Having been primary schooled in the tradition of Rudolph Steiner, my youth incorporated considerable craftwork. As young students we were immersed in the world of watercolour paints, knitting, crochet, woodwork, leatherwork, soap stone carving, ceramics, even french knitting. The foundations were laid much more firmly than I thought at the time, as I was recently able to recall how to construct a granny square without much thought. And as if on autopilot, last week I even managed to craft several pom poms after not having done so for at least twenty years. Yet despite my grand ambitions as a child crafter (I’m thinking specifically of a rainbow french knitted tube skirt I created at the precocious age of seven), my delivery was always disappointingly lacking. Discipline, patience, meticulousness and respect for process were scarce in my approach. I couldn’t follow patterns, opting rather for simply ‘winging it’. My mother found this exhausting, particularly when I would splash out on fabrics (or rather, convince her to splash out), only to massacre them in my bull-headed attempts to create my next favourite garment. Everything was ill-fitting, everything was awkward. I had no talent or flair – just enthusiasm (albeit fleeting) and recalcitrance.
Unfortunately, these traits followed through to my teen years, in all areas but particularly in the creative sphere. For instance, I was able to succeed in art up to a point but by the time senior school came around, I began to fall behind those with genuine artistic aptitude. Rather than working on my technique and applying myself, after receiving 18/20 for a visual essay (not the full marks I was accustomed to), I threw a strop, decided my art teacher was exercising favouritism and transferred to modern history. The temperament was there in abundance, it seemed, but sadly not the talent. In my defence however, the wounding was especially acute because I felt it was the best work I’d ever done. I couldn’t understand how my rendition of an Arthur Boyd crucifixion (amalgamated with some other artist’s depiction of Christ) received less marks than another student’s ridiculous friendship photo collage. Perhaps my teacher was warning me against pretentiousness, or perhaps she was trying to push me to excel, rather than resting on my laurels. Who knows. Maybe I was just shit.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that the experience didn’t affect me deeply. At the time, I outwardly blamed Ms Pritchard for my failings; she was rubbish, I told everyone (she was though – hugely popular amongst students due to her sunny disposition and willingness to dish out full marks no doubt, but utterly without pedagogical substance. I always did better under the tutelage of the utterly psychotic and hugely unpopular, Ms Fuller). But ever since, any artistic or creative endeavour has filled me with an inherent sense of trepidation and failure and while I might on occasion flirt with the idea of doing or making something myself, I very quickly abandon such thoughts.
Intermittently over the years, I have taken to knitting. Knitting is different as it’s something my mother taught me so it has more comforting associations than other angst-ridden pursuits. True to form of course, I’ve never followed a pattern or attempted to move past my basic knowledge of knit stitch and pearl. Consequently scarves are the only thing in my repertoire. Scarves and the odd blanket. But that’s all that’s needed really; it’s not so much about producing something excellent, but more about the process of making something. Knitting also has wonderfully meditative qualities, as does crochet – something else I recently revisited. Crochet is probably my preference over knitting as it is more forgiving of poor technique and it’s far easier to pick up a dropped stitch or begin again. Predictably, my knitting tends to peppered with holes.
Sewing is another feature of the creative/craft milieu and something I generally give a wide berth. My parents gave me a brilliant sewing machine for my eighteenth birthday, believing that my interest in fashion would translate into a potential career trajectory. It didn’t and the sewing machine, despite being carted back and forth across oceans, has received little use.
Until recently. A few weeks ago, the appearance of a mouse in our flat triggered a mass clear out. On all fours and contorted into various uncomfortable physical configurations, I pulled out the contents of our crawl space, throwing most of it away and finding alternative homes for the rest. As I pulled out the sewing machine, a tingle of motivation vibrated through me and I decided to make a new home for it on the dining table. The motivation was also underpinned by a preceding discovery of the world of upcycled childrens clothes. I began by refashioning an unwearable bobbled UniGlo cardigan into a snood and trousers for Child Two which, to my surprise, weren’t completely disastrous. Emboldened by the success (I use the term loosely) of this, I have since been unable to stop. An inordinate amount of pom poms now reside on my dining table come workstation and I keep manically searching the house for things to cut up. Part of the thrill is creating something that costs nothing (craft is an expensive pursuit these days), so when I do venture out to local charity shops to dig around for woolly goods, I am repelled by the price. Car boot sales are apparently a good source for materials so I have begun scanning the internet for the soonest and most accessible ones. What’s alarming, is the element of desperation in it; like some sort of addict I find myself unable to wait the two weeks or so until the next boot sale, and my increasingly frenzied eyes size up my wardrobe for suitable candidates for deconstruction.
That Mainline dress… haven’t worn it in a while… make a great child’s sweater.
Still, at least it’s partly replaced my baking trend. That was just making me fat.
This predilection for ‘make and do’ is born out of something more miasmic though than simply wanting to channel my energy into the realm of the practical. It’s fun to be sure, making small clothes. It’s gratifying on a number of levels and it fills me with a quiet, simple joy. My friend recently commented on how prolific I’d become with my childrenswear, to which I replied – with some consternation – that I couldn’t stop. She laughed and reminded me of Tita in Like Water for Chocolate, who begins crocheting a blanket on the night the man she loves marries her sister. Responding to sadness or frustration by turning feverishly to her blanket making throughout the film, by the end she has constructed a truly impressive piece (22 minutes in she begins. 43 minutes in you see its progress).
Like Tita, my cakes, scarves, blankets, trouser et al. are not symbols of creative triumph, but rather manifestations of dysphoria. Procrastinations. Melancholy. Signs of someone whose mind and sense of purpose has gone astray. In a life so small and quiet, one begins to question whether their existence is valid or not; perhaps by making things I am attempting (in my own paltry way) to confirm my own existence.
What an ill-fitting and awkward existence.
It is precisely this dialectical nature of the domestic world that has me so flummoxed. Fun, while at the same time sad. Useful, while at the same time procrastinatory. Reaffirming, while at the same time dissolving.
In a diary piece about knitting in the London Review of Books last year, Jenny Diski wrote:
“I am beginning to get anxious, however, as the cowls and shawls start to pile up. I’ve got several to wear myself and have given others away. But I’ve reached the point of a second round, and even the people who were delighted the first time seem less enchanted by the prospect of another shawl.”
What will I do with all my baby trousers? It’s unlikely other people will subscribe to my particular brand of weird, rustic baby attire so I can’t really gift them. Will I stop making them soon and transfer my attentions to something else? Tray bakes? Decoupage boxes? I seem to suffer a similar problem to Diski in terms of ‘unstickability’; I cannot see things through, I’ve no patience. Or perhaps I will continue along the baby clothes trail and continue making bigger and bigger clothes to fit my children, piling each garment up against the walls. And when they reach the age where the novelty of their mother’s bizarre homemade clothes has worn off, I can sew them all into one enormous, confused and contradictory blanket.