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At Prick Your Finger

October 29, 2011
by the gentle author

“Why not start by falling in love with a yarn?”

You might not expect a knitting shop to be an exciting place – but when I arrived at Prick Your Finger at 260 Globe Rd and reached out to discover that the bridge of a guitar had been substituted for the door handle, I realised I was in for a rock and roll experience. You might assume that hand-knitting has been rendered obsolete by cheap mass-production – lost in the fast pace of contemporary life – but you would be wrong, it is enjoying a lively renaissance at present. Knitters of all ages and backgrounds are coming together to share their skills, tossing aside patterns to express their creativity in unconventional ways and transgressing the boundaries of a creative medium that was once a byword for mundanity.

Operating from their tiny shop which has become the focus of this culture in the East End, Rachel Matthews & Louise Harvey are exuberant evangelists of the revival, espousing needlecraft as a means of individual creative expression and even of personal liberation. And I was especially keen to pay a visit because this is the time of year to embark upon an ambitious knitting project to fill the long Winter nights ahead.

“‘Why not start by falling in love with a yarn?’ that’s what we say to people when they come in, because often they bring an idea of what they like based on something they may have seen in a magazine,” admitted Rachel who opened the shop with her college pal Louise four years ago,“Instead, we try to help people focus on their relationship with the material.”

“A lot of officeworkers are losing their dexterity and feel they can’t create anything, so we offer intensive support to people who want to become knitters.” continued Rachel with a sympathetic smile, “We try to teach people dexterity in their fingers, but what we’re actually teaching is that using your hands well through knitting can give you a confidence which stays with you your whole life.”

When Rachel found this shop, the building had been partially reconstructed internally by an errant architect, leaving a labyrinth of strangely-angled rooms resembling the interior of a house drawn by Dr Seuss. Downstairs, the shop is crammed to the roof with yarn and quirky details – including a knitted fish on a shelf, crocheted mushrooms in fairy rings on the ceiling and a woven stork’s nest complete with brood in a corner. Upstairs is a large studio where classes are held nightly, enabling customers to buy their yarn and needles below then seek tuition above, receiving all the necessary technical guidance and emotional encouragement to fulfil their dreams in knitwear.

Rachel & Louise met at St Martin’s School of Art where they both studied textiles, united in solidarity as the only students in the canteen to bring their lunch in thermos flasks. “There was no gallery even to display textile work because people were embarrassed by it,” revealed Louise with comic affront, sharing a glance of reminiscence with Rachel as she revealed the origins of their fervour,“We really suffered from that.” Dismayed at the high art sensibility which forbade them to use the phrase “wallhanging,” they left with a shared desire to express their appreciation for “low craft,” the domestic skills of knitting and needlework which had become disregarded and unfashionable. “You get fed up with knitting being a big joke!” declared Rachel, flashing her eyes and crossing her arms in mock outrage.

After college, Louise designed knitwear at a fashion house while Rachel worked as a community artist spearheading the KIP movement – Knitting In Public – which has been key in the resurgence of popular needlecraft. Then the duo opened Prick Your Finger, with a playful approach to the subject yet respecting the subtle emotional meanings and deep personal investment which knitters bring to their creations.

“When customers come in they tell us why they want to knit something, and it’s usually a rite of passage, having a baby, falling in love or children leaving home,” revealed Rachel, obviously savouring all these confidences exchanged over needles. “We welcome UFOs too,” added Louise helpfully, slipping it into the conversation in a way that left me speechless,“People can bring their UnFinished Objects to us for administration and then we pass them onto to someone else to complete before returning them to the owner. There is usually a story that reveals why they are not finished, and sometimes it might involve heartbreak or death.”

“When we started we had only twenty balls of wool,” recalled Louise, rolling her eyes to take in the walls of their shop, now lined with hanks, skeins and balls of fibre in an infinite variety of colours and textures, “We found there was nowhere in London you could buy British yarn, so we decided to become haberdashers and open our own place. Now we have over one hundred suppliers, all from this country.”

In the East End, Prick Your Finger is a place of which it may truly be said that you can always be guaranteed to find a good yarn.

Louise Harvey at her knitting machine.

Rachel Matthews & Louise Harvey

Rachel Matthews with the quilt her mother made.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink*
    October 29, 2011

    the plaid cobweb. umbra sumus indeed.

    the best of the new knitters is kate davies, who has a phd. in — english? material culture? — i call her the intelligent craftafarian, and she has turned me on to more interesting books about ditto, including such heavenly visions as damask darning and the quaker school at ackworth which taught girls how to do same at the turn of the 19th century.
    kate’s blog, needled, is a must-read, like you.

    there’s also felicity ford, who has a phd. in — sound? — and is a great customer of prick your finger.

    as i’m sure you know, knitting has been taken up by the punk/off the grid/alexander mcqueen generation. this girl won a contest on etsy by “upcycling” dumpster-dived yarn into her…wiener bench. they made her an executive at etsy, which is, as you know, the venue for all these people to sell their goods.

    oh! and don’t forget all those wild and crazy oztrailians:

    …who, god knows, having sheep to the eyeballs, have become among the most avant-garde knitters.

    jenny dowde’s native blossoms hat is enough to make you oz 4eva:

  2. Pat permalink*
    October 29, 2011

    I really enjoyed reading rhis. I was born in Bethnal Green but now live out in Norfolk otherwise I would love to visit Prick your Finger.

  3. Gill permalink
    October 29, 2011

    Great article as always. “Prick your finger” … what a great name.

    re: “Knitters of all ages and backgrounds are coming together to share their skill…”

    It’s true. Knitting has come back into vogue in a big way. For those of us who don’t have a “Prick your finger” close by to inspire and help us along, there’s the amazing Ravelry website which has a knitting/crocheting membership (free) of 1.6 million registered users.


  4. October 31, 2011

    I don´t knit, and reading this, I feel it would be more appropriate to write ´sadly, I don´t knit´.

  5. John-Paul permalink
    November 1, 2011

    Rachael and Louise are brilliant and I owe them a great deal. They gave me the confidence to knit and crochet and I’ve since been able to pass that on to others – hurrah for Prick Your Finger!

  6. jeannette permalink
    November 15, 2011

    i’m baaaaaaack.
    here is a gentleman knitter who is connected with PYF.

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