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Ada Nutbeam 1910 – 2004

Professor Don Nutbeam is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton. Having met him recently at a VC’s coffee morning which I organised on behalf of the University Library I mentioned the forthcoming conference In the loop 3: the voices of knitting. His response was to talk briefly about his mother, Ada, who had spent her life knitting. So I suggested an interview for my blog and to my surprise he agreed.

Learning to knit

He thinks it probable that Ada learnt to knit at an early age like many of her generation. Knitting and sewing were very useful, practical skills that meant you could clothe a family more cheaply especially in the early to mid-twentieth century. Today we may see knitting as non-essential and there is wider recognition of the skill and potential applications. Although there has been a surge in the popularity of knitting the utilitarian is not emphasised.

During the war the family was bombed twice whilst living in Portsmouth. His mother and sister, who was at the time a baby, were dug out from beneath the rubble. The family was then evacuated to Newbury where they lived in tents for eighteen months before being moved into a prefab where Professor Nutbeam was born.

Knitting essentials

He remembers very clearly from the age of five his mother, Ada, knitting and stated that he never knew of her not knitting. His father was disabled through illness and was unable to work so his mother had a minimum of two part-time jobs. She knitted many practical items for the family. Knitting was a normal daily routine that took place every evening. It was solely for necessity and centred on utilitarian clothing including hats, jumpers, scarves, Wellington boot socks and (not his favourite) balaclava hats. He openly stated that he was from a poor household and grew up on a tough council estate.

Knitting commissions

In addition Ada took commissions especially for new-born babies knitting bonnets, bootees and shawls. All left over wool from commissions was precious so retained and knitted up as blankets for the family another necessity used in the home to keep warm. Stories are sometimes told by the older generation of knitters of unravelling knitted clothing to reuse the yarn.

Knitting for babies is thriving today too and there are many knitting pattern books available. It remains a symbolic way of welcoming a new life. I recently saw a very beautiful, intricate hand knitted christening outfit in the Spiders Web on Shetland. Babies obviously deserve the best.

Professor Nutbeam remembered in particular an item of clothing she knitted for a young cobbler aged about 18 who was an ice skater. This was a big, thick cardigan into which she knitted on the back the name of his skating club. This was impressive and I imagine it impressed.

Football and knitting

Professor Nutbeam was a dedicated Manchester United football fan so at about age ten in the days before branding and merchandising his mother used her skills to knit him a scarf and hat in the team colours. The hat included the club name in knitted letters as for the ice skating jumper, a technical achievement and without a knitting pattern. In addition she also knitted him the 1966 football mascot “World Cup Willy” an interesting link to contemporary knitting especially around the Olympic games.

At age twelve the family moved onto a new council estate in Newbury, his father later died when Professor Nutbeam was fifteen. As he grew up wearing his mother’s hand knitted clothing become less acceptable to him. However he remembers wearing a Fair-Isle style tank top and a cricket jumper at grammar school both knitted by Ada.

Knitting gifts

Ada later knitted for his own children including Postman Pat jumpers also Christmas stockings each with an initial, A for Amy and B for Ben, that knitted lettering again and they still use them every Christmas! This was perhaps a more creative period with an emphasis on gifts as compared to utility.

Ada was rather critical of Kaffe Fassett having spent her life knitting. To her it was not fashionable and had been essential. I have heard the older generation say we’ve always knitted carrying on their craft through a life time like Ada. It is their contribution which deserves wider recognition.

Knitting through experience and touch

During the later part of her life, although diagnosed as legally blind having suffered from glaucoma, Ada knitted up until she died in 2004. This included knitting little socks, bonnets and blankets for premature babies which she sent to the neo-natal unit at Reading Hospital. I imagine she knitted from experience and through touch.

Through my work with the Knitting Collections I have had the privilege and opportunity to meet many knitters including the older generation whose commitment and skills are now being passed on rather unexpectedly to the younger generation. It appears that knitting appeals to all age groups who together have led the recent knitting revival. The knitting life of Ada as remembered by Professor Nutbeam reveals his respect for her commitment to the family, her independence and skill.

This interview took place on Monday 13 August 2012 between Professor Don Nutbeam and Linda Newington.

More interviews will follow as part of In the loop 3: the voices of knitting.


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Cassie Henderson knit samples

I went to the final year degree shows here at Winchester School of Art last month and always search out the BA Fashion/Textile knit students. During their three year period of study I  give both a knit lecture and also introduce them to the Knitting Reference Library (KRL). The focus is on encouraging the use of the KRL both as an inspirational and technical resource that has the potential to extend and develop both their practice and research skills.

One of the students whose work I found especially interesting was Cassandra (Cassie) Henderson whose knitted samples and drawings are delicate yet have a strength and distinction. Her colours are soft and muted with the technical structure providing shape and substance.

Cassie herself told me her project was based on Marie Antoinette and that one of her aims was to create a sumptuous and lavish feel to her work. She is very interested in technical development including the creation of new stitches. Her techniques include trapping within tubular knitting, laser cutting, Shima Seiki knitting and many variations of high and low butts combined with holding.

Drawings by Cassie Henderson

Here are just a few images of Cassie’s work including drawings alongside samples of her knitted collars.

There were many talented students showing fashion knitwear this year so I hope that at least a few of them have used the KRL to enhance and develop their ideas. The books date from the Victorian period starting with about 70 knitting manuals donated by Richard Rutt (popularly known as the Knitting Bishop) through the decades of the 20th century and into the 21st with new acquisitions being added each year. There are still many  gems to find whether you are a student, a researcher or a plain knitter.

Cassie Henderson knit samples

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This week I visited the Old Haa on Yell, Shetland with Carol Christiansen the Textile Curator at the Shetland Museum & Archives who is also one of the keynote speakers for In the loop 3. We co-organised In the loop 2 together which was hosted by the Museum in 2010.

Carol is a textile archaeologist and historian one part of her work includes providing curatorial advice and support on collections to community museums.  She also initiates, develops and provides support on the research aspects of the museum textile collection that people visit from all over the world.

The trip involved a short but slightly rock ferry crossing, on a previous trip one June the boat had followed a group of whales which was announced so that we could go up on deck to see them, but no sightings on this day. We arrived in time for coffee and cake provided by the friendly and helpful Neeta who helps keep the little craft shop supplied with once again fabulous knitwear. I have acquired many pairs of gloves and scarves since my first visit, some for presents from the Old Haa which have been knitted by amongst others Inga, Wilma, and Pearl. This time I came away with a lovely “hap” knitted by Inga Thomson for my small collection of Shetland knits and a new pair of walking gloves. Of course the image does not do the hap justice.



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I am up in Shetland and cannot resist doing some work for In the loop 3 having made some friends up here since my first visit in February 2008 with Jessica Hemmings when we came to see the new Shetland Museum and Archives before we co-organised the first In the loop conference.

This week I met up with Hazel Hughson who will be one of the keynote speakers at In the loop 3 in September 2012.  Hazel is the Arts Development Officer Crafts at Shetland Arts. Yesterday she took me out on the craft trail to visit Wendy Inkster at Burra Bears and Neila Nell at her knitwear shop in Hoswick . It was both an interesting and inspiring morning spent with makers who have combined creativity with strong business skills both of which Hazel aims to support though her role at Shetland Arts. She is not always sitting at a desk but gets out into the community across Shetland from north to south, east to west supporting makers with both developing their practice and promoting their work. As a Shetlander and former knitwear designer her deep knowledge and ideas about renewing traditional practice and supporting innovation is sometimes challenging and always refreshing.

Wendy Inkster has been making her lovely Burra Bears since she created her first prototypes as a wedding present for her sister in 1997. The bears now go out and about across the world, you can stop off to visit Wendy at her studio within a lovely Shetland home at Houss on Burra Isle.

Neila Nell’s fabulous knitwear comes in a range of dazzling colours and innovative patterns also some unusual and unique shapes. Her eclectic shop at Hoswick is not to be missed, trying on is encouraged so I will be going back next week. There is even a cafe nearby.




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Reading matter

I have compiled a reading list for those who are starting research about knitting.  The list is focused on history, contemporary knitting, fashion and knitting, knitting from across the world and approaches to research. Each section is not fully comprehensive but lists books, exhibition catalogues and journal articles selected from the Knitting Reference Library. I hope you find it useful. 

Reading matter – knitting April 2012

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A quilted bridge

On my way home from Yorkshire veered off to the right to visit a friend who lives in the Welsh hills as she had sent me a postcard for the exhibition A quilted bridge. My Shetland driving experience stood me in good stead as this turned into quite a road trip from Chester down through the sublime Welsh country alongside mountains, hills, moors and rivers towards Lampeter.  The exhibition is on until 3 November 2012 at the Welsh Quilt Centre located on Lampeter High Street, there is even a splendid sit down deli next door for refreshment. 

The exhibition is an absolute must for anyone interested in historical and contemporary textiles, a personal highlight for this year. The quilts on show bring together Amish and Welsh quilts with the intention of exploring possible connections between the two traditions.  Aside from the historical and social context the geometric designs, colour and fabrics, skill in piecing and stitching come together in perfect harmony.

Jen Jones has established the Welsh Quilt Centre to  display, promote and rescue this aspect of textile history so it was also good to meet her in person during my visit. In a plain but intimate white room attached to the shop my friends prints and paintings are a response to the quilts so it was good to see a further connection, this time between different practices.



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Whilst in Yorkshire I also visited Rowan headquarters at Coats located at Washpit Mills just on the edge of Holmfirth where I was warmly welcomed by Kate Buller, David MacLeod and Marie Wallin. They showed real enthusiasm and interest for the work we have been doing in establishing the Knitting Reference Library and in providing the series of In the loop conferences since 2008. I am hoping Kate and Marie will visit In the loop 3 which will take place at the Winchester Discovery Centre 5-7 September 2012 for at least one day having generously agreed to provide some resources for the conference bags. They are also interested in working with the knitwear students at Winchester School of Art and I will be writing a knitting story for the Rowan Magazine at a later date.

Before leaving I saw behind the scenes and was amazed to see the Patons knitting pattern  archive which is part of Coats comprising tens of thousands of patterns which they would like to digitise in the future. Lastly I peered into the Rowan workshop room which looked so tempting, a return trip to do one of their practical workshops is on my list of things I’d like to do one summer.



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