This is one of four pieces produced for workshops delivered for the Museum of English Rural Life – or the MERL for short – as part of their research project, “Making, Using and Enjoying”. The MERL commissioned writers, makers, artists and craftspeople to explore ways of engaging with museum collections through creativity and you can read more about it here.

I delivered four workshops at the MERL between March and April 2018 as part of this project. In each session, I was joined by local knitters and, together, we explored a different part of the Museum’s collection through knitting and sound.

This episode was created for the first session in the series: KNIT A SONG OF SHEPHERDS. The inspiration came from looking at smocks held in the collection of the MERL and reflecting on how farmers and shepherds are represented. Often beautifully hand stitched on linen or cotton, the MERL‘s glass cases of smocks recall a certain sort of nostalgic farmer figure. Often a man, softly spoken with a crook and a dog, this figure is historic, often romanticised, and bears little relationship to the folk populating today’s working agricultural landscapes. We could study the actual structure of the sewn smocking stitches involved in the creation of these special, historic garments, but I found I was more interested in exploring them more symbolically, as a starting point for thinking about the identity, presence and representation of farmers and shepherds.

I kept thinking about a special interview from 2012 that I’d done with Pam Hall who lived and farmed at Fornside Farm in the Lake District at the time of our interview. Pam weaves, knits and makes felt from the fleeces of her sheep, and is a founder member of the Wool Clip in Cumbria – a co-operative whose skilled members are all textile workers who, more often than not, work with wool they have grown themselves. Shepherd and maker, I felt Pam’s interview could give us a new kind of template for thinking about the figure of the farmer. I thought that if we could somehow knit a kind of smocked texture in wool, it would reference the historic smock collection in a very small way, while providing a direct, material connection to Pam’s land and animals.

In KNIT A SONG OF SHEPHERDS, we knitted squares of Smocking Stitch in Herdwick wool from Pam Hall’s flock, in Cumbria.

While working with this yarn and knitted stitch pattern, we listened to Pam, her sheep and the weather and the traffic around her farm. You can buy Pam’s Herdwick Hogg yarn here if you wish to work with it yourself.

This work was commissioned by the MERL for the project “Making, Using and Enjoying: The Museum of the Intangible”. The project is funded by the Arts Council England (ACE) Designation Development Fund.