Blast from the Past: Scratchy woolly jumpers

Remember the torture of the scratchy jumper? A garment gifted by a kindly relative who had spent weeks perfecting the woolly tormentor. HELEN MCGURK had a wardrobe full of them

Friday, 22nd October 2021, 3:21 pm
This little  boy looks happy in his jaunty woollen tank top, but is he really?
This little boy looks happy in his jaunty woollen tank top, but is he really?

I recently stumbled across an old primary school photo from the 1970s, wherein roughly a quarter of my classmates were sporting a hand knit garment.

The wool pack looked understandbly ill at ease, enduring, as they were, the torment of scratchy sweaters, cardigans and tank tops - garments which smelt faintly of Suffolk ewes and were about as comfortable as wearing a layer of fibreglass.

It must surely be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than to get a throat-choking hand knit jumper over the head. I remember well that torturous procedure. Gasping for air and begging for mercy, my ears would get caught, bend in half and turn red raw as it was pulled down over my head. The cuffs were invariably too tight, inflicting Chinese burns on my wrists.

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All day long the wiry wool would scrape my neck leaving small abrasions. It was also suffocatingly warm, like being wrapped in hot water tank lagging. But winters in Northern Ireland in those days were harsh and scary, thus it was ordained we wear our woolly protector lest we fall victim to a chill in the kidneys, pneumonia, or mothers’ favourite rhetorical question ‘do you would to catch your death?’.

The hand knit jumper’s lumpy surface also meant things stuck to it, like that morning’s Rice Krisipies, a half-sucked Murray Mint, a mewling kitten.

Once knit, a knitted sweater was indestructible, unless one stood too close to the Superser, then it would singe and smell, but would still be wearable.

There was a time when most Northern Irish families had a ‘great knitter’ among their ranks. Around this time of year they would go into overdrive to have their woolly pullies ready for Christmas.

My aunt was the great knitter in our family and richly patterned Aran sweaters were her show jumpers. I recall her sitting in a high-backed chair by the fire, watching Terry Wogan, using multiple knitting needles, going faster and faster, knitting one, purling one, clicking and clacking, never once looking down to check her handiwork. I swear that woman could drive a HGV and knit a three-piece suit without taking her eyes off the road. In terms of knitting scratchy sweaters her woolly skills were mammoth.