…I love the fact that I can undo old vintage jumpers or scarves and make them into something new
Learning to Knit: I hadn’t thought about this at all for years. I was at school and I couldn’t have been any more than 5 or 6. I remember us having this wonderful lady come in once or twice a week. She taught me how to knit. I just remember getting those 2 needles and the sound of them. That intrigued me more than anything. As she carried on and carried on and seeing this beautiful thing develop I remember thinking that I have got to do that. Though it turns out that I didn’t knit much beyond that little square or scarf for many years. It triggered something in me. I just remember that classroom setting in the seventies. This wonderful woman who would come in and sit with a group of children and share her knowledge. I was in my own world, I don’t remember if it was all girls or mixed, even today I’m still not aware of anyone else when I’m loving what I’m doing. I do vividly remember that she had a whole pile of needles that were all different colours and sizes, and lots of wool. Even at a young age I remember the excitement of looking at possibility. I still feel the same when I come across materials like that now in a charity shop, vintage market or a haberdashery store, it’s like being in a sweetie shop.
My grandmother crocheted, my mum tried to crochet but never really got to grips with it. My mum knitted on a machine though, which I absolutely loved. She didn’t make much, but she did produce jumpers, more for the boys. I remember my brothers wearing them. It was watching her with the dials and all the needles and the constant side to side. I was just intrigued how quickly this material appeared, I thought it was fantastic. I never had a go on it, it was quite technical, and so we were never allowed as children to touch it. When she passed away, I got it out of her loft and I want to have a go on it, but due to Covid restrictions I haven’t had it serviced. I have had a go on a knitting machine at college and I made a tiny little teddy bear jumper in about 10 minutes. My daughter’s still got it on her favourite teddy. It was just a square with tiny little sleeves on it. I remember thinking how I could make a lot of things on a machine. But after that I lost a bit of interest and I got into sewing. On a knitting machine I was feeling a bit more restricted on how I could knit, but I didn’t really give it much of a chance. Once I’ve cracked a process, I kind of like finding a new one – I like to advance and find different ways. Maybe I didn’t have the time or the right person to help me at that point.
Growing up, I was always doing sewing, or art and fashion. I dabbled in knitting and screen printing alongside painting. I did so many of the creative crafts, but I went down the art route. At the time these craft processes weren’t used in contemporary art and I couldn’t really marry the two – although I do now. So my love for sewing and crochet and all those other crafts had to go into my hobby or down time. So I was making jumpers, clothes and hats for ever, but it never came into my contemporary art world until now.
There was a period of time when my daughter was about 5 or 6, and I remembered loving to learn to knit at that age. I was working all week when she was at school so I wanted to make the weekends special. We just happened to be in John Lewis Department store, and there was this lady who was there every Saturday. She just sat for an hour or two with the yarns and knit. Anybody could come and join her and she would take them through the process or they could copy what she was doing or she would take them through patterns and help them. What a wonderful thing for the store to have, an actual practitioner loving what she does and sharing it with people. You didn’t have to book, so we made it our Saturday thing and we would sit and knit with her for at least an hour and that is where it came to life again for me. It turned out that she was a doctor in paediatrics and her downtime/love was knitting. Every week she came with something that she’d knitted, she was a real inspiration, a lovely, lovely woman. The first thing I wanted to knit was a hat, so she taught me how to knit in the round. I got on ok and really enjoyed it. Obviously I spent far too much money on amazing yarn (and I still do). My daughter started making a scarf for her teddy, which he now wears along with the original jumper that I made. We had a lovely time, then for some reason the department store decided not to have this lady anymore which was a real shame. But it was enough to breathe new life into my wanting to knit again.
I noticed in the same department they had a crochet course for one day that you had to pay for. So I went along and had an introduction day with Erica Knight. She took us through a small pattern and it was really quite hard and fiddly, but once I got it for some reason, just using the one hook and my hand to steady it just felt like when you learn to ride a bike. Knitting with two needles I never felt the same comfort. So I was literally hooked on crochet. I just took to it so much better. I remember her saying to me that there are just a few kind of stitches and you can combine them in all different ways to get all these different results. I went away and practiced and practiced and practiced because I loved it. I pretty much taught myself from books because I enjoyed it.
On that day I didn’t get much beyond a running chain and a stitch in it, as you had to keep doing it to get it right. Eventually I finished this crochet collar at home. It probably took me about 2 months. I was quite confident after that to try other things as I knew that if it went wrong I could just unpick it. I was quite resourceful with materials so I didn’t feel like I’d be wasting money on yarns. It’s not like when you sew as you can waste or ruin material. I love the fact that I can undo old vintage jumpers or scarves and make them into something new. I don’t do it a lot, but if I find something with amazing yarn and I know that it would be really expensive in a shop, and the jumper costs just a few pounds then I will bother. But it’s got to be a nice yarn, with good quality in a nice colour that might work in a project that I’ve got on the go. I’ve always got my eyes and ears out. Lockdown has made me realise just how much I miss charity shops. I love looking at the yarns and vintage materials that they’ve got in. I went into one some time ago and there was someone’s sewing box full of her thimbles and little scissors. You could see that it had been used for years. For this beautiful thing they were only asking about £10. The value in a charity shop goes way beyond what you can find in a new shop.
I never got to crochet with my grandma as I was quite young, though I watched her sometimes. When she first came over from Sicily she worked in a factory. The bus journey there was at least an hour there and an hour back and she wanted something to do on the journey so she started crocheting. She became really quite good, but it wasn’t something we discussed. We did sew together, and she’d ask me to mend things for her. Unfortunately I didn’t come across much of her crochet until she passed away. My mum asked us if any of us wanted anything, so I took her sewing box and in that was all her crochet and all of her beautiful yarns that she got from Sicily. I’m still using those now my contemporary art practice.
I’m drawn to yarns, colours, textures. Once you love a material you enjoy using it, I then want to know more about how it’s produced and where it comes from. A friend went to the Orkney Islands not so long ago, and I told her that I didn’t care what she did or where she went but I asked her to bring me some wool, and she did. She brought me this beautiful natural wool that had such a gorgeous texture. It felt really special as I just had one skein of it. So I made some mittens and a hat for last winter. The story and history of materials really interests me.
Current practice: My research is based in Sicilian folk art practices. A huge folk art practice is crochet. So I’m able to use the yarns that I’ve found, some of her handwritten patterns and the actual pattern writing as part of an embroidery piece that will be finished with some of her crochet. I’m combining the different methods of folk art such as crochet and embroidery based around domestic household objects. I can use crochet to create visual stories, not just in a traditional way of making a practical item. For example the crochet square I sent for the knitted lives project uses the colours you would find in traditional Sicilian photos of a horse and cart. They were dressed very elaborately. I’m currently working on a piece of weaving based on those colours. So I translated those thoughts into a piece of crochet, which is why I left the tassels at the side. I thought that somewhere in there, there is an essence of me.
I’m working on a new idea for a crochet piece based on a conversation that I was listening to. There were 3 ladies chatting, you could tell that they were friends. So I used a single crochet chain for one, double crochet for the second and triple for the third. So whenever one of them spoke I changed stitch. The most vocal was the triple stitch. The double crochet didn’t say much, she’s only got too tiny parts. I then wore it round my ankle so I didn’t lose it. I enjoy seeing where it can take me.
I don’t know why knitting isn’t more celebrated. It’s just overlooked. Knitting is a really good bonding thing to do. I introduced all three of my children to the same things regardless of gender. My oldest son loved French knitting. He would knit lengths and lengths and lengths and turned them into snakes or plaits. The boys both did cubs – but the only domestic practice that they had to do was to iron some clothing – that was the only home craft/skill. Whereas in the Brownies, a lot of the badges were a knitted or sewn item so the home skills came into it more. There does seem to be a natural instinct for what is enjoyed by different genders, at least that’s been my experience. Neither of my brothers or my sons were interested in continuing. There is a female urge that comes into it. It’s with my daughter that we knit and crochet together.
I’ve had lots of disasters, that’s how I learn. I’ve spent hours crocheting things that just don’t fit or look odd. I do try and follow patterns but I manipulate them to suit myself. I love that I’m now confident enough to produce my own patterns and not rely on what I can find. I still make garments, I love it. I don’t think I ever sit down of an evening when I’m not crocheting. Every day. At the moment I have a batch of lovely cotton yarn that I thought I would be able to make knitted gloves/wristies out of, they don’t make you too hot, you can use them to drive, you can still work. They were quite nice, but they didn’t crochet that well. More than anything I found I liked the texture and feel of the cotton. Sustainability is quite important to me and I’ve become very aware of how many wipes/cotton wool that I use. So as the cotton felt quite nice on my face I’m now making small cotton squares that I can use to cleanse and watch; then wash and recycle them. I’m also making dishcloths for myself so I can stop buying J-cloths. It’s silly spending the money on something I don’t want to be using when I’ve got the yarns to make them. So I’m trying to be as sustainable and as green as I can. I’m quite enjoying that – it’s very relaxing. Friends have already asked for some. So now I’m thinking that if I get myself really into it, that it might become Christmas presents. I do like a practical use, and to make things that can be used/re-used. Last year I crocheted doily lids to go on top of jars of jam/preserves that I made.
I’ve newly started an Etsy store – I love making things for the home, like hats, mittens, make-up bags, coasters, food covers or beaded jug covers, all based on requests from friends. People send messages about who they want them for and what colours that they’d like. I enjoy doing that, I love having lots of little outlets for my practice as I love making. I feel very fortunate that I can do what I love and share it with people. Art is very adaptable, it’s social science. A lot of it is about how people live and we’re all interested in that.