That is a very distinctive title! It isn’t something likely to have been made up. There is a book called The Hymn of the Robe of Glory, a highly mystical and allegorical story from ancient Gnostic writings. But the one I am referring to concerns knitting in the Northern Isles!
There are, however, connections. There is the same mystery, and some of the same symbolism.
But what is the knitted Robe of Glory? Now it is a pram blanket given to the firstborn in some Orkney families. In the 1980s a pattern for a Robe of Glory was published in one of the UK women’s magazines. The blurb said that it was from the Shetland Isles, but Shetlanders hadn’t come across it. My friend Karen Wood, whose family are from Stronsay, was given a Robe of exactly the same pattern – but years before the article came out.
The mystery deepened when I came across a reference to a Robe of Glory in a booklet – Shire Album 31 – Fisherman Knitting by Michael Harvey and Rae Compton. published in 1978. This contains the following paragraph in a section on Fishermen’s coloured garments:
‘It was common practice in Fair Isle for a grandmother to knit her grandson his first Fair Isle sweater to be worn when he reached adolescence. This was referred to as a Robe of Glory.’
Now, no one on the Fair Isle has heard of this! Rae Compton was an excellent historian, and would not have made this up! She goes on to describe the pattern segments, and they are the exactly the same as those used in the Orkney blanket.
I have been asking Orcadians and Shetlanders whether they have come across the Robe of Glory, either as a sweater or a blanket, for the past 15 years. No Shetlander has heard of it. (Well, a few remembered the pattern in the magazine but said that was the first they had heard of it!) However, in Orkney it often rings bells. There is definitely a Stronsay connection, and probably a Westray connection, but this leaves as many questions as it answers. Unfortunately Rae Compton died a few years ago, so finding out from her is not a possibility.
I continue to ask every knitter or old Orcadian I meet about the Robe! All I get is that infuriating phrase ‘It rings a bell!!’ One day something definite will come up. I hope…!!
Meanwhile I have made Robe of Glory blankets for each of Karen’s grandchildren. I have used the same patterns as her original Robe, but in colours to match the prams. I have also put the baby’s initials and date of birth on the back:
The latest for Quin, who was born premature and who had a shaky start to life. But he is now out of hospital and doing well. His blanket will be going out to Canada with Karen and Marcus when they go to visit next month.