Nov 2015 — Dansk er dejlige og dårlig

(Danish is delightful and dreadful)

This month felt more settled because I wasn’t travelling away from Copenhagen much but this was somewhat undermined by the turmoil of beginning an intensive Danish course. Previous experience of the language was limited to five minutes (on a good day) of Duolingo practice. This is a clever online way of learning vocabulary and a little grammar with the incentive of earning “lingots” which can be traded for accessories for a cartoon owl. I’m not sure why that is an incentive but that and the fanfare which congratulates each mini-accomplishment is fun (if you don’t get out much, which I don’t).

TLG was much more disciplined about getting his five a day Duolingo diet than me. I was pleased to have committed to memory “Skildpadden læser avisen” (see photo) because this is one day going to be very useful to me. Chocolate skildpadde are Denmark’s answer to the Cadbury’s crème egg but better because they have rum in them. Yum.

“Skildpadden læser avisen”.

Four mornings a week I went to proper Danish school — Studieskolen in Borgergade — to be tormented by the madness that is Danish pronunciation. I thought I had experienced the worst of words than do not sound as they look when I lived in Norfolk. There, “place names have long since slipped the anchorage of their spelling” as a National Trust colleague once put it. Danish has drifted so far from its written form as to be shipwrecked.

This is all the more challenging when my other language competences are in Welsh (much forgotten) and German (passable) — both dependably phonetic and full of solid consonants you can hang on to with certainty. Four mornings a week awash in the alphabet is exhausting. But I am still swimming, clinging to the occasional navigation buoys of a, e, i, o, u, y, æ, å, ø.

Me presenting caps knitted by KEME collaborators

I spent the first week of the month at Mayen in Germany where I participated in the European Textile Forum (ETF). A very enthusiastic and energetic group of expert craftspeople with a highly academic approach to their work share ideas and techniques for a whole week at a laboratory for experimental archaeology. This year’s theme was non-woven textiles. In preparation for this event, I invited my KEME collaborators to test knit one of two published knitting patterns based on original c16th caps. Several of the participants at the ETF kindly knitted caps for us to compare too. I presented the results of some of my collaborators’ contributions (see photo) and came to the decision that our investigations need to concentrate on the choice of yarn and the treatments the caps were subjected to after knitting to achieve the velvet-like surface which was so desirable in the c16th. I am still keen to test published patterns for caps so my projects for the KEME team now need to focus on these two aims.

Ruth Gilbert with her cap in progress

Ruth Gilbert (see photo) and Harma Piening gave thought-provoking papers which inspired me to create an online diagnostic tool to help identify knitting/knotting/netting/nåhlbinding in museum collections. I hope they will collaborate with me. Harma very kindly tackled the cap knitting instructions which are available in Dutch/German so hers was the only version of that cap available to study (see photo).

Harma’s cap.

I also went to London twice this month — once to give a paper at the annual Knitting History Forum conference on Saturday 14 November and again to be interviewed by a Canadian TV crew from Blue Ant Media on Monday 30 November, who are making a documentary called The secret history of knitting. My project plan for KEME was received with enthusiasm at KHF but I am not sure I covered myself in glory during the TV episode because the interviewer wasn’t really clear about my expertise (such as it is). The documentary will be one of those “let’s not take anything seriously” type programmes so I’ll probably come over as ill-informed and a bit mad (an accurate assessment, some would say).

One of the highlights of the KHF day was Zoe Fletcher’s introduction to her PhD project which aims to make British wool a more accessible resource for fashion designers. Zoe has distilled the scientific data about the characteristics of different yarns into easy reference charts with cute cartoon sheep and lovely graphics. I would like to use her material to help organise my test knitting programme for which I have more than 50 volunteer knitters ready and waiting. Zoe’s work could provide an easily accessible way for us to map and test different yarns’ suitability for reconstructions of knitted caps in the c16th.

The Norwich Study Centre has two knitted caps in its collection stored in what is known as the Bolingbroke Box (see photo). I spent most of a day with them on the Monday after the KHF with welcoming and helpful Lisa Little and Gwyn Fitzmaurice. Lisa had discovered a very exciting document from 1901 which confirms where the caps came from in London and how they arrived in Norwich. This helps shed light on the provenance of similar items in other UK museums which were dispersed in the early c20th. Gwyn is an artist and kindly offered to draft drawings of the caps to show their shapes more clearly than is possible in photographs.

Norwich coif cap

When I was back in Copenhagen, I started trying out my newly acquired Danish vocabulary on my colleagues. One thought my pronunciation was akin to Chinese and another said I spoke it with a German accent. Mostly, my daily greetings were met with blank stares and then howls of laughter. It may be a while before my cartoon owl is suitably clothed for public presentation.

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