One of the best things about knitting in public is the stories that people share with you. Yesterday as we sat around a large wooden table for our monthly (more or less) meeting of the Northernmost Mainland Britain SNB, several people stopped by to chat or to say hello. One woman went to her car and brought in a cardigan she had made. I'll spare my non-knitting friends the details of stitch patterns and fasteners and such like that ensued, but then she got to the story that I think everyone can enjoy.
The complicated patterns with lots of colours most often seen on sweaters (jumpers) are called Fair Isle, but there are lots of variations of stitches and colours. For example, Caithness has several patterns associated with the sweaters knitted for fishermen. Really adept Scottish knitters could (maybe still can though I have not found any yet) insert the double pointed needles in a pouch worn around the waist like a money belt and knit while doing other things. (Perhaps if men had the right tools they could multi-task, too, but that is definitely a subject for a different post).
The woman who had described with pride her own particular stitch for her cardigan told us that women used to keep the details of their own unique patterns as closely guarded secrets. To reinforce her story, she related the tale of a woman in an upstairs flat who used to lean out her window to spy on the woman below as she stood knitting and watching her children in the front garden. This act of espionage would be translated from the motion of the woman's hands into a pattern of X's and O's on a grid on a large piece of cardboard and then presumably knit into something.
The woman was gone before I could ask if the spy was ever caught or what happened when the pattern revealed itself in a jumper or on a skirt, but perhaps the pleasure was in the taking. The story merged in my mind with martial arts movies where the fighting form was a closely guarded secret. Although not trained fighters, I am confident that the knitters could give a fierce battle if it came to it. To prevent all that I propose another commandment: thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's pattern.
To see examples of a local pattern and get an idea of the interest they can generate, check out this link. For some reason, I cannot publish the link. Sorry. Go to www. caithness.org and search for gansey.