'Their Darkest Materials' is about the seamy, dark, sometimes creepy underside of material culture and textile history. Think of it as a sort of horrible history for grown ups.
I've been writing this, on and off, since 2012. It grew out of research for previous work when I kept finding fascinating, dark stories I couldn't use there.
In 'Their Darkest Materials', I creep through nineteenth century asylums, debtors' prisons, charity schools, Regency pubs and marketplaces, the "stews" (brothels) of the city, school-rooms, collapsing houses, workhouse toilets, small-town waxwork exhibitions in back rooms and ladies knitting in grand Georgian drawing rooms; following the unravelling thread of history's textiles. Come with me!
We'll meet the schoolmaster's illiterate wife; glimpse inside the pub landlord's account books; we'll learn about revolutionaries and runaway slaves; child labour and social justice warriors. We'll sit in the condemned cell, knitting whilst we wait for the hangman's noose. We'll go on wool-related crime sprees in the Midlands and watch a heartless deserter murder his new wife and give her hand-knitted stocking to her replacement, to knit. We'll find clothing-as-evidence in an infamous London burking case ("Burking" as in "Burke and Hare"). And we'll watch a Yorkshire farmer's wife knit a blue stocking on the morning of her murder. And, amongst many other misadventures, we'll spend time in the county asylum with a world-famous dyer's incendiarist wife. Want to know more?
Here's an extract from Chapter 9 "The Dyer Who Watched Storms". (The spellings belong to Mary Dawson - not to me!)
“'Wednsday May the 15th 1872
I had the pleasure of seeing a new pink in the litning it came in one flach in my beed room window at 2 minits to 9 at night there was a little Thunder and much rain followed it was a beautifull deep rose pink do use it and you will much oblige me Affectionate wife Mary Dawson 10 to 8 oclock in the morning West Riding Asylum Wakefield.'”
This letter (unsent, possibly a draft), was written on the back of an envelope.
From Mary Dawson’s case notes, West Riding Lunatic Asylum, 1869:
'... Has been employed with her husband in making dye, colour and other chemical work for many years. Has been in a much better (next word deleted) condition position of life than she is now. For 5 weeks has been confused in her mind.About 5 weeks ago, she was watching a thunderstorm (a thing which she is fond of doing), and as she says, she watched to see the shades which harmonised the earth with the heavens and found the following: 1st Primrose, 2 Pale lilac commonly called French white 3 Pale green 4 Primula being something between a purple and magenta 5 A colour between a yellow and a gillyflower 6 A crimson like magenta which vanished quickly. She has once this went been constantly referring to these shades and fancying she has made a great discovery. She says her husband has neglected her this last month . She says she can make magenta by other combinations than those generally known and patented. She also has been in the habit of making poetry. She also fancies she understands astrology…'
Mary Ferrar was born around 1830, in the market town of Thrapston, Northamptonshire, one of at least nine children born to agricultural labourer Samuel Ferrar and his wife, Sarah Horn. It’s possible he was the Samuel Ferrar jailed for one week for larceny, in 1819...
We have no idea what brought Mary to Yorkshire, but on 27th July, 1856, she was married at All Hallows, Almondbury, near Huddersfield, to Dan Dawson, son of a well known commercial dyer with barkwoods, David Dawson... Dan was seven years younger; only nineteen when he married.
This same year, William Perkins developed the first azo-dye. Between 1856 and the early 1860s, there was feverish interest in developing new and different chemical colours in both England and Germany. In England, Huddersfield was at the forefront in the chemical dye industry. In fact, a former partner in business with the Dawsons’ relatives, called Hanson, went on to develop a business that ultimately became ICI. The Dawsons expanded to the US, with a factory in Philadelphia but retrenched when the US placed extortionate tarrifs on some of the raw materials they needed to import to manufacture their dyes.
All the colours in every textile in the world had, to this date, been made from vegetal dyes. Dan - who had experience dyeing with ‘the barks’; logwood, fustic, and also with indigo - threw himself into the study of synthetic dyeing. We can well imagine a newly wed Mary and Dan looking at a storm in a night sky, and wondering how to replicate those colours with dyes. And maybe Mary was trying to evoke some memory of a distant, romantic evening long before, in her pathetic letter from the County Asylum, in 1872...."
You want more?
Here's a meaty excerpt from Chapter 8, "Woolly Crime and Punishment":
" ...Being sentenced to death for larceny was a bit of what we'd now call a postcode lottery. Between 1750-75, only one person was hung in Wales for property crime; 590 were hung in London for the same. Data suggests that in Cornwall, Westmorland, Durham, Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire, Denbighshire Northumberland, Anglesey, Glamorgan and Merioneth, the average person would only see one hanging for property crime in their lifetime. The whole of the N.E, and Yorkshire and Lancashire had very low numbers of hangings. Essex had the highest. In Scotland, the Lowlands and central areas had higher levels of hanging. (‘Re-Thinking the Bloody Code’, King and Ward, 2015).
The American War of Independence (Revolutionary Wars) gave the judiciary system a crisis in the 1770s, when the UK lost its customary penal colony - America. But by the 1790s, the First Fleets had sailed for Australia and there was a new penal colony in place.
Many people committing property crimes were to find themselves transported, for a multiple of 7 years - usually a 7 year sentence. It is not uncommon, when reading the late eighteenth century/early nineteenth century newspapers, to find a felon, sentenced to transportation, begging the judge to hang them instead; such was the fear of the terrifying journey on a prison ship, and the life of unpaid drudgery, that lay ahead.
“Yesterday morning early a Stocking Shop in Whitechapel was broke open, and robbed of Silk and Worsted Stockings, &c., to a very considerable Amount…”
Daily Advertiser, Tuesday, February 3, 1778.
Sometimes, knitted items and haberdashery were stolen. Other times, requisitioned by felons to disguise themselves. Describing a gang of housebreakers, one of whom did, as some Luddites were alleged to, decades later, when committing crimes like stealing guns from remote farmhouses, dressed as a woman:
“...One of his black Band was Suppos’d to be a Female with a man’s Great-coat on, and a Woman’s black Hat flapp’d, and tied down under her Chin with her Garter…”
London Evening Post, April 12, 1740 - April 15, 1740.
...Here, a case of caveat vendor. This shop lost a considerable haul of yarn:
“Tradesmen should be careful not to expose goods at their shop doors after night-fall: - At Warwick, a few nights ago, a truss belonging to Mr Checkley, hosier, and standing at his shop-door, was cut open, and robbed of 24lbs of knitting worsted.”
Berrow's Worcester Journal, Thursday, January 3, 1822
A theft of property of this magnitude would have resulted in an hefty sentence and most likely, transportation, if the thief had ever been found. Other shopkeepers were victim to ingenious heists:
“… a robbery of a most daring description was committed on the premises of Mr Windram, Bishopsgate-street, Leicester… the thieves….wer obliged to cut away a large piece of the casing of the door before they...forced the locks… and took away several 12lb bundles of four-thread black and blue marble knitting worsted, three bundles of black and white, and two of dark blue…”
Northampton Mercury , Saturday, February 11, 1832
Birstall, Yorkshire, had a woolly criminal underground, by all accounts:
“DARING ROBBERY - Early on Tuesday morning, some villain or villains broke into the warehouse of Mr Burnley of Gomersall, and stole therefrom a number of six pounds bundles of fine three-fold lambs’ wool mixture knitting-yarn. There are several very bad characters at Birstal and… it is hoped ere long the gang will be broken up.”
The Bradford Observer, Thursday, August 07, 1834
Not all knitters were nice:
“On Tuesday evening, a tramping female...told the landlady, Mrs Burton, a dismal tale, she took compassion on her, and gave her a night lodging. On the following morning, the wretch, in return for the kindness she had experienced, robbed the landlady of a quantity of linen. The following is a description of the ungrateful mendicant: - She was about 24 years of age, wore a green stuff bonnet, dark gown, red coloured shawl, black stockings and shoes down at the heel, and had with her a small bundle, containing knitting pins.”
Leicester Journal, and Midland Counties General Advertiser, Friday, May 29, 1840...
...Another political prisoner, this time in England, was Jeremiah Brandreth, 1785 - 1817. Jeremiah was a stocking maker and Luddite who fought for workers’ rights in Nottinghamshire. He was thought to have been involved in the Luddite actions of 1811, and in 1817, decided to levy a force of 20,000 men to march on London and storm the Tower. His group was infilitrated by government spies. Brandreth led the Pentrich Rising - an uprising of 1817 during which he shot through the window of a house and killed a servant. He was executed at Derby jail after being set up by a spy. He was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered along with two other men but the Prince Regent commuted the quartered part of the sentence - they were to be hung then beheaded. Although a stocking frame (machine) knitter, Jeremiah would have been able to knit by hand as well, to turn heels, or do complex operations the stocking frame couldn’t perform. Contemporary accounts of Jeremiah’s time in prison said:
“… During those hours in which Brandreth was not occupied in prayer, he occupied himself in knitting a work-bag for his wife, upon the surface of which he had contrived to form, with different coloured cottons, various ornaments: - This he mentioned in a letter written just before his execution, as his last relic…”
Caledonian Mercury, Saturday, November 15, 1817.
In his final letter to his wife, Jeremiah Brandreth mentions ‘... one work-bag, two balls of worsted, and one of cotton; and a handkerchief, an old pair of stockings and shirt...Adieu! Adieu to all for ever…’
The chaplain present remarked that Brandreth went to his death resolutely.
The work-bag alluded to was made by Brandreth himself, knitted from cotton, and was about eight inches square, drawn together at the top, and ornamented on each side with bunches of flowers worked in different coloured cottons. This, as well as the other things specified, were inclosed in a small canvas bag, which was extremely dirty.
After Brandreth and his two co-defendants were hung, their bodies were cut down and their heads severed with an axe. When the executor held up Jeremiah’s head by the hair and shouted the customary:
“Behold, the head of a traitor!” the crowd stood balefully, refusing to cheer. The government had dispatched mounted cavalry amongst the crowd with orders to start attacking them at the first sign of any insurrection. Within two years, the infamous Peterloo massacre happened when local Yeomanry attacked a crowd in Manchester, gathered at a political rally. Fortunately for Jeremiah’s crowd, the uneasy silence failed to break out into an actual riot so this time the citizens were spared the government’s wrath... "
I am a regular contributor to various magazines. I write about textile history and occasionally publish designs based on extant knitted items in museum collections in the North of England.
I worked on the latest edition of Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby's classic book, 'The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales'.
'Their Darkest Materials' is now complete and undergoing its very last round of edits. I am waiting on a couple of illustrations (there is at least one per chapter) and am confident that they will be completed whilst the Kickstarter is live.
I have developed several knitting patterns for 'Their Darkest Materials' which will be available as separate downloadables, from Ravelry.com, for anyone who wants to knit a nineteenth-century style sock, gansey, or hap shawl. The patterns will be released the same month as the book.
I wanted the book to have a broader appeal than "just" a book for knitters - so in it, I'm branching out into the history of other textiles - woven as well as knitted.
The book's cover art is by the fabulous Hazel P. Mason, and there will be an original illustration per chapter, by David Hunt, who has illustrated some of my previous published work. My logo (inspired by a lamb carving at Rievaulx Abbey) was designed by Nathaniel Hunt of HuntPrintStudio and will be available as a lino-cut handmade print for backers of the Kickstarter.
I've researched using primary sources and uncovering previously untold stories, for eight years - and this book is the result. We've already presented talks on 'Their Darkest Materials' to rave reviews - everyone who's seen it, has loved every gory, vivid, terrifying, and wonderful moment of the stories we've uncovered.
Now we want to share them with you.
Risks and challenges
The book itself is complete. We are finishing up a final edit and the last couple of illustrations. This will be done whilst the Kickstarter's live.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (40 days)