My husband has a proper Guernsey sweater, given to him years ago by his stepmother, a proud native of the island. You would hardly know he’d worn it, but it’s his go-to garment whenever he has to be out in the cold.
Like most islands, Guernsey has a strong fishing and seafaring tradition and this traditional style of sweater developed out of local sailors’ need for a garment that would resist fierce winds and freezing temperatures. It works because of the tight knit of the fabric, which traps warmth against the body even in the most ferocious weather.
During our Christmas shopping experiment, when we tried to use more local shops and avoid the retail giants that usually dominate our spending, I was reminded that we often draw on textile-related language to describe social interaction. We talk about ‘the fabric of society’ and about a ‘close knit community’. We might speak of a relationship ‘unravelling’, and of our hope that it can be ‘patched up’. Or we might say sadly that a group is ‘coming apart at the seams’.
The start of the experiment was quite hard. I hadn’t realised how much longer it would take to visit local shops than to click through a list on the Internet. I’d forgotten how much I hate struggling for a parking space, and how much worse shopping is when it’s bitterly cold and raining and your hands are so full of bags that you can’t carry your umbrella.
But as time went on, it was thoughts about social fabric that dominated. One story will serve as an example.
Late in 2011 I gathered sloes to turn into sloe gin and when December 2012 came around I realised I could decant the gin to use for gifts.
The crimson of sloe gin is glorious and I had a wonderful time pouring it into bottles and inhaling the astringent aroma of juniper (and yes, OK, having the odd sip to make sure it was fit for use).
Finding I could not bear to chuck away the gin-soaked berries, I did a quick internet search and uncovered a recipe for sloe gin chocolates.
We are blessed with a fabulous chocolate shop just two minutes from our house so I nipped along and asked the lovely owner for a packet of Montezuma’s giant chocolate buttons. Montezuma is a brilliant company, a shining example in an area of trade that tends to be even more exploitative than most, and the chocolate tastes just amazing. I mentioned to the owner that I was planning to melt them to mix with my left over sloes and she asked if she could try one when I had finished.
Making the chocolates was as easy as could be and the result quite delicious, although if I did the recipe again, I’d probably omit the orange zest as it was a little overpowering. They were also a great accompaniment to the sloe gin gifts.
It was lovely to take a couple of chocolates round to the shop for the owner to try and I was rather proud that she liked them. Most of all, though, I enjoyed the strengthening of the connection between us (she recently introduced me to a colleague as ‘the sloe gin chocolate lady’).
How strange that we can be geographically close to people and yet not connect with them. What is a neighbourhood, really, if the people in it do not make links with each other?
In the book I’m reading, Norman Wirzba’s Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, Wirzba talks about the deadening effect of ‘impersonal shopping’, a perfect description of shopping at an out of town store or a large internet retailer. ‘Our affections wither in the face of so much anonymity,’ he writes. ‘We slowly lose the ability to be alive and responsive to the world.
‘Rather than interacting with a place and making deep, abiding connections, we become more and more passengers, always going through, but hardly into, a place.’
My interaction at the chocolate shop might seem like a small thing but I believe it is bit by bit, through connections like these, that our communities can be strengthened – just as the resilient fabric of the Guernsey sweater consists of tiny stitches, constantly repeated.
The occasional inconvenience of using local, independent shops seems a small thing in comparison with the benefits, especially at a time of global economic uncertainty.
After all, when the weather looks threatening, a tight-knit Guernsey sweater is a much better thing to have in your wardrobe than something loosely woven and mass produced.