In a world where widespread knowledge of where and how clothes are made exists, it would be unthinkable to describe a pair of viscose shorts as “woollen” because everybody would know at once that this was nonsense. Yet as long as there are enormous gaps between producers and consumers of clothes on the High Street, it is easy for misleading advertising campaigns to take hold in the public imagination.
Everyone interested in raising public awareness about WOOL as a product is therefore working in some way to close the gap between its production and its consumers. Strategies for doing this range from yarn businesses providing detailed information about where and how their yarns are produced, (like Blacker designs) through to companies who are building the traceability and sustainability of their products into the heart of their brand (like Finisterre). Also, an increasing number of innovative business models such as the CSA initiative at Juniper Moon Farm are emerging, where consumers are given a stake in the whole enterprise of fiber production, and and are involved in the life of the farm (through the amazing blog and sheep day events) as well as getting some yarn from the farm at the end of the year.
This evening I want to talk specifically about Rachael Matthews and Louise Harries at Prick Your Finger, and how they are closing the gap by contextualising their activities as a haberdashery within an active cultural programme which includes exhibitions, workshops, and large-scale artworks in which the public are nearly always encouraged to participate. The Prick Your Finger approach links WOOL with Art and with Culture, and many exhibitions and artworks instigated by Matthews and Harries underscore the power that we have to support WOOL in our actions and in the decisions we make each day.
Check out their Manifesto; it is both exuberant and uncompromising in its in-your-face assertion that knitting and making your own clothes are linked to far wider issues such as the future of the planet, the responsible use of resources, and the need for creativity and imagination in daily life and objects.
We Believe …
In making your own reality.
In making your own clothes.
In making sure earth’s resources aren’t squandered today, leaving nothing for our futures.
In making our own yarns.
In making old skills and new technologies work together in harmony.
In making for the love of creation.
In making instead of throwing away.
In making it possible to live a thoughtful and creative life, even when it seems impossible.
In making chaos.
In making love not war.
In making a stand.
– Rachael and Louise, Prick Your Finger
Prick Your Finger is not too shy to make a strong statement; it’s the only shop I know of where you can buy yarn-on-the-bone, for instance. This yarn hails from the Lake District (where Rachael is from) and is handspun from the fleeces of the Herdwick Sheep who live there. Yarn-on-the-bone celebrates the animal origins of WOOL and highlights its relationship to a living landscape in which death and regrowth are an integral part. You can literally walk into Prick Your Finger and talk to Rachael about the Herdwicks whose WOOL now covers these sheep bones.
Yarn-on-the-bone possibly doesn’t have a great future as a Big Seller for knitters; I don’t know what I would do with all the sheep bones once I had finished knitting from them, and the macabre aspect of working with yarn in this way might put some people off. However as a cultural statement, I think yarn-on-the-bone is a cheeky V-sign to the slick, non-traceable homogeneity of most of the textiles available on the High Street today. This is the point of many of the things for sale in, and projects purveyed by, Prick Your Finger; they act simultaneously as cultural statements and practical items which may be purchased and put to use, emphasising the idea that the meaning of our lives lies in our actions and in our labours.
Yarn-on-the-bone, photo by Rachael Matthews and used here with the permission of Prick Your Finger
The Prick Your Finger yarn range has expanded over time to include some Swaledale worsted-spun in Diamond Fibres Mill in Sussex, and also some Teeswater. The shop also stocks yarns from a huge variety of other small, UK yarn-producers, whose ethos towards the sustainable production of yarn aligns with the unique perspectives of Louise and Rachael and the Prick Your Finger manifesto. In this way, Harries and Matthews support and promote British Wool – 70% of which does not currently end up in garments, but rather in carpets. They also spin with the fleeces from rare-breed sheep and sell the resulting yarns in their shop at a rate which is commensurate with the quantity of labour involved in producing handspun. Such skeins hanging in Prick Your Finger cost more to produce than imported, millspun yarn, and for me this particular Prick Your Finger range is both a practical way of making some of the rarer breed’s fleeces available to knit with, and also an implicit, cultural criticism of the monoculture of Merino and the mass-importing of WOOL which make High Street prices a possibility. Sitting in the shop for any length of time, you overhear the daily conversations had with customers about their pricing structure and the situation for UK WOOL, and other matters not necessarily associated with polite, “knitterly” conversation; the ideas being shared in these exchanges are an important part of the cultural aspect of life in the shop.
When Rachael and Louise launch their own-brand, small batches of breed-specific yarns, the occasion is often accompanied by a blog-post celebrating the history of the breed involved, and making creative suggestions about what it might be used to knit. I have learnt alot about what can be done with yarn made from some of the sheep with rougher fleeces – such as the Rough Fell – through reading the Prick Your Finger blog.
Rachael’s posts about the Rough Fell breed of sheep and the use of its yarn to produce signage for the shop suggested new uses for fleeces which farmers might otherwise only be paid pennies for by the Wool Marketing Board;
‘Prick Your Finger’ aims to offer knitters the chance to make ANYTHING, which is why we are learning about sheep breads. Each sheep grows a different type of yarn. The letters on the front of our shop are knitted in one of the toughest, most weather proof wools, the ROUGH FELL.
Rachael Matthews, Prick Your Finger
ROUGH FELL sign-age, photo by Rachael Matthews and used here with the permission of Prick Your Finger
This sign-age was described by Susanna Edwards in ‘Design Week’ magazine as follows;
“an example in the whispering category of typography, Prick Your Finger is a contemporary haberdashery in Bethnal Green……It’s signage is innovative, yet quiet in its content, process and display. Hand-spun typography has been made from the wool of Rough Fell sheep, the sturdiest mountain breed in Britain. Too rough a material to wear, it has been spun un-washed to produce typography that is full of lanolin that makes it waterproof. It is homemade: only a spinning wheel and a crochet hook was required, and no sign writer or manufacturer was required. Even the name “Prick Your Finger” pertains Sleeping Beauty falling asleep.”
Susanna Edwards has clearly picked up on the strong themes of place which run through the branding and impetus of Prick Your Finger. When entering the shop, I always find myself thinking of the Lake District and the sheep breeds historically associated with that region – the Swaledale, the Herdwick and the Rough Fell. This association is not accidental; it has been forged through the frequent references to the area which appear on the Prick Your Finger blog. In terms of closing the gap, Rachael’s posts about the places where the stuff in her shop comes from give me the sense of being involved somehow in the future of those places and the importance of keeping the regional sheep breeds going, and of finding new, innovative markets for their unique, breed-specific WOOLS. I love how in posts like Swaledale Man, Rachael links the weather in the Lake district with life in the shop, building a fun snowman out of white balls of wool, and sharing her mother’s views on the snow up North; it seems a clever and imaginative way of reminding us where the WOOL comes from.
SWALEDALE MAN, photo by Rachael Matthews and used here with the permission of Prick Your Finger
The idea that we are all stakeholders in The Wool Industry was emphasised by the show put on by Rachael and Louise in the Stanley Picker Gallery in London last year, in which visitors could physically become part of a WOOL Mill for a day. http://www.stanleypickergallery.org/exhibitions/murder-at-the-wool-hall/
Murder at the Wool Hall provided gallery goers with an opportunity to engage in the idea of Wool Production in an innovative, participatory way.
FLEECE ORBIT yarn from within the M25, packaged in handprinted sacks made by Louise and Rachael, photographed by Felicity Ford
WOOL from within the ring of the M25 was bought into the exhibition space in specially designed hessian sacks, and participants could card that wool and/or spin with it.
50g wool from within the M25, carded and photographed by Felicity Ford
The issue of the energy expended in spinning yarn was explored through a contraption in which a bike was connected to a generator which was connected to an electronic spinning wheel. This meant that two people – the person cycling on the bike and the person spinning yarn at the wheel – could explore together the energy required to add a twist to WOOL and to turn it into yarn. Exuberantly designed sheets were available for noting ideas or impressions from participating within the temporary Wool Mill, and Rachael and Louise wore aprons emblazoned with an image of a historic carding machine from 1790, as if to identify their wearers as machines within the temporary wool mill.
Aprons for “Murder at the Wool Hall” handprinted by Prick Your Finger
Explaining the entire process of Wool Production to everyone who came into the Stanley Picker Gallery and introducing people who had never used a spinning wheel or carded wool to the yarn-making process turned the installation into an experimental learning space for folk to explore questions surrounding production and consumption. It also linked up the physical landscape of London and its detested encircling Motorway with WOOL, which is almost exclusively presented as being from the countryside. This presentation of rarebreed sheep WOOL (the WOOL from inside the M25 is from Whitefaced Woodland sheep, grown at Mudchute Farm in London) as an urban material – to spin by cycling on a bike and listening to KRAFTWERK – is utterly unique amongst representations of the sheep-to-shawl idea. It fuses the energy and coolness of PUNK with the agricultural heritage of the UK – much in the same way that Rachael often posts about punk bands, right beside her posts about WOOL and art projects on the Prick Your Finger blog.
One might argue that the many things on offer at the Stanley Picker Gallery to a visiting public were not materially much different to what can be found at any of the local guild meetings dotted around the countryside, but such a comparison overlooks the massive power for change and inspiration possessed by the impressive Prick Your Finger aesthetic – a flavour of which I hope to have conveyed in this post. Yarn-on-the-bone, handknitted ROUGH FELL TYPOGRAPHY, Snowmen made from balls of Swaledale yarn, and a bicycle-powered-electric spinning wheel etc. present WOOL in new and imaginative ways, which bring ideas about the imaginative possibilities of its potential use – and its value – to new audiences.
The aesthetic of Rachael and Louise and Prick Your Finger make the ideas they are purveying palatable to folk who might resent the decree from on high that they ought to wear more WOOL, and – crucially – makes wool relevant to the people who might not know that guild meetings and agricultural rare-breed shows exist. Prick Your Finger offers an alternative perspective on WOOL to its rural associations with Tweedy britches and green pastures and suggests that we can keep traditions alive without being traditional.
As with the importance of keeping all our diverse, individual sheep breeds alive, so is it necessary to have a culture of WOOL which is rich and multi-faceted. Prick Your Finger and all of the labours of Rachael Matthews and Louise Harries give us new ideas about what we can do with WOOL and bring the debate about its production and consumption into unexpected places.
I absolutely do not have it in my being to knock endeavours focussed around promoting WOOL for what it is in any sense at all. However I can’t help wondering just a little bit whether the Prince of Wales knows about Prick Your Finger, and about the reply sent from Buckingham Palace to Rachael Matthews when she wrote to tell the Queen about the Cast Off Knitting Club, instigated in Central London in 2000.
Would the Palace be able to suggest a place for knitting meetings now that HRH is behind the Campaign for WOOL?
I HOPE SO!