Thursday, 23 January 2014

Of Christmas Sweaters, Socks and a rather special South Atlantic Island

I'm currently working on the sixth instalment in my Fighting Sail series. With a working title of The Torrid Zone much of the book's action takes place on or about St Helena, a small island set in the midst of the South Atlantic that would later become home and prison to a defeated Napoleon. Obviously a good deal of reading up is needed, and I am hoping to actually visit later in the year to get a true impression, although the island's magic shines through from even the dullest of accounts. But research is addictive; when ploughing through reference books or contemporary accounts I am frequently side tracked, and so it was I came to learn a little more about Tristan da Cunha, an even smaller island that sits roughly fifteen hundred miles further south, and is considered to be the world's most isolated settlement.

Tristan was first sighted in 1506, although it was not until almost a hundred and fifty years later that anyone actually landed, with the first permanent settler arriving in 1810. During the War of 1812 the Americans used it as a base for their cruisers, and the United Kingdom formally annexed it in 1816. The island became a garrison for the Royal Marines while Napoleon was in residence on St Helena, a whaling station was set up, and a civilian settlement soon followed.

The main island houses a large volcano which towers up nearly seven thousand feet (the entire area is less than thirty eight square miles), and was last active in the early 'sixties. I was at primary school at the time and can remember the inhabitants being evacuated to Hampshire and, most of all, the surprise when the majority wanted to go back once the danger was over – even then I felt a South Atlantic Island must be preferable to an inner city housing estate, but I digress...

Many of the current population of 264 inhabitants can trace their lineage back to the original settlers and share a mere eight surnames between them. The principle industries are lobster fishing and sheep rearing, in addition to the marketing of stamps and coins that seems to have become common in many small communities. But Tristan also offers something else, once more following the traditions of other islands, it produces a range of fine quality woollen handicrafts, and they really are exceptional.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not normally a great fan of jumpers and the like; usually winter is spent in the company of two Navy woolly pullies and a Guernsey, the latter having been bought while on honeymoon (and has lasted surprising well...). But the idea of being able to get a decent sweater that had been handmade in such a remote location and from locally sourced wool certainly appealed. We made an initial 'phone call (a London number, wouldn't you know – the island also has a UK postcode), then the rest was done by email. Our final order was for four hats, four pairs of socks, one skein of local wool and a gansey – a traditional sweater made from undyed wool with an attractive cable design running throughout. Measurements had to be given for all; speaking personally I've never even bought a made to measure suit, let alone socks, but it is nice to be accurate. Then, just a few weeks later, we received photos of the finished articles.

 That was in July – sadly we had just missed the summer ship, but the items (paid for by Paypal), were sent during October, and arrived with us in Sussex, England late December.

Yes, I know...
They're great. The wool is of a wonderfully soft texture, yet has the feel of something that will wear and wear. I married a professional chef who has also knitted for a living, (no fool me), and she is mightily impressed with the workmanship which is of a very high standard. Each item comes with a certificate of origin and would make a truly unique present. And the price? Expect to pay something approaching that of standard chain-store woollen goods. But these are far superior; you can choose the colour design and size, and there is more than a dash of nautical history thrown in for good measure.

Further details of Tristan, and the goods produced there,
can be found on the island's official website:

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