Women’s Work

Writing recently about the textiles that family members had made in Family Treasures, I was struck by how privileged those crafters had all been.   All those cushion covers, embroideries, needle cases, patchwork etc were the comfortable leisure activities of people with time and materials to spare.

It isn’t always like that, of course.  Handicrafts arose from necessity.  Sewing, spinning, knitting, weaving and darning were in many cases essential skills for women in the days before you could easily and cheaply purchase your clothing.  Skilled craftwork brought income to both men and women (and indeed still do in many parts of the world today).

Over the last few months I’ve been reading two books that have focused on these different attitudes to handicrafts:  Hands to the Spindle.  Texas Women and Home Textile production 1822 – 1880 by Paula Mitchell Marks and Women’s Work.  The First 20,000 Years.  Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.  I can strongly recommend both books for their insights into historic women’s lives.  While Elizabeth Wayland Barber looks at a huge swathe of very distant time, Paula Mitchell Marks concerns herself with a narrow timeframe in the relatively recent past.Women's work booksBecause Paula Mitchell Marks is working with more recent material we are able to hear the women’s voices directly.  I’m going to tell you parts of the story she recounts from the memoirs of Sarah Harkey Hall.  Sarah was born in 1857, the fifth of thirteenth children.  She writes of her mother: “Her children were like stair steps and such a burden to card and weave, every thread we all wore, and make our clothes by hand…”  The two older sisters helped with “spin filling at 8 years old”, while Sarah was the baby nurse. “Oh! the hum of the wheel and the rattle of the cards made me weary, I knew my long weary day had begun – sitting by the cradle.” 

Sarah’s mother died in 1869 after a premature childbirth, and most tragically her father a few weeks later (suffering from a range of different complaints).  The older sisters married and moved out, so Sarah was left to look after the younger children.  Paula continues “At first, she [Sarah] simply labored to patch and piece from worn-out clothes, but she soon turned to her mother’s old spinning wheel and began spinning thread and knitting socks for sale … Sarah for a number of years had to worry, scrimp, and use every resource at her disposal to clothe and cover her younger siblings and herself.  She spun, knitted, and sewed…”

I don’t think I can even begin to imagine Sarah’s life.  But I won’t be alone in having experienced times when I was completely broke – times when I had to be extremely resourceful in making clothes and toys for the family.

My marriage ended acrimoniously in the early 1980s.   My husband then disappeared, and I found myself with two small children under 5 years old, unemployed and with no easy means of earning enough to pay for childcare, a mortgage, and everyday living expenses.  I was incredibly lucky that the state safety-net was there to support me – and continued to support me for the next two and half years.

In those years my children were dressed entirely in clothes that I had made or hand-downs from kindly friends.  Luckily, I had a huge stash of fabrics and yarns from my pre-parenting London-living days.  Here’s my daughter, Helen, looking stylish as ever, in a brown viyella shirt and blue corduroy pinafore.  Both made by me – and, incredibly it seems to me now, ironed regularly by me.1985 Style queen 1As well as sewing, I did a lot of knitting too (although I hadn’t yet learned to spin when first divorced).  Here we all are, on Glastonbury Tor.  Both children are wearing hats and jerseys I’d knitted, and I’d certainly made Helen’s trousers, though I don’t think I’d made the ones James is wearing.J & H 1985 Glastonbury TorThis pig jersey that James is so delightedly modelling here was a real winner – you might just be able to make out the curly little pink piggy tail at the back.  He’s also wearing slipper sox that I’d knitted – hmm, you weren’t supposed to wear those in the garden, James!Jam pig jumper front and backI went on to customise this pattern, and with some design help from James made a very curious shaggy fluffy red dinosaur jersey.  (I’ve been reliably informed it’s a styracosaurus.)plans for dinasaur cardiWhat really kills me about this photo is that Helen, not to be left out, has added herself in such an alluring pose just to the side of the real model. J and H Shobrroke dinasaur cardi I made things for Christmas and birthdays too.  Here’s the climbing frame cover I made.  It was supposed to mean the climbing frame could double up as a “home”, a “base”, a “safe house”……1988 Christmas climbing frame coverWhat I really focused on was making fancy-dress clothes.  This clown costume was one of the first that I made.  (Yes – it’s the same primary-coloured elephant material as above!  I’d bought a large quantity of this fabric very cheaply, and used it to make a remarkable array of toys and garments).James Christmas 1985Here – a bit later in time – are my two youngest step-daughters, Ellie and Zacyntha, joining in the Christmas fancy dress modelling show.  Ellie (on the left) was the Christmas Tree fairy, James had a conjuror costume,  Zacyntha is the Nutcracker Sugar Plum fairy and Helen (on the right) is Ariel, the Little Mermaid.1991 Christmas fancy dress costumes editedI also made odd things for sale, – anything that brought in a bit of cash.   And, of course, all my friends received hand-made gifts.  This Shetland sweater was machine-knitted.  I was asked to make two copies of a worn-out original sweater.  It was a real challenge – and I don’t think the recipient really appreciated the hard work that had gone into the two new jumpers.Machine knitted Shetland jersey (Pete)The biggest influence on my knitting in the early eighties was Kaffe Fassett.  His love of abundant pattern and colour was extraordinarily exciting and an enormous source of inspiration.  My kind neighbour taught me to spin (as I wrote in an earlier blog) and I was away!  My house became filled with fleece, wool and yarns.  It was at this time that little James told me wisely that we weren’t rich in money but we were rich in wool.  Too right, Jammy, too right!

Here my very good friend, Mandy, models the Kaffe Fassett Damask Flower cardigan that I made for her birthday one year.  I wonder if she still has it?  They had such large ungainly sleeves – very unfashionable now.Mandy Kaffe fassett cardiI knitted several versions of the Kaffe Fassett Persian Poppy cardigan for various friends. S J-K Kaffe Fasset cardiAnd I even came up with my own  Kaffe Fassett-style patterns.  (Alas – my photographic skills were SO poor!)  For my Wave cardigan, I took a motif often found in Persian carpet design, having realised that knitting it in the blues, whites and creams of ocean colours made it look just like waves.  It was knitted in any yarn I could lay my hands on – homespun, bought, unravelled old cardies …  silks, mohairs, wool, synthetic … all went in together.K's sea cardiWhat really strikes me when I think back to my hard-up times, is what an abundance of materials I had.  They may not always have been quality, or what I would ideally have worked with, but there was plenty.

Sarah, on the other hand, writes agonisingly painfully: “When my frock became so tattered and torn I would examine it closely to see if I could remedy it that it would appear more neatly.  I soon saw by taking out the whole front and put[ting] in a new one it would be whole but where was I to get the cloth?   All had been consumed and not a piece [left] over. … I had to do without.”

Writing about my younger life as I am now, I see that a golden cast has settled on these times.  I have lost the memories of exhausted and lonely single-parenting days.  It seems like a halcyon time.  Which it certainly wasn’t!

What did sustain me – and delightfully, I find this with Sarah Harkey Hall too – is the pleasure of ingenuity.  Making do, successfully adapting what you have to what you need is so darned satisfying!

Here’s Paula Mitchell Marks finishing off Sarah’s story: “While her reminiscences of these years reveal the tremendous responsibility and despair she felt, some creativity and pride showed in her textile labors.  Using commercial ‘ducken’, or duck – a strong plain-weave cotton fabric – for her little brothers’ trousers, she extracted a dye from ‘Shoneyhaw bushes’ and colored the material a rich navy blue, causing a neighbour to exclaim with amazed pleasure, ‘What kind of goods is it Sarah?  This is Ducken – Why I never saw that colour of Ducken.”

Good on you, Sarah Harkey Hall! 

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12 thoughts on “Women’s Work”

  1. What a lovely post Katherine! A window into your earlier life as well as historical parallels, and a sense of what an important and constant thread your making has been through your life. I specially liked the elephant clown costume, and James’s remark about the wool.


  2. So glad you liked the post, Polly! Curiously, I was a bit hesitant to mention my “impoverished” days……don’t really know why. It certainly had a big influence on the things I’ve made. The picture of me with my children on Glastonbury Tor was taken by your mother – or father? They were very sweet and hospitable to me.


  3. Another cracker of a post. I too have a pic of my kids in hand knits on Glastonbury Tor! The interspersing of your recollections and those from the book are so thought provoking. The courage and creativity with which you faced a very challenging part of your life is just inspiring. Thank the gods (well…the people) for a government safety net because raising a family IS an economic contribution to the social good that should be supported. And the Kaffe pics…aww you took me back. I made one of his waistcoats in uni. I still have it but it looks like a box!


    1. Glastonbury Tor is an amazing place – excellent to hear you have a pic of your children there, and in handknits too! Yes – I agree with you that governments should support parents in every way – I still feel a bit shy…embarrassed…awkward…hesitant…about talking about my particular experiences – but rationally I don’t think I should. Anyhow, my experiences are as nothing compared to Sarah Harkey Hall. I chuckled to hear you too have old Kaffe Fassett knits no longer worn – fashion usually goes in circles, so if we keep them long enough perhaps they’ll be ultra cool again one day……?!!!


  4. I most certainly do have the Kaffe Fassett cardigan! It is stored safely out of the way of moths and gets an occasional airing for summer evening parties, where it never fails to attract interest and compliments. It is one of my most treasured possessions.


    1. So touched to hear that you’ve still got it, Mandy – but Kaffe Fassett cardies are very “large”, aren’t they? Yes – good for chilly summer evenings perhaps in Devon, but you might need more warmth in Northumberland!!


  5. Lovely pics of James and Helen. I do remember those clothes, and especially James’ hilarious drawings. Does he still do them, I wonder?


    1. It was a real sentimental journey getting out these old pics of the children, and yes, he does still draw – I think he does a comic on tumblr. I’ve got scrapbooks with his pics in them – fun to look back on.


  6. The day I read your post there was no place to put a comment and I wondered if that was on purpose or not. I can understand your reluctance to ‘air’ your circumstances but I for one think you are the stronger for it!! Cheers!!


  7. Hi,

    Could you tell me how to make Kaffe Fassett’s poppies more wearable, not so bit, but still look great? How much ease do you recommend?



    1. I’m not sure I can help, Janet! Kaffe Fassett knits were all designed to go on big square jumpers and cardigans with boxy sleeves – so no fussing around with trying to carry a pattern in a set-in sleeve. And I just don’t think you can effectively shrink that style of knit – you just have to go with the “big” effect. What you could do is find another cardigan or jumper pattern that you like and knit it using Kaffe Fassett’s poppy pattern … Hope that helps 🙂


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