Over the years I’ve done various different craft-type things in an effort to quell this feeling that I need to make things. I blame my grandmother, who gave me a French knitting doll when I was about 6. It’s not fair to give a child that much easy gratification. Well, as much gratification as one could get until the wool ran out and you weren’t allowed any more because 300 metres of pale yellow knitted sausage wasn’t considered ‘useful’, even though the leaflet swore it was good for loads of stuff. OK, perhaps not swore. But it intimated it with pictures of hats and placemats and they were all dreadful when you actually made them. Black and white photography has a lot to answer for.
I loved French knitting. I wanted there to be a section on Record Breakers for my Fastest French Knitter record to get the recognition it deserved. I could do it at lightning speed so assumed I must be the fastest, obviously. I was faster than anyone else I knew, when it was briefly a thing that lots of girls did. I continued after they all got fed up but eventually I became disheartened and set aside the knitting doll.
I’d seen the possibilities, though. I’d got into cross-stitch at primary school with pieces of 22-count aida and giant needles. That was rubbish and only good for bookmarks, although I did need a lot of them. As a teenager I admired delicate Victorian pieces (while obviously focusing on how they were created by women long dead; probably tragic ones) and whilst embroidery was beyond me, I could copy a pattern and actually produce something that looked like the picture, using much finer counts than when I started. People wanted things I’d made. They bought me kits and asked if I’d sew them for them. That was good: all the satisfaction of doing it but not having a house quietly sinking under the weight of the end result of it all.
As someone who’d come late to the realisation that no Blue Peter project I attempted would ever be anything other than a dismal failure, not even worthy of bearing the title of facsimile, being able to make things that weren’t rubbish was a big deal. It hadn’t ever happened before. (Actually, that’s not true: I once made a keyring in woodwork and that was nice. Although you can’t really make glued strips of wood cut to an oval and then sanded smooth look that rubbish, presumably…) It had only happened a couple of times before. 🙂
Boosted by the success of the cross stitch on everything from Victorian punched paper to clothing, thanks to waste canvas, I turned to quilting and patchwork, both of which also worked well, provided someone supplied me with the right colours. Otherwise I’d create stuff that was technically good but visually just … off. I had dreams of creating a massive patchwork quilt but then realised that the lack of a sewing machine would cause my plan to fail at the last stage. I’d have to join everything together and hand stitching something that large onto backing fabric would be a nightmare. Yes, I am aware that people used to do those things by hand before the invention of the sewing machine, but they also did it by gas light and went tragically blind and chaffed their fingertips into callouses from the repeated needle pushing. I wasn’t that keen to emulate their creativity.
I moved on: to an absolutely disastrous foray into knitting. I blame that entirely on the pregnancy hormones as the nesting instinct kicked in and I developed an insatiable urge to make clothes for the impending arrival, as was the tradition – because it was back then. Anyway, only slightly hampered by a knowledge of knitting gained only from knitting a totally on-trend black off-the-shoulder batwing jumper under massive supervision from my mum (who probably finished it for me and corrected all my mistakes) when I was 16, I decided I must knit my child a babygro. Not a blanket made of nice, easy squares or a little hat. No, a fecking babygro – a onesie – with arms and legs and buttons up the front, requiring buttonholes.
I am the sort of person who learns practical skills by being shown and corrected over and over and over again. Some things I’ll pick up immediately, others require more repetition and when you’re doing something like knitting and you make a mistake, it’s handy to have someone who can look at it and identify it so you learn what you did wrong.
Unfortunately, robot butlers existed only in my imagination or as toys, and so back then all I had was a book from the library on how to knit, with some black and white photos and lots of line drawings, and the pattern: also in black and white. The resurgence in crafts was just beginning back then so a lot of the existing material was old and dated. It also was aimed at an audience of women who would have learned all this stuff when they were young, since it was considered an important skill for when running a home.
I didn’t have that tradition, so patterns which advertised themselves as simple still felt really hard. If I accidentally did something that diverted me from it in any way, I’d get horribly confused as I tried to work out how to fix it.What I needed was a granny sitting beside me, going over it patiently and not getting cross if I kept needing to go over the complicated bits several times. What I needed was YouTube. I just didn’t know it back then.
I’ve blocked the process of actually knitting the babygro from my memory, but I vividly remember the sinking feeling when I started to sew the two halves together and realised that it had definitely gone horribly wrong. Like loads of new knitters, my tension started out tight as I concentrated on what to do. By the time I got to the second half, I was feeling much more confident and so it slackened off. The two sides differed in width by maybe 2 inches and length by three. What I should have done was unpick the first half and re-make it, but I didn’t think I had enough wool and I was sick of the sight of it.
I sewed it up anyway. It was blue and white: for the boy I was carrying, back when we didn’t know gender stereotyping started with the colour coding. Given the size difference between the two parts, I had to sort of gather bits as I sewed to join the two parts evenly, leading to a puckered effect all down the seam. I wish I had a photo. I do know my daughter never wore it, and not because the colour was ‘wrong’. I think it ended up on a Tiny Tears (with arms and legs rolled up to create a Michelin Man effect) before disappearing, which is a shame, because it amuses me now to think of it. It was absolutely rubbish and the entire process of being driven to make it was irrational and mad, because of the hormones. Sadly, no photographs exist of my creation, because back in the days of paying to develop actual film, you didn’t take unnecessary pictures and waste it. I wouldn’t have wanted to pay money to have a permanent reminder of my failure as a mother before I’d even properly been one.
It was back to cross stitch after that, with a bit of crochet on the side, from the gratification perspective of getting fast results. Crochet was like French knitting, though: it promised everything but the patterns were old-fashioned and the range of wool wasn’t inspiring. Somewhere along the way, I fell out of doing stitching and sewing and although I have hundreds of silks and fabrics in my sewing baskets upstairs, I can’t remember the last time I looked at them.
I’ve been getting into Pinterest, and something I’ve discovered is the joy of seeing a thing that looks brilliant and then clicking and being taken to a full set of instructions and often a video – almost always with good photos, so I can follow unfamiliar terms. Having discovered a thousand beautiful things that I would want to make for people (toys for the kids, hats that I know my daughter would love, that sort of thing) I have been desperately keen to get back into making things for when the outdoor side of things goes quiet. It’s the sort of thing that can be picked up and put down, is portable, and doesn’t take up loads of room while you’re working on it, usually.
Some time this week, a parcel will arrive containing these pretty things. Crochet has been seriously updated, with a range of colours, materials and new designs and themes, such as the wonderful amigurumi style, which I love. I used to find holding the hook hurt my finger after a while (like when you hold a pen for too long) but now you use gel grips or buy hooks with fatter handles to prevent things like that. (Approving nod there to the people who developed that, since I know that arthritis of the hands affects grip often and there are a lot of people who’ve had to stop doing something they enjoyed, because it hurt too much.)
In anticipation of their arrival, I went looking for YouTube crochet tutorials, since I assumed there would be some. How right I was: I’ve discovered tutorials for everything I could ever want to know, so that reacquainting myself with crochet will be less painful. I can replay things over and over again until I get them, and because this is an indoor activity, primarily, I can have the video playing as I perform the task.
Better still, people have made good crochet tutorials. The wonderful Crochet Geek has a YouTube channel full of stuff, and a great playlist for beginners. What’s so great (and relevant to me) is where she shows you stuff in ultra slow-motion: not just once but repeatedly as she follows the pattern.
It’s fantastic: you can sit there and stitch along with her and the slow motion bits stop any confusion as to exactly where your hook needs to go for the next step because it’s so beautifully clear. I’ve made loads of mistakes in the past because I misinterpreted a line drawing of a stitch and hooked the wrong bit of wool. No chance of that happening here. As the mother of a left-hander, I’m also pleased to see all the left-handed crochet tutorials out there, as trying to copy something that’s demonstrated with the right hand is always trickier to copy with the left. It was something I found impossible to teach her, when she briefly showed an interest when she was younger.
Yet again, something from my past – from the past – has been made better with technology. I love that. I suspect that I will be able to get better results, this time around, but I’ll blog about them anyway since I’ll learn something even if it is only what to avoid.
I was an odd child: head buried in the past but always wanting to use new technology, back when girls being into computers was fairly unusual. I’m delighted that I know similarly ‘odd’ children, who love making things and having stuff made especially for them. I’m also really pleased to see tutorials about modding crochet hooks, of all things, and will be making my own grips just as soon as the required bits are delivered. It uses materials that didn’t exist when our grandmothers were young, on a hook that as far as I know hasn’t changed design much in forever because it was already right.
Every time I’ve tried to teach myself to do something (with the sole exception of cross stitch) I’ve struggled to work out where I was going wrong, which I invariably was. Knitting that bloody babygro would’ve been easier had I not only had one reference source from which to work. Having the internet and sites dedicated to pretty much anything you can imagine (and lots you probably shouldn’t) will hopefully lead to a huge improvement in my horribly rusty skills as someone, somewhere, will have asked the same question or will have thought to provide advice.
I like the connection. I like the idea of lots of people doing the same activity and passing on their skills to others, initially by traditional demonstration and these days, to anyone who wants to see it, in a video online. I like that I can make something using the same techniques that people (women, usually) have been using for generations. My hooks might be brightly coloured and padded to protect against RSI, but the basic foundation of taking a ball of wool and a hook and creating incredibly intricate pieces remains the same. It’s just that now it’s easier and the pieces can be finer and incorporate colours from new dyes, and so on.
It makes me think about the women who sewed until their hands became little more than claws, because they didn’t have any choice: it wasn’t a hobby, it fed families. I think it does me good to be aware that these skills were developed at a cost. It makes me more inclined to turn what could be a selfish indulgence, albeit a harmless one, into something more productive.
I’m going to do some research into charities that want squares or blankets since that’s the sort of thing I can do a bit at a time, in between making pretty things. I know, for example, that Age UK is in the middle of the Big Knit campaign where people knit hats for Innocent Smoothie bottles to raise money for them. It sounds daft but it raised £115,000 last year, which will have made a difference. It’s £115,000 they wouldn’t otherwise have got. If I run out of willing
victims recipients for my creations, there’s always the option to just create stuff for some sort of fund raiser.
If all else fails, there’s Etsy: home to thousands of beautiful, often individual pieces of everything you can imagine, for sale. Unfortunately, it also has a dark side, with some stuff which has to have been listed ironically. The late-lamented Regretsy showcased the best of them and I can thank my good fortune that none of my creations can now end up there. I shall simply archive them here, as they arrive, to cheer up some poor person in the future who’s trying to learn to crochet but who’s feeling pretty rubbish about their abilities. I hope it helps.