Written by Audience Development Project Officer, Rhiannon Watkinson.
It all started with a large plastic sheep.
Not the most conventional opening to a story, I grant you! In fact I should say it started with a large plastic sheep, a brand new museum, a shepherd’s hut and a fabulous volunteer. What do these things have in common, I hear you ask? Well, they are all the inspiration for our museum’s knitting group, The Mewes Knitters, who are celebrating their first anniversary at the end of January.
Volunteers at The MERL are used to being asked to be involved with weird, wacky and wonderful projects – who can forget our volunteer written play about the Berkshire Swing Riots or a mammoth session turning plastic bags into material for basket weaving. Yet, the request levied at volunteer Jan to design and knit a woollen coat for a large sheep is definitely one of our more unusual asks and prompted the response of “only at The MERL”! Jan is one of the museum’s longest serving volunteers, who’s been involved with a range of projects in both the museum and the University’s archives. Crucial to the story is that along with her talents for archiving glass negatives, Jan is famous for her knitting talent. Her mini knitted sheep are a firm favourite in the museum’s shop, so when it came to finding someone to cover the modesty of our newly acquired naked sheep she was the only person to call upon.
Jan managed to whip up the coat, featuring patches in 29 different stitches, in record time; the sheep even took up temporary residence in her spare room! There were challenges to overcome, not least the fact that wool can attract all sorts of creepy crawlies, which although important to rural life, aren’t something we want scurrying about the galleries. This problem was overcome by the type of yarn that Jan used, and our sheep now stands proudly in A Year on the Farm gallery looking very much at home amongst some of our other sheep and shepherding objects.
Our sheep’s coat has become one of the most talked about and admired objects within not only the A Year on the Farm gallery but the whole museum. From our youngest rural enthusiasts, our toddler group Friday Fledglings, to special interest groups, visitors have never been sheepish in declaring their love for our sheep. Maybe it’s because the temptation to stroke it is so high, and it’s one of the few things in the displays it’s actually ok to touch.
It isn’t only in the museums galleries that we show our appreciation (some may say obsession!) for all things woolly. Our garden is home to a Shepherd’s Hut made by David Johnson from Burford Shepherd Huts.
With our woolly sheep being such a hit and an authentic, but bare, shepherd’s hut in our garden a moment of inspiration hit – wool + bare shepherd’s hut = fun, engaging, tactile shepherd’s hut! We got to work straight away asking a variety of people from local community groups and volunteers to contribute ideas and plans on how we could make the hut a more welcoming and exciting space for our visitors using wool and the occasional textile.
We looked at archive images of shepherd’s huts and sheep portraits for inspiration, and got into the minutiae of different yarn types but in the end, a morning of creativity and all the sheep puns you can think of, led us to the conclusion that the hut just HAD to be decked out in knitted knick-knacks.
So, we had the ideas, we had the materials and we had the space; now we needed people to help us fill it. In other words a cry of “Can Ewe Help?” rang out. And so our knitting group was born. In the spirit of craft bringing people together, the group is made up of volunteers who were already working on other projects at the museum – including Jan, of course – and new volunteers intrigued by the idea of transforming the hut into something woolly and wonderful. Members of the Mewes Knitters enjoy coming along to learn new techniques and share skills but also to “be part of a group with a common interest” and “have a chat” over the obligatory tea, coffee and biscuits.
The group decided that the hut would be decorated seasonally; as a museum of rural life the importance of the seasons can never be forgotten or overstated and seasonal decorations strengthen the link between the hut and the museum’s galleries, in particular, the Year on the Farm gallery, home to the sheep. Starting in January 2017, the group decided to begin knitting Spring and Summer themed items for the hut. Knitting sessions taking place in the museum’s Nook area, the kitchen of the original house, gives the group a lovely homely feel and being a public space, it encourages visitors to ask questions about the knitting (and ask directions for the loos!). Even though the group shared their creations when they met every fortnight, when it came to installing them in the hut the sheer quantity and quality of seasonal knitted goodies was overwhelming. The hut was now home to pigs, cows, a tractor and a play mat designed to represent fields seen from the air. There was even a troop of maypole dancing mice; because well, why not? As summer quickly came and went the group moved onto knits such as snowflakes and bobble hat bunting turning the hut into a welcoming wintry wonderland.
So there you have it – it started with a sheep and as we come to the end of the first year of the Mewes Knitters we continue into 2018 with plans for knitted ladybirds to lead the way to the museum’s Ladybird Gallery and knitted chickens inspired by our Poultry Club archive. The knitting goes on and on – when it comes to wool the Mewes Knitters continue to raise the baa!
Meet members of the Mewes Knitters and learn how to knit at Wool: a warming Winter Late celebrating everything wonderful about wool on February 22nd!