THE GUNNISTER BAG
By THL Lucia Thaylur
In 1951, the body of a fully clothed man was found in a shallow grave near Gunnister, Northmavine, Scotland. The man was attired in woolen clothing consisting of a long woolen coat, wide leg breeches, a shirt and an outer jacket. Around his waist was a wide leather belt with a brass ring. He had a pair of knitted gloves, long stockings which went over the knees, a knitted woolen cap with turned up brim, and in what appeared to be a pants pocket he had a plain cap wrapped around a horn spoon. In the other pocket was a small horn and knitted purse containing a piece of silk ribbon and some coins (Henschall and Maxwell, p 30-31 and Rutt, R. p. 168).
The yarn is soft and has coarse hair mixed in. and was made from rather unevenly spun yarn with a two-ply Z twist and was worked on four needles. Now dull brown, the original color was probably gray with a white and red pattern. The purse closes with a drawstring made from a double cord run through loops. Three tassels are suspended form the bottom of the bag: one on each corner and one in the middle. The purse is 5 1/4" x 3 3/4" wide ( Henschall and Maxwell, p.38-39 ). The bag is believed to be the earliest example of two colored Shetland knitting (Shetland Museum, p2).
The pattern for the bag came from 17th Century Knitting Patterns as adapted for Plimoth Plantation (no page numbers listed). The loop closure was done in a pattern I have not previously encountered but it works quite well. Rutt also describes how the purse was knit (p 169-170).
I choose to work with a very fine corriedale fleece purchased from Colorado. The staple length of the fleece was 3-4" and was fairly greasy. I choose the corriedale because the bag was described as being fairly soft to the touch and I strongly suspect was knit with the soft undercoat of a medieval sheep. Lacking the medieval sheep, I felt corriedale or merino was a modern equivalent. Since I had the corriedale in my stash I went with that. My stash also included some white and a reddish burgundy I dyed several years ago.
Spinning in the grease has never been my choice when working with fiber so the fleece was carefully washed in my kitchen sink. To prevent felting the fleece, I paid close attention to the temperature of the water, prevented agitation by swirling the locks and squeezing the water from small handfuls of fiber. Had the locks been a little more coarse, I would not have done them individually. The fleece was rinsed three times before adding soap. After the second addition of soap, I proceeded with rinsing. The locks were laid in bread trays to air dry for about a week and a half.
Once dried, the fleece was laid out on the kitchen floor where I could easily see the length of locks. Sorting fleece dates back to the Middle Ages when there were basically three grades/qualities of fleece. Ryder tells us fleece were sorted by quality: grossa (sound), fracta (broken and shed) and lambswool (p 14). With modern sheering methods, it's rare to see an entire fleece in one piece so it must be sorted for leg, neck and shoulder, and back fleece. It's also very important to remove all the second cuts as they cause neps and noils in the yarn. I choose to sort by staple length and wasn't concerned about color as I wanted the variances to show in the finished bag.
The fleece was handcombed using a pair of combs similar to what would have been used in the Middle Ages. References for combing wool can be found by different authors including: Gudjonsson, E. and Frances and Joseph Gies.
Having spun rather fine singles before, I made the necessary adjustments to my spinning wheel. I choose bobbins with the smallest whorl and adjusted the tension and treadling speed to quick take-up with minimal twist. Since the wheel couldn't take the yarn up as quickly as I wanted it to, I improvised by inserting a small plastic bushing into the orifice. While it did improve the take up, the bushing kept wanting to slip out. Rather than permanently gluing the bushing in place and I just dealt with the slippage.
The smallest needles I had were 1x. Knowing the bag wouldn't be to scale I tried a small sample. Not happy with the results, I ordered 3xxx and 4xxxx needles. Small samples done with the smaller needles indicated I needed finer yarn. After spinning finer yarn and using 4xxxx needles, the gauge was as close to what I wanted. The original bag is 11 1/2 stitches and 16 rows per inch over stockinette (Henschall and Maxwell, p. 38) and mine measures 10 stitches and 18 rows per inch, which allows for natural felting.
My bag measures 6x 4 1/4 inches. As the measurements provided by Henschall and Maxwell (5 1/4" x 3 3/4") allow for the natural felting process (the bag was found inside the breeches), I feel my bag is a very close approximation of the original bag. Since the tassels on the original bag are worn down to the knots, I believe this is a further indication of the natural wear and felting process.
I gained a much greater appreciation for the fine quality of goods produced during the Middle Ages. I am still somewhat in awe of their "everyday" standards.
Gies, F. and Joseph. Women in the Middle Ages. Perennial Library, Harper and Row Publishers (p. 167). No available publishing date.
Gudjonsson, E. "Togcombs in the National Museum of London with notes on Icelandic Wool-Combs in General", Textile History vol 10 p.207-210. Butterworths for the Pasold Research Fund. Guildford, England, 1979.
Henschall, A.S. and Stuart Maxwell. "Clothing and other articles from a late 17th Century grave at Gunnister, Shetland". Proceedings of the Society, 1951-52 p 30-42.
Ryder, M.L. "Fleece Grading and Wool Sorting: The Historical Perspective." Textile History, 26 (1), 3-22, 1995.
Rutt, R. A History of Handknitting. Interweave Press, 1987 Loveland, Co.
The Weavers Guild, 17th Century Knitting Patterns as adapted for Plimoth Plantation, Monograph One. Weavers Guild of Boston. 1978.