Friday, July 20, 2007

Making It Now and Then

Do you ever take your knitting with you? I do, almost always. And I always have since I first re-taught myself to knit in college. One of my grandmother’s favorite sayings was “Busy hands make a happy heart.” Gram’s early example of always having busy hands – in the evenings while she was baby-sitting, in the afternoon with her sewing circle, or at church meetings – definitely wore off on me. I’ve always got a bag of needlework with me – just in case I’ve got a spare minute or two to knit a row or stitch a flower. For the vast majority of my life, I was the odd one out – this obsession with stitching. Friends would be curious, ask politiely what I was making, then move on to other subjects more important in their lives.

Fast forward to 2007 – the age of self-help and anti-depression drugs. Maybe it is time for Gram’s slogan to have a renaissance – be stitched onto a piece of linen to hang in my kitchen or studio. Aren’t busy hands one reason knitting and other crafts like sewing and crochet are gaining devotees daily? Open any newspaper and there is something about the new generation crafting, sewing, and knitting.

When I think back to earlier times when women didn’t have television, the internet or even a car to entertain themselves, it’s easy for me to see why stitchery of any kind took up a large percentage of their lives. They did what they could to make life bearable. Most women didn’t work outside their homes so they had to make themselves feel worthy and stitching was an accessible way to accomplish this. Embroidery, sewing, quilting, knitting and crochet were pleasant ways to spend time. A woman’s creative desires could be fulfilled with a needle and thread. Although most women stitched out of necessity – ready-made clothing was an expensive proposition so making your own was the norm – there were social reasons to stitch – to raise funds for their church, to make gifts for loved ones, and to spend quality stitching and busy time with friends.

Fund-raising for local communities often involved the handmade. My grandmother and her church friends in the parish I grew up in often held quilting bees in the basement of the church. The women were always making a quilt to raffle off to raise funds. Gram also crocheted, baked, canned and sewed for the church while her other friends knit and embroidered. One year when I was in my early teens I made froggie bean bags to contribute to the annual church bazaar. My grandmother and her friends worked all year making things to sell at the fair. Gram always did her best work – never one to sell anything with an imperfect stitch. I remember the anticipation of attending the fair with plastic change bags in tow. My sisters and I visited all the tables where all kinds of handmade toys and things were displayed – yo-yo clowns, crocheted toilet paper covers, handknit baby sweaters, quilted potholders and more. We spent hours deciding what we would buy for Christmas gifts. In the evening, Gram would call us and she would tell us how much money her table had earned for the church, proud as one of my mother hens.

So in 2007, it isn’t a bit surprising that the needlearts are gaining devoted followers. Maybe the new stitchers aren’t raising funds for their churches, but they sure are selling their handmade wares on Etsy, aren’t they? How fabulous to see more and more people turned on to a needle and thread.

My friend Cathy gave me a wonderful book called “Thrift to Fantasy – Home Textile Crafts of the 1930’s to 1950’s” as a birthday gift last year. Written by Rosemary McLeod of New Zealand, the book grew out of the author’s collection of handmade, hand stitched objects. The beautifully crafted, sometime kitschy stitchery includes everything from tea cosies, pillows aprons, tablecloths, toys, pincushions, and more. This is one fabulous book for anyone interested in the domestic arts and women’s studies – it is a fascinating account of how women lived in New Zealand during these years, their role in society, and gives many sound and sociological reasons for the vast number of handmade things produced during these years. Although women in America were not as isolated as their counterparts in New Zealand, the reasons they stitched are similar.

The author’s collection of handmade things is immense – so immense, it had its own museum show which inspired the book. She ties the narrative into her family history and women’s history in her country and abroad during the time period that the items were made. I don’t know if it is available in the USA but trust me, it is worth the overseas postage. Every time I look at it, I want to re-read it again.

Of course the world has changed a vast amount since the 1930’s. But then some things have not:
– the urge to create with your hands
- the need to express love and devotion
- the great amount of fun it is to find a fiber or fabric and to germinate an idea in your own mind, then stitch it to completion
- the need to have friends who have similar hobbies, whether through the internet, a knitting guild or a local knitting night at a café.

I hope this trend continues – drawing more and more people, both young and old, into the needlearts. I think it is up to we knitters and stitchers currently working to pass on our knowledge and entice new people into the craft. I do this by writing books. Maybe you teach a class at a local store or you knit in public to help encourage others to learn. Maybe you knit caps for preemies – the moms of the babies may be enticed to learn to knit.

Whatever you do to teach others, you should feel good that you are passing on your skills to further the reach of the needlearts and passing the needlearts to the next generation. Maybe your work will be featured anonymously in a book on the crafting life of the early 21st century fifty years from now.

All photos taken from my copy of Thrift to Fantasy. You can order it on-line here. I think the postage from down under is worth it. Maybe someone knows where to buy it in the USA?

p.s. If you want to share what you do to pass on the needlearts, I know my readers would love to hear about it in the Comments section!


Sarah said...

What a great post. My Mom is a scholar of women's handwork so I've grown up appreciating the meanings and reasons for such work. I think I will buy her "Thrift to Fantasy." I work with my daughters constantly on various needle projects. There is nothing that settles them more than handwork. I think they would say that the afternoons when I join them at handwork have been the most blissful and peaceful times of their childhoods. When Dad sits to knit or felt with us, our family is truly centered. A goal this year is to pick a project from "Knitting for Peace" and have us all work on it. Thanks for such a great post.

Kathleen C. said...

Wonderful, thoughtful post. And what a great looking book!
I do indeed travel with my knitting. A sock usually, as it's small and easy to start and stop. I've knit at restaraunts, in cars, at the DMV, in a canoe on the river...
I get lots of looks, but my favorite is when someone stops and says "Oh you knit!" and then shares how they knit or they wish they knew how. And I can share with them... info on our weekly knitting group, offer advice, or show how to turn a heel. (Seriously. Our waitress at the sushi resatraunt had always wanted to knit socks but didn't understand how to turn a heel and I just happened to be at that point...)
I teach sewing as well and always include a bit on knitting, crochet and embroidery.

sonja poor said...

I always read your blog and enjoy it so much. It's nice to see around your life on the farm, especially since it differs greatly from my suburban life. I especially enjoyed your comments today. Thanks! : )

Willow said...

My grandmother contributed to her church bazaar every year and I still have some tea towels and a couple of pillowcases she purchased from her friends. My great aunt was a crocheter. The interest in needle work skipped my other grandma and my mom and landed squarely on me. My mom took up hand stitching cloth napkins in the last few years of her life. I still have several sets. Now I knit, spin, sew, crochet and my two daugthers and d-in-law are starting to sew, knit and crochet. I had dispaired of my older dd ever picking up a needle of any kind, but in the past two years she's "grown in to it"! I love to knit in coffee shops; people often stop to chat about knitting with me. I just moved to a new town, and there those knitters were, knitting on Tuesday night in the local coffee shop!

Simmy said...

What a lovely post and heartwarming too. I come from a generation of Indian women who made everything from scratch (my Mum hasn't even ever bought a ready meal). She taught us to crochet, embroider, to knit and sew. I've passed this on to my thirteen year old daughter who is actually surpassing me with her skills and I do teach one class at our waldorf school.

Other than that I run waldorf dollmaking groups at home - as and when which is a lovely skill to pass on and share and come September we have a group of Mums around my kitchen table making things for our school xmas fair. I'm at my best sitting with a group of women, sewing, talking and sharing. I love it .....

Thanks for the thought provoking you've provided.

ROZ said...

Well, I certainly find your blog to be interesting and entertaining. I would like to add it to my list of blogs on my blog. I also quilt and knit.

Felicia said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post :)