Picture Post: Knitting past and present together in the Dales

PIC: Tony Johnson
PIC: Tony Johnson
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It’s a part of the county where the sheep often outnumber people. Like much of rural North Yorkshire, the livestock population in the fields at Muker, has recently been swelled a little further.

The lambing season is always one of the busiest times of year for farmers and sheep have always been an important part of life in this part of Swaledale.

The village, which lies just below Kidson Hill, has changed little over the centuries. Neither has the tradition of hand-knitting which can be traced back more than 400 years to the days of Queen Elizabeth I.

It was she who apparently set a new fashion wearing hand-knitted stockings and, so the story goes, the royal seal 
of approval sparked a new industry.

With the raw material on their doorstep, soon every family in the Dales, then a centre of lead mining, was also turning out piles of stockings, often working into the early hours to satisfy demand.

However, the work disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. The closure of the mines at the end of the 19th century coincided with a change in fashions and the art of hand-knitting soon began to look a little antiquated.

However, most things come in cycles and in the early 1970s the people of Swaledale decided to revive the ancient tradition. Swaledale Woollens was launched and today it boasts more than 30 knitters who create work which is sold in a shop in the heart of Muker.

While the wool comes mainly from Swaledale sheep, these days they are not adverse to using the fleece of Wensleydale and Welsh hill sheep and the only thing modern about the whole process is the designs.

All the wool is organically spun and finished at Lanark Mill in Scotland, which uses renewable energy to power the mill and its 19th century spinning mule.

Owner Kathleen Hird, who has been dedicated to keeping the old traditions alive in Swaledale is about to pass the baton on to Gillian and Ken Whitehead who will take over the business as its celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Technical details Nikon D3s, 70-200mm lens, 1/200th sec @ f10, ISO 250.