The 'Sanquhar' collection was displayed at The Lighthouse gallery in Glasgow. Exhibition text by Fiona Jardine.
East of the Nith, South of the Tweed; bounded by the sparse Cheviots and the mudflats of the Solway, the Uplands of the Scottish Borders are hard to farm. Physically and psychically remote, neither English nor wholly Scottish, 500 years ago, doughty Reivers fought and feuded across the Border hills and valleys. The Reivers’ exploits were fabled in ballads and are still marked in summer celebrations - horseback ‘common’ ridings that retrace old territories and warpaths. The village of Sanquhar lies towards the Western fringes of the region, close to ‘The Devil’s Beeftub’, a high, hidden corrie so-called for its role as a hold for cattle rustled cross-border. Sanquhar’s common riding is held in August, when the Cornet, his Ensign and Lass, sashed and rosetted in blue and white, lead a mounted parade through the town. They wear the distinctively patterned, personally initialled, black and white hand-knitted gloves for which the town has become famous.
For some two hundred years, Sanquhar has been associated with the production of such gloves. Ancestors and survivors of a once significant cottage industry producing basic hosiery or stockings, like the farming in this bleak and beautiful part of the world, Sanquhar gloves speak of skilled subsistence. Though Sanquhar’s knitters received financial support during the late 18th century from the Board of Trustees for Fisheries and Manufactures, (at the time, a national agency dispersing funds to stimulate economic growth and production), the labour involved in producing these low value, homespun yet technically complex goods, meant that knitting was a trade generating supplementary income for the ‘lower classes’. Knitting never became industrialised, as it did in Hawick – Queen o’ the Border - though some of the wool used in the early manufacture of gloves is believed to have been salvaged from the 19th century carpet mill that operated in Crawick, a settlement on the outskirts of the village. It’s an appealing story of thrift that corresponds to the hardy ingenuity manifest in the cleverly wrought gloves, which were (and are) knitted in the round, seamlessly.
Certainly, the production of gloves in Sanquhar pre- and post-dated the Crawick mill’s activities and their limited palette perhaps reflects the traditional availability of naturally occurring dark and light variations in undyed wool. This combination is one with particular resonance for the history of textile manufacture in Southern Scotland. Alternating checks, typically in black and white, characterised the shepherd’s plaids or ‘mauds’ known to have been woven in Galashiels, connected to Sanquhar by some 30 miles of ancient drove roads. James Hogg, ‘The Ettrick Shepherd’, wore his plaid as he sat for a portrait by John Gordon Watson. Working the high Selkirkshire hills until his death in 1835, Hogg’s plaid would have protected him against sleety springs and bitter winters: it was not a Romantic affectation. Testifying to the persistent popularity of the black and white check, one of the traditional Sanquhar patterns specifically emulates ‘Shepherd’s Plaid’. This fixed arrangement takes its place in the Sanquhar repertoire alongside ‘Midge and Flea’, ‘Pheasant’s Eye’, ‘Rose and Trellis’, ‘Cornet’ and ‘Duke’, the latter associated with the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensbury, local aristocrats and patrons of the glove knitters.
If the names of the patterns could double for jigs and reels, the musical analogy is not one which would have been lost on Ernst Gombrich, the art historian whose seminal work The Story of Art was, until relatively recently, used as a general primer for art students. In 1979, he published A Sense of Order, a detailed study into the psychological effects of pattern. Gombrich enjoyed summarising his research in terms of musical analogies – words like rhythm, counterpoint, harmony and dissonance lend themselves well to the description of what patterns do visually. Gombrich considers artefacts and images from a wide range of periods and cultures in terms of their ornament and explains our attraction to pattern as a perceptual necessity: a peculiar satisfaction can be derived from looking at decoration that deviates from regularity enough not to lull our eye into a state of bored complacency. He cannot have known of Sanquhar gloves or they would have surely featured as he speculated on ‘The Challenge of Constraints’, ‘The Realities of Pattern Making’ and ‘The Mastery of Material’.
The tradition of Sanquhar knitting received a fillip during the 1950s when Patons & Baldwin’s, People’s Friend and The Scottish Women’s Rural Institute published patterns for home-knitters to use. Yet this domestic revival was primarily for hobbyists. In Sanquhar itself, craft knitting did not figure prominently in the profile of the town. A Town Like Sanquhar, a documentary made in 1976 by a television crew dispatched from Glasgow to record the centenary competition of the town’s famous Bowling Club, makes no mention of knitting, gloves or pattern in a film that sought to explain the town’s precarious economy whilst celebrating its strong community spirit and heritage. Today, Sanquhar knitting is at the heart of regeneration efforts in the town, its value as an international point of interest recognised in the starring role it plays in the work of ‘A the Airts’, a centre dedicated to the promotion of arts and crafts in the region which opened in 2010. The tradition has also formed a point of focus for academic interest as part of the University of Glasgow’s ‘Knitting in the Round’ survey.
Contemporary interest in Sanquhar knitting has undergone a dramatic revival in recent years. It attracts Japanese enthusiasts and those interested in the revival of ‘authentic’ British-made, small batch craft. On the one hand, this revival must be considered against the backdrop of concerns about the ethics of garment production and fast fashion, as well as the impact of manufacture scaled at the global level on both the environment and national economy. On the other, renewed interest in British tradition and craftsmanship is paralleled by a rise in artisanal food production, with all the attendant emphasis placed on provenance, quality and tradition that implies. Craft revivals are period in British culture, variously describing the ambitions of artists and designers associated with Arts & Crafts, British Modernism, Post-War Studio Pottery and now what I would term ‘Provenance & Gesture’.
For her exhibition at The Lighthouse, Jennifer Kent reworks the Sanquhar tradition in contemporary renditions of knitted pattern that vary placement, scale and purpose. She has worked closely with women in Sanquhar on the process of producing garments for show and takes a great interest in the viability of efforts to ensure that traditional Sanquhar knitting survives and can capitalize on the international appeal of its story. Her glove-shaped rug intertwines Sanquhar’s connection to both carpets and hand-knitting, drawing also on the style legacies of postmodern humour in design. Finding ways to respect and invigorate tradition are at the heart of her enterprise. Fittingly at Crawick, where the original carpet mill was located, Charles Jencks ‘Multiverse’ has taken shape on land previously mined from coal. Harking back to Neolithic cosmological forms, the Multiverse was conceived as a park for the future, a marriage between Jencks’ postmodern awareness and his deep interest in the way land has been shaped physically and narratively by humanity over centuries. By blending history, myth and contemporary re-contextualisation, the traditional patterns and practices embodied in Sanquhar knit can similarly find new expression.