Bread and Thread Prison Knitting

Opening music

Liz

Hello and welcome to bread and thread, a podcast about food and domestic history. I’m Liz.

Hazel

I’m hazel, we’re two friends who studied archaeology together and love history, and also making things. Liz what are you making at the moment?

LIZ

I am making a secet surprise for your birthday.

HAZEL

Oh gosh.

LIZ

I will only tell you there is thread and there is a pun.

HAZEL

I am super excited. Is it something embroidered?

LIZ

I’m not giving you more than that.

HAZEL

Oh no, that sucks, but also I’m excited.

LIZ

We’re also continuing our cook something from every country thing we’ve been doing we made kabsa which is a middle eastern chicken thing, which nick wasn’t sure about cause it’s one of those middle eastern things that’s like you got your meat and sauce and rice, and your orange and your almonds.

HAZEL

Ok, oh that sounds probably good.

LIZ

Absolutely gorgeous almond and chicken is chef’s kiss. Now I have a load of loose, well, not loose, almonds in the cupboard.

HAZEL

I can imagine you with a cupboard of almonds, you oen it and they pour out.

LIZ

That did happen to me with poppy seeds once –

HAZEL

There are worse things to have fall on your face I guess.

LIZ

It was a mess. So what have you been making or baking?

HAZEL

I’m in the planning stages of a new project, ignoring the thousand of other projects I’ve stsarted.

LIZ

Are you a crafter if you don’t have at least five projects on the go at once?#

HAZEL

Yeah like if you don’t have continual low level guilt from all the projects you haven’t finished… So I have some green linen fabric that I bought a few years ago on sale and I have a couple of meters of it so I want to make a skirt but I have been learning hardanger embroidery recently so if you haven’t heard of harddanger it’s a traditional norwegian style of embroidery that involves cutwork where you cut some of the threads and wrap them with the embroidery threads to make cutwork patterns… I thought it would be fun if I made uh…

LIZ

Put up a picture when this episode goes up.

HAZEL

Will do I thought it would be fun to do a modern style one, just a simple green circle skirt then make some hardanger pieces in red embroidery to decorate it with and that’s the plan.

LIZ

Sounds really christmassy.

HAZEL

It does sound really christmassy.

LIZ

Well why shouldn’t you have a christmas skirt?

HAZEL

I just like red and green why does it have to be christmassy?

LIZ

The style as well I think but genuinely why not have a xmas skirt just have thick tights underneath you’ll be fine.

HAZEL

Just stand at the base of the tree and people will hang chocolates on me.

LIZ

I’ll hang chocolates on you if that’s what yuo really want.

HAZEL

That’s true friendship find somebody who will hang chocolates on you.

LIZ

At the risk of going down some very weird rabbit hole… What are we learning about today?

HAZEL

Funny you should talk about weird rabbit holes because today I have a niche subject I thought it would be a really interesting one. We’ve done a lot of food history things recently but not so many textile ones so I thought I would talk about knitting in prisons and the history of that which apparently is a thing.

LIZ

I guess that makes sense that’s a very sort of calming activity.

HAZEL

Yeah but it turns out it was done for quite a few other reasons especially in the 19th century, some good and some not so good.

LIZ

You said 19th century prisons I’m scared.

HAZEL

I’m also going to mention prison reform and elizabeth fry and things getting a bit better so it’s not all terrible. There’s a lot more to this than I first thought as well. I got started off on this when I read an article in the knitter magazine, which if you’re in the uk you can get through the library service for free online which is great. There was an article about knitting it’s called knitting behind bars in the 19th century it’s in issue 122 of the knitter by penelope hemingway and it’s about knitting in victorian prisons which I had no idea was a thing. So apparently prisons before the whole prison reform movement were obviously a pretty horrrible place to be and you were kind of on your own if you were in a old timery prison you basically had to try and do what you could to maybe get some money to survive or something and as you might expect people were not having a great time in there and then in the 19th century they decided oh wait we can get people to do work for free in prison, which of course still goes on today and there are some companies today that still use unpaid prison labour not only in less developed countries but in the uk and the us as well so definitely check that out and maybe have your say on it.

LIZ

I think famously at this point when slavery was ended in the us there was a specific stipulation of except as punishment for a crime which is still there.

HAZEL

Yeah that’s pretty bad. So yeah not to get into too dark a part of history on this bit but it kind of started out as they would have to do these monotonous chores in the male prisons things like road breaking or picking okham where you unpick ropes and stuff to be used for other things, and…

LIZ

If you read oliver twist there’s talk fo doing that in the workhouse.

HAZEL

And in the women prisons they’d do stuff like knitting stockings, which if you’ve seen early victorian stockings they’rew very very fine and hand knitted that is quite tedious work and often the yarns would be provided they’d be the property of the prison governor and these prisoners would have to knit the stockings and they would be sold basically for the profit of the governor which is pretty exploitative system. Now there were some ways around this in fact it’s recorded that the women would sometimes basically knick some of the yarn and hide I away and make things for their own purposes that could be sold and in fact there’s one record of in this article a lady called ellen mcgirch which is a great name who was found on her release to be wearing an undershift an undershift with stockings sown to it nad the hem doubled up in the doubled up hem were secreted many muffetees many knitted mittens obviously this enterprising lady was out to make herself a bit of money on her release. Good for her. So often they would be able to earn a bit of money by it and would be able to sell them in prison through the grates to people also during the assizes so during the trials they would be able o sell them to spectators of the trials and so yeah by doing that they were able to earn a little bit of money.

LIZ

Buying socks from the trial.

HAZEL

Basically you could see a trial and get your haberdashery done at the same time.

LIZ

It’s convenient.

HAZEL

It pops up in the journal of ann lister, so if you’re listening and you’ve not yet heard of ann lister she was a 19th century landowner in yorkshire who wrote diaries which were recently I think she wrote them in code didn’t she?

LIZ

I believe so.

HAZEL

Yeah and they were recently translated and it turns out she was she was a notorious lesbian and there was recently a BBC series made about her named Gentleman Jack.

LIZ

Suranne jones. If you’re on tumblr you’ve definitely seen gifs of it. Suranne jones looking very austere.

HAZEL

I’m really liking the victorian butch lesbian look though. It’s very good. She writes on thursday the 18th october 1821 in york went over the bridge went shopping with my aunt, walked with my aunt around the castle yard because she wanted some nightcaps of the debtors. That’s york castle which has a great museum in it. So yeah early knitting in prisons could be as a punishment essentially as unpaid labour or as a subversive way to make a bit of money for yourself or smuggle out some valuable goods for your release and was mainly done in the womens prisons. Now when the prison reform movement began with elizabeth fry, one of the ways in which she tried to improve the situation in prison was that she started teaching people to read and do occupations like knitting and they were able to actually earn some money from it legitimately, the women’s prison visiting association would visit prisons and teach inmates to knit and they’d hold these knitting circles and the items they knitted would be sold by the visiting women on behalf of the prisoners and then they would hopefully be able to keep some of the money they were able to get on their release.

LIZ

I realise this is a slight distraction but calling them knitting circles I imagine they weren’t quite as twee as that but I am imagining the cell block tango in chicago as a little knit and natter you’ll never guess what my husband did oh do tell

HAZEL

I love the knitting revenge fantasy thing there.

LIZ

Have you been to a knitting circle?

HAZEL

That is exactly the kind of thing – my theory about it is because knitting relaxes your mind and the movement of your hands takes your mind off things and makes you less nervous it means you say stuff you would normally filter out.

LIZ

That would explain some of the conversations in the knitting society when we were at uni.

HAZEL

Knitsock after dark was notorious. Our knitting society was called knitsoc it was great. We were very cool.

LIZ

We were cool cause it was entirely queer nerds and we’re coming to the forefront.

HAZEL

We’re in these days. At least in the knitting world. It was great thought cause it was such a diverse group and there was someone who could teach you anything as well. Anyway prison knitting, I imagine they weren’t…

LIZ

Prison… School….

HAZEL

aah, yes. I imagine they weren’t gossipy everyone’s best friend knitting circles but they did manage to improve conditions of women in prison which had a massive difference in reoffending, in fact the following year after they did it only four inmates ended up back in prison the next year compared to the men’s rate which is 47

LIZ

Not to be social theorist on main, but it’s almost like giving someone a means of supporting themselves and a focus means they’re less likely to do a crime.

HAZEL

And they’ll have money they can use when they get out so they don’t need to d ocrime. Anyway…

LIZ

Sorry…

HAZEL

This is a heavily social history podcast as well as craft history and this particular subject is hand in hand. So that teaching skills as a way of improving the conditions and the agency of people who work in prisons was quite a radical thing in the 19th century and it did a lot to improve conditions especially in the female prisons and in fact a lot of the rights that prisoners now have today at least in the uk date back to elizabeth fry and the prison reform movement. Moving in the 20th century I actually found a really cool story which I did not expect at all. So in the 19th century knitting was basically a way to make money while you were in prison but in the 20th century and today it’s more of a therapeutic thing partly cause it’s very difficult to make money from knitting in the present day or at least hand knitting, and now thankfully there’s a lot more focus on the well being of people in prison thought not enough and so this is taking place in robin island which is the infamous south african prison where former south african president nelson mandela was imprisoned for 18 years and this is a story about one of the prisoners called jerome maakae who had been taught to knit in the days before his arrest in the 80s. He was staying in a safehouse at the time, his hostess who was a pro knitter taught him to knit so he had something to do when he was in prison he requested some wool and needles from the prison authorities who were quite reluctant but eventually

LIZ

Yeah they are weapons.

HAZEL

There’s a whole debate on whether or not needles are allowed on planes at the moment, I’ve flown with them but some airlines don’t like it.

LIZ

I was going to say crochet hook but you could do some ocular damage with a crochet hook

HAZEL

Definitely not tat I’m considering I but you could.

LIZ

If you were that way inclined.

HAZEL

So eventually they gave him some plastic needles, other prisoners saw what he was doing, and asked him to teach them, and taught a lot of prisoners knitting and in the evenings the prisoners would visit one of the cells and take their knitting with them.

LIZ

That’s really cute.

HAZEL

That’s quite a nice story, I like that as a way of creating community in a place where you get a lot of rivalries and things, in a place where you’re discouraged from forming communities. So yeah I like that as a way of reclaiming something you’re doing for yurself and doing it together with other people.

LIZ

It’s lovely.

HAZEL

It’s a nice little story. Moving into the present day that’s kind of what’s happening now is that there’s a lot more focus on well being and mental health or certainly there is in any organisation that is trying to be decent and so three’s a program I think it started in america a programme called knitting behind bars which uses knitting as a mindfulness technique. They got permission after about five years to go into a prison in america and start a knitting group, and this was a men’s prison. At first the authorities were like no-one is going to want to do this, men won’t want to knit. Which we know isn’t true, they were like no-one wants to do this what’s the point, and eventually they were allowed, they brought needles and yarn in and people started doing it and It’s been pretty successful as a way to practice mindfulness and a lo tof them knit for charity or their families outside. It’s a way to reclaim that sense of being somebody who contributes rather than being stuck somewhere you can’t do anything. And contributing to things you actually care about, like your family, rather than a company that isn’t paying you. And that program is spreading there’s a few others I’ve read about so I think that’s a good development.

LIZ

That’s really lovely.

HAZEL

And yeah that kind of ends on somewhat a more positive note than it began, I wanted to talk about that cause I didn’t know it was a thing until I read this article and iw as like oh that’s interesting I wonder if there’s more to it.

LIZ

And there was!

HAZEL

As with many things. I didn’t go into specifics on the craft but it was the sue of it I was interested in.

LIZ

It comes together to tell the story.

HAZEL

That’s what we do we tell a story through something specific.

LIZ

And then we look at a strange local food.

Plug for Probably Bad Podcast.

HAZEL

So what is our local larder today?

LIZ

I thought I would talk about clotted cream because I was talking to some americans and realised when you’ve not grown up with the term it sounds absolutely foul.

HAZEL

Now you mention it a clot doesn’t have great connotations does it. Ok I’ll bite tell me more about cream.

LIZ

So this is basically the fat of the milk separated off cause it’s easier to preserver just the creamy bit on its own same as we make butter, which seems to have been a thing in Phoenicia which is now the syria lebanon israel area.

HAZEL

So pretty old.

LIZ

But it’s most well known as a product of devon and cornwall in england.

HAZEL

You always have jam and clotted cream in the scones.

LIZ

I’m going to get into it

HAZEL

Is there going to be scone debate? Scone discourse?

LIZ

Sconetroversy.

HAZEL

Oh no! Oh no!

LIZ

Do you need a moment?

HAZEL

(not fine)

I’m fine, continue

LIZ

It may have been introduced by traders who came to that area looking for tin cause the devon cornwall area has been trading tin with the rest of the world since forever basically, although an ancient greek geographer called Strabo apparently mentioned british people doing a similar thing to what the Phoenicians were doing so it’s unclear if it’s a thing that was independently thought of, which seems more likelyto me, seems obvius to me cause if you take the water out of something it lasts longer. Cause we don’t ask sdo where did you get the idea for butter from? Although I say that, archaeologists exist there probably is someone trying to make a map of butter.

HAZEL

I’m sure someone somewhere has done that, archaeology gets very specific.

LIZ

But we do know it was made by monks in tavistock in devon in the 14th century and it was a well known enough term that I think I mentioned in the trifle episode in the 17th century we get mentions of clotted cream.

HAZEL

It sounds like someone’s beating up cream.

LIZ

Yeah but there’s no standardised spelling at this point so they probably meant clotted cream.

HAZEL

Not just that somebody decided to have a fight with cream.

LIZ

If you beat up cream it becomes butter. Clotted cream is a sort of low and slow cooking of cream, you get a crust on the top which is the best bit.

HAZEL

I didn’t realise it was cooked that makes sense.

LIZ

There’s lots of instructions online for clotted cream – you heat is very slowly basically overnight, you let it cool down slowly for 8 hours then the cream separates out, you get the nice yellow skin which is the best bit, the clotted cream, then the whey you can get rid of.

HAZEL

Seems complicated.

LIZ

Is it complicated or hard to achieve without access to a fire?

HAZEL

I guess in ye olden times when people had a fire on in the house all day it’s easier.

LIZ

Yeah you could suspend a container of cream over a fire and let it do its thing. But the controversy I was talking about, I won’t make the pun again-

HAZEL

What if I want you to?

LIZ

-is whether you put the jam or the cream on the scone first? And one is the way cornwall does it, one is the way devon does it.

HAZEL

There is only one right way and everyone will tell you a different way.

LIZ

I have to ask – jam or cream first?

HAZEL

I’m a fan of the cream first. Cause if you put the jam first, when you add the cream it turns into a mixed up mess whereas if you put the cream on first the jam is easier to spread.

LIZ

I’m cream on first cause I find it hard to put the cream on the jam. We’ll have to ask nick who isn’t from devon or cornwall but is from the west country.

nick

(falsetto)

Cream.

LIZ

Thanks. But in 2013 the clotted cream company rodders which is cornwall based commissioned a study by dr eugenia cheng of sheffield which concluded that jam is in fact first.

HAZEL

Really? Wow.

LIZ

Though famously david cameron did that in devon and it didn’t go down well.

HAZEL

Was thta a bit political faux pas?

LIZ

It was made out to be one, yeah.

HAZEL

On the same level as ed miliband and the bacon sandwich. Maybe we could do an episode of food related political gaffes.

LIZ

If anyone has an example, I’d love to do this. But my last thing on clotted cream is it’s very hard to get it in america because generally unhomogenised milk is unpasteurised and oyu cannot sell unpastureised milk in the us cause obviously it’s easier to make it with unhomogenised milk, though I’ve seen some people use single cream cause it’s already separeted.

HAZEL

But pasturisation is just heating it to a certain level.

LIZ

But it’s faster.

HAZEL

Does it do it to a higher level or-

LIZ

I haven’t seen any specific temperaures for making your own clotted cream I know they are out there but pasturising has to be hot.

HAZEL

So that wouldn’t work. Well.

LIZ

Yet another thing you cannot have in america.

HAZEL

Thanks to the man.

LIZ

If you want a scone with clotted cream and blackcurrant jam in the us you’re out of luck.

HAZEL

Is that the most illegal scone?

LIZ

I think that is the most illegal scone.

HAZEL

Scontraband.

LIZ

I’m glad you also got to do a terrible pun.

HAZEL

I won’t be able to stop at just scone.

LIZ

Interestingly cornish clotted cream is a protected designation of origin so that’s a thing in the EU where you can only put the placename of your product if it’s from there. It applies to a lot of cheeses I think. I don’t know if champagne is a geographically protected thing or if people are like that.

HAZEL

It’s only clotted cream if it comes from cornwall otherwise it’s just warm milk.

LIZ

Champagne is protected. Also melton mowbray pork pies and herefordshire cider.

HAZEL

Aah I didn’t know that I never heard of that.

LIZ

You’re just not deep in the cider world, or the list of designated protection of origins. Yeah that is the surprisingly controversial clotted cream.

HAZEL

Thank you that was most informative.

LIZ

I’m going to continue putting cream first.

HAZEL

Be a rebel do it your way.

LIZ

Or maybe I’ll mix it up I don’t know. I don’t have strong feelings about the order.

HAZEL

Neither of us are from devon or cornwall, it’s more of an intellectual exercise.

LIZ

I’m from the north there’s more controversy over scon or scone. It’s scon. Fight me.

HAZEL

I use them interchangeably does that make me a bad person?

LIZ

I think that’s just proof your’e bi.

HAZEL

I feel called out. Hope you enjoyed this interesting journey through prison reform and scones. You can find us @breadandthread on twitter email us breadandthreadpodcast@gmail.com

LIZ

We are also on patreon just breadandthread, if you want recipes and educational videos I believe hazel is working on one about her chickens.

HAZEL

There will be chickens and hinkel weaving. Please tweet at us your fave political food faux pas.

LIZ

Whether you put cream or jam on first.

HAZEL

And we’ll see you next time.

LIZ

Where we will have a special guest.

HAZEL

Another one?

LIZ

No we’re recording out of order.

HAZEL

Oh I thought there was another one.

LIZ

But yeah go out and have some clotted cream if you can legally do so and we’ll see you next time.

Closing music.

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