Portuguese Knitting

Newfoundland and Portugal have a long, connected history. Portuguese fishermen came to Newfoundland for centuries to fish for cod – or as they call it – bacalhau – and here in Newfoundland, we have long enjoyed port wine from Porto in the form of Newman’s Port.

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In modern urban Portuguese supermarkets, you can still buy an old-school salt cod. You can’t find this at my local Sobeys.

I was also delighted to find out that we share another thing in common: knitting.

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I saw this bin of familiar looking wool socks at a souvenir shop in Aveiro, Portugal. (Which happens to be the place that, historically, made the salt that dried the cod from Newfoundland.)

Portugal has a long tradition of knitting. It was especially important in rural areas of northern Portugal, where women used wool taken from local sheep to knit socks and sweaters. Usually, the yarn was not dyed and of a natural beige/grey colour.

My father backs this up, citing the Portuguese fishermen he used to watch playing football (soccer) on the harbour apron in St. John’s several decades ago. He remembers them wearing “greyish” knit sweaters.

There’s also a style of knitting, called Portuguese knitting, which apparently did not originate in Portugal, but passed through there somewhere on its way from the Middle East to South America.

There were small fabric shops all over downtown Porto, which often had a small selection of yarn for sale.

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Aveiro had this yarn shop, which, alas, was closed at the time we were there.

However, I didn’t see many locals wearing hand knit sweaters or socks. It wasn’t really sweater weather during our visit. I suppose most people doing outdoor work in Portugal probably wear modern technical fabrics, like outdoor workers do in Newfoundland.  

I’ve been doing a bit on online research on knitting in Portugal since I’ve been back. There’s a bit of information on the Wool Route of northern Portugal and northern Spain, and lots of information on the Portuguese knitting technique as used in South America, but surprisingly little to be found on the role of knitting in Portuguese life.  

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This is a good reason to make a return trip to Portugal – there is knitting research to  be done!

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Knitting trip

In my house, travel is our weakness. When faced with replacing a frayed couch or renovating a back deck, we’ll choose none of the above and buy a pair of seat sale airplane tickets.  

That’s how we wound up taking a trip to Portugal recently. Nine days we would be away. The burning question: how much knitting gear do I need to pack?

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First thing: what to knit? Chunky traditional socks tend to be always in demand, so this seemed like a good time to top up my pre-Christmas inventory. Also, I knit socks on circular needles, so I wouldn’t be sticking my elbows or long straight needles into other airplane passengers.  

Next thing: how much will I knit? Assuming I`ll knit a lot while in transit, and not so much when in full blown tourist mode, let’s assume three pairs of socks at most.

Our holiday started when I cast on my first sock in the airport lounge in St. John’s.

For the next nine days I knit on airplanes, trains, even during a brutal two-hour lineup at customs in Lisbon. I also knit at cafes, and on sunny roof terraces.

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When I look at the completed socks, I can remember where I was during the different stages of construction . I was just starting the second green sock when the stunning cast-iron bridges over the Duoro river came into view. I finished the red one at our rented flat in Porto. And I worked on the stripes of the grey pair on our sunny rooftop terrace in Lisbon.

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The knitting came in handy in staving off air rage when we were delayed on the tarmac in Lisbon and then took a longer route back to Canada. I knit most of a complete pair of socks in the 12 hours I was squished into an economy seat. It`s healthier than drinking those little bottles of Chateau Air Canada.

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Total projects completed: five and one-third socks. I ran out of green yarn on the Porto to Lisbon train.

Oh – and Portugal is beautiful. I managed to stop knitting long enough to notice.