Posted in Events, Personal life, Writing

The Story Behind the Dedication of “The Natter of Knitters”

In an occasional series on my blog I share the reasons behind the dedications in my stories. Today I’m describing how Chudleigh Women’s Institute and Westonbirt School inspired the first in my new Tales from Wendlebury Barrow series, The Natter of Knitters.

Every book I write has a dedication to the person or people who played a key part in its conception. My mini-mystery The Natter of Knitters, 20% the length of one of my novels, has a three-way dedication:

To Irene Smith, Joy Bell and the Chudleigh WI.

What’s a WI?

photo of vintage WI badge
My vintage WI badge dates back to the Second World War when the WI slogan was “for home and country”

First of all, I’d better explain what WI means, for the benefit of readers outside of the UK who aren’t familiar with this long-standing organisation. WI is short for Women’s Institute (motto: Inspiring Women). The Federation of Women’s Institutes coordinates the local groups that meet regularly all over the country. This is how they define themselves on their website:

Inspiring women – then and now

In 1915 we set out to give women a voice and to be a force for good in the community. Since then, our membership and our ambitions alike have grown tremendously. Today , we are the largest women’s organisation in the UK and we pride ourselves on being a trusted place for women of all generations to share experiences and learn from each other.

Why Chudleigh?

There is a thriving WI in my home village of Hawkesbury Upton in the Cotswolds, so why is my dedication to a group a hundred miles away in Chudleigh, Devon, a place I’ve visited only once?

A couple of years ago I was a guest speaker at Chudleigh Lit Fest, an ancient wool town in Devon. On my way to the festival marquee, passing by the local playpark, I noticed that its perimeter railings were festooned in colourful knitted scarves .

The WI had yarnbombed the playpark.

(If you’re not familiar with the concept of yarnbombing, there’s a helpful definition here. )

A sign on the railings explained the WI’s mission: to make scarves for the homeless while also raising awareness of their plight before visitors to the playpark and to the festival.

As a lifelong knitter, this arresting sight inspired me not only to pick up my needles and start a new knitting project, despite it being a hot summer’s day, but also to plot a story that centred around a village yarnbombing event.

The Westonbirt Connection

It took another knitting-related encounter two years later to germinate the seed of the story that was planted on my trip to Chudleigh. When I put a call out on social media seeking a charity that might welcome handknitted items, my former colleague Joy Bell, Head of Textiles Technology (amongst other things) at nearby Westonbirt School, drew my attention to her pupils’ project to knit blanket squares to be turned into blankets for an Indian orphanage they were sponsoring.

A few weeks later I called in to the school to drop off some squares I’d knitted for them. Manning reception was Irene Smith, who is also the school seamstress, running up impressive costumes for school plays. We started chatting about knitting, and her enthusiasm for real wool from Cotswold sheep, as well as from those of her native Scotland, added a further strand (ho ho) to my story. We were talking for so long that at the start of our conversation, girls in lacrosse kit passed by on their way to a PE lesson, and we were still going strong when they returned.

The Natter of Knitters

cover of The Natter of KnittersBy the time I got home, the plot of The Natter of Knitters, about a village yarnbombing event that goes wrong, had fallen into place. The story features lots of familiar characters from my Sophie Sayers Village Mystery series (Carol, the shopkeeper, teaches Sophie to knit, much to Hector’s annoyance), as well as introducing some memorable new ones.

It’s a quick read, at around 20% of the length of one of my novels, and it’s available either as an ebook or as a tiny postcard-sized paperback. If you’d like to read it, you’ll find the buying links at the end of this post.

Forever Knitting

In the meantime, my passion for knitting continues, and I’m currently alternating between tiny knitted flowers for fun and to use up lots of oddments:

photo of knitted flowers
Tiny flowers an inch or two across, including roses, dahlias, tuplips and pansies

and a “lockdown blanket” for function, made in colours to match my favourite Harris Tweed cushion. (There’s a nice piece about the concept of a lockdown blanket here.)

Knitting my lockdown blanket in stripes to echo the thread colours in my Harris Tweed cushion


How to Order

cover of The Natter of KnittersEbook To order the ebook online, click here.

Paperback To order the paperback online, click here.
To order the paperback from your local bookshop, ask for ISBN 9781911223511.



Posted in Personal life

WI Fidelity – Why I’ve Joined the Women’s Institute

A post about that force to be reckoned with, the Women’s Institute, which I’ve recently joined. This post was commissioned by the Tetbury Advertiser, for which I write a monthly column.

WI logo
WI, 21st century style

As we approach the middle of 2014, I’ve been taking stock of my New Year’s Resolutions, one of which was to join the WI (Women’s Institute). I’d been mulling it over for years. I knew a lot of ladies who belonged, but few were in my immediate social group.

Until this year, the closest I’d got to joining was to buy an old WI brooch. I collect vintage enamel badges, and this one was a beauty – green, red and gold, bearing the organisation’s original motto: “For Home and Country”. This motto dates back to the year in which the WI was founded, 1915. In wartime conditions, and before women gained the right to vote, any British woman would surely have worn this badge with pride.

Nearly 100 years on, the WI has switched focus. Its current motto “Inspiring Women” is a great line, implying that its membership includes inspiring women, as well as working to inspire women.

A Modern Organisation

Until I joined, I didn’t realise just how active and pro-active the WI has become. It’s too easy to dismiss its worth with the easy, jokey shorthand of “Jam and Jerusalem”, as my own experience demonstrates.

A few Christmases ago, I was all set to add “join WI” to my resolution list when through the letterbox came a neat little folded card, efficiently announcing the dates for the new year’s meetings. Neatly printed on the back were the words for the hymn Jerusalem. Much as I love the hymn, which we sung with gusto at every hymn practice in my primary school days, I allowed that resolution to fall off my list, unfulfilled.

Don’t Mention the Jam

Old fashioned WI badge
The original slogan, nearly 100 years ago

But this year, I set aside my prejudice and joined. I knew that my author friend Sandy Osborne was coming from her home city of Bath to talk to our local group about her Bath-based novel Girl Cop (enjoyable by both men and women, I hasten to add). While visitors are allowed to attend any WI meeting without being obliged to join, I welcomed this prompt to make me sign on the dotted line.

I’m so glad I did. Joining the WI has been an eye-opener. I encountered a feisty, intelligent crowd with wide-ranging interests, energies and passions, and a refreshing curiosity. Not only is there a new, interesting topic for discussion each meeting, often with an engaging speaker from beyond the community, but there are also heaps of other activities throughout the month, from book groups to film clubs to walking parties. If I belonged to no other social group, I could easily fill my diary with stimulating activities purely from the WI. What a great way to make like-minded friends in your neighbourhood.

There are also opportunities to join other WIs for activities and to contribute to national campaigns. Last meeting included a lively discussion about organ donor policy.

I’m proud to be a member of the modern WI, which is definitely a force to be reckoned with – and if you don’t believe me, just ask Tony Blair.

PS We’ve only sung Jerusalem once, and nobody’s yet mentioned jam.

Do you belong to a WI? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience of belonging.

Although I’d never belonged to the WI before, years ago I did spend some time singing with local WI choir – read more about that little escapade here, a post from a collection of memoirs of village life: