correspondence

These are my pinboards at the Astley Ainsley Hospital, covered with the wonderful cards and messages you sent. Being in hospital is a difficult business. For me, the dissociating effect of being a patient in an institution was compounded by the fact that I was inhabiting a body which did not seem to be mine at all. But when I was feeling low; when I returned to the ward from a tough physio session or became frustrated with fatigue, there displayed in front of me, were all these messages of support, beautiful cards, and words of encouragement. Hospitals are colourless, featureless places – but my corner of the ward was brightened up with pictures of yarn and textiles, owls and sheep, landscapes and gardens. Your words and images were not just cheering, but have genuinely helped me through the most difficult time in my life thus far.

During the very early phase of my recovery, the care of family and friends was at least as important to me as the medical care that I received. Mel kept turning up with craft supplies, and when I described the particular difficulties that I was experiencing with my hand, devised impromptu tools to help me. She patiently used her hands to demonstrate what I needed to be doing with mine. I attribute my improvements in dexterity, and the fact that I was able to learn to knit and plait again to her.

(Frame, canvas, yarn, pins, plait. From Melanie.)

From further afield, Felix and Liz and Meiko and Harriet reminded me of their friendship with tokens that were both meaningful and heartening. Felix sent me many amazing things, but perhaps the most moving was a cd containing audio recordings of our walks in 2009. I lay in bed unable to move my left side, dreaming of walking, and listening to the sounds of the actual walks I had shared with a friend. It was a deeply emotional experience. Felix wrote a letter to accompany her recordings:

“I have found our walk at Dymchurch. There is a lot of wind & it isn’t a ‘pristine’ recording, but it has the sea & it makes me remember the slightly desolate quality of that beach. It was for me a very happy afternoon. . . I loved sharing quiet with you & walking so peacefully by the sea — you taking your photos & me obsessing on my sounds & the crunchy sand that eventually inspired these socks.”

(photograph of Felix on the beach at Dymchurch)

I am particularly fond of correspondence. Handling and reading eighteenth-century manuscripts is one of the great pleasures of my academic work. Apart from when I am out on the hills with Tom, I am probably at my happiest in an archive among the private and the public worlds that are brought to life in eighteenth-century letters. I love – in a way that is almost certainly fetishistic- the thing-ness of correspondence: the particular way that particular women wrote their letters, the paper they chose, the way they folded up their words into neat self-closing envelopes, the wax seals, the signs of postage or delivery by hand. I also love the stuff that letters contained: seeds and shells sent from one woman to another half-way across the world; a clipping from a magazine; a hand drawn pattern for a collar or embroidered bloom. It is no coincidence to me that my long standing interests in textiles and materiality assumed the level of obsessions after I began spending time with the manuscript collections of the women of eighteenth-century Philadelphia.


(front and back of late eighteenth-century pocket book. Silk embroidery on silk)

I have read many sets of eighteenth-century correspondence between friends who never met. It has always intrigued me how powerful these connections were; how they were established and maintained often over many decades across distances of many thousands of miles. But eighteenth-century friends were brought together in a manner that is really not all that different from the contemporary blogosphere: through shared tastes or interests; through the exchange of skills or information; through debate; through simply speaking to one another. I often find myself thinking about the similarities of eighteenth century paper and contemporary digital networks, but this is perhaps a topic for another time. In any case, the particular way I feel about the materiality of eighteenth century letters made your correspondence especially important and meaningful to me.

(letter from Helena with photographs of a walk at Tynemouth).

Each lunchtime, after a hard morning’s physiotherapy, Morag would turn up at my bedside with an armful of envelopes. Opening your letters and cards, reading and absorbing their contents, and then arranging them around my pinboards, was the singular pleasure and highlight of my hospital day. I was of course sustained by the comments and messages you were leaving here, but there is something particularly satisfying about looking at a stamp or postmark, seeing an address written in someone else’s hand, opening an envelope, and then enjoying a distant friend’s personal choice of words or images. While he lay in bed, Proust famously enjoyed reading the names of stations in the train timetable, and I can understand the particular pleasure of the imaginary journeys he must have taken, the hypnotic effect of the names of unknown towns. A card from Madeleine came with a clear, well-stamped postmark from “White River Junction,” which I found incredibly pleasing. I loved the individually evocative qualities of postcards from Stockholm or Brussels, Zeeland or Albuquerque. You wrote to me about your experiences of the places that you knew I loved (the island of Harris; the English Lakes) or about the spaces and landscapes that were dear to you. You told me of walks you had taken and enjoyed, accompanying your words with pictures of the mountains and trails that your feet and bodies moved along.

(photograph from Valerie of snow-covered trails near Kelowa, British Columbia. Sent with “seeds of encouragement” from the Black Spruce Tree).

Many of you sent me images of plants, vegetables and flowers, or pictures of your own gardens. I loved to read your stories of growth and renewal in landscapes that often seemed impossibly exotic. From Australia, Lydia wrote a marvelous letter about a garden reclaimed from the surrounding desert, with tales of the kangaroos and pigs that were it’s (sometimes unwelcome) night-time visitors.

(Lydia’s garden)

Through your letters and cards, you shared your own interests and obsessions, your identities and characters. When a small envelope turned up from Suzanne, it carried the sender’s personality – her particularly graphic materiality – with it. Everything about that package felt precious to me: a personally stamped postmark (a winged Pegasus) on the outside of the envelope;her neat and distinctive artist’s handwriting; a carefully wrapped and thoughtfully selected group of postcards from her own collection; two tiny hand folded paper cranes in patterned paper; and a hand-made paper-cut card that took my breath away.

(hand made card. from Suzanne).

This was a package fashioned entirely from paper — Suzanne’s envelope contained little of actual material value, but it’s hand-made and deeply personal materiality made its contents of inestimable worth to me. Given that so many of you are talented craftspeople, it was inevitable that some of you would send me hand-made things.

(wolf in sheep’s clothing. from Mary-Jo.)

Some of these things – like Mary-Jo’s wolf in sheep’s clothing – just about killed me and the sheer number of handmade things arranged about my bedside became a talking point among my medical team and the staff on the ward. Despite the fact that I asked you not to send me stuff, I also received chocolates, delicious biscuits, packets of tea (hurrah!), fabric in bolts and fat quarters, amazing skeins of yarn, vintage buttons, tiny plaits, owls of many shapes and sizes, books, magazines, newspaper clippings, necklaces, brooches, and bracelets, handknitted shawls and socks. Under Patricia’s supervision, the nuns of Kersal Hill convent in Salford knitted me an entire nativity scene, complete with donkey, shepherds, wise men, and a tiny Jesus in a knitted crib. Ella sent me Scottish and Northumbrian gansey patterns; Jeanette posted a wee porcupine from New Mexico; Stacy provided me with the trashy crime novels which she knows I like to read. These things were so damned heartening – so full of love and hope – that it was hard for me to feel too low about my own grim situation. You were all thinking of me, all believing that I would be well again. You were bothered enough to put pen to paper, to make or send me things that meant something to you; to share with me your own experiences of sickness and of loss; telling me how you had got through your own difficult times. I drew, and still draw, tremendous strength from all of this.

(small pillow. Hand sewn and embroidered by Helen).

Though my correspondence is longer pinned to a hospital wall, I still want to look at it and enjoy it. I also want to be reminded of how important it was and is to me, and to express my collective thanks to all of you. To this end, I have begun a virtual archive of my post-stroke correspondence, to which I shall upload an image of everything you have sent me (with the exception, of course, of the things that I have eaten). The archive currently contains 92 entries, and I have barely begun uploading. You can search for things by keyword (for example, entering ‘octodog’ into the search form will yield a magazine clipping from Kate K that had me hooting with laughter for quite some time); explore the different classifications of objects by clicking on the words in the category cloud; search for items by the name of the sender or maker; or simply browse through the entire archive in turn by clicking on each image as it appears. I have also written a brief introduction to, and explanation of, the archive which you can read here. I hope you enjoy looking at these things just as I enjoyed receiving them. I also hope that the archive, gathered together as a whole, goes some way towards conveying the tremendous power and encouragement I have drawn from your collective friendship over the past few weeks. Thankyou.


(hand drawn and coloured card from kowajy)

26 responses

  1. I was awed that you would open your address to us, your virtual people. It gave me something physical to do, to choose a postcard, to walk to the post office and send it away. When I told friends and family of your progress, they would ask me “how do you know this woman?” and I’d answer that I read your blog. Then they would glaze over as though that was somehow not real. I appreciated so much being able to send something from here to there, and love seeing the mosaic of all the gifts and notes you received.

    Congrats on the walk!

    Lois [who is a little less maudlin today]

  2. The surprising thing to me is that , when I sent a little card to your ward room (tacked to the upper right corner of your hospital bulletin board, I believe that’s it !) I hadn’t even hardly begun reading the earlier posts of your blog. Since sending that card, which must have been within two weeks of your stroke, I hadn’t yet delved into your blog. Since then I have had impulse to send so much more, but cyber relations being as they are, have a certain anonymity, and I have no destination point as to where to send a continueing hand-written note with little Thingsies from my end of the world. I’d love to. Perhaps you can email me a p.o. box ? I have not been so bold as to think you have time or inclination to consider that little detail, but if and whenever you do, I’ll be delighted.

    Needless to say, the Needled Blog has enlivened *my own* love of textiles and I share nearly one hundred percent, your obsession of many creative processes and material crafting. We also share that love of the steep climb up mountain sides, and that is the single most one thing I have been excited about your rehabilitating into. I think of you and your life often, and it so strangely affectsme, and shapes my own life. See, the power of imagery ! The Brain which evolves and changes the body through visualization !!!

    All the best to you on this lovely spring day ~ Jen

  3. Thank you for generously sharing your correspondence, and the story of your journey. Hearing friends care for friends is powerful, and I am so glad you’re letting us share this with you.

  4. So many things to say, but I thought this was such a lovely post that had me in tears reading this on the train. I’m so glad that you received such a lovely selection of cards and that they brought you cheer. There are too many things to pick out but Mel’s improvised tools sound incredible and so thoughtful, and
    I particularly love the last hand-drawn card as all the things on it remind me of you and your lovely blog. (Also the sheep in wolf clothings is just amazing with the teeny tiny cables). I love the archive!
    P.S The 18th century letters sound amazing, and look forward to reading more posts about the similarities to digital communities. I think “stuff” is very interesting particularly things that are often considered quite transient. I got very interested in the advert wrappers from 19th century periodicals at university for similar reasons and loved seeing old paper piecing backs at the V&A quilt exhibition which used old adverts and shopping lists. But I’m always interested in how people recommend things to other people or remember events. I recently got quite frustrated at the Van Gogh exhibition because they had only translated the fragment of the letter which related to the paintings and I wanted to know what he was buying from shops or was going to send in the post to other painters!

  5. The planet seems a little smaller today after seeing the web of connections created because of your blog and your health. Thank you so much for sharing your cards and gifts and messages, and especially your walks! I’ve just spent a wonderful hour discovering new blogs and the wonderful people who create them through the links you provided. I’m feeling inspired to try to expand my horizons a bit.

  6. How wonderful of you to share. It is fascinating and heartening how caring others can be, isn’t it?

    Keep up your amazing progress, I loved the walk pictures yesterday.

    Take care,

  7. What a beautiful collection. I love the wolf in sheep’s clothing!

    And I’m fascinated to discover that correspondences between friends who’ve never met aren’t simply a project of the digital age – I do hope that one day you might write more about that.

  8. I never cease to be humbled by the generosity of friends. Your little handmade gifts are amazing, and beautiful. And as Sadie said, it’s very interesting to think about long-distance friendships existing before the advent of the Internet!

    On an unrelated topic, I don’t know if you remember emailing me with some help with my Clothkits Birdie skirt ages and ages ago (nearly two years ago!). Well, I finally finished it! It looks great, and it fits, as you said it would. And I have at last conquered my fear of the sewing machine. So thank you once again for your help!

  9. You have touched many people through your blogging where you have shared so much of your life and your talents. It is wonderful to see the outpouring of love and support and may it sustain you when you have to push to get to the next level.

  10. What a lovely post! I also think that blogs, tweets and even texts are not dissimilar from eighteenth century correspondence. I must admit to being moved to tears by Felix’s gift – recordings of your walks! how perfect! And thanks for the link to her blog – nice to have another good crafty blog to follow.
    The archive of correspondence is fascinating – this would make an amazing exhibition, and possibly a book – have you thought about doing this?

  11. Hi Kate – another heartwarming post of how kind and thoughtful so many people are (as opposed to the constant newspaper reports of vile doings!). In your previous post, you look so much better than your earlier photos – you look so much more confident on your feet. (on an entirely boastful knitting note, I once had Icelandic Sweaters for sale in a shop on the Royal Mile!!)

  12. How nice of you to respond like this. I love correspondence and miss the pen pals I had during my teens. I still enjoy the e-mail exchanges, but there’s nothing like a nice stamp anyway…

  13. Kate, Kate, this is so very much “of” you – the careful collated archive, the precision with which you describe what this correspondence means to you, the way the archive mirrors the Kate we see. It has left me beaming. And such a pleasure to read of your first ascent and see you and Tom stepping out.

  14. What a wonderful story you tell. I am a retired textiles teacher – I have always loved fabrics so reading your articles and your blog is a joy. I was so shocked to hear of your stroke but so impressed by the way you have worked hard to recover. My own understanding of the problems of stroke patients has increased 100 fold. You probably don’t realise the good you have done by publishing such lucid and honest descriptions. I didn’t send a card but I am sending you every good wish that you continue to make steady progress.

  15. Oh Kate! I am so foolishly absolutely incredibly delighted to see my garden in your post. Dare I admit that I jumped up and down a little – but not over the garden fence!!! You have quite made my day!!!

    And what wondrous letters, cards and gifts you have received from your friends… How very talented we all are.

    Happy thoughts – Lydia

  16. Kate! Two great posts. I dream of going to Scotland. You make me want to hike all over your beautiful country. It is great to see photos of you out and about and challenging your body to move through and work with your current form. And I located my card in the mix too! I would gladly send you more posts. Your blog has been such a great read and for so long that it is the least I could do in sending an actual card in the mail. Your words on feminism, textiles and history are a joy. I feel like I know you though we have never met.

  17. I sense an owl theme! I love your online archive. What a great idea and what beautiful objects. Thank goodness email has not fully replaced physical correspondence yet.

  18. Kate as you are thanking your readers – I just want to thank you because you have reached out and shared so much with us. your writings let me to travel to your beautiful corner of the world. what may seem common place to you is so exotic and different to me. and last fall during a low moment in my life when I was laid up you let me test knit for you. I can’t tell you how excited I was and how it brightened my mornings to knit Fugue. and it wasn’t just the knitting it was also reading your insights into developing the pattern -the music and the weavings. I am always learning when I read your blog.
    And sharing your life even now is so brave and enlightening. sometimes I read that people are getting more distant from one another because we isolate ourselves in our homes and instead of talking to a neighbor we are on a computer or our fancy phones and then I see all the cards and notes from all over and think that maybe technology can make people closer.
    mary jo
    ps I am glad the wolf gave you a smile when you opened him someday I will send a picture of my dog Mahba and you will see why I love wolfy things.

  19. I love your ideas. and I do love the things you make and share, but I must come out of my lurkery (only a couple weeks long since I discovered your blog recently) and tell you that I think you might have changed my ideas about blogging and how it can connect people. thank you.

  20. The correlation you draw between the corresponding women of the 18th and 19th centuries and today’s connectivity through blogs and the internet speaks to a continuation of our obvious need to touch one another’s lives. You have certainly reached out and connected with all of us who read your entries, cheer you on in your journey back to health, and learn so many and varied things from you. It’s always a treat.
    Your cards and gifts are cheerful and affirming. I can see how they all contribute to your recovery. While I can’t send you a clipping or a pack of seeds through the ether, I can give you the link to Barb Parry’s blog, which I don’t think was on the card — http://www.sheepgal.typepad.com/ — it’s lambing season, there are 5 or 6 short videos, sweet and funny, and photos to touch your heart. (Barb is about 90 minutes south of White River Junction, which pleased you.)

  21. Thank you for sharing these. I was so thrilled and relieved to find my postcard series on your wall. With all the technological wonder around us it still seems so magical to me that something as small as a postcard can make it’s way across the world and then back again in an entirely new way for all of us here to share. So metaphysical!

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