Richard Rutt (1925-2011)

Richard Rutt’s contribution to knitting history
An abbreviated version of Kirstie Buckland’s paper from the Knitting History Forum Conference, 5 November 2011.

The Reverend Monsignor Richard Rutt, CBE, who died last July, was widely known as ‘The Knitting Bishop’, a regrettable nickname as he was so much more in a long, outstanding life – code breaker, linguist, missionary, Anglican Bishop, Bard of the Gorsedd, pelargonium specialist, and Catholic priest appointed Prelate of Honour by the Pope. However, to English speaking knitters he is author of the definitive book The History of Handknitting, a work of deep research which treats the subject seriously at an international level. Published in 1987 it covers all knitting and knitters in enviable detail chronologically, geographically, analytically; his research collection is now in Southampton University. His book is illustrated with pictures, charts and sometimes patterns, he dismisses some cons and myths as, at best ‘conjectural but reasonable’. Inevitably some is now outdated but it is treasured, quoted and referenced by innumerable lesser brains.

Cecil Richard Rutt was born in Langford, Bedfordshire, educated at Cambridge, became a Royal Navy codebreaker at Bletchley Park and spent 20 years as a missionary and bishop in Korea. He spoke at least eight languages and wrote widely on Korean culture and literature. He had learned to knit aged seven and on returning to Britain knitted some of his regalia notably his golden mitre when he became Bishop first of St.Germans in Cornwall, then Leicester, a historical centre of knitting. On retirement in 1990 he returned to Cornwall and with his wife Joan, an Early English authority, converted to Catholicism. He embraced the Catholic community, sharing his talents with many and was rewarded by the Pope with the title ‘Monsignor.’

When we formed the Early Knitting History Group in 1993 Richard said he “was thrilled” by “the fascination of knitting history”. He influenced and inspired all our meetings with his lectures – a tough journey from Cornwall for someone in poor health. As a “quondam bather” with back trouble he took up swimming, and an article promptly appeared in ‘Costume 24’ on The Englishman’s Swimwear. It is a serious 16 page article on a very small subject, men’s swimming trunks (from nudity to aquadynamics); three whole pages are references and one is introduction – he was always extremely thorough! He sometimes gets entangled in his own terminology and his style makes him sound pedantic, which personally he was not.

Richard wrote nice letters, replaced by nice emails when he said “his study was confined to books” as he could not ‘get around to look for things any more’ and he was pleased when the EKHG reformed as The Knitting History Forum – we kept in touch until quite recently. He wrote profusely, his knitting book covering “a people’s craft” was the result of ten years research and practical work, competing with his 70 publications on other subjects in three or four languages. So aren’t we lucky that he bothered to write it and that we still have it?

Kirstie Buckland