I remember well the day that my husband and colleague, David Syme, and I became entangled in the events that follow, events which I have come to call “The Adventure of the Handspun Hat”.
It was a crisp autumn evening. We were sitting in our digs in Northern Ontario, Syme engrossed in a book on breeding terrarium animals and I in the vagaries of my spinning wheel. From time to time Syme would read aloud to me some obscure tidbit of herpetological lore, and enlighten me me with a conclusion reached therefrom by the brilliant deductive activities of his complex mind.
“Rana esculenta,” he read to me on one occasion, “must be overwintered in a damp moss and leaf mixture at five degrees Celsius. They are, of course, not unlike our own Rana pipiens, or leopard frog.” He looked thoughtfully out the window at the sunset and remarked, “I need a hat.”
Observing my puzzlement, he chided me gently, “You know my methods, Creith. Most North American herptiles require a period of hibernation in order to mate successfully in the spring. Too low a temperature and they freeze and die, hence the requirement of the insulating moss and leaf mixture. Like them, my ears will freeze if not properly insulated through the winter, and damp moss and leaves do not stick well to the human head. Therefore, I need a hat.”
“Will a hat now guarantee that you mate successfully in the spring?” I inquired, but he
disdained to reply.
Upon consideration of my stock of fleece, I selected a fine, light brown Border Leicester, clean and open, requiring a minimum of preparation. Knowing my own tendency to ennui with repetitive projects, I fixed upon a plan of knitting a pattern in a second colour, for which a dark brown, commercially dyed Romney roving suggested itself. When I presented this proposal to Syme for approval, he was at work with his experiements in orchid germination.
“An excellent choice of materials, Creith,” he remarked, “as I would have expected of you. If you approve the insulative qualities, there is nothing with which I need concern myself.”
“But the pattern, Syme!” I expostulated, “the colour!”
“Piffle! Trifles, which have nothing to do with function. Although,” he remarked sotto voce, “I am fond of ravens.”
I turned to the consideration of structure. A three-ply yarn would take advantage of my tendency to spin rather fine, and increase the warmth of the finished product. I teased, carded and spun the light brown Leicester in the grease, but before I had washed the skein, in occurred to me to take the opportunity to conduct an experiment of my own on the weatherproof qualities of fleece in the grease. Syme, ever willing to advance the cause of knowledge, consented to be my guinea pig. I therefore washed the skein lightly in cold water to set the twist, removing the surface dirt without disturbing the lanolin.
The hat itself was quickly finished, with a wide band of knit two, purl two rib followed by a section of moss stitch and a double knit band of dark brown ravens, after which I returned to moss stitch before beginning my reductions.
It happened that as I finished the hat, we were visiting Nancy and David Pease. Nancy offered the use of her steamer in order to permit me to block the hat without further washing and possible loss of lanolin. She suggested the use of a pot as a form, and in a moment of temporary insanity, I blocked the top of the hat perfectly flat.
In spite of the rather mushroom-like aspect of the hat, Syme accepted it with gracious good humour.
“No doubt the extra air space will decrease the loss of heat in intemperate weather,” he remarked.
That was the winter that Syme took employment driving a cab at night in Sault Ste Marie, some 110 km from our abode. He resided through the week with his parents, who lived in the city, while I remained on the farm.
As his shift ended at three in the morning, it was his habit to walk back to the family home, deposit hat and gloves at the top of the landing stairs and retire quietly to bed. One morning his mother, picking up a pile of laundry she had temporarily left at the top of the stairs, inadvertently took the hat. She discovered it some time later, still damp, in the dryer.
Syme saw this as an opportunity for further, though unscheduled, experimentation. He stretched the still-damp hat over a bowl, allowing the ribbing to curl up inside, and left it to dry. To his interest, and his mother’s relief, the hat appeared to have shrunk not a whit. The surface was soft and fluffy, in contrast to its previous smooth and rather greasy aspect, but there was no evidence of felting. An unforeseen consequence, however, became apparent at three o’clock the following morning.
“Creith,” said Syme, returning to the farm on Saturday, “I need a new hat. The lanolin has been washed out of this one and the wind goes right through it. This confirms your speculation on weatherproofing, but it does nothing for the insulation of my ears.”
“A mixture of damp moss and leaves might work,” I suggested, “as it does for Rana esculenta. It would give me time to research the possibility of restoring lanolin to the fibres, and would probably also guarantee a successful mating in the spring.”
Syme received this suggestion so coldly that there was nothing for it but to make another hat. Fortunately I had just received another excellent Border Leicester cross fleece, in shades of grey and black, from the breeder of the light brown fleece. It was a mere day’s work to spin the grey and black yarns and to design another hat.
As I knitted the ribbed band, Syme’s interest in ancient writing forms, specifically the runes of the Vlkings, occurred to me. The angular construction of these primitive letters suits them admirably to knitted design. I also saw the opportunity to test the possibility of subconscious influences that might be exerted by ancient images casually perceived. With that in mind, I drafted a line of runes to be knitted under the ravens.
They said: Do Not Wash.