I grew up in a poor-but-honest, small-country-town family where both parents worked hard to provide the best opportunities and example they could for their children. Although both my mother and father had fulltime paid employment (part-time work was rare in those days), the division of labour within our home was fairly much along traditional lines with my mother doing the bulk of the inside domestic chores and my father mostly taking care of the outside and home maintenance. Both my parents were good with their hands and were creative, resourceful, flexible, able to improvise, and proud of being able to make-do with very little. They encouraged their children, both directly and by example, to have the same attitude.
The times may have been changing in the 60s and 70s but things change more slowly in country towns. The expectation at school and in the community in general, was that every girl should learn to cook, clean, wash & iron, sew, knit and crochet, and these skills were specifically taught to every girl at Wynyard High School (well, not crochet, I took a special elective to learn that). They were referred to as the Domestic Arts or sometimes Domestic Science (playing with semantics to assist in pushing your own barrow has been around a while) and I enjoyed so-called women’s work, finding it skilful, creative, and satisfying despite it now being seen in a more negative light . My mother didn’t wait for the school to teach me these, or many other things, for that matter – (I distinctly remember learning to read at home) and I learnt to knit at a very early age.
When I was ten years old my mother decided that it was time for me to knit my first jumper (eleven by the time it was finished). It was plain stocking stitch, olive-green, round –necked, over-sized and very slightly disappointing because I made a mistake in the neck-band, right in the front and I couldn’t help but see this mistake every time I looked in the mirror. I still see it very distinctly in my minds-eye. (in retrospect, I have no idea why my mother didn’t fix it for me – maybe this was the fix and the mistake had been worse).
This was the start of what became an annual autumn ritual. Mum and I would visit our local general store, which stocked quite a selection (so it seemed to me) of knitting yarn and patterns – Patons and Cleckheaton, mostly 8 ply, but also 5 & 12 and some “baby wool”. I would choose a pattern and wool, we would take what was probably enough wool home, and if it became clear that we were going to need more, we’d have to hurry back while that dyelot was still available.
For the next 20 years I knitted at least one garment every year. It takes many hours of knitting to produce a garment and people knit while doing other things –watching TV, watching sport matches, sitting in meetings, chatting with friends, travelling, waiting for appointments. Every opportunity to knit a row was utilised and it didn’t feel like work, it felt very pleasurable. The garments I knitted were not intricate or difficult – function and durability took precedence over form.
My parents were both perfectionists in their own way and believed that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing properly. Patons wool was slightly more expensive than Cleakheaton but my mother insisted that if we were going to put all that time and effort into producing the garment then we shouldn’t compromise on quality. In my twenties, I purchased bags and bags of seconds from the Paton’s spinning mills in Launceston.
Also around this time, I bought a spinning-wheel (which has been sitting on top of a wardrobe since Tim was born) and took up hand spinning for a number of years. I made the significant men in my life completely handmade jumpers – I can’t remember why it was men, I didn’t make anything for myself. In my mind, I can still feel those gorgeous fleeces.
Knitting is essentially a very simple process – it involves making loops - and many knitters really don’t need to concentrate on what they’re doing much of the time. In fact, if you ask a knitter to show you how to do it, many struggle to work out exactly what they’re doing. Female teachers often knitted on yard duty or in staff meetings. Sometime in the 1990’s my friend Kath, who was a teacher, was taken aside by her school principal and told to stop knitting at school – it was “Soooo unprofessional”.
Gradually I stopped knitting. In fact, over the years, I gradually stopped all the “domestic” things I loved as I tried to perform super-human feats of juggling paid employment, household chores (inside and out), trying to be a good parent, wanting to keep up some contact with friends (whose lives were pretty much as overloaded as mine), and all the while desperately wanting to do something I enjoyed. I felt as though I was clinging to a round-a-bout which was spinning so fast that to let go would prove disastrous. Any unessential activity had to be jettisoned in order to keep the family ship afloat.
Every now and then, particularly in the autumn, over the past 20 years I have had the urge to buy some wool and knit something. Mostly I resisted knowing that I would just be adding to the pile of half-done (at best) projects. One autumn, a number of years ago, I met Annie Stephenson who hand knits professionally. I toyed with the idea of having her knit something for me. I didn’t because I was vaguely aware that I really wanted to produce the garment, not just own it.
I recently mentioned Wilhem Jakob’s short film which used The Cup&Mug as a one of its locations. Tim and I attended the screening of this and the other films produced by the 3rd year fashion design students at RMIT and of course the mainly young audience were overwhelmingly dressed in all sorts of amazing, handmade, (probably self-made) unique garments. I was so inspired, I mentioned to Tim that I really wanted to do some knitting or sewing. However, I thought of the cupboard of unfinished projects (some unstarted) and didn’t allow myself the luxury of even fantasising that I might try to stuff something more into my life.
Three days later a miracle happened! Off-and-on for years (twenty something years) I have met with a group of friends – people come and go but the core group has stayed the same – some Friday evenings, to play music together. The standard of our playing has slowly deteriorated, much like our bodies, but we hope not our brains. We enjoy the convivial atmosphere and stimulating conversation and the playing together gradually became secondary. This particular Friday night I arrived late, to be informed that we were not playing - Philippa was learning to knit before becoming a grandmother (that was not on the immediate horizon but her son was interested in a girl and she thought learning might take some time) and we were all knitting squares for her first project, a blanket.
Someone handed me a ball of 8 ply and a pair of needles. I was in heaven. It felt so unbelieveably good to be knitting. Our ever attentive host, Sue, kept asking me if I was OK because she had never known me to be so quiet. Knitting is immensely soothing.
That marked the end of our musical attempts.
We quickly moved on from Philipa’s blanket. Some women are crocheting, some are knitting. Some are producing very beautiful, elaborate baby shawls, others are experimenting with an endless array of different “granny squares”. There have been hats and scarves and larger garments produced. It’s fun, creative, productive and inspiring.
I haven’t yet succumbed to the temptation to buy a gorgeous pattern and yarn for a new project. Instead, I’ve taken my half done projects, unravelled them all, and am determined to use them up before embarking on any other knitting venture.
I’ve been harping on for some time about my theory that many more people would be much happier if we used our own hands to make things. A few weeks ago someone from our knitting group sent me an email saying “you were right!” and included this link to an interesting article in The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/knitting-your-way-to-a-healthier-happier-mind-46389 .
Not only does it feel good to make things yourself, but to own something skilfully or lovingly made by someone else gives you a sense of connection and continuity. I’ve always loved second-hand goods (much to my mother’s disgust, she tried very hard to shame it out of me) and I now realise that I was drawn, certainly in part, by the fact of them having passed through someone else’s hands.
…….. And I guess this is one of the reasons I love our beautiful, handmade pottery.