Three Ply Yarn Revives Lesser-Known Lesbian Histories

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Three Ply Yarn is an incredible book. Both as a story and a piece of social history, it shines a light on the lesser known elements of lesbian history in Britain. Caeia March‘s debut novel, it was first printed in 1986 – one of many lesbian titles published by the Women’s Press. This independent feminist press was responsible for lesbian books becoming more readily available than ever before during the 1980s.

Whereas much of the lesbian pulp fiction that was popularised during the 1950s was written by men, the Women’s Press was a fierce advocate of women telling our own stories – lesbians included. Three Ply Yarn was written by a lesbian author for a lesbian audience. Although Caeia March’s books were set and written long before campaigns like #OwnVoices called for better representation in literature, the value of having lesbian characters written by a lesbian author is evident in her work.

What makes Three Ply Yarn special is that it tells three interconnected lesbian stories. The metaphor of knitting – the threads that connect women’s lives, forming ties of love, family, and community – carries throughout the novel. Like many other handcrafts, knitting has traditionally been devalued as a form of feminized labor. Yet March writes about the act of knitting, and the space it opens up for women to connect with one another, with dignity and worth. Each character finds fulfillment in the places that society tells her offer nothing real.

Dee has loved Dora from the moment they first met, evacuated together as children during the Second World War. When Britain is rebuilding itself after the Blitz, Dee and Dora find work as maids at the fancy Bronnester Hotel. There, they make the most of all the ways young working class girls are made invisible and build a life together. For Dee, this is everything she wants. But Dora wants to try relationships with men.

These affairs – and Dora’s pregnancy – put a strain on her relationship with Dee. But when Dee is left to raise Dora’s daughter, Izzie, her life changes in ways she could never have predicted. Dee is white. Izzie is Black. And together they are a family.

Working class and privately educated, Esther has spent most of her adult life feeling like she doesn’t fit in. But Essie is passionately political, true to the trade union politics she was raised with. And so she finds her tribe during a campaign to have the local council fund a childcare program. Through grassroots organizing, Esther is drawn to Nell – and the two grow closer.

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Lotte is Esther’s younger sister. Although their lives have gone in different directions, Lotte too wants more from the world. Through marrying a posh young barrister, she enters a world of high culture and holidaying across Europe. But Lotte finds the confines of upper-class life outweigh the comforts. Her husband is controlling. And then he grows violent. While planning her escape during a holiday to the coast, Lotte finds more than her freedom – she falls in love with Dee.

Three Ply Yarn is all about how women’s lives are intertwined as lovers and friends, mothers and daughters, sisters and soulmates. It would make an excellent TV series, with stylish historical costumes and all the drama of a telenovela.

And yet – without the money and glamour of Anne Lister, or the lavish sensuality of a Sarah Waters novel – this story is unlikely to find the audience that it deserves. The most visible lesbian stories tend to be about women who are wealthy, white, and middle class. Three Ply Yarn is all the better for breaking with those traditions.

Even by today’s standards, Three Ply Yarn is a radical book. It deals effectively with themes of class struggle, male violence, homophobia, and interracial relationship dynamics. Although these subjects can at times be challenging, the characters are all so bright and engaging that it’s impossible to put their story down for long. Each twist and turn towards the conclusion makes Three Ply Yarn a very rewarding read.