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Jen P – appreciates others’ expertise

When I finished, I thought that if I really loved my child I would never put her in it

Learning to Knit: I don’t really know the answer to if I can knit.  I have been able to knit, and if it’s like riding a bicycle then yes I can knit.  But I haven’t picked up a knitting needle in anger for 30 years as I was so incredibly bad at it. 

I started when I was 6 or 7 years old.  My mother came to the UK after the war from Jamaica.  She was of that generation where you mended or made things, you didn’t just pop to Amazon and click.  She was equipping us to be able to do all that, giving us what we needed to go through life, there was nothing gendered about it.  We would knit at weekends during playtime.  During the week it was school time, so it was limited TV, early to bed, early to rise, not much space.  Saturdays and Sundays were our free time. I don’t know if all children do this, but there was a routine that was very pleasurable.  Whatever we were doing on Saturday we would stop at 5 o’clock and watch Robin Hood.  We’d sit on the sofa, and if it was winter we would be covered up with a blanket and we would have something we’d been eyeing up all day; a little bottle of orange juice.  The milkman had delivered it earlier but we’d had to wait until 5pm to have it with cheese straws.  Then we would be knitting, my sister Cecily and I, my mother too.  I think about her and her busy, busy life it was just a quiet, calm time.  Her and her girls all knitting: me badly, mum and Cecily really well.  It was very female, my dad was nowhere to be seen whilst we were doing this. 

I would knit endless scarves that were far too long; long before it was fashionable.  I always chose really soft wool.  It wasn’t going to be expensive, my mother wouldn’t have spent money on our little things, so it was probably polyester mix.  It would be about the colour, I remember pale, pastel colours, beautiful pale blues and pale yellows, not bright at all.  My sister went through the expensive wool phase; mohair, cashmere as she was a proficient knitter.  There’s no point in me buying that stuff it would be an absolute waste of money.  My knitting just reflects me, I was too impatient, too fast, too slapdash.  My sister is 15 months younger than me, and if I didn’t love her so much it would be awful.  She is the perfect child, we are yin and yang.  All the things she can do (like knitting) I am hopeless at.  She probably still can knit a beautiful cardigan, I never got to that stage. 

Mum knitted us cardigans; all our cardigans, up until the age we rebelled at maybe 14 or 15.  At that point we wanted to buy something horrible and polyester from a shop rather than something lovely and crafted in wool.  They were very plain with a little pattern at the top.  The buttons were round and see-through plastic which we would go and shop for and choose in a branch of John Lewis which was a big treat.  As was going to choose the wool colours for our cardigans.  Then for us, it was graduating from wooden knitting needles.  Then when we were old enough and proficient enough we could use thinner metal ones which made a much more satisfying sound when you knit. I was nearly on first name terms with the nurses at A&E when I was growing up, so you’ll see why my mother was a little hesitant to give me anything sharp.

I’m not neat, so my knitting isn’t neat.  I’d be going along and there’d be a hole that I hadn’t noticed and I can’t bear to do it twice.  So I’d pretend it’s part of the pattern, but of course it wasn’t. It just looked terrible, the stitches were never consistent or neat.   The thing I’m most proud of is that when I fell pregnant I decided that I would knit my child a little cardi.  I bought the pattern and I knitted it, and when I looked at it I thought that if I loved my child I would never put her in it.  So it became a doll’s outfit. 

Mum came from Mandeville, which has a temperate climate, its often called Little England.  Sometimes you even have to scrape ice from your car.  When I went there as an adult with my sister in our twenties, we were literally fighting over the one pair of socks that we’d brought with us.  So she would have learnt to knit there for sure. 

Growing up, my sister and I spent 3 years living in Jamaica.  In those days it was hard to be a working mother and my mother was very ambitious.  So my grandmother said why don’t you send the girls to us for Jamaica for a holiday, and then kept us for 3 years so my mother could get her qualifications.  My grandmother was there as well as my mother’s older sister who was unmarried and had a child.  Aunty was the most stylish woman, with beautiful bone structure, but she was dark skinned, so not as prized as my mother who was lighter skinned.  When I look back at the photographs she was absolutely stunning.  So she stayed home, she was a seamstress who made all our clothes, but I don’t remember her knitting.  Her little girl Dawn was with us and we were all very, very happy.  At some stage my mother must have thought enough was enough I want my children back and she demanded that we come back to England.  I was all excited, new place, new thing, start as you mean to go on; my sister was absolutely distraught.  Her first words to my mother were ‘I didn’t want to come and be with you, I wanted to stay with Nana!’

When we were at school we all had to learn to sew by hand.  We had to make a handkerchief but not even that was any good, I couldn’t even sew a square.  I did think that as I could follow an instruction I could make something.  For my 21st birthday, I went and got a Woman’s own pattern out of a magazine for a very sexy, all-in-one jumpsuit with a halter neck and low back, with very flowy trousers and I made it.  I sewed this pattern and I know that I had a lot of help from my aunty who was very patient.  My mum rolled her eyes and thought I was never going to do it.  I wore this beautiful pale lilac fancy outfit and felt a million dollars, the bees knees on my birthday.  But halfway through the night I hadn’t sewn the hooks together properly and it all just came undone so I had to rush upstairs and pull it together with a safety pin.  I don’t have an embarrassment gene so as it was dark I was sure nobody noticed, even though in reality they all did.   I don’t think I’ve made anything before or since.  I would never give anything I’ve made to anybody.  That would be an insult.

Everyone in my family was sewing, knitting, or crocheting so I tried them all, but I’m not dextrous.  I appreciate it but I don’t do it.  Some of the fondest things I have are the blankets that were crocheted by a friend when my daughter was born.  I have a beautiful cushion that someone gave me for my 50th birthday with flowers and my name inscribed and lace round the edge. 

I look at people with a faith, and I think ‘don’t they get a lot of comfort out of that’.  Similarly, I look at people who sew or knit and go ‘don’t they get a lot of pleasure or comfort out of that’.  I have a hairdresser that I’ve known for a very long time.  She crochets, or knits, she’s always got something in her hands; she grows beautiful pumpkins or fruit.  Whenever I go to her I always come away with something.  Last time she’d made me a beautiful pair of knitted slippers, with a lovely leather bottom and leather pompoms which are now my travelling slippers.  Not only does she find pleasure in doing it, but she gifts it all, probably everyone in her circle has a pair.  She does it just for the joy of making and gifting it.

I treasure them because I can’t do it, it’s out of my reach.  Also because it takes time to do it, rather than just ordering it from Amazon.  It’s personal, they’ve thought about what colour I’d like to receive, what little thing would make it unique for me; they are very, very special.  I’ve not kept any of the cardigans my mum made, I wouldn’t have been allowed.  She would have mended it and taken it to the charity shop.  I do have a baby pillow that my mother made when she was pregnant with me.  It’s got a little bit of embroidery around it and I would never dream of it going anywhere.  Those things are precious.  She made it with love for this future child, waiting for me to come along. 

I would probably do knitting again, maybe one of those throws you can get now that are plain knit with really big needles.  No purl, just plain knit.  It’s very satisfying, the touch of the wool, the touch of your fingers linking over, the metal needles it’s very tactile.  It would give me pleasure just to see it forming, but whether I would actually finish it I’m not certain.  Maybe I’d just get half-way though and go and buy one from Habitat.

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Published by jencableart

Jen Cable is a mixed media textile artist who loves to draw attention to the outmoded, fabulous, awful and bizarre aspects of culture and everyday society

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