On the gansey trail, she is at her most interesting. The dark blue worn by the British navy gave us navy blue. The herring trade was a factor in the transfer and development of knitting patterns between communities and from Lerwick to Lowestoft as many as 30,000 boats fished for herring by the end of the 19th century. Scottish women called the Herring Girls travelled the length of Britain at the fishing ports knitting the fashions of the distant communities together. Gansey patterns were shared and spread by these women and no doubt had an influence on the creation of the patterns on the Aran Islands, though she doesn’t develop the links with Ireland and there is only a cursory reference to the fabled Aran sweater.
This Golden Fleece is the latest addition to the publishing trend for books in which clever youngish people write about an activity that until recently would have seemed either square or niche – making cakes, or flying hawks. Revisiting activities you enjoyed when you were young is actually a neat way of structuring a piece of popular non-fiction. So, in the case of knitting, Rutter gives us material culture combined with social history, memoir, oral testimony, travel writing and then adds a bit of heft with some light archival work. There’s literary criticism in the mix, too – her broader point about Bloomsbury’s penchant for knitting is that it cuts across our perception of these militant modernists as great chuckers-out of inherited forms and styles. But what also seems to come with the territory of this kind of book is a tendency to overwrite. Her text at times positively sags with the weight of her carefully gathered word hoard: nep and slub, niddy-noddy, and three crimps to the inch.