My friends were behind the bus shelter, snogging (and more) whilst I was learning knit, crochet and macramé from Golden Hands’
Learning to knit: I think I must have learned from my grandmother, my dad’s mum. I was brought up in Sri Lanka, and I don’t remember knitting till I came back to England age 5. I went to 13 different schools, so there was an awful lot of coming and going and my grandma provided the still centre in this chaotic family life. She was a voracious knitter, but I don’t remember her finishing anything. In fact I have a character in my novel based on her, an old woman that is always knitting some kind of baby grow but it is never done.
The first thing I had knitted for me was a yellow bolero. It was for my 6th or 7th birthday party and my mum was keen for us to make friends as we’d been travelling; so she organised a magician and a birthday party at a swanky department store in Halifax. I had a little yellow dress and my mum knitted me a fluffy angora bolero jacket to go with it.
There was a lovely wool shop in Halifax, which is no longer there. I was entranced by it because of the colours and textures. I went through a period of knitting things for babies, there was a pattern with little pink and white booties and jackets which had ribbon threaded through. Oddly, I don’t remember whose baby they were for. In my teens, about 13 or 14, I knitted a sleeveless white, quite complex top for my mum out of mercerised cotton. It had a roll neck collar and an open work neck. She was pleased with it, but when she washed it, it expanded and went from a figure hugging thing to a dishcloth. I’m not sure why I did it as I barely spoke to her between the ages of 10 and 20.
When I was 15 or 16 I was living with my Gran. I took the weekly magazines of Golden Hands and a cookery cordon bleu course that I paid for myself. I was totally entranced by them. My Gran was a very good cook and maker. She came from the Crossley family that were big mill owners in Yorkshire, so she knew her wool and textiles. My gran was very bright and funny, and the Golden Hands series helped me emulate her. I made lots of things from it including a pair of socks for my brother, and he’s still got them. There’s something about the patterns, reading them and thinking of the possibilities. The imagery was incredibly vibrant and it seemed exotic, with everyone having a lovely life. I wasn’t happy and it was a refuge for me. My friends were behind the bus shelter, snogging (and more) whilst I was learning knit, crochet and macramé from Golden Hands.
From University onwards I did much more dressmaking and was better at it. I have very distinct memories of buying fabric from the market and being in a constant excitement when cutting the pattern and making it up. I remember making this green, quite hideous dress and was so excited that I wore it pinned together. I could feel the pins under my arms and the seams coming apart as I hadn’t stitched them. My first dress was a grey very Jean Muir type, which was totally unsuitable for a sixteen year old. I still feel the excitement, there’s something great about a bolt of fabric. I was very engaged by Rose & Hubble, a cloth merchant that would send a regular brochure full of elegant women wearing beautiful outfits. There was something magical; you could pick out a pattern and then pin and cut the fabric. I love how it takes shape; turning the possibilities into reality. First the dream and then of course what it actually looks like it and losing heart. It was never that I needed a dress, it was the dream.
Dressmaking was much more immediate, whereas knitting would take weeks. It’s not the same excitement, it’s a comfort. You have all the elements of colour, smell and feel as well as the ideas and possibilities but it’s the rhythm and the heartbeat of work that is what makes knitting so reassuring. The joy and satisfaction of it slowly coming to fruition, it’s quite nourishing.
Dressmaking has been almost exclusively for me, but I’ve tended to knit things for others. After I left University, I went to work in India as a headmistress to escape from an unsuitable partner. I had promised I would make him a kimono style dressing gown in a very heavy silk, in blue and cream. A very complicated lined pattern. I didn’t finish it before I went to India, yet, despite the fact I was leaving him I took a huge bag of sewing with me and continued to hand stitch this fabulous garment which I wrapped and sent to him.
When I was living in London in my late 20s, there was a fabulous yarn store in Soho. It was three walls with every yarn that you could want with amazing patterns. It was a treasure trove and I would go in there a lot. During those years I would knit more than I would dress make, mostly making mohair jumpers. That was a really happy time. The women who worked there, knew their knitting and designed patterns and if you got stuck they would help and give advice. I knitted a grey, soft, cashmere cardigan that was quite fitted with three buttons and it was like a cat that you could pick up and hug. I had it for years. It was the combination of enjoying the process of making and then having an artefact. That distinction between product and process, I’m more fascinated by the process, and whether it is sustaining and nourishing you. That is more important to me than the output.
Knitting nowadays: Knitting legitimates sitting down. There’s something lovely about having time and making. For me it’s a solitary activity and is about taking time off. I mostly knit garments now; jumpers for friends’ grandchildren but on occasion I have made dog coats. A few Christmases ago, I started to make a hot water bottle cover, but stopped as I already have 7 and really didn’t need any more, so I adapted the pattern for our dog. I remember a magical outing in the snow on Christmas Eve to get the wool.
For my grandmother knitting was a social activity. There were 4 women who would get together and one of them would read and the others would knit. One week it was bridge, the next knitting. They were ferocious knitters. I didn’t knit along but I would make cakes. It was the safety of it that was the attraction for me. The fire was burning, they were nattering, and it makes me quite tearful to think about it.
It’s interesting what is behind turning to arts and crafts. My creativity turns to writing and short stories. I work with New Brewery Arts, and being part of that creative space interests me – but I don’t define myself as a maker. I’m really interested in what people do with their daily lives and what role craft and making has in that. I feel that I’m slowly reconnecting with craft, it’s more about the process than the recognition. The body has a memory, there is a kind of rhythm and connection back to the past through knitting. My knitting needles are a collection across the generations from my grandmother and my husband’s family. We all have these artefacts, it makes you think about whose hands touched them and the conversations that were going on at the time.