Interview with Richard Rutt

The Knitting bishop recalls how it was. 
Interview with Richard Rutt, former Bishop of Leicester and author of  "A history of hand knitting".
Interview by Anna Bialkowska
The knitting bishop recalls how it was 
It is a curious misconception that men don’t knit and won’t knit. One of the most highly regarded books on the origins of knitting ‘The History of Hand Knitting’ was written by Richard Rutt the then Bishop of Leicester. Now sadly out of print it traces the story of knitting from its earliest incarnation as nalbinding in the Middle East up to the mid 1980’s when the book was first published in the UK. 

Now retired and living on the south coast in England, Richard was happy to recount his own background in knitting and reveal what lead him to write this finely researched history of hand knitting.
 
A History of Hand Knitting
To keep him quiet on a raining day, Richard was taught to knit by his grandfather, the village blacksmith. It was common practice in the 1930’s for both girls and boys to knit, of ‘as a matter of economic necessity’. At Sunday School boys often knitted in the afternoon where it was considered a practical accomplishment. The tradition was that girls knitted stockings to be sold with boys and men knitting items for use with the family home. It was considered fairly normal to be able to knit and where knitting skills were handed down through the generations by family members or members of the community such as nannies.

Using knitting as an activity to either ‘clear the mind’ or a ‘mind clearing activity’ depending on his mood, Richard enjoyed knitting challenging objects such as the   jacket  worn on the cover of the first edition which has Estonian motifs in the design.  

The book was commissioned by the Knitting and Crochet Guild  who had begun to develop a definitive history through academic papers. Researching the book took over 10 years and threw up some interesting facts 

• If you draw an imaginary line from Beijing through Asia to the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea then North Africa in to the Atlantic; those living north of this line knit the side down to the toe and those south of this line knit from the toe up to the side.

• Knitting occurs in most countries and in most cultures though some was heavily influenced through colonial expansion such as China. 
 
 
 
Chalice
• Metal can be bent and intertwined in a knitted structure known as trichinopoly as seen in the famous Ardagh chalice in the National Museum in Dublin. In this picture the detail on the base of the chalice resembles stockinet ( current spelling of stockinette is American usage).
 
• The Quakers used knitting as therapy. The Retreat in York, the first hospital in England for the cure of mental disorders, had patients knit silk pincushions and purses from straw.

• As Bishop of Leicester, Richard used his knitting skills to develop a unique aspect of his ceremonial robes, in particular his mitre (bishop’s hat).  
 
The original was donated to Leicester Museum, has a flat design in raised pattern using real gold thread and attached to the sides of the mitre. It became so well known when attending a royal function, the Duke of Edinburgh asked ‘have you got your knitted mitre with you’ and laughed. I have searched online for an image of this mitre to no avail. Looks like a trip to Leicester museum is in the offing. 
 
Mitre
Growing up I had seen photographs of my relatives in swimming costumes and wondering about the impracticality of wearing them without losing one’s dignity. I was keen to get Richard’s insight into the development of knitted swimwear. ‘Of course Leicester was famous for making knitted swimming costumes in the 30’s. They were commercially made using pre shrunk wool.’ Indeed Richard goes on to mention that before the 19th century a lot of swimming was done in the nude. This practice continued happily until a seamstress wrote to the Times in 1860, offended by the naked swimmers she had seen in the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, London and started a campaign to cover up which lead to the development of the swimming costume. It is reasonable to assume that those stories involving dripping and drooping costumes were probably hand made and did not involve pre shrunk wool!
 
A knitted swimsuit c1935
Now in his 80’s Richard no longer is able to knit but continues his pastoral care with his local community. Wonderfully erudite and with wide ranging interests, Richard was a real pleasure to interview. We wish him well and gratefully thank him for using selected quotes and photos in our potted history of hand knitting.
    
 
Men knit
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Previous issues of Rowan magazines
Rowan mag 42
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