Lost art of a close-knit community

Want to learn the lost art of darning or have a go at the ancient skills of spinning and weaving? Sarah Freeman meets the two women behind The Stitch Society.

Claire Ketteman working at the Stitch Society, Keighley Business Centre. Picture by Bruce Rollinson

Every Friday morning a group of knitters, embroiderers and weavers gather in a converted mill building in Keighley.

Mostly they come to share tips on their own area of expertise and to eat cake and drink tea, but it’s also an opportunity to offload about the guilty secret all crafters share. It’s what they call in hushed tones “their stash”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“Some are bigger than others, but we’ve all got one,” says Fiona Drake, who is one half of The Stitch Society. “Crafters are by their very nature hoarders. We don’t get rid of anything, so our homes are crammed with frayed jumpers, odd balls of wool and ancient blankets. We’ll tell you they will come in useful sometime, we just don’t know when.”

Fiona Drake and Charlotte Meek at the Stitch Society

Around the large wooden table, talk of ply-split braiding, wet-felting and the pros and cons of quilting gives way to confessions about the bag of off-cuts recently stuffed behind a dresser and the wardrobe which can no longer fit any clothes in because of the balls of wool, bought cheaply in the January sales, which sometime soon will be turned into socks. Many pairs of socks.

Lack of space at home was one reason Fiona and her friend Charlotte Meek were keen to rent some studio space. The old mill building, with its views across the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, had the light and storage they needed, but The Stitch Society has turned into something of a mission. Twelve months in, the pair, who first met at a knitting group in Bingley, already have their eye on the studio space next door, they’d quite like to open a cafe, but more than that they want to preserve the skills once taught in school, but which are now in danger of being lost forever.

“We were probably the last generation to do needlework at school and I guess the more people we met through our own love of craft the more we began to think how sad it would be if their knowledge stopped being passed on,” says Charlotte. “Pretty much everyone has a bad memory of being forced to wear a jumper knitted by an aunt that was either like a straitjacket or which ended up growing with you. If you go back 20 or 30 years, the yarns we had tended not to be of brilliant quality. They were pretty scratchy, but the market has been totally transformed and that means the itchy hand-knitted jumpers of old have largely been consigned to history.”

Aside from the Friday morning drop-in sessions, The Stitch Society also runs a series of workshops from beginners classes in how to knit socks to advanced Tunisian crochet for those a little more deft with a pair of needles.

The Stitch Society at Keighley Business Centre.

“Everything we do is to celebrate all elements of craft,” says Fiona, who was first taught to knit by her grandmother. “We also want to show that knowing how to knit or darn is not in any way fuddy duddy. Knitting had a bit of a renaissance a few years ago when a few celebrities, like Kate Moss and Julia Roberts, came out as knitters, but the truth is that it never really went away. It’s cheap, it’s portable and you can pretty much knit anywhere. I’ve lost count of the number of jumpers I’ve finished while sat in long traffic jams.”

The Stitch Society headquarters is itself a little slice of the 1950s. The walls are lined with boxes of tweed, velvet and printed cotton, there’s a couple of retro radios and even the stools have been given a vintage makeover complete with crocheted covers. It looks not unlike a branch of Cath Kidson.

“We are learning all the time and yes there are some skills which take years to perfect, but people shouldn’t be put off from having a go,” says Fiona, who in an attempt to prove that anyone can join the crafting ranks hands across a small square of felt, some loose strands of coloured wool and a needle. “All you need to do is take a piece of wool lay it over the square and stab. Repeatedly. It’s simple and ever so cathartic. In fact there is just one main rule, don’t talk and stab, it tends not to end very well.”

One woman across the table recently knitted a headdress out of wire for a production of Swan Lake. Another is currently working on a felt version of Whitby Abbey. By the end of the session I’ve created one tiny, slightly lopsided flower, species unknown.

The Stitch Society at Keighley Business Centre.

“Crafters are very generous with their time and their knowledge,” says Charlotte, who along with Fiona recently answered an appeal from Radio 4 to create a knitted version of the station’s schedule. A photograph of their woolly celebration of the Shipping Forecast, complete with gale force nine raincloud, went viral.

“Look, isn’t it beautiful?” adds Fiona, who is currently wondering what to do with the finished sculpture.

“We are thinking we should maybe auction it off for a good cause, but where would someone put it?”

As Fiona knows only too well having space to put something is not the kind of consideration to trouble a crafter for too long. 

Sheila Brook, Helen Milne and Claire Ketteman working at the Stitch Society

• For full details of The Stitch Society workshops and drop in sessions go to www.thestitchsociety.com