by Bill Drummond
 

“Knitting was invented in Birmingham.”

“Says who?”

“Mrs Gilchrist, she was my primary teacher back in 1958 when I was five.”

“And you believed her?”

“I believed everything Mrs Gilchrist told me.”

The above was part of a brief conversation I had last Saturday at my first knit and natter session at Eastside Projects.

In my second week at school Mrs Gilchrist was teaching all 45 of us in the class how to knit. In those days there were no classroom assistants to help keep order. Mrs Gilchrist and her strap were more than capable of doing that between them.

We were all knitting the same thing – a dishcloth. I had no idea what a dishcloth was or for what purpose it served. What I do know is that I learnt to knit before I could read or write. And I have been knitting on and off ever since.

So back to Birmingham and it not only being the birthplace of heavy metal but that of knitting itself.

Well actually, if truth be told, Mrs Gilchrist didn’t actually mention Birmingham. Her actual words were: “Girls and boys, knitting may have started right in the middle of England, but we in Scotland are the world’s best knitters.”

This statement of Mrs Gilchrist contained the first drip by drip nationalism that was a central part of the Scottish education system, it also led me to wonder what the middle of England was.

Years later I learnt it to be Birmingham. As Mrs Gilchrist was right about everything else – one plus one does still equal two and 1314 is still the most important date in history.

Rest assured whatever contrary rumours you may garner from Google regarding the history of knitting they can be ignored.

A couple of weeks ago, I felt the stress levels rising – time to get the needles out, but before I cast on my first row, the ideas started to bombard me.

The title came first – The Million Stitch Blanket.

Then I did some sums. If this blanket was made up of 1,000 squares, each square could be made up of 40 rows of 25 stitches. 25 x 40 x 1,000 = 1,000,000. And these being four of my favourite numbers the blanket had to be made.

As for colours, I would leave it to the three primaries, plus black and white, as I do with The 25 Paintings.

Next was the idea that the blanket should not just be knitted by me alone, but by people I met throughout my 12-year world tour.

Even if they only knitted one row or just a stitch each. But if they had time they could knit a whole square.

 

And on the way, if people wanted and didn’t know how, I could teach them the very basics of knitting and by the end of the tour there would be this Million Stitch Blanket that would be a gift from the rest of the world to Birmingham.

Not that I have any idea what the city would do with the blanket.

Maybe the populace could take it in turn to have it on their beds for a night.

Or maybe they could hang it on the wall in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery to become a tourist attraction like the Staffordshire Hoard.

I have bought a dozen pairs of needles and a supply of wool and cast on the start of a dozen squares. I then asked whoever was invigilating at my exhibition at Eastside Projects, to ask whoever came into the gallery, if they could knit.

And if they could, would they knit a stitch, or a row, or maybe a whole square. And I would do the same if I were in the gallery.

I then decided that I should start a knit and natter group. A very loose one.

One that could be in any city around the world that I might be in over the next 12 years with The 25 Paintings exhibition.

And that is what I am doing.

Last Saturday, I held my first knit and natter group at Eastside Projects. Various people turned up. Some seasoned knitters, some had never knitted a stitch in their lives.

All embraced the concept and we got down to some serious knitting.

The topics of the natter ranged far and wide. From the pertinent – what to do when you have dropped a stitch? To the trivial – Are art galleries pointless?

I have a family funeral to attend on Saturday, but the wool and needles will be in the gallery as part of the exhibition. Feel free to pick a pair up and have a go.

But the knit and natter group will be meeting every Saturday afternoon between 2pm and 4pm, from then until the end of the exhibition on June 14. After that it goes global.

Remember when the blanket is done in the year 2025, it will be given as a gift from the rest of the world to Birmingham.

I might not be as good a knitter as Mrs Gilchrist would have liked. But I hope she would be pleased that I have taken my needles back to where it all began.

• Bill Drummond is writing a weekly column for The Birmingham Post as part of his three-month residency at Eastside Projects, Digbeth.