I had a closer look at a relatively new addition to the local landscape the other day. One of the trees near a pub has acquired a woolly patchwork overcoat, and joins the collection of features now swathed in knitted outdoor garments around the place, including several lamp-posts. Sensible for the constant exposure to strong South -Westerlies I suppose, and I’m sure the tree is suitably grateful.
I’m really pleased to see how some of the ‘old’ crafts like knitting are coming back, and this tree-dressing advertises it in such a prominent way. I do wonder though what happened to the demand for patchwork blankets, knitted and crocheted from leftover wool. When I was a child my Gran used to manufacture these on an industrial scale to send to Africa (as there were already several such blankets scattered round her living room). In fact that’s how I learned both those skills, knitting and crochet, producing roundels and squares to be sewn together ad infinitum. I also learned to wind the wool which had been washed, after she had pulled down old sweaters and cardigans. Nothing was ever wasted in Gran’s house – she was the mother of recycling, like all her generation. I never quite understood why these blankets were needed for such a hot country but I didn’t like to ask. Later I was given one of Gran’s blankets, but I got rid of it some years after. Now I wish with all my heart I still had it, and of course her with it.
Domestic skills were part of my upbringing, as women were expected to be able to use needles and cookery utensils rather than be adept with pen and ink. I was taught to sew by hand, and later with a sewing machine. Embroidery was de rigueur for schoolgirls, and I still have a drawstring bag with clumsy chain-stitch motifs on the outside pockets. The bag was intended to hold sewing things, but it wasn’t very useful as everything fell out of the pockets.
At the age of 11, I was at boarding school, like many middle-class children from single-parent families in those days. This was the Blue Coat School, in Birmingham, one of the schools set up for orphans and poor boys in Victorian times. Girls were admitted later, and we numbered approximately 1 in 4 when I was there. In mixed classes we gained from the breadth of an education designed to get children into some of the top ‘public’ schools, or at least those with charitable foundations and scholarships. We weren’t Eton class by any means, but very few failed to get a grammar school place of some sort. So the year which saw my 11th birthday was packed with extra coaching and revision for entrance exams and the eleven-plus. Needlework was put on hold while we practised arithmetic, essay writing, and the kind of graphic puzzles and reasoning exercises which I still enjoy.
The summer came with good news for most of us and we were allowed to ease off. However the devil makes work for idle fingers. A fine spell of weather saw us sitting in chairs under a large tree outside the boarding house as we knitted for Britain. The deadline was an exhibition for Prize Day and we competed for our work to be selected by the house-mistress, work to be admired for its complexity and neatness. I already had the advantage of Gran’s tuition and the result was a doll, complete with dress and coat in the school colour, a lovely royal blue which I’m still fond of, the colour of security perhaps. Despite all the exam stress it was a happy time, and I was over the moon when the doll took her place in the exhibition, despite the fact that her left leg was an inch longer than the right.
I do still have the doll – Monica she is called, after St Monica’s, the girls’ house. She’s just had a facelift, her hair tidied up and some minor orthopaedic surgery to reduce the length of her left leg, although I have to say I felt bad about it, as if I was criticising a child’s best effort.
Monica’s sitting on my shelf now in pride of place, amongst all the books. She makes me think I should go up into the attic and look for my old knitting needles. There’s bound to be a tree nearby feeling the cold.