If my knitting goes wrong I hide it, hoping that some magic fairies will come’
Learning to knit: It’s probably one of the earliest things that I did, my paternal grandmother taught me when I was about 4. She taught me straightforward knit and I think I made a scarf for my teddy, something really simple. Apart from drawing it’s the earliest making I did with my hands. Both my grandmothers were really skilled knitters and knitted a lot, and my mum knitted too. I grew up surrounded by these maternal figures knitting. I thought it was completely normal for everyone to have a knitting bag, and to carry it around with them. Knitting happened around me and was part of life. I have all the needles from the granny who taught me. I can’t imagine ever needing anymore.
I carried on making really pointless things, after that. My mum dug out this very sad looking pot holder when we recently moved and got an open fireplace. She had saved it in the loft. I also remember knitting a stripy hot water bottle holder for my dad at about 6 or 7 as well as lots of dishcloths. I didn’t venture outside straightforward knit and purl for years and years and years. I’ve only recently started making things that have a purpose like a cardigan. I knitted my 3 small nieces a house that is also a bag with mice inside them. I did then have a mice making phase, after a really, really stressful phase at work. There’s loads of them, there’s something about following a pattern, and not having to theorise it at all that I find really satisfying. I also really like the sense of making things for other people. I made a whole family of hedgehogs during lockdown. We have 5 daughters between us, so I made 5 baby hedgehogs and a mummy and daddy one. They have absolutely no purpose apart from sitting on my log pile. Knitting is a kind of release, it’s not having to think too much, it’s sitting with the needles and the wool.
I didn’t go through a practical garment phase, maybe because I had Grannies or mum making for me; maybe I lacked the confidence. I can read a knitting pattern, but not a crochet pattern even though I constantly crochet. I’ve only fairly recently started making clothes even though I’ve been able to sew for many years. One of my daughters was really poorly in her teens and I spent a couple of week’s furiously knitted dolls at her bedside for other people. It was the process that helped, maybe it’s the smallness of it, the fact that I can finish it more quickly. I made a slouchy cardigan for my youngest daughter out of the nicest Drops wool that is beautiful to stitch. I made it last summer when I was recovering from a hysterectomy and didn’t’ want to move too much. Then I made one for myself so we can exchange them. I do choose chunky knit which is quick to make something with.
Knitting disasters: My first attempt at a cardigan was with some beautiful bobbly wool. It’s horrible to knit with and I made it too short. But I couldn’t unravel it due to the bobbles but I can’t throw it away as the wool as I’ve spent so much time on it. That stopped me attempting to knit anything useful for at least 5 years.
Then there was an elephant that I started making in a series of pieces. I put it down and now I can’t’ make any sense of it at all as there are no pictures of the individual pieces in the pattern. I can’t throw it away, but I can’t make any sense of it. I met an old lady in hospital and she was knitting and I was crocheting, so we got talking. She was making a scarf out of unravelled items that she no longer liked. I don’t know that I could do that, I want to feel that I’ve finished something. So if my knitting goes wrong I hide it, underneath my wool stash in the hope that somehow miraculously some magic fairies will come and turn it into something good.
I am a knitter but it’s not at the forefront of what I do creatively. I realised that there are little pockets of it everywhere. It’s been something that’s followed me around since I was very small, I can’t imagine ever not doing it. Whether I knit or sew depends on my state of mind. With sewing, I do dressmaking with my youngest daughter. With embroidery it’s part of my research practice and PHD, but not part of my teaching, which is graphic design. Now I can’t stitch without my glasses due to the amount that I’ve done over the last few years. Unless I’ve got the light on really bright I can’t do it in the evening. It also requires more concentration. There’s’ something about knitting and more recently crochet: it’s the doing, it’s the picking up the needles and wanting the soothing of working with the needles and working with the yarn. The sense of my family and Grandparents sits behind it, but it’s mostly tapping into the motion.
I taught myself to crochet from Youtube last January when recovering from an operation. I couldn’t focus to stitch, but the rhythm of crochet was perfect to counteract the tension and energy from the pain that I was feeling. I just do granny squares. I made an absolutely huge (2×2m) blanket out of pink heavy wool that looked like guts that my husband and daughter bought for a Halloween party. The blanket just grew on my lap, the repeating rhythm and muscle memory meant I didn’t have to think about it so my mind could wander. It’s why I don’t want to do something super complicated, unless it’s small like a mouse.
Art Practice: I didn’t think about knitting as an art practice initially, it was just something that women in my family did. It wasn’t until many years later when I did my MA that I connected the work that I do with stitch with my academic practice. Mostly I’ve kept knitting for me with the exception of one piece that I made many years ago. I wanted to connect with the idea of legacy, of passing things down through the maternal line and the idea of making things for someone else. The research that I was doing was into fairy tales at the time. Women used to tell stories to other women whilst they were making things. They were really empowering; Little Red Riding hood didn’t get rescued by the woodcutter; she and the grandmother sorted it out just fine all by themselves. It wasn’t until men started retelling these stories that he came into the plot. In one of the versions the grandmother knitted a hat for red riding hood. I really connected with that idea, so I wanted to explore the sense of the grandmother knitting for someone else. At the time, I didn’t know how to do circular knitting so I spent time searching for a pattern that I could knit flat. (I have been through that pain barrier since but I didn’t really enjoy it.) I knitted the red hat and as I did write poetry at the time I stitched onto it.
Now I want to knit with dusters. The Domestic dusters project is something that I’ve been running since 2014, with an ongoing open call inviting anybody to stitch their experience of domesticity onto a duster. I chose a duster because it is immediately recognised as a domestic item but hasn’t been adorned like aprons or tea towels. I initially created a set of dusters with fairy tales on, then opened it up to see if other people wanted to contribute to the project. It sort of hasn’t stopped since then. Over lockdown I took it onto Instagram and that’s been amazing as people from India, Australia, South Africa and across Europe have connected with the project, it’s got a life of its own. I can’t imagine when it might finish now. The legacy of expectations from the fifties and the move after the war to get women back into the home still persist. It’s a way of collecting together a whole host of perspectives and experiences. I’ve worked with people whose domestic situations has been compromised (they’re homeless or have experienced violence) as well as people who just feel that they have something to say about it. I get so many amazing stories from people, it’s really rewarding. In this knitted piece I’m intending to connect a bit more with the practice that I teach and do a stop motion video. I was thinking about Penelope waiting for Odysseus and I want to mirror her weaving and unravelling by stop framing my knitting and then rewinding it to unravel, so it loops continuously.
Teaching knitting: I’ve got 4 daughters, two are left handed and I’ve shown them all how to knit. One of my eldest daughters knits a bit and she made knitted bags for her friends during lockdown. The elder left handed one couldn’t get to grips with it as I couldn’t flip it to explain it to her. The youngest one is also left handed but she gets frustrated as it takes a long time and I just can’t demonstrate it to her. She recently did a little bit of weaving, she loves it as it grows really fast. She likes crochet for the same reasons and now she’s making a blanket with me for my mother. I hope they carry on doing it; for whatever reason: maybe to be able to make something for someone, or as a route to art, or as it’s good for your mental health and you feel better for having done it.
Perceptions of knitting: Craftivism, and stitch ‘n’ bitch have started to make it more socially acceptable for younger women and more men to be seen knitting. Craftivism acknowledges the claim that it used to be something that your granny did but subverts it and turns it on its head to do it in a way that speaks and tries to make a change somehow. It has a different sort of message. It’s not just joining the screaming or shouting, but is a different way to make an impact. Literature and TV references can be frustrating in that they continue to put knitting across as an older, homely image; they borrow that imagery to secure the perception of a character. It will be interesting to see if that continues and we start to see younger women shown as rebellious knitters and that becomes a more normal thing. People are returning to tactile practices even though it’s cheaper to go and buy a jumper.
Not sitting idle has definitely come down to me through the maternal line. I take my crochet when waiting for my daughter whilst she’s sailing. It’s a conversation starter, people have started sharing that they tried it during lockdown, these conversations only happen because I’m making something. I often will knit or crochet in hospital appointments or whilst I’m commuting to work. I don’t get a sense in that context that it’s seen as ‘old lady’, it is genuine interest. Though I did get one man who asked ‘can you not think of something more useful to do with your time?’ when I was embroidering a nighty for an exhibition.
Vanessa is part of the textiles group Unfold, which has been shortlisted for the 2021 Janome Fine Art and Textiles Award. Their quilt ‘Far from Equal’ is made from seamed strips of tea towel to represent the status of so called women’s work. This piece and other entries will be shown at the Festival of Quilts and the Knitting & Stitching Show in the autumn. Her Domestic Dusters project is regularly on show and is still open to new contributors. Please contact her through Instagram if you would like to participate.