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Beeton Shawl – a chilling tale (part 2)

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(The story begins in Part 1)

They had pancakes for breakfast, and were soon out of the house to fulfil the day’s itinerary. She would rather have rested at home, and she thought the feeling was probably mutual, but she knew that her friend was trying to be a good host, and take her to see all the sights, so she pretended to be excited. She was quite interested in the sights, too, but circling in the back of her mind was the strange incident of the missing pattern, the appearance of the antimacassar, and the trail of wool, which had vanished so quickly and silently.
Over lunch, she decided to give vent to her curiosity.
“Who was Elsie Witherell?” she asked offhandedly.
“Oh, just my grandma,” replied her friend, and added warily, “why do you ask?”
“Her name was in a book in my room.”
“Oh… right.”
She couldn’t think what else to ask, and then it began to rain, and they had to grab their pasties and run indoors, so the subject was forgotten.

That night was the last of her stay in the country, so she wanted to make an effort not to retire to bed early, even though all the unaccustomed outdoor activity had made her very tired. When they returned to the house she went up to her bedroom to change. The weather had been so foul that she’d had to borrow a jacket – her own wasn’t really fit for tramping across windswept fields. Nevertheless, all her clothes were soggy, especially her trousers. She left everything in a heap on the floor, towelled her drooping hair, and dressed in the only dry, unmuddy piece of clothing she had left: a floral dress she had brought in case she needed something a little less casual. Unfortunately, she hadn’t counted on the house being so cold. She was used to blazing central heating in her little city flat, and this house was distinctly draughty. Standing by the armchair, she could feel a chilling current entering the room through the gaps around the sash window. The cardigan she had worn in the morning was clammy with damp and cold, but she considered wearing it anyway, since the dress was too thin. Then, just as the night before, she suddenly became aware of what was draped across the back of the armchair. She gasped. It was the shawl she had seen on Ravelry the night before! A hundred ridiculous thoughts materialised in her mind: she was being watched, she had a stalker on Ravelry, her friend had secretly knit her a shawl or had someone knit a shawl for her, or, most ridiculous of all, she had knit a shawl in her sleep. True, she had been a somnambulist, but since she quit her old job she hadn’t been so stressed, and she was sure she hadn’t sleepwalked in years.

Dispelling these unwelcome thoughts, she pulled the shawl tightly around her, lifting her shoulders and snuggling. It was soft and thick, like a blanket, and it went beautifully with her dress. Animated by the thought of feeling warm for the first time since she’d arrived, she stepped downstairs to help her friend prepare tea.


They had a beautiful evening, one she wouldn’t soon forget. Midway through their meal the electricity went out, and her friend had to search the house in darkness for a candle. They amused themselves by making up endings to the film they’d been watching. She’d been trying to act brave, but she was hopeless with horror films, and had silently thanked providence when it flicked off. Her friend had been quite put out, but it had worked out alright in the end.

Back in her room, she sat for a while, idly twirling the fringe of the mystery shawl around her fingers. Her friend had made no remark, or shown any sign of recognition on seeing the shawl, even when she’d prompted.
“The house is quite chilly, isn’t it? I suppose you’re used to it, but I’m glad I found this shawl in my bedroom,”
“Yes, it isn’t very well insulated. Here, come and warm your hands,” he said, flipping open a hot plate on top of the aga.


She smiled, thinking about the evening. She longed to check Ravelry for the shawl pattern once again, to see if by some strange chance someone had added her shawl as a project, but without electricity the wi-fi was down. Reluctantly she got up, picked up her washbag and went out into the hall. She flicked the light switch, once again forgetting that the power was still out. Then the strangest thing happened. The wallpaper wavered in the warm orange glow of a candle. She looked down the hall and saw a slight figure, dressed in white robes, holding an old-fashioned candlestick. She couldn’t see the figure’s face behind the brightness of the flame, but it lifted one finger to where its lips must be and in the softest tones breathed, “shh, you haven’t seen me.” Then the figure and the light vanished in the stairwell. She let out a strangled cry, for which she was later quite embarrassed, and rushed into her friend’s room without even knocking. He was standing in the middle of the bedroom with only his boxers on, a toothbrush in one hand and a paperback novel in the other.

“Hullo,” he said, a frothy grin spreading across his face when he saw her.
“I… I just…” she stammered, flushing and gesturing incoherently.
“Something the matter?”
“I just… I… I thought I saw someone.”
The grin disappeared, and a look of worry replaced it. He strode to the sink and spat, “oh you did, did you?”
“Yes. And yesterday there was this trail of yarn in my room, and then I found this shawl,” She was still wearing the shawl wrapped around her neck.
He sighed, “I’m sorry, I probably should have told you. I just thought it might be… awkward. It was my grandmother you saw, up to her midnight tricks again.”
Her eyes widened.
“Come on, you’d better meet her.”
He took her by the hand and led her upstairs to the attic. “Grandma,” he called at the door.
“Come in,” whispered a little voice.
They walked inside. The attic, which was directly above her own room, was the cosiest nook that she had ever seen in her life. It was far warmer than the rest of the house – probably because the ceiling was so low – and every inch was covered in soft draperies. A thick pile carpet lined the floor, two armchairs piled with cushions and throws were arranged either side of a little woodburner on which a hot water bottle lay warming in its knitted cover. And the bed was decked in an amazing quilt – made up of innumerable tiny puffy hexagons.
Her friend’s Grandmother was dressed in a white dressing gown, and was chewing on something crunchy.
“Oh, hello dear,” she said when she saw her, then turning to her Grandson, “I am sorry. I’m such a goose. I thought everyone was in bed and I could just sneak down for a few hobnobs. I gave the game away, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did rather, Grandma,”
She looked guilty. “Care for a hobnob?”


“Really, don’t worry about it,” she assured him for the hundredth time, “I loved her, she was the sweetest Grandmother ever. And I can’t tell you how much I adore this shawl.” she stroked the shawl around her neck. They were standing in the small railway station, huddled close to keep warm. Elsie had confessed to having knit the shawl for her, and when she asked why she had chosen this pattern, she explained: “Well, first I saw the pages of the needlework book on the bed and I really fancied trying that counterpane pattern. I’m sure I once made a blanket like that, but goodness knows where it went. Anyway, I knit the square and put it on the armchair, but I really wasn’t sure it looked right. And then I saw the sketch of that shawl you’d made on the pad on the bedside table, you know, with the square in the middle and the three triangles around it. I’m sorry, you must think me awful for popping in and out of your room all the time, but you see while it was empty I was using that room as a sewing and knitting room, and I didn’t have space up here for all my bits and bobs, so I put them all in the wardrobe – you’re welcome to anything in there, by the way -”
“Ah, so that’s how that trail of yarn came to be there!”
“Oh dear, did you see that too. You must have thought this a very strange house,” Elsie had chuckled. “The end of a ball must have got snagged on something and I walked all the way up before I noticed I was trailing yarn all over the house. Luckily it came loose when I gave it a good tug, but I was winding it up for quite a while! Well, anyway, when I saw your sketch I saw what a nice idea it would be to turn that antimacassar into a shawl, so I did a quick search on Ravelry -”
“You’re on Ravelry!” she interrupted.
“Well yes, of course, my dear. Everyone’s on Ravelry now,” replied Elsie matter-of-factly, “anyway, I did a search on Ravelry and up popped the pattern! It was so quick to knit, I thought I’d finish it off so you could wear it – I know that room gets so draughty, that’s why I moved up here – and you wouldn’t need to know how it had got there and my dear Grandson wouldn’t have to confess to living with his old, silly, knitting Grandmother.”
So there was the mystery, all unravelled.
“You know, I think he rather fancies you,” she added with a cheeky wink, and nibbled at a hobnob.


He did rather fancy her. “Promise me you’ll come back again. Soon,” he begged.
“Of course,” she assured him, and they rubbed their cold noses together in an Eskimo kiss.
On the train journey home, she thought pleasantly of him, and his Grandmother, and as the beautiful countryside flew by, she cast on 8 stitches and began knitting around.


Thank you for reading this unexpectedly long tale. I hope it did a little more than amuse. You may blame NaNoWriMo for filling my head with stories. If only I could count this towards my 50,000! The sullen, ghostly photos are not my usual style, I know, but the weather demanded them. Enjoy knitting the shawl and feel free to critique my writing in the comments below. ;)


Small & Large

‣ Approx. 600m / 656yds [800m / 875yds] of aran- weight (worsted) yarn held double (including yarn needed for fringe).
‣ or approx. 350m / 383yds [465m / 509yds] of super bulky yarn. (Remember that if you use super bulky yarn, your fringe will also be chunkier).

‣ 12mm (US 17) 80cm / 32in long circular needles.

‣ 6 sts / 7 rows over lace stitch (used in wings).
‣ Gauge isn’t critical, but it will affect the final size and yardage of the shawl.
‣ Make sure the lace looks open and clear.

‣ Central square will be approx. 44 [58]cm / 17 [23] in wide.
‣ Finished wingspan (discluding fringe) will be approx. 170 [220]cm / 67 [87]in, and height, 66 [85] cm / 26 [33]in.

‣ Stitch marker,
‣ Crochet hook,
‣ Tapestry needle for weaving in ends.

Thank you (once again) to my marvelous test-knitters: Abby, Anni, Chooi Wah, Heather, Julianne, and Mary. And of course my lovely eagle-eyed tech editor Akshata Dhareshwar!

Suggested accompaniment to your knitting

The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton is a period film about the life of Isabella Beeton, starring Anna Madeley and J.J. Feild. If you know as little about her life as I did, I think you’ll enjoy this film, although it doesn’t make the most cheerful viewing.
Also, this Guardian Books podcast briefly discusses Mrs. Beeton – I hardly ever cook or bake these days, but it might interest any foodie knitters out there.

9th November, 2011  // Layers, Writing // tags: , , , , , .

Beeton Shawl – a chilling tale (part 1)

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Here at last is the haunting tale of a counterpane square from the 19th century that transmuted into a chunky 21st century shawl.

It began on a cold autumn night when the wind made the trees creak like the joins of an old rocking chair. A young lady had gone down to visit an old friend, who lived in a small house in the country. She had arrived too late to do much on the first evening, and after a short while trying to make small talk over a cup of tea, she had retired to her room and sat working for a while by the window, her face alight in the glow of the laptop. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been typing when a branch thwacked loudly into the window and startled her. She woke as if from a trance and lowered the lid of the laptop. Only now did she realise how cold she was; her neck stiff and her fingers almost blue. She blew into her hands to warm them, and stood up, hoping that moving around would help her poor circulation. She had always been a touch anaemic.

Putting the laptop aside, she paced to the bookshelf on the other side of the room to see if she could find a good book to read. She ran a finger along the dusty spines – there was Austen, the Brontës, a dog-eared copy of M.R. James stories – she’d read them all. Then she came upon a volume that was so worn that all the letters of the title had been rubbed off, and the spine was broken and threadbare. She picked it up gingerly, and found that it was a book of needlework. She paged through, wary of the loose pages – tatting, crochet, embroidery, ah, knitting! Most of the pages were loose. Sitting on the bed, she turned on the lamp and began studying the patterns. A black-and-white drawing for a knitted square caught her eye.

313.–Knitted Pattern for Counterpanes, Berceaunette Covers, Couvrettes, Antimacassars, &c.
Materials: Messrs. Walter Evans and Co.’s knitting cotton; 5 steel knitting-needles of a corresponding size.
According to the size of the cotton employed, this beautiful square makes different articles, such as counterpanes, couvrettes, &c. &c. If worked with Evans’s cotton No. 10, it will be suitable for the first-mentioned purpose.

It looked like four leaves held in a lattice. How pretty! She read the first line of the pattern aloud: “Begin the square in the centre, cast on 8 stitches, 2 on each needle; join them into a circle, and knit plain the 1st round.” Well that seemed easy enough, she thought. If only she had some yarn and needles, and she could begin knitting. She felt so chilly, and the sound of the wind made her rather uneasy. She continued to read the pattern, pretending she was knitting by holding imaginary needles and yarn. Even the sound of the instructions was soothing, and so was the gentle clicking. Soon, she was fast asleep.

In the morning she woke late. The light though the window was a dull heavy grey, and her eyes were bleary from sleep. Her shoulder ached from having slept so awkwardly. To her dismay, the book of needlework was on the bed, with several of its pages scattered about. She didn’t have time to gather them. Her friend had arranged a hike through an old abandoned estate, and they were leaving right after breakfast. She hurried to get dressed, and snapped her hair into a loose bun before rushing downstairs where she could already hear the clink of crockery.


In the evening, returning to her room, she was exhausted. They had rambled all morning, only stopping for an hour to have lunch at a pub, then in the afternoon they had visited no less than three museums. It was a little at odds with her idea of a relaxing country visit, she thought, as she gladly peeled off her muddy, soggy clothes and ran a hot bath. Once again she had an urge to read something, and she remembered the book lying scattered on the bed. She shuffled the pages into order impatiently. Perhaps this wasn’t the best book for the bath – she’d be sure to drop pages into the bath water. She put the book back on the shelf and since she had recently seen a new film adaptation which made her realise she didn’t remember the book very well, she picked up Jane Eyre instead. She had a long, leisurely soak, and emerged much refreshed, with feeling in her toes and fingers. She went to sit by the window, as she had done the night before. As she picked up the laptop from the dresser, she suddenly noticed the antimacassar on the back of the armchair. It was the exact pattern she’d been looking at the night before! That must have been why it had attracted her attention in the first place. How funny.

She sat down with her legs tucked under her, and studied the antimacassar. She still wanted to knit the pattern herself – it was very simple, really, almost the simplest form a leaf lace could take, and she thought it would be very pleasant to knit, and perhaps to sew the squares together into a blanket (if she ever had the patience). Her friend, who was a graphic designer, might have said it made effective use of “white space”, or something like that. She wondered whether anyone on Ravelry had made it, and what yarn they’d used. What was the pattern called again? She went to the bookshelf and picked up the book. Returning to her seat she carefully turned the pages to find the counterpane pattern. It wasn’t there. She went through every page of the knitting sections, but to no avail. Then she realised the problem. There was a page missing. Swearing, she got up once more and began searching for the missing page: on the floor, under the bed, in the bed, on the nightstand, on the bookshelf. Nowhere.

Annoyed, and a little worried that she had ruined her friend’s book, she flipped to the front page.




















Every Pattern and Stitch Described and Engraved with the utmost
Accuracy and the Exact Quantity of Material requisite for
each Pattern stated.

At the top corner was a note in elegant handwriting: “Elsie Witherell, 1942

She typed “beeton” into Ravelry. It seemed no one had knit the counterpane square, but there was a shawl at the centre of which was the same motif. She added it to her knitting queue. Then she went to bed.


Her Mother rang her at 7am. It was still pitch dark, and her legs felt sore after yesterday’s long walk. She turned on the bedside lamp and listened to her Mother. Her Mother didn’t have anything to say, so she only talked for half an hour. She was worried about her as usual, wanted to know was she having a good time, why hadn’t she called yesterday, what was the weather like, was the food edible, was her friend as nice as she remembered? She answered the questions monosyllabically when she could, and doodled on a pad on the nightstand to keep awake. But when her Mother finally rang off, she couldn’t get back to sleep.

She lay in bed, waiting for it to be late enough for her to go downstairs. She wished she could go down and make herself a cup of tea, at least, but she didn’t know where anything was, and besides, she might wake her friend up, and she hated waking people up, especially when she was a guest in their house. So she lay quietly, listening to several clocks ticking, and the wind hissing in the trees, gentler today. She may very nearly have drifted asleep when she heard a faint thud, as of a hinge settling. Even though it was a strange house and a strange room, she was instantly awake, and certain that someone had opened the door to her room. The door wasn’t visible from the bed; it was around the corner and at the end of a short entryway, on one side of which stood a large mahogany wardrobe. She hadn’t bothered to unpack, since she was only staying for a few days, and had never thought to look inside the wardrobe. Now she was sure whoever was in her room was searching for something in that wardrobe. Before she could issue a tentative, “hello,” she heard the hinge thud again, and the intruder had left.


All hope of sleep now extinguished, she got out of bed, flung on a cardigan and peeked out of her door, hoping to see whoever it had been, but the hallway was deserted. She padded barefoot to the master bedroom. The door was ajar and her friend was snoring loudly. Not wishing to disturb, she turned back towards her own room and started in fright when she saw a trail of yarn – the same yarn that had been used to knit the antimacassar – winding its way out of her door and towards the staircase. It traced a path up the small bumpy stairs that her friend had said led up to the attic.
“Oh, nothing up there, just old boxes and stuff.”
A little ashamed at the absurdity of her reaction, but at the same time intensely desiring a reassuring presence, she hesitated in front of the bedroom door. Should she knock? She sighed. No, she couldn’t think of any sensible reason to knock, and when she turned back towards her bedroom, the trail of yarn had vanished.

Find out what happens in Part 2 tomorrow!




Small & Large

‣ Approx. 600m / 656yds [800m / 875yds] of aran- weight (worsted) yarn held double (including yarn needed for fringe).
‣ or approx. 350m / 383yds [465m / 509yds] of super bulky yarn. (Remember that if you use super bulky yarn, your fringe will also be chunkier).

‣ 12mm (US 17) 80cm / 32in long circular needles.

‣ 6 sts / 7 rows over lace stitch (used in wings).
‣ Gauge isn’t critical, but it will affect the final size and yardage of the shawl.
‣ Make sure the lace looks open and clear.

‣ Central square will be approx. 44 [58]cm / 17 [23] in wide.
‣ Finished wingspan (discluding fringe) will be approx. 170 [220]cm / 67 [87]in, and height, 66 [85] cm / 26 [33]in.

‣ Stitch marker,
‣ Crochet hook,
‣ Tapestry needle for weaving in ends.

Thank you to my marvelous test-knitters: Abby, Anni, Chooi Wah, Heather, Julianne, and Mary. And of course my lovely eagle-eyed tech editor Akshata Dhareshwar!

8th November, 2011  // Layers, Neckwear, Writing // tags: , , , , , .

Beeton Counterpane Shawl

beeton counterpane shawl

UPDATE: The Beeton Shawl has now been published! Click here to download the pattern.

Perhaps I should love all my creations equally, but I can’t help it. This shawl is definitely my most favourite design to date. I loved knitting it (so quick & easy) and I love wearing it (so big & bold & warm). Can you see how it’s constructed? First of all you knit a central square, in this case I used a counterpane design from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Needlework. Then you bind off the top of the square, and knit 3 triangles onto the other sides. That’s it! As well as this pattern, I’m also working on a short guide to knitting these “counterpane shawls” as I call them. In the meantime though, I’m looking for a few test knitters for this one – 2 for the large size, and 2 for the small size (shown). Thanks, everyone! I’ve now emailed my lovely test knitters. Here are the details:

YARN: I used an aran-weight yarn doubled up, but you can use a bulky/super bulky yarn like Rowan Big Wool or Blue Sky Alpacas Bulky. Approx. 600m / 656yds [800m / 875yds] of aran-weight yarn held double (including yarn needed for fringe). or approx. 350m / 383yds [465m / 509yds] of super bulky yarn. (Remember that if you use super bulky yarn, your fringe will also be chunkier).

NEEDLES: 12mm (US 17) 80cm / 32in long circular needles.

GAUGE: Isn’t too important, as long as the lace looks open & clear. The central square will be about 44 [58]cm wide, and the total wingspan around 170 [220]cm.

DEADLINE: 17 Oct. Should be pleeenty of time as these knit up really quick.

If you’re interested, leave a comment below & I’ll get in touch. :)

beeton counterpane shawl - wing

beeton counterpane shawl - fringe

3rd October, 2011  // Layers // tags: , , .

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