Bricks, Knitting, Biscuits and imaginative diversions

Following the joy of the Simmer Dim, I intend to continue enjoying knitting by refining a project I have been working on for some time while I am away in Estonia working at the Tuned City Festival. Of course I will not be able to work and knit at the same time, but I am hoping that between documenting the festival and making/editing field-recordings, there will be some time to continue working on this.

This is a pattern I am working on which is inspired by the bricks of Reading. I am fascinated by the overlap between bricks and knitting; I see a relationship between the craftsmanship of laying stones and the craftsmanship of placing stitches; of organising a house into a shape and of organising a garment into a shape.

I also perceive a relationship between pattern, function, and regionality.

Just as knitting traditions have emerged from specific locations in relation to the wool/sheep which grows there, so have building traditions emerged from the available stones and in the case of Reading – clay – which lies to hand. The old Huntley & Palmer factory featured in this photograph was replaced in the 1930s with an art deco building – now also sadly gone – and both were made of bricks. Fine, solid, Reading bricks.

I also think there is a fitting correlation between the fact that the bricklayers who gave Reading its dinstinctive Victorian terraces and industrial buildings are often totally anonymous, just as the knitters who have produced incredible, distinctive, regional garments regularly remain un-named. Who are these people who built the houses and made the clothes? Who were these folks whose efforts gave style and distinction to vital shelter and clothing? I do not know, but I want to honour their handiwork with something of my own design. I have been thinking about these ideas for a long time now; stomping around with my old camera and then the glorious SLR, capturing the bricks of the city and investigating the history of the biscuit factory.

I am very lucky to have found support for my regional knitting/designing/material-appreciation endeavours; firstly in these brick’n’biscuit J&S yarns which were a birthday gift from amazing Kate and also in the vintage biscuit barrel which she won on ebay and sent to me a couple of months ago. I was blown away by the biscuit barrel, but am even more blown away now I see how the yarns completely match it. The biscuit tin was made in the same year I was born in!

I especially love the Reading address printed around the lid of the tin, and the beautiful designs on the top and bottom of the barrel.

I am also lucky to have been given the most wonderful brick bag by Colleen, who screenprinted it for me. It has become the project home for my brick-hat-in-progress. Isn’t it wonderful?

The J&S yarns are fabulous as the design I am working on is done in very limited edition yarns; the red one was dyed by me at Fyberspates’ studio during Liz’s hen-do, and the paler shade is a beautiful shetland sock yarn dyed by Jeni, AKA Fyberspates. Other knitters wishing to share my brick obsession will not be able to get these exact yarns, so being able to work up a prototype in J&S yarn (which I have not yet knitted with!) will be most pleasing and hopefully will provide a way for anyone else mad enough to want to make their head resemble Victorian architecture to go ahead and do so.

I find it amazing how one’s imagination starts creating links and connections once an idea begins to form. And so it is that since I developed my obsession with Reading’s bricks and biscuit factory, I have started to notice brickness and biscuitry everywhere. The bricks just above were featured in White Mill – an old flourmill, powered by the river Stour – which Mark and I encountered on our walk around Corfe Castle a couple of weeks ago. I love a good mill. The one at White Mill is a very serious proposition, but I gather from the website about Huntley & Palmer’s history that a watermill at Sonning on the River Thames produced flour for the biscuit factory right up to the 1940s/50s. The bricks and working mechanisms inside White Mill on the river Stour are beautiful and contain much inspiration re: texture and colour, for the would-be knitwear designer.

A flour mill on the River Thames at Mapledurham is still making flour and the sounds of this mill are a thing of joy! Here is the pud-pud-pudding sound of the river paddles turning. You can hear the wood creaking.

Mapledurham watermill mechanism (mp3)

Additionally, it seems all the regional museums of Britain contain remnants from the biscuit-tin manufacture which was tied to the Huntley & Palmer factory. Here is a very elaborate tin in the V&A Museum’s collection, designed on the theme of a kitchen range!

…and keen-eyed spotters cannot fail to have noticed that the ossified biskits in the last post which I photographed in Poole Museum are also from Huntley & Palmer’s, and have stood the test of time admirably well in their solid steel and glass packaging.

The Huntley, Bourne & Stevens company produced all the tins for Huntley & Palmers. The Huntley in Huntley, Bourne & Stevens was an ironmonger in the Huntley family, who worked opposite the shop on London Road where biscuits were sold from at the start of the company’s life. The shop is gone now, but you can see an artist’s impression of it (and also of the art deco 1930s factory) on this postcard. Having an ironmonger in the family to make their distinctive tins with which to package their marvellous biscuits put Huntley & Palmer’s in an unrivalled position to begin dominating the world with their produce.

The sense of world-domination which this enterprise set out to fill all corners of the globe with BISKITRY is evident in the factory worker’s handbook, which opens assertively thus:

Since the foundation of the business in 1826 we have built up an unequalled reputation throughout the World for the very high quality and standard of our products, as well as of commercial integrity, and we ask you, as one of our workers, to safeguard that reputation in every way that lies in your power.

The pomp continues with a very proud History of the Company, in which the employee who is being addressed is reminded very solemnly that Huntley & Palmers hold Royal Warrants to supply biscuits

…to Their Majesties the Kings of Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Greece, and to their Majesties the Queen of Norway and the Queen Mother of the Netherlands, and to the Imperial House of Japan. The original Warrants still hang in the reception rooms at the Reading factory.

The handbook also points out that Huntley & Palmers “has specialised in supplying many British and foreign expeditions, and in particular the 1953 Expedition which conquered Mount Everest, and the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910 under the leadership of Captain Scott.”

Indeed, you will have seen the very biscuits supplied to the ill-fated Antarctic trip if you watched the amazing Ben Fogle documentary about Scott’s Hut and there are some wonderful pictures of ancient biscuit-tins preserved in the snow here. I am sure the Messrs. Huntley & Palmer would have quaked in their boots at the clownshoes version of biscuit-making featured in last week’s horrorshow edition of The Apprentice

…you see how wildly the imagination leads the mind astray? Back to The Knitting which was the original point of this post… and back to Estonia, from whence I hope to return with great stories of Tallinn brickwork; Estonian biscuits or bread; wool; yarn; sounds from the walled, medieval city, a completed hat-pattern, and a need for test-knitters!

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