The shawls of Tess

I haven’t been watching the BBC’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – mainly because I never watch the TV at all but also because, even had I known it was on I would have chosen not to because of the less-than-gleeful subject matter. But F has, and she’s much enamoured of Tess’s shawls.

I have had to watch an entire episode on the iPlayer to get these screenshots but did so with the sound down to protect my delicate depressive sensibilities. I mean, really. It’s just too corrosively gruesomely capriciously unremittingly tragic for the likes of me. And it was one of my A-level O-level set texts. I had more than enough of it then.

Anyhow. The point is not the programme but the shawls. F has some wool which would be ideal for the purpose and wanted to reproduce the garment which, for the knitlit among you, is garter stitch, but not a simple top-down (or bottom up) triangle, rather garter stitch constructed in such a way that the ridges run aslant. And there’s a “spine” of “holes” running up the centre from tip to top.


How, we wondered, is this achieved, since neither of us is a shawl-head. Was it short rows? something like entrelac picking up stiches on a bias whilst also making holes? We just didn’t know. Luckily such is the geeky joy quota of ravelry that an answer can easily be found. Search the hugely sophisticated pattern database for knitted shawls tagged with “garter stitch” and the perfect, and free, pattern is soon revealed. Turns out it’s hugely simple – yarn-over increases on either side of the centre resulting in both the holes, the triangular shape and the angled ridges.

Tess has two – a brown one as well as the black one. Rustic, definitely – thick, plain and unadorned. Homespun, probably. Hand knitted – certainly. But above all versatile.

Here we have the brown one worn over the shoulders, crossed at the front and tied behind. Practical warmth for physical labour.

brown shawl

And here the black version (appropriately enough for this moment in the narrative which involves the death of an infant) over the head with the “wings” wrapped scarf-like around the neck and tied at the nape.

black over head and neck

And, for those frequent bouts of particularly hard manual labour in freezing conditions – both at once:

black and brown

And here we have a brief, lighter, spring-like moment (existing of course only and entirely to make the stygian gloom even blacker) with the brown shawl draped loosely over the shoulders. It’s huge, incidentally, the “wings” come down almost to her knees and the central point behind reaches below the small of her back.

brown loose

The black one is smaller with the ends of the “wings” not even reaching her wrists, as can be seen here:

black shawl loose

Clothes appear to be loaded very heavily with symbolism in the production, from my random sound-down viewings, and I love the whole late Victorian vibe. There’s a particularly delicious red, scooped neck, button-fronted garment which flares over the hips as well as some exciting peplum action. Apparently most of the costumes were destroyed in an arson attack and had to be remade at great speed.

There are many different shawls on display in the programme:

many shawls

enough perhaps to fill a book, but pride of place would have to go to the baby’s:

baby shawl

His name? Sorrow. You don’t need me to tell you it all goes horribly wrong.

7 Replies to “The shawls of Tess”

  1. And the reason they ALL had lice? because Tess never ever ties her hair up. Not even when she’s milking cows or topping turnips. And she’s the only person in the entire film who doesn’t. Therefore she must be the source of infestation.

  2. And therein lies the real reason she had to die!
    So, it wasn’t really a sad ending, after all; but rather a tale of ridding a community of head lice!

    One must read literature through the lens of insect infestation to divine its true meaning…

  3. That is the best laugh I’ve ever had from Hardy. It’s also, of course, the *only* laugh I’ve ever had from Hardy, but let us not allow that to detract from its quality.

    I shall, henceforth, never read literature other than through the lens of infestation. I’m ordering a set from the online lens-grinder right now made up as lorgnette. I shall also always henceforth wear black opera gloves and a spaghetti-strap dress to read in too.

  4. Really, she looks like she ought to be in ‘Hollyoaks’, or something, and Angel looks about 16…

    Actually I got a laugh out of a Thos Hardy poem when I was about 17, about his memories of his career playing the violin at country dances etc, on account of its first line which is ‘I lay in my bed and fiddled…’

    Well, as I say I was very young, and I didn’t laugh as much as I just have at you and Fresca about the lice.

    (We didn’t do it for O level, must have been A…)

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