Putting Wool Away

One of the strangest things that was common practice during the years of my small childhood was the way that the wool shop operated.

My mother was an avid knitter, most mothers were, I don’t think I ever saw my mother after 7pm when all the dishes had been washed without a pair of  knitting needles tucked under her forearms, tying knots furiously into wool to make yet another garment for me or Ned – my father resisted all attempts to have anything knitted for him and so it was me and Ned who never had shop-bought clothing, our mother had knitted everything we owned.

The wool shop was on Burley Road, the shop is still there, its at the end of a short terrace of other small shops that once formed part of the legendary “Burley Village”, an area of a couple of acres where very old stone built houses and stables once stood for a couple of hundred years and were then demolished and left as derelict land shortly before I came into being, when I was a kid “The Village” was a huge overgrown wasteland with occasional building remains dotted among the head-high brambles and weeds, its now still an empty lot but a properly landscaped these days – something very strange must lurk underground in The Village though as its never been rebuilt upon.

Anyway, the wool shop.

The wool shop had fronted The Village onto Burley Road and was left behind in the demolition and now in the early 1960s was owned by two old ladies who ran the wool shop in the traditional way of all old wool shops, that is, as a business plan it seemed totally irrational.

Once inside the wool shop you’d stand in front of a huge, wide dark wood counter, a traditional cash till with massive brass keys stood to the left, and on the back wall a huge, high bank of pigeon hole style shelving, into which were stuffed hundreds of balls of different coloured wool, the overall effect being a huge and colourful David Hockney style mural which changed week by week depending on stock levels and that seasons colours.

My mother would visit when she needed more wool or another knitting pattern or when she had worn out another set of knitting needles, which was frequently and we’d be dragged along as kids and it seemed perfectly normal for our mother to stand in the wool shop for hours on end while a woman in front of us nattered endlessly to the two old ladies to be followed by our mother who would also natter endlessly to the two old ladies – shopping at local shops in the 1960s paid no heed to modern theories of customer service, of serve them quickly, get their money and move on to another sale, oh no, the wool shop ladies would talk to each customer for hours on end before selling them one ball of wool, or no wool at all, “Anyway do you want anything love?” they’d finally ask, as the sun set over Burley and the street lights were illuminated, “Oh no, I only came in for a natter this morning, oooh is that the time, my Cyril will be playing pop if his teas not on the bloody table, must fly…”

The strangest thing though was the fact that the wool shop gave credit to everyone, at no cost, and therefore presumably no profit to themselves, for someone like our mother would pick up a knitting pattern in their shop, pay half a crown or similar for the pattern, muse for a while and then say to the old ladies, “It says here that I’ll need four balls of 8 ounce wool” – I confess right here that I made that bit up, I have no idea how many balls of wool it would take to knit one of my jumpers, for all I know it may have used fifty balls of wool, but for now we’ll say four, ok, also 8 ounce, I completely made that bit up, don’t go shopping for 8 ounce wool for it only exists in my imagination and is probably as thick as anchor rope.

So she’d mention four balls of wool and the old ladies would nod sagely and ask in what colour would madam like the wool and our mother would reply, “Well I’d love to knit a pink jumper for him but he’s at that funny age so it’ll have to be royal blue again”, for everything that my mother knitted for me was in royal blue – the very last thing that she ever knitted for me was when I was in my mid-twenties and was living in Newcastle, she decided that I’d need a good heavy jumper what with me living that far North and Newcastle having polar bears and all that, and so she rang for my measurements and then declared that she was going to knit me a nice cable knit sweater to keep out the cold and I didn’t argue with her.

Four weeks later she told me that it was ready and could I drive the 100 miles to her house to collect it because it was a bit too heavy to post, so I did, and she wasn’t kidding either, the postman would have had a hernia if he’d tried to carry it up the steps to my flat, when I say that the royal blue (of course) cable knit sweater was almost one inch thick then I really aren’t kidding, “Its a fishermans sweater” she told me, “done to an Arran pattern” and I kept the thought to myself that if a poor unfortunate Arran fisherman ever wore this sweater and fell overboard he’d be straight to the bottom of the ocean, no messing.

Many years later after she had left this mortal coil I decided to donate the sweater for charity, I’d worn it once or twice and been exhausted in the wearing of it so heavy were its cable knits and so off to Oxfam it went and some time later they wrote to thank me profusely as they’d spent three months unravelling all the knots and had re-knitted it into enough jumpers to clothe the whole of Ethiopia and have some left for a bit of Bangladesh too – to this day when you see a famine relief appeal have a look for some poor little black kid living on dust and see if he’s wearing a royal blue knitted sweater, its mine if he is.

So anyway, the unfeasible wool shop method of commerce, a mother like my mother would stand in the shop and peruse the knitting patterns and then between them she and the two old ladies would decide how many balls of wool that pattern would need, the old ladies would search high and low along all of the pigeon holes and under the counter and in the cellar and eventually would turn up enough balls of wool in the same colour, and they’d check the batch numbers on the labels to make sure they were definitely the same colour, and then our mother would tell them that she’d pay for one ball now “AND PUT THE OTHERS BY”.

It must have been a phrase that the old wool shop ladies dreaded for every one of their customers would “Put those by” and that is what all the pigeon holes were, my mother would write her name on a sticky label and one of the old ladies would appoint a pigeon hole to her, label it up and put the rest of the wool in it – remember, my mother hadn’t yet paid for this wool, but now the old wool shop ladies couldn’t sell it to anyone else either for my mother had “put it by” so that weeks later when she came in for another ball they’d have exactly the same colour to sell to her.

Most of their stock was un-sellable, for all it looked like the old wool shop had every ball of wool in every colour known to man, they couldn’t sell any of it because some woman somewhere had “put it by” to return some months later, and woe betide the old ladies if a wife popped in for another ball that she’d put by five months ago to find that the old ladies had sold it to someone else, my god, their name would be besmirched all over Burley and they’d never sell another ball as long as they lived.

“I’d like some 8 ounce royal blue wool please” some random wife would ask, “Oh sorry we haven’t got any” the two old ladies would reply, “Yes you have” she’d say, “there’s five balls there, look”, “oh you can’t have them” the old ladies would regretfully inform the random wife, “they’re put by”.

I’m willing to bet that there’s still some 8 ounce wool in royal blue that my mother put by in that old wool shop in Burley even as I type this.




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