Heritage Week, or, the proximity of socks and fish


It’s heritage week and so it seems fitting to write and knit something heritage related.

I come from a little town you’ve probably never heard of.  Unless you’re really interested in socks.  Then you’ve probably heard of it.

Once upon a time Balbriggan was famous for its socks.  And stockings.  And spiffy underclothes.  But mostly socks. It’s basically all we are famous for.  We even made it to the dictionary.  And into Agatha Christie’s vocabulary.




Though the word ‘Balbriggan’ has fallen out of favour and when you type it into certain search engines, a rather unfortunate suggestion is made:




Once upon a time balbriggans were where it was at.  There were even ersatz impostor balbriggans like these:

Balbriggans box

Here the word ‘balbriggans’ clearly means silky onesie worn by mustachioed cads the likes of which your mother warned you about…


Anyway, the socks.  The town made lots of them.  We even made them for Queen Victoria and the Czarina of Russia, though to be honest, we mostly remember that we made them for Queen Victoria. Apparently she liked them a lot. I don’t know if it’s true but as kids we were told that Balbriggan socks were the only ones Queen Victoria would wear.  She was a sock snob.


The terrible cold-eyed stare of a woman waiting for socks

I have this image of her – stout, miserable, twice as formidable as Flora Klickmann, glaring out the palace windows at the fog[1] waiting anxiously for the next box of balbriggans to arrive (in my head she only wears socks once and then gives them to the maids).

I’m not all that surprised that she liked them.  The Balbriggan Heel is lovely. Karl, who is also a sock snob, claims that the Balbriggan Heel is more ‘secure’ than a French Heel or a Round Heel and now asks, nay insists, on the Balbriggan Heel every time.

Maybe it’s just a bit of nostalgia, or the fact that it’s a very easy heel pattern to remember (and it doesn’t matter how many stitches you start with) or even that I really quite enjoy doing Kitchener stitch but I like the Balbriggan Heel too.  I use it pretty much all the time now. I learned how here.

It’s kind of hard to see the effect of the heel in the dark yarn so I included some pictures of a sock I made ages ago.  Apologies for the quality of the pictures – it’s surprisingly hard to take photos of your own feet.

For heritage week I knew I wanted to share a pattern for Balbriggan socks but I also wanted to combine the iconic Balbriggan Heel with something else that spoke of my hometown and its traditions.


Or in any case fishing.

While the town has a square – well sort of a long diamond-shaped bit of hill[2] – the heart of the town is really the harbour – the BBC certainly thought so when they sent poor Michael Portillo there a couple of years ago.

Poor Mr Portillo.  He has a little guidebook and everything.  The expression on his face when the young fella starts going on about Queen Victoria’s underthings is priceless.[3]  And didn’t he do well to round up some nice old fishermen for a chat?  Actually, he didn’t.  Turns out some of the ‘old salts’ they wanted to interview didn’t look old enough so they swapped one of the not-so-ancient marniners out for one of the local historians who’d happened to stop by the filming. Being an innocent bystander is a great north county hobby – we’re world experts at loitering in the vicinity of interesting conversations and events.  And magically dispersing when things start to look dicey.  While it looks like a cosy chat on the quayside, I’m willing to put any money that just out of shot were ravening hoards of local nosies, swarms of grubby kids dying to be on “d’ telly” and a large and potentially murderous colony of grey seals.[4]

So, I give you the Balbriggan Harbour Socks. I’ve been thinking of these as sort of ‘young salt’ socks – traditional in their pattern and construction but not obviously oldy-worldy.

The pattern has two sizes – for women’s (approx. size 5) and men’s socks (approx. size 8-9) – there’s a full pattern with both sizes here with pictures and everything and then two ‘condensed’ patterns with the bare minimum of instructions and no pictures that can be printed on a single page.  I mostly knit socks on the go so I find condensed instructions quite useful like that…

Balbriggan Harbour Socks

Balbriggan Harbour Socks – Size One – Condensed Instructions

Balbriggan Harbour Socks – Size Two -condensed instructions


You can find out more about the history of Balbriggan here and here and, if you’re really enthused about socks, you can even plan a holiday here .  Really.

[1] Because London is always full of fog.  This is a fact.

[2] We have a lot of hills.  An awful lot of hills.  I don’t think I saw a straight line until I was twelve.

[3] If you are operating under the delusion that the English spoken in Ireland is the same as the English spoken in England, I invite you to watch this video closely.  Note especially the various ways the word “queen” is pronounced.

[4] There are a lot of seals in Balbriggan.  The town’s been campaigning to get a seal sanctuary for years but really I think it’s just a way of admitting that the seals basically own the place.

Finished Flying Objects

Although I really like making vintage patterns, sometimes I get the urge to making something a bit more futuristic.  Also, I know not everyone appreciates the joys of vintage knits and when I have to give knitted presents, I worry that brilliantly hideous Edwardian baby clothes are not quite what people imagine for their little darlings.

look how happy he is

So, I spent last week making a space mobile for a friend with this pattern and, because I wanted something with a touch old-fashioned charm, this little jacket too.

I’ve been having a hard time choosing my next archive project…there’s so many to choose from that it’s hard to know what to make first.  While I’m waiting for inspiration to strike, I’m working on a pair of socks.  Yay for socks.

On the needles now...

On the needles now…

Knitting: on the train and in the bin

Knitting on the train with snide yarn

Knitting on the train with snide yarn

I like knitting while I’m travelling.  Random strangers come and start conversations about their grannies and their own memories of knitting.  When you’re knitting, you’re perceived as being total harmless and very friendly.  People seem to ignore the pointy needles for some reason.

I brought my knitting when I went back to Ireland this week.   As well as catching up with family and friends it was a time to rediscover the joys of feeding terns off the harbour in Galway, getting drenched to the skin in Ardgillan and watching seals off shore in Balbriggan.  And knitting on trains, planes and in cars.

Travel-knitting is always limited.  You can’t have anything too bulky or heavy.  Nothing too complicated or requiring millions of charts or different needles and yarns.  I decided to make socks – just plain, vanilla, snoresome ribbed socks.  With a boring round heel because I forgot to bring a yarn needle and so I couldn’t do my favourite Balbriggan Heels.

And it would have been utterly mindless except that the yarn rebelled.

The only word to describe this yarn is ‘snide‘. It slithers off the needle and wriggles its way out of stitches.  It splits if you so much as breathe on it.  I came to loathe it.  Knitting became a battle of wits – I’d try to sneak a few rounds before the stupid yarn knew what had happened and started its snaky, slithy, writhey dance of spite off my needles. I even lost the ball-band so I can’t reliably report what the nasty stuff is.  I found the ball-band.  Ironically enough, it’s called ‘Superba Harmony’ and the slidey snidey quality is because it’s 25% polyamide.  Won’t be using that again!

The trip wasn’t making for good knitting until Helen (TCD Medievalist and doyenne of Dublin crafting) gave me this.

It’s a book.  Or rather, it’s a manuscript.  It was found in the bin in the booksale room.

People donate loads of old books to the Trinity booksale.  Mostly from house-clearances, dead-men’s shoes, that sort of thing.  Sometimes there are real treasures because people toss out things without really knowing what they have in their hands.

Like this little gem.


It’s a diary that someone has repurposed as a knitting journal – there are notes for knitting patterns, crochet patterns, embroidery and dressmaking.  There are patterns, sketches and ideas.  Some are copied from magazines but others are clearly home-made and are called things like “May’s Tea-Cosy”.

It’s a fascinating manuscript with at least three different hands in evidence and you can see where two different people have used the same pages:

First and second hands

First and second hands

The first has a right-leaning slope, written in good black ink (now faded) and these notes relate to financial transactions and business.  Though there are some stranger entries including one saying


To Banish Mice Fumigate with pomegranate (like cucumber).  Hellebore (Christmas Rose).  Sulphur.


I don’t know about you but I’m fascinated by anyone who thinks that pomegranates are like cucumbers.

The second hand is far more sensible, left-leaning, uses blue ink, pencil and red pen for some titles.  The second hand doesn’t spell very well and tends to leave out letters or to ‘hyper-correct’ words like ‘lacy’ to ‘lacey’.   Most of the entries are written in this second hand.


The second ‘hand’


The third starts off quite round and naïve but becomes more assured and developed (and illegible) towards the end of the journal.

The third 'hand'

The third ‘hand’

The diary itself is for 1929 so, as Karl (resident palaeography expert and Viking enthusiast) reasoned, the earliest someone could have bought it is 1928 and it must have been in use from then until some point in the 1970s going by the notes on some of the patterns.  Many of the patterns are dated in the 1940s so I’m guessing that the diary was dug out and repurposed by the second hand some time during the war when the paper-ration came into effect.  The thrifty crafter then passed the journal on to someone else – I’m assuming a younger person because the third hand starts off with patterns for toys and patterns marked ‘for Dad’.    The third hand seems to have gone back through much of the journal making amendments to many of the patterns and adding notes such as


Not RED/WHITE unlucky in hopitals. A. says

The journal has been well-loved – parts have been carefully and painstakingly repaired and you can see where someone tried to replace some of the bindings and wrote over letters that had become blurred or faded:

It’s clear that this was a bible for at least two crafters.  It’s strange to read over these notes and speculate about the relationship between these crafters– a mother and daughter? Aunt and niece? Nana and grandchild?  Neighbours? Friends? I’m assuming that they are female going by the predominance of patterns for women’s clothing but I don’t know.  I don’t know where these people lived.  I don’t know their names.  I don’t know anything about them and I don’t know why such a lovely thing that was treasured for so many years ended up in a booksale, let alone in the bin.  I wonder about the travels this little book went on, the hands it passed through and the shelves it sat on before it was thrown out.

So now it’s travelled back to Oxford with me and will be part of my own (steadily growing) collection of vintage craft books and patterns.  I’m glad Helen salvaged it from the bin – I’m going to rescue as many of the patterns as I can. I’ll post one just as soon as I decode the handwriting.