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! 

Family treasures

Recently I wrote about my story quilt, and the fabrics I had chosen to include and their family associations.

It got me thinking.  I started looking around at all the textiles lying about the house, and thinking about the people who had sewed or knitted them.  I was amazed to find so many treasures that family members had made.

Let’s start with the needlecase that my step-great-grandmother made.  Great-Gran lived in Miss Havisham-esque magnificence in her bedroom in a huge house in Leicester.  She took to her bed in early old age in the belief that her heart was weak, and she was waited on hand and foot by her family and a saintly elderly retainer, Miss Wood.  All around her bedroom were cupboards and boxes, filled with beads, silks, threads and other treasures.  If I was lucky (and a good girl) she would give me some beads or silks from her treasure trove.

Great-Gran’s workmanship was exquisite.  Here is the needlecase she made me.  I still use it everyday, and look at her skilled stitches and remember her bedroom.  It’s worth enlarging this image to see her detailed work – there’s beading along the edge.Great-Gran's needle caseHer son, my step-grandfather was also extraordinarily skilled at – well, just about everything.  He repaired clocks, made jewelry – and was a successful and busy business man to boot.  He also did tapestries.  This is one of a set of chair covers he embroidered.  A very stylish simple design which regularly gives me great pleasure.  (And – sadly – he predeceased his mother, tucked up in bed with her so-called heart problems). Gampy's embroidered  chair seat His wife, my Australian grandmother Dordy (she didn’t want to be known by any ageing grandmotherly term, so we grandchildren gave a family twist to her first name, Dora), was also a fine sempstress.  She never did any “hobby” sewing that I know of, but she made almost all her own clothes.  Perhaps there’d been greater necessity for practical sewing in the world she’d grown up in – I don’t know.  She loved to wear batik fabrics which suited her colouring very well.  Here she is outside her little London home with it’s beautiful garden wearing one of her handmade batik dresses.Dordy wearing batik dress 1971Many, many of her clothes came to me, and I wore them (usually cut down and altered into shapes I considered more fashionable).  The dress Dordy is wearing above is now in my story quilt (of which I have written more here).  Look below! My story quilt featuring Dordy's batik dressMy father, (Dordy’s son) took to tapestry like his step-father.  The best of his embroidered cushions are masterpieces of design, incorporating words and phrases in many languages. (He had been a linguist, a traveller and a diplomat).  I treasure this cushion particularly.  Apparently the Japanese characters say “Good Health.  No smoking.”  (I can’t verify that!)    A rough translation of the ancient Greek at the centre might be: “For each person chooses best for themself.”  The cushion was a gift from my father to mark the occasion of my giving up smoking.  He’s put his initials round the motif on the left, RHE, and the date on the right, 1982.  An important and precious reminder to me.RHE's embroidered cushionNone of the men on my mother’s side of the family sewed, but her mother did.  Granny was another embroiderer, and her chosen colour was blue.  She worked the cover of this stool, and this little bag for me.  It’s got my initials on it (KE) and the date (1960).Granny's embroidery stool and bagMy Aunty Jilly (her daughter) was a talented weaver.  I treasure  this scarf she wove with it’s red and purple pink tones – and the occasional shot of turquoise to give it lift.  Her use of colour is brilliant – she always gets it just right.Aunty Jilly's woven scarfMy mother is a sempstress par excellence!  She made many of our clothes when we were little.  Here we all are, in a symphony of blue (her favourite colour like her mother), at my youngest sister’s christening in the hot hot 1961 Belgrade sun.  I’m the eldest on the left, and my sister, Marian, is on the right.  My mother has made us the most enchanting hand-smocked blue and white cotton dresses.  Her dress is also blue – a paler colour.  Don’t we look an delightful family, with these beautifully dressed children (I see we’re even wearing gloves!)?  How extraordinarily photos can conceal the truth – my mother’s heart must have been breaking amidst all the happiness because just a year before she’d given birth to a still-born baby.  I don’t remember at 7 being aware of this – just the heat and the cosmos and sunflowers growing exuberantly. Elizabeth's christening 1961 My mother also knits, embroiders and does patchwork.  It’s really hard to chose what to chose to show that captures her skills best but I think I have to include a patchwork quilt.  Here she is, sitting beside the patchwork quilt she made with my mother-in-law, Liza, for my 1979 marriage to Hugh.  My mother designed the quilt, and sewed the patchwork.  Liza was an artist and embroiderer, and added names and dates, and some delightful little embroidery stories.My mother with the wedding quiltAaaggh –  this quilt evokes so much pain and guilt in me!  So much care, so much love, so much skill, and what did Hugh and I do but get acrimoniously divorced!  I know it is ridiculous, but the quilt sums up all my sense of failure at our divorce.

So what do you do when your marriage has fallen apart, and you have this beautiful beautiful quilt, made specially for you, and relevant only to you?  Well, you put it in the attic, which you know to be a nice dry place because you keep lots of other old fabrics and children’s clothes etc up there.  You put it in it’s own suitcase, which you know is clean and safe – and you forget about it.  Your mother never mentions the quilt again.

Then, one day, there’s a patchwork exhibition locally, and you think – wouldn’t that just be the right place to put this patchwork quilt, so it could be exhibited and admired as its due?  You hasten to the attic, get down the suitcase, and absolute horror of horror, the suitcase has “wept” red-brown stain (as I have never known a suitcase do before) all over your quilt.  Aaaagh again – and again, and again. *Wedding quilt dateAnd, no, I have never told my mother what happened to the beautiful quilt she and Liza made with so much love and hope for my first marriage.Wedding quilt signaturesLet’s move on to later times, other generations.

My husband, Stephen, is an absolutely whizz with the knitting machine.  It suits him so well, giving his mathematical mind full scope for the design of elaborate and beautiful patterns.  Here is the blanket he made for us.  These are all patterns he devised himself – that’s something I could never do, so I am completely in awe of this skill.Stephen's machine-knitted blanketThen there’s these gorgeous cushions that my cousin, Lucy, knitted for me.  Vibrant strong colours and patterns.Lucy's knitted cushionsThis beautiful wall-hanging that another cousin, Polly, designed and worked.  There’s calligraphy and stitchery and printing all combined into one marvellous work.Polly's View-Points calligraphic printLast Christmas, my step-daughter, Zacyntha, embroidered this cushion cover for me.  Incredible use of colours and design.   Each time you look at it, the patterns shift and it looks different.Zacyntha's embroidered cushionAnother step-daughter, Lorna, also designed and made us a cushion cover. I think this was part of her A-level Art project.  I love it – particularly how the colour changes just slightly where she’s run out of a yarn.  Just like the carpet weavers of old.Lorna's embroidered cushionThen there’s this wonderful box that my daughter, Helen made.  It’s another A-level Art project – she constructed the box, and the fabrics that adorn it are machine and hand-embroidered.  Naughty, naughty mum left it in the sun so the top is much bleached.  It’s still a treasure.  It was always a secret….. Helen's embroidered box So many precious things, so much love, so many memories – so much inspiration!

*Comforting words from Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt : “And remember, no matter how careful you are, you might not be able to prevent some damage to your quilt – no matter how attached you are to it… something may ruin it beyond repair, leaving only the memory of the quilt behind.  Do not castigate yourself; you may not be to blame.  You did your best.  These are fragile textiles.  These things happen.”

Thank you, Whitney.