Traditional Crafts and Traditions

I want to start with a story, which I’m sure most of you will know.

A little girl is watching her mother cook a fish and notices that her mother cuts off the head of the fish before putting it into the pan to cook.

“Why do you cut off the head?” the girl asks, to which her mother responds, “it’s how my mother taught me to cook”.

So the little girl goes to her grandmother, “Why do we cut the head off of the fish to cook it?”, to which the grandmother responds, “It’s how my mother taught me to cook”.

And I’m sure you know the story by now.

The little girls goes to her great-grandmother and asks, “Why do we cut the head off the fish to cook it?”.

The Great-grandmother replies, “because my pan wasn’t long enough for the whole fish”.


My Grandmother in her then-fashionable bonnet
My Grandmother in her then-fashionable bonnet

I grew up in the Salvation Army, I know all about tradition. I grew up wearing a horrible bonnet designed for Victorian heads and hairstyles (buns). Many women salvationists kept pieces of sponge in the bonnet to keep it from slipping, but I know many women who kept their spare pair of stockings in there.

Yep, the army bonnet. It’s history is fascinating really, it’s Victorian style comes from the birth of the army when salvationists were often targeted by the skeleton army and publicans angry that their biggest customers were becoming Christians and not spending their money in the pubs any more. The bonnet was head protection from stones and other missiles.

In Victorian times the bonnet was a fashionable and useful item. Now it’s an uncomfortable, unhelpful, off-putting tradition.


When I first started spinning wool I sat in the spinning group listening attentively to every word people said. If I was going to master this craft I needed to hear everything.

Eventually I got my first set of carders (large brushes for, well, brushing the fibres). One spinner was showing how to use the brushes when another spinner spoke up.

“You should only brush the fibre three times.”

Why? No one knew, but a name was mentioned in reverence as though this unknown (to me) spinner was the fount of all spinning knowledge and if that’s what she said then that’s what happened.

I spent some time using the cards, giving them three brushes.

Then I broke free.

I recently invested in several spinning videos and watched one, From Wool to Waulking by Norman Kennedy.

From Wool to Waulking
From Wool to Waulking

Norman has been spinning since a young lad and learnt mostly from spinners in the highlands of Scotland. He was raised firmly in spinning tradition and his video is both informative and fascinating, I totally recommend it.


Throughout his video he makes reference to other spinners and knitters who don’t do things as he was taught. He speaks as though he is the one authority on spinning knowledge, often seemingly putting other spinners in an inferior position.

Norman Kennedy has a unique insight in spinning, he learnt from traditional spinners from one part of the world. He’s has a knowledge that thankfully he is sharing in order to keep that tradition alive.

But tradition doesn’t leave room for experimentation, new technologies, and other cultures.

Yesterday I had a fantastic trip to the British Wool Marketing Board in Bradford. I’ll tell you about it another time, but Oh My!!!

I have never seen so much fleece in one place, and the smell… To dye for.

Stacks and rows and stacks of huge plastic bags filled to bursting with wool.

Halfway through the tour one of our group turned to me and said, “I see they store their wool in plastic, but I was told only to store it in a cotton pillowcase”.

Before I could respond we were led through a door and my chance lost.

I thought long and hard about this idea of only storing fibre in cotton, where does it come from…

Imagine, this woman goes to the spinner who taught her, “Why do we only store fibre in cotton?”

“Because that’s how I was taught”

And the question goes back through time to a very retired spinner, who taught spinners through the ages, now sitting in an old folks home with her knitting stored in a plastic tupperware box beside her…

“Well, back then, plastic wasn’t available and cotton kept it from going all over the place”

I don’t know if that’s the truth behind this, but if plastic is good enough for the Wool Board… and Spinner Judith MacKenzie… and Armley Mill Museum… and… well, pretty much anyone who ships wool around the world. Then it’s good enough for me.

I love the traditional crafts, and I hope you do too, but if you ever hear the words…

You’re holding your hook, wool, needle… (Insert tool here) wrong

You should only do that …. (insert number here) times.

That’s not how my mother, grandmother, teacher … (insert person here) did it.

And you’re not in a re-enactment group….

Ask the question and consider whether it matters, after all, Traditions are like rules… Made to be broken.

Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

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