Rutter tells a good yarn as she tours the sheepier parts of Britain and teaches herself knitting via YouTube
When Vanessa Bell painted her sister, Virginia Woolf, in 1912 she didn’t give her eyes, although she did supply her with knitting needles and what looks like the beginnings of a reddish-pink scarf huddled in her lap. Woolf, it transpires, was far from being the only member of the Bloomsbury group who liked to spend her downtime plaining and purling. Younger brother Adrian had recently taken up the craft and, by the outbreak of war two years later, Lytton Strachey was busy “knitting mufflers for our soldier and sailor lads”, thrilling to the thought of the tender male bodies he might be warming with his busy fingers. As for Woolf’s novels, they are stuffed with women plying their pins. One academic has totted them up, and discovered that in her fictions there are more females who knit than write.
Like all north Atlantic communities, Britain has depended for millennia on wool as a source of warmth and wealth, and Esther Rutter follows this thread by travelling around the sheepier parts of Britain, from Shetland to Guernsey and Norfolk to Monmouth. She is a likable guide with a good eye for a story. The fact, for instance, that when the Romans brought their sparkling Mediterranean hillside sheep to our damp, woody isles, they furnished them with little macs to stop them getting grubby. Or the pleasing symmetry that in 1193 Richard the Lionheart was ransomed from the Holy Roman Emperor largely through the profits from the Cotswold Lion, a Gloucestershire sheep that grew its own magnificently curly mane. Then there’s the way that in 1814 the agricultural writer John Shirreff described Shetland sheep as being particularly “kindly”. Although he was probably referring to the delicate touch of their fleece, it is irresistible to imagine Shirreff being pressed to stay for a cup of tea by a group of hospitable quadrupeds.