’s written a book on knitting – and made a not-so-teenie polkadot bikini
PUBLISHED: 14:29 05 October 2019 | UPDATED: 21:41 06 October 2019
But she admits: ‘The knitting of something that touches the genitals and breasts seems such an intimate act that I cannot imagine making a costume for even the closest friend’
I might one day attempt to knit a pair of baby's bootees, but a bikini? No way. Not even if I were a woman and halfway competent. (Though, come to think of it, my top half could do with some support.)
Esther Rutter, however, is made of sterner stuff (and has the advantage of skill). She turned Alpaca Tweed Silk yarn into a not-so-itsy-bitsy teenie weenie yellow polkadot bikini, though not without pauses for thought.
When Esther revealed her plan, it caused "worried shudders among my family. Wool's inevitable sag and droop plays on the mind". Of course, all was well and she had a dip in the numbing North Sea without mishap.
Not that she'll be going into mass-production…
"Knitting this bikini requires me to get to know my own body better. It will have to hug my curves…" she writes in her new book. "The knitting of something that touches the genitals and breasts seems such an intimate act that I cannot imagine making a swimming costume for even the closest friend."
(By the way, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini" was the title of a novelty song that first came out in 1960.)
The bikini triumph was part of a year to remember - and not just because Esther left her job and travelled around the British Isles to write a book on the history of knitting. Nine months into the project, she discovered she was pregnant. "That was impetus to get it finished on time!"
Little Rose (speeding towards 18 months) now begins peppering our chat with requests for attention from mum. We've clearly gassed too long.
With the UK home to a reported seven-million-plus knitters, you imagine "This Golden Fleece - A Journey Through Britain's Knitted History" going down well.
The hardback takes the author from Shetland to Guernsey, via Wales, Cornwall and even her home county of Suffolk - where she'd learned to knit and where (for the book) she learns to spin wool into yarn.
Along the way, a dozen historic garments are recreated, including funeral stockings, "protest knitting" and that bikini.
Esther looks at the people and places behind them; sets out to shatter some myths; probes how wool has shaped our landscape, language, culture and economy; and even finds out what knitting did for writers such as Virginia Woolf.
The fleece powered Britain's economy from the Bronze Age. Apparently, Roman historian St Dionysius Alexandrinus said spun British wool was matched in fineness only by a spider's silken thread.
Later, wool's economic importance was such "that it was placed at the very heart of government: Edward III (1327-77) proclaimed that the Lord Chancellor should sit on a bale of wool in Parliament. This Woolsack is still in use in the House of Lords, albeit in a newer form…"
Most of us know the wealth of Suffolk places such as Lavenham was founded on the wool trade. But there's clearly more to wool than I imagine.
From about the age of five to the time she left for university, Esther lived beside a sheep farm in the Horringer area of west Suffolk. It wasn't a planned thing, but some domestic misfortune saw the family leave its home in Chedburgh and rent a cottage with dark-brown acrylic carpet (all the better for disguising muddy footprints), newspaper under the floorboards for insulation, and a bathroom in a lean-to out the back.
The land around was farmed by Walford Arnold Griffiths, a man obsessed by sheep.
Esther wasn't from a farming background, but became a "free-range child". She fell in love with the place, volunteering to assist with the sheep and even reaching into ewes to help deliver lambs.
She pulled tufts of wool off the wire fences and stuffed them in her pocket. Mum Gabrielle had a spinning wheel and sometimes spun yarn, using the clots of dirty wool Esther brought from the fields.
Bury St Edmunds was close by. "I used to go to the cattle market with Mr Griffiths," says Esther, who went to Horringer Court Middle School. "There was a little hut in the middle of what is now the shopping centre" - Pettitt's Tea Hut, I imagine - "and I'd have a sausage roll and a cup of tea.
"It was a treat to go to the auction and watch everything being sold. We'd help Mr Griffiths get his sheep in and out of the trailer. One time, my dad had to tie a sheep up with his belt - it was being very naughty - and his trousers fell down!"
Back in the countryside, she'd also go on ratting expeditions, "because rats were a real problem. Again, that was quite exciting: to go out with my dad, after dark".
Walford Griffiths died in May, and therefore didn't see Esther's book come out. Had it not been for him, perhaps she wouldn't be doing what she is.
"Absolutely. It didn't feel like that at the time, but as a writer nothing is wasted. To have the interest in the sheep, and that experience as a little girl, definitely helped shape my path through life."
While her mum was a spinner and weaver, it was actually Suzanne Murrell, mother of Esther's best friend, who taught Esther to knit when she was seven or eight.
Suzanne "was originally from a German family and travelled a lot in Scandinavia, where they have strong knitting traditions. She made loads of clothes for my friend, I saw her doing this, and went 'Ooh! Maybe I could learn that.' I wasn't very good, but I started making little dolls' blankets and things like that."
Esther knitted until she went to university (English, at Magdalen College, Oxford), had a hiatus and then picked it up again in her 20s, when in the Lake District. "The winters were long and cold and I thought 'I've got time to do this again'."
She was working for the Wordsworth Trust, telling visitors about the life of the poet. She met husband Tom a week after starting the job - he is the son of the man who employed her!
More recent times found Esther doing office-based fund-raising work and getting angsty at "the dog-end of the year" as she stuffed envelopes and signed letters to people she'd never met, hating "not only the grind of endless meetings… but also the secondary nature of this job, centred on assisting someone else's working life".
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She explains: "Just didn't suit me. Too boring. Too inside."
At home, in the evenings, she stewed as she knitted a soft blue scarf - a present for her mother-in-law. It didn't soothe her frustration. "I did not want to spend another year in that office. I wanted out."
She went - finding inspiration in tufts of wool pulled from a fence during a New Year's Day walk in Cumbria and the balls of wool given to her for Christmas by her mum: hardy Shetland Heritage yarn with a strong outdoor smell.
Wool has been worn for millennia, she'd write later. "Coated with lanolin, its fibres are waterproof and absorb odour. Wool draws moisture away from the skin, keeping us warmer and dryer than most synthetic fabrics… Wool cocoons our families in its warmth."
She decided "to unpick Britain's woolly story".
In the loop
Considering the popularity of knitting, it's an innately quiet activity content to dwell in the shadows (even though celebs such as Kate Moss and the Duchess of Cambridge do it, apparently).
Esther thinks its low profile is down to academia having traditionally been a male-dominated sector. Sad, really, as she says knitting is an interesting and complicated thing bound up with our ways of living, our sense of community and culture - even the way our lives are shaped by the weather.
With 7.3million knitters in the UK (that's what retailer Wool and the Gang was quoting in 2015) it's a huge pastime/necessity.
"I think it's gaining in popularity among my generation, too," says Esther, in her early 30s and currently writer in residence at the University of St Andrews at Fife in Scotland.
Part of the reason might be because, in an uncertain world, we yearn for something we can control.
"Knitting's great, because you can make something from beginning to end, by yourself. You can choose what it is you make. You can choose the colour of the garment, and the pattern you use. And you're often making it for someone else. It's a conscious decision to spend time and effort in creating something.
"You can't have another one like it. Even if you're using a really popular pattern, yours will be different than somebody else's.
"I think, too, it's a reaction against a 'loss of community' feeling. Also, there's a desire to use rare-breed yarns, and not things that have been shipped halfway across the world.
"In the past, people like our mothers and grandparents would have knitted through necessity - because handmade was cheaper than shop-bought. We're not generally in that place now, but we can see the value of what they were doing, and so we make that conscious choice of 'I want to do this'."
Necessity and culture were two strong influences in the lives of the "Herring Girls" - skilled Scottish women who travelled the coast from Shetland to East Anglia to gut the then-plentiful herring catches in the 1800s and for much of the 20th Century.
Esther talks about them in her book.
"Everywhere the Herring Girls travelled, their knitting went with them… Photographs of the Herring Girls in Yarmouth, Scarborough and Lowestoft show them knitting on the seafront, working their pins as they walk.
"Whereas knitting in public had long been common in Shetland, this behaviour was anathema in the East Anglian ports. Although the last Herring Girls came to Suffolk in the 1960s, this public knitting is still remembered and remarked on there today.
"Gansey patterns were shared and spread by these women, thereby knitting the fashions of these distant communities together."
Sorry. Gansey? "Heavy and dense, these traditional fishermen's jerseys are tightly knitted to repel water… ganseys were the de facto uniform of Britain's fishing fleet from the early nineteenth century until the advent of waterproof PVC in 1913."
Thanks. Apologies for interrupting. Back to Herring Girls.
"They also copied patterns they saw in the ports, and legend has it that someone wearing an unusually-patterned jumper as they walked along the quay would be followed by a gaggle of knitting women, all trying to copy it.
"From Shetland to Southwold, the Herring Girls shared and shaped and wore their ganseys."
The final row
Well, it all sounds fun. I've had one go at knitting (aged about seven, when it ended in frustration and failure). Are belated dreams of a scarf a lost cause? How might I re-start?
"You need some time - a bit at the beginning - to learn," says Esther. It comes down to practice.
"The best way, if you haven't got someone to show you, is to get onto YouTube. You can pause a video as many times as you like; you can zoom right in on people's hands.
"The second thing you need is a nice chunky yarn that will knit up really quickly. 'Aran weight' is what I would suggest. Choose a colour you like, so you're actually going to like what you make.
"There's a website called Ravelry" - a knit and crochet community - "and that has loads of free and inexpensive knitting patterns.
"You can even download them to your phone, so you have one wherever you go, and put your knitting needles in your bag. When you have time, you can do a few lines of knitting. You can do it in front of the telly of an evening.
"You can build it around your life, and suddenly you'll realise 'Hang on a minute. I've made a hat, or a scarf.' Anyone can become a knitter, but you do need a bit of time to get going.
"And it's only knitting! If it goes wrong, you undo it, unravel it and start again. Yarn is never wasted; it can be recycled into garments again and again. It doesn't mind!"
This Golden Fleece - A Journey Through Britain's Knitted History is published by Granta Books at £16.99.