I dabble in the history of knitting. Its not a subject I follow seriously, more of a subject in which I follow my nose. I take a “oh, that’s cool! Let’s learn more about that” approach to knit history. As such I have quite a bit of fun with it and learn things in a back ass-wards sort of way. Like in the case of the Gunnister Man, a Scot who happened to be wearing a ton of handknits when he went into a peat bog in the late 1600’s.
A Glimpse into Early Shetland Knitting
That’s what the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh thinks he looked like. I’ve known about Gunnister Man, in a vague sort of way, for some time now. He’s quite popular and not just because the folks at that museum made him look like a cutie. He has been the subject of an article in Spin -Off Magazine and another in Piecework. He’s been mentioned in about a zillion blogs, and Ravelry has a few of his patterns. But I didn’t fully grasp the significance of Gunnister Man until I came across him in A History of Hand Knitting by Richard Rutt. Then I felt like a kid in class, who wakes up out out their boredom because “oh oh oh, I actually know this!”.
As side note: when I say I’ve been reading A History of Hand Knits I mean I’ve been slogging. Monsignoir Rutt was a very knowledgeable and very through scholar and a complete bore. I can’t read him for long. So I do a page or two here, a page or three there and its taking me months to get through his book. But he provides a very complete account of our Gunnister Man so I must give him credit for that.
Gunnister Man was dug up in the 1950’s in the Shetland Islands near Gunnister, hence the name. He had two knit caps, a pair of knit gloves, a pair of knit stockings that went up to mid-thigh, a knit fragment that can’t be identified, and a knit coin purse.
Knitters, being the obsessive geeks that they are, have made numerous efforts to recreate Gunnister Man’s knitted goodies. There are patterns for his stockings, his gloves, one of his caps, and his purse. Oh yes, knitters seem to love that purse.
Textiles of any sort don’t get much attention in history. That has been improving some. In the past century there have been efforts made to preserve clothing and tapestries but it was too little and largely too late. Lots of textiles, already fragile and difficult to preserve, were destroyed in digs by scholars interested in battles, weapons, buildings, and jewels. So Gunnister Man is pretty significant. Not because he was wealthy and decked out in the finest knit-wear of his day. Quite the opposite. There were probably thousands, yes thousands, of stockings and purses just like these on the folks of the Shetlands Islands at the end of the 17th century. But today, all these years later, we only have his to look at and study.
Hand knits are so fragile and fleeting. I guess that’s what makes them special. Do you think any of ours will survive 300 years?