I’ve been very much enjoying the number of textile-themed narrative non-fiction books being published lately. From Kassia St Clair’s brilliant offerings,
The Golden Thread and The Secret Lives of Colour, through to the exceptional Threads of Life and the still interesting but not entirely my cup of tea, Knitlandia.
While blending non-fiction and storytelling and personal anecdotes is perhaps a dangerous line to tread in terms of not ‘colouring the truth’, narrative non-fiction makes for incredibly compelling reading, in particular when it is as well-done as it is in
Esther Rutter’s relatively recent book, This Golden Fleece: A Journey Through Britain’s Knitted History. Contents This Golden Fleece is party history, geography and archaeology lesson, wrapped in Esther Rutter’s journey across much of the United Kingdom to explore local textile traditions and creations. The book is split into 12 chapters, each themed around a particular location and each with their own associated craft project, created by the author.
Each chapter is accompanied by a hand drawn illustration and there are scant black and white photos in the text. In the middle of the book there are some laminated pages with colour photographs, many of these capturing the author’s crafty creations and experiences on her ‘knitting tour’. The back of the book contains more extensive Illustration Notes and Credits, as well as an extensive index and a notes section. The book contains plenty of in-text citations (with full references in the notes) so if you want to go digging into the validity or justifications for any of the facts presented, there is ample opportunity.
Within the twelve chapters, we join Ester Rutter on a journey that spans from Shetland (enjoying the famous
Shetland Wool Week) all the way to Cornwall. On the way, we stop for an extended stay in Yorkshire, visit Monmouth and the Lake District, have a slight detour to Guernsey and Jersey and even have time to stop and join a protest and reflect on the role of knitting in the French Revolution. Structure
The book covers a lot of ground not just in miles, but in history and people. The historical focus is generally very much on the local, stories told around some precious local object (typically in a Folk Museum) like the Dentdale Gloves or a particular brand of knitting frame. While it seems no one, Ester Rutter included, can touch upon textile history without reference to the Fates in Greek mythology or the Norns, their Norse equivalent,
This Golden Fleece does a fantastic job of bringing a wealth of fresh topics to the reader, even if they are an avid history buff or textile enthusiast.
What I found very satisfying about the coverage and choice of topics for the book is that Ester Rutter manages the delicate balance between breadth and detail very, very well. One of the things that left me a little frustrated about The Golden Thread was the great number of interesting topics touched upon, but the ultimately unsatisfying amount of detail on any. This Golden Fleece feels much more heavyweight in terms of facts and details, and while the pace of the book is kept moving along by injections of personal narrative and reflections, these are very restrained. While ‘leaving the museum’ is an action of the author in the present time, it’s really a genius segue into some new facts on sheep breeds.
The balance between personal story and facts is masterfully done in This Golden Fleece. The final two chapters, which are far more personal in nature, would be completely unsatisfying if as a reader, you hadn’t been drawn into Ester Rutter’s adventure somehow. Yet, they make a poignant end to what is, from cover to cover, a gripping read. There is some narrative and storytelling voodoo at work in the text that makes the, technically distinct, chapters all link up like a perfect row of knit stitches, that later reveal some beautiful pattern that has been weaved throughout it all along.
Early in the book is a chapter on ‘Proper Ganseys’ and their many names – the hardwearing, waterproof fishing jumpers popular over all seafaring parts of Great Britain. As part of a journey, Rutter takes on the task of knitting a guernsey for her father, and we hear about how those tubes of fabric grow and merge as the chapters progress. As any knitter will know, sweaters are no short and easy task, and so when it is finally presented to its intended owner, it’s a lovely metaphor for the journey ending.
The structure of the book really works to add to its readability. Recollections of knitting progress are kept short enough to be unobtrusive for the non-crafter, but are sweet treats for those who know the frustration of the dropped stitch. It’s a clever way of being able to spend more text time examining garments of old and bringing in other historical and economic facts. The theme of the journey links up otherwise what would feel like very disparate chapters (perhaps somewhat challenging to see the links between bikinis, Vikings and funeral socks otherwise).
To date, I think
This Golden Fleece is one of the best textile history books of this type that I’ve read. I like the structuring but it is Ester Rutter’s use of words that also makes this such an engaging read. As a reader, we can relate (or I can at least – maybe you’re one of those mythical methodical crafters) to her amusing moments of honesty at being a ‘messy and disobedient knitter’ for whom ‘recipients of this knitwear have been known to hide my handiwork discreetly in drawers while their babies outgrow it’. She describes the rolling landscapes and open seas for her journey so vividly you may as well be travelling from her, and while I think she lavishes praise on every places landscapes, she cannot hide her own obvious affection for Fife and Scotland.
The factual recollections of historical tales are presented in a more dispassionate way, allowing the tales of figures like Betty Mouat, something of a Scottish legend for surviving a sailing accident, to tell themselves unobstructed. There’s a glorious amount of historical information in this book that is wonderful and I also really enjoyed Ester Rutter’s writing style. This Golden Fleece, while easy to read with great pacing, doesn’t shy away from some complex vocabulary or letting a touch of Scottish creep in. In a world where it sometimes feels like all written content must be diluted down to being nearly content free, it’s a welcome change to read a text with some challenge in it, without it feeling like an exercise in pretentious thesaurus grubbing.
Another touch I enjoy is the book’s perspective. The author, Ester Rutter, when reflecting on her journey at the end of the book says that she ‘has slowly crossed the knitter’s Hellespont, changing from casual acquaintance to passionate enthusiast, occasional crafter to eager postulant.’ From reading her career history, despite growing up on a sheep farm and being involved in cultural heritage, she does not profess to be an expert in the subjects she presents. Instead, what she does is introduces us to the experts and their thoughts, giving them their own page time and chance to demonstrate their expertise. The author plays the role of storyteller and travelling companion, rather than authority on all things, and, in this way, does a beautiful job of giving credit to the specialists.
I’d recommend This Golden Fleece unreservedly for anyone with even the most passing interest in British history, textiles, crafting or just open-mindedly enjoying new books. The choice of historical topics aren’t always the most mainstream – it’s impossible to ignore the Industrial Revolution when talking about textile history, but here it is told from the less-heard perspective of frame knitters and we hear a great deal about the economic importance of the stocking trade. Who would have realised the knitted y-front was such a source of wealth either? She covers the craft of nålebinding which I had never really seen until I went to the incredible Hedeby Viking Museum, north of Kiel, as well as the full wool preparation cycle.
The writing and structure holds everything together brilliantly and perhaps I am feeling excessively sentimental in a world that currently feels very small but her journey to the south west of England left me feeling rather homesick and even the stories of Yorkshire, one of my temporary homes, contained a thousand familiar details. I felt I learnt a great deal from the book too and the topics were refreshingly niche enough that they were unlikely to be covered elsewhere or by similar texts. This really is a tale of small, local traditions, so easily lost to the wheels of history and all the more special and intimate for it.
Overall, an incredibly enjoyable, excellent read. Can we have some more please?
Author: Ester Rutter
Dimensions: 22.7 x 14.5 x 3.0 cm