Cottage Industries

My lord, I have too much love for my poor people who obtain their bread by the employment of knitting to give my money to forward an invention that will tend to their ruin by depriving them of employment and thus make them beggars.

Queen Elizabeth I


Cottage Industries

Queen Elisabeth I forbade the use of early industrial machines, correctly seeing that the use of such infernal devices would rob her subjects of their livelihoods: she might also then have anticipated that a not-so-far distant future would see a decline of the common skills associated with the multiple techniques of a cottage industry. By the time an electronic age dawned such occupations as simple joinery or jam/clothes-peg making, not to mention knitting and other such skills are no longer seen. These cultural bedrocks have slipped with no fanfare into a discarded and forgotten past, although here and there interesting examples of those skills continue to add spice to the present bland mix of inconsequentiality.


The long red worm of a tube train plunges into its dark hole, carrying within its segmented body a densely packed load of sweating human flesh. It soon re-emerges from the tunnel, roaring and clanking as it grinds to a stop at a station platform. An equally dense and sweating mass of desperate individuals await it, each with an inflexible determination to force their way aboard. As the doors slide open a wave-like motion comes from the rear of the platform, forcing those at the front to dodge frantically to avoid colliding with those just as intent on getting out. The wave sweeps forward and those at the centre are carried forward in an irresistible surge which almost lifts their feet from the ground in the process.

A man named Smith, arms tightly pressed to his sides, feels his legs dangling helplessly as he is born along and deposited at the carriage door, where a solid and impenetrable block of commuters bars his way. However, he knows a trick or two for these situations. Waiting until the doors begin to shut, he leaps forward and using the power of the closing doors as an aid, succeeds in cramming himself in behind them. The train moves off and he can almost breathe.

Almost immediately he notices that something is going on further down the carriage which draws the attention of all those in the vicinity. A circle of rapt faces is captivated by a sight which he cannot see from his present position. His curiosity aroused he begins slowly shifting his way deeper into the carriage until, reaching the outer ring of fascinated onlookers he can see what it is.

Two bench seats stand facing each other athwart the carriage, in one of which sits an elderly woman. She is not a “little old lady” in spite of her grey hair which is pulled behind into a loose bun. She sits squarely in a self-assured manner looking as if she has no end of clout. Her face is the weathered and apple-cheeked countenance of a countrywoman, and upon her head she wears a workingman’s flat cap, securely skewered through the bun with a large hatpin. Her coat too is a man’s shapeless jacket, and scruffy trainer-bottoms terminate in nondescript shoes.

None of these factors alone would, however, create a focus of such intense interest. Oddballs are not an unusual sight to these young commuting clerks and secretaries as they make their way home each evening. But this woman is engaged in an act which in their modern techno-world is only described in myth and fairy-tale. They watch agape as from a canvas bag at the old lady’s side, there emerges and slowly inches its way upward a long and hairy string of wool. The wool stretches upwards towards the woman’s hands, which hold two long pointed instruments that seem as they watch to be engaging in mortal combat, one hand pitting its skill against the other. The two adversaries seem however, well matched; for no matter how fierce the engagement, neither hand is able to achieve the advantage.

Thrust, parry, disengage and lunge.
Thrust, parry, disengage and lunge.

Backwards and forwards they go while the serene eyes watch from above, her pale old lips silently mumbling a cottage-craft mantra:

Knit one, purl two.
Knit one, plain the other.

The dextrous hands are dancing like a card-sharp’s, and the fruits of this contest slowly emerge in the long hanging tongue of a blue woollen scarf.

All around a tight circle of faces are turned like sunflowers in her direction. They are entranced and gone beyond any attempt to hide it. The young office girls; white blouses lacquer hair. Swaying high-heeled and stockings as the train hurtles along its curving tunnel. They stare, mesmerised at the woman as she sits eyes down at her work. She seems entirely unaware of this attention, and doesn’t give the impression that she would care much anyway. The men too, dark blue-suited white shirt briefcase etc., are perhaps even more entranced. It is something they have heard of but never expected to see.

Gone the days when long winter evenings cast a pool of quietness. When only an occasional shift in the coals of the fire, the slow tick of a clock, and the steady clicking of a pair of knitting needles disturbed the silence. Sucked into the vortex of an electronic whirlwind these profound and fertile silences are no more. And so they gape, loose-jawed slack-faced, perhaps imagining that at any moment the old woman will mount upon a broom-stick and take to the air.

Stations come and go but she doesn’t raise her head, until, several stops later she puts her needles together and deposits them into her bag. Then up on her feet and makes for the door. The commuters fall respectfully back before her, she has a look about her that says she will stand no nonsense, and Smith wonders if she might give them a clout on the ear if they don’t move fast enough.

The door opens and she gets off. She has not only been counting her stitches. She has been counting her stations too.



Enchanted realm of England
Spellbound by the little box of tricks
Manipulated by a gang
Of crass and clever dicks
Lured from wise old craftsman’s hands
To slump and stare

Dave Tomlin
Pic: Nick Victor

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