my handmade childhood

Various things have been prompting me to think a lot recently about the role that sewing and knitting and other handmade things can play in the shape of ones life. Like many crafty folk in the UK, I enjoyed watching the Great British Sewing Bee. Unlike so many of these competitive TV formats, this programme seemed to me to celebrate genuine amateur skill, and although one might take issue with some of the judging decisions, the nature of some of the tasks, and particularly the time allotted to said tasks, I thought the series was largely really inspiring. I also found it both interesting and moving to see the levels of meaning that were invested in hand-made garments by the competitors themselves, and particularly by their family members, who were so incredibly appreciative of the things that had been created especially for them. It made me think about the fact that there is hardly a single photograph of myself or my sister from our childhoods where we are not wearing something hand-made.

Here we are, enacting a decorative and singularly jolly protest against the privatisation of some green public spaces at Castleton carnival, probably, I think, in 1980. My mum fashioned these gigantic floral costumes from tissue paper that was one of the waste products in the factory where my dad worked. Our headgear was attached around our chins with a pair of tights.

flowerpower

You could easily narrate the story of mine and Helen’s childhoods through the marvelous matching cardigans we wore. My grandma was knitting constantly, and had a particular penchant for the kids’ Aran patterns she found in Woman’s Weekly. These wee hoodies might well be my favourites. . .

merrygoround
(Helen looks very cool on that Lambretta)

. . . though I also love these sleeveless cardis.

arans

Grandma had a ‘Tyrolean’ phase later in the ’80s. . .

tyrolean

. . I recall that she knitted my mum a similar garment, too.

In this photo, I am wearing a sort of snood-y balaclava thing knitted by Grandma, and a quilted coat sewn by my mum.

snowman

My mum is a whizz with the sewing machine. I couldn’t find a picture of the most memorable garment she made for me — a chocolate-brown dress with white polka dots, full skirt, and sweetheart neckline that I wore for my first grown-up party (a sort of prom equivalent, I suppose), but I did locate a photograph of me in my First Communion dress that she made from a Vogue pattern. I remember many details of this dress so clearly: it was lined, with a top layer of light cotton voile with teeny tiny pin-dots. There was a beautiful floral trim around the cuffs and bodice that my mum got from the market, and I remember that the whole thing hung really beautifully, and swished in a very pleasing fashion as I walked. I am the one sitting in the middle, without the red carnation.

firstcommunion

Thanks, Mum.

73 responses

  1. Hi Kate, I really loved your comments, i’m currently sifting through pictures of me and my sister in handmade garmets made for us by my grandmother [who - by the way - also lived in Castleton, Rochdale]. Happy Days!!

  2. My mother also made my First Communion dress, and I still have lots of leftover pieces of fabric from the clothes she made for me, my brother and my father. When I’m crazy-quilting I incorporate them into the quilt design and I love looking at the pieces and remembering.

  3. What happy memories! In addition to all the kitted garments, including dolls’ clothes, Mum made all my dresses – I particularly remember one – blue rosebuds in crisp cotton with a white sailor collar with blue rosebud piping. The dresses always had a sash and full skirts finely gathered into the bodice. In winter my favourite was in pale blue tweed. The skirts were always lined, and for party frocks had several layers of petticoats. My one of my earliest memories is of sitting inside the on-its-end curved wooden Singer sewing machine lid underneath the dining table while Mum sewed with her beautiful black sewing machine with the gold pattern, and the lovely clickety-clack sound it made. Thank you for your recollections – they have brought mine flooding back – all that love in every stitch!

  4. Somewhere I have a photo of me aged 10, winning girl’s first prize at the village gala day, wearing a cave-girl outfit made from… hmm possibly a bag of rabbit fur or an old coat… with macaroni jewellery and old scrim tied over my sandshoes! Beside me is the local farmer’s son, who dressed as a scarecrow (straight out of his dad’s fields I think!)

    I didn’t appreciate at the time, but this outfit was sewn in the wee small hours after we went to bed, on the old hand-operated black Singer I learned to sew with, in the weeks that followed my father’s death…

    Now I understand, and the photo makes me so sad – it was how she coped with her grief, but life had to go on with 4 kids to look after. But a lovely memory to be reminded of, thanks

  5. Such beautiful family pictures. Lucky girls to have great clothing hand knit and sewn by loving family!
    Thanks so much for sharing.

  6. Just about to embark on sewing the Victory pattern ‘Madeleine’ for my soon to be 12 year old. It is sometimes frustrating when she insists on wearing something shop bought (rather than something I’ve laboured over) for a special occasion but this post suggests that maybe the effort (and putting aside stuff for myself which I will wear) is worthwhile! My mum didn’t have any making skills but my first communion dress was made by a neighbour – even though I’ll be 50 this year I can still remember practically every detail of it.

  7. Great pictures – my memories of a home-made first communion dress are less pleasant – in the 1970s my mum didn’t like the whole frilly, pseudo-bride thing (I’m with her now!) so commissioned my gran to make a somewhat more austere affair – plain crepe with a high neck and long sleeve; no lace, no buttons, no velvet; one row of those wee white daisy chains that you used to get. Hair shorn into a short pageboy and shoes that made me squirm with embarrassment. On the other hand I did have some lovely knitted goods. Thanks for the post

  8. Thank you for sharing these photos and stories. My mother’s craftsy endeavours were focused almost exclusively on the house, so I’m curious (and a but jealous) of people who had handmade childhoods, particularly with such talented ladies making the clothes. Just beautiful!

  9. Ah, what memories you bring back. Everything I wore as a child was sewn by my Mom except for coats. She didn’t do coats! My favorite Christmas present was a complete wardrobe of clothes for my favorite doll–Betty Jean–named after a second cousin who I thought was very beautiful! By the time I was nine years old I was starting to sew my own doll clothes and graduated to my own full gathered skirts that were made out of chicken feed sacks. We would go to the town feed store and choose the fabric. Now I still have a few of the scraps but most have gone into scrappy quilts.
    My earliest memories are threading the needle on the old Singer treadle machine that Mom inherited from her Mother Sophia who was the local dressmaker. Waited until I was twelve before knitting my first cardigan with cables. Wore that sweater all through high school and college. Now my oldest daughter carries on the knitting tradition while youngest daughter and I quilt.

  10. Kate, this is truly precious- and I mean that in the full sense of the word. How fortunate you are to have photographs. I have similar memories of my childhood. My favorite garment was a pair of trousers that mum made from some purple-flowered polyester. They had a matching waistcoat that velcroed up the front. I’d amuse my friends on the playground by bending over in an exaggerated fashion, simultaneously ripping open the Velcro to make it sound like the trousers were tearing. The main reason I knit and sew today is to keep those memories alive, connect with my ancestral women, and create a similar memory picture for my children. Thank you so much for sharing this!

  11. Adorable. Just adorable. (Now I want to dress my 14-month old son in a handmade floral headdress!) lucky you and lucky Helen :).

  12. I have such fond memories of Women’s Weekly. My grandmother would get her copy and I would visit her every week in her flat and read the romance stories. And I remember vividly the dresses that were advertised for sale on the back cover. It puzzled me who these young women were that were wearing and buying such old fashioned clothing and only years later did I understand the cunning advertising. (I was very young.)

  13. I am still wearing knits lovingly made by my mother. She died four years ago at the age of 84 and i am now 65 but it gives me great comfort to feel her love as I wear her sweaters, some of which must be well over 20 years old. My daughter cherishes her first formal gown lovingly sewn by Mum, and I have a wedding dress that I could never wear again also from mums hands. I now sew and knit for my grandchildren in the hope that they too will feel the love. Thanks for the reminder that this stash has real purpose.

  14. Wow, thank you for sharing, Kate! As I’ve taken up sewing lately, I have been thinking about my own childhood (albeit not very long ago). My mum made dresses for my two sisters and me every Easter and Christmas, and occasionally inbetween. Up until, perhaps, 7 or 8 years ago, I didn’t even own a store-bought dress. I particularly remember a cheery sunflower-patterned number with a matching cardigan– my mum didn’t knit then, so she purchased a cream cardi and hand-embroidered gorgeous, matching, silk sunflowers. As I sewed my first dress myself last month, I now appreciate all the work she did! The vast majority of our dresses were hand smocked with stitching, glass beads, and delicate lace. Amazing.
    I’m slowly going back to wearing exclusively handmade dresses. I have two in my closet now and hope to grow that to a respectable number over the summer.

  15. Kate-Thanks so much for sharing! It is so amazing to see where people “came” from. You can truly tell in the photos that it is you. I suppose those sweaters that your Gran made influenced you in ways I am sure that you didn’t even know. So glad to see the tradition continue. Thanks as always for sharing.

  16. What happy memories! Thanks for sharing them with us. It’s interesting how much all of our lives are similar, even though we live in various parts of the world. My granny was the one who sewed wonderful dresses for me when I was little and I still have one of them. She also sewed clothes for my doll. My mother had had her fill of living with a mother who was a seamstress and a father who was a tailor, and she rebelled by not sewing much at all. She did, however, love to knit afghans, many of which I still have. I make quilts and now knit, so I hope that my hand-made gifts are giving others happy memories, too.

  17. This has been my most favorite of your commentary and I love them all. My first grand baby was born just 2 months ago and I am knitting little garments for her. Hopefully I will improve with time. I have always loved things that have been handed down to me and I am hoping my little Erika will love the things I give to her!

  18. My favorite garments Mom made for me were a lavender houndstooth wool jacket and skirt. Wow. Those beautiful fabric and garments, now long gone. Thank you for sharing your lovely family photos.

  19. Lovely :) I have similar memories. My First Holy Communion dress was sewed by my Nan. My other Nan was the knitter, and my Mum did both- she learned from each of my Nans (my aunt was Mum’s best friend, so she was hanging around my Dad’s mum a lot and that is how she learned to sew). My siblings and I loved to get handmade things- the oldest of my younger sisters and I were quite convinced our school Summer dresses were the best looking ones – because Mum handmade them :)

  20. Hi Kate – thanks for that post. It reminded me of a photograph of me and my dad (I’m about 5 or 6 in the picture) sitting on a merry-go-round where he is wearing a spectacular cable-knit cardi that my mum made for him. About 10 years later I used to wear the same cardigan to school as a ‘coat’ to prove my credentials as a free spirit. I’m now over 40 and still the same cardigan comes out at home in snowy weather. I think it counts as a heirloom knit by now…

  21. My mother made all my clothes as well, though she really didn’t like sewing and only did it out of necessity. Every dress (no pants for girls then) had to last, so as I grew she would cut a few inches of a dress off and insert a piece of ribbon or flat trim to make the skirt longer. Every dress always ended up with two or three inserted bands for extensions. Luckily I grew like a beanpole: up and not out.
    Thanks for all your wonderful posts….and BRUCE! my flatcoat (Jettygoose) would love to go for a romp with him, especially if water is included.

  22. Lovely post, Kate. I make clothes for my girls and knit them jumpers. My mum made clothes for us and if we were very lucky we got a cardi form my aunt who was the most amazing knitter.
    I adore your photos, just lovely. and yes, You can clearly see why you are the splendid person you are.

  23. Wow. I loved that post. It brings back so many memories of my grandmother and the years I spent living in England and Ireland. My mom was a subscriber of Women’s Weekly for years, although she was never very crafty. It was my grandmother who was the knitting/crafting whiz. Thanks for sharing your memories and photos.

  24. I am teaching knitting to a group of elementary school students and once they learn they always want to knit a little something for people they love.

  25. Excellent post. Reminded me of my first summer after I started school. My mother made us all dresses with a fitted bodice and a flouncy dirndl skirt. The fabric was a cream/white cotton with big chrysanthemum-type flowers on it. She made them on a Singer treadle machine just at the beginning of the 60s. There is a photograph somewhere with all three of us in the summer sun. Aahh memories.

  26. most of my clothing when i was growing up was sewn by my mother. i am daughter #4 in a family of seven daughters and one son; much of what i had to wear were hand me downs.
    i was thrilled when my mom made me a first communion dress. i felt like a princess on my first communion day. that dress was worn by my younger sisters and many cousins too.

    growing up, i never thought of the love that went into all the sewing my mother did for all of us. it was just the way things were. thank you for reminding me of that through this wonderful post. clearly you and your sister were very well loved children.

  27. What a wonderful post. Two brilliant little girls get a handmade outlook on the world. Well done that grand mum and grandmum.

    A Vogue communion dress! Another piece of the Kate D. puzzle falls into place with a sigh.

  28. Wow, couldn’t help meself……I read every comment to this wonderful post. My grandmother was the sewer and I have been thinking of matching (in different colours) suits she made for my sister and I,for Easter one year. I have really gotten back into the sewing after seeing your early posts…it’s all your fault :) Have Always knitted. I heard a programme on NPR.org Fresh Air yesterday, an interview with Elizabeth Cline who has written a book called Overdressed: The Shockingly High Price of Cheap Fashion. What an expose! I know you can get it ‘over there’ as opposed to…….I could NOT get the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee :( Can’t get it outside Britain…boo hiss

    • Yes you can. I was intrigued and found the episodes on youtube. I’ve watched 3 of the 4 episodes and I’ve passed it on to my sisters and friends. Everyone is enjoying it.

  29. Always a pleasure to read to blog, Kate…such a great story! Love it that there are some lucky ones out there who enjoyed a nice relationship with grandparents…my granny reconciled with dad and is frail but knitted for my daughter and us…

    Recently, I’ve been thinking about how and where this love of handmade everything comes from for me and my 2 sisters…(as we are passing it along to my daughter)…I agree…my mum too had the sewing machine sitting on her “desk”…zipping up something whenever she can…buying trims from the market and sewing it on store bought socks for us…well, you’re a young ‘un…in the 70′s there was apparently (per mum) less ready made items to her liking for us…price point included…

    We are grateful for the gift of this love to create…I LOVE the photos of you and your sister in the blue hooded cardigans…

  30. I have a similar history, with a grandmother who always sewed until recently (now 97!) and way back, great-aunts who knitted – and showed me how :)

    I did have to smile at your blue matching hoodies – I’m sure I recall my then-boyfriend’s mum making exactly those for his two youngest sisters for their summer holiday wardrobes ca. 1982!!

  31. I’ve still got the pattern for the sleeveless cardigan in a book of Aran Knits by Patons which was a 50p Stitchcraft special. I made an adult version years ago! I do love your blog and particularly enjoyed your book. I have bought Ursula Venables’ books as a result. We love Shetland.

  32. I live in the Nederlands and after reading your wonderful story I suddenly remember the Woman’s Weekly my mother bought in a special bookstore in our city, when I was al little girl. She was always reading English books and loved this English magazine. She made all our clothes, for us, the 3 girls and for my 3 brothers. She knitted stockings and cardigans and made all our dresses and coats. When I was young handmade clothes weren’t aways appreciated; people wanted to wear things from the shops. After reading your story I realise all the time and love she did put in the work. And she managed to read a lot too! She could knit and read in the same time and we were not allowed to speak when she was counting her stitches. She learned me all her skills so I knitted and sewed al lot for my, now grown up, children. One of my daughters asked for my old sewingmachine lately and already made a few beautiful things. Thank you for sharing your memories.

  33. I used to have lots of handmade goodies too – we had a lot of Clothkits clothes, my mum made clothes for my dolls and often bought me handcrafted Christmas presents instead of mass produced things. I learnt to knit at school but my mum, a teacher, used to teach all the boys at her school how to knit when they were in Primary 3. I think it’s great to see craft skills being shown with such prominence on TV.

  34. How lucky you are to have been surrounded by so many handmakers growing up. My mother used to make dresses for me and my sister during the holidays, but my favorite would be putting together halloween costumes. I grew up thinking it was weird that people actually paid $30-50 for a plastic mask and piece of fabric fashioned into a robe.

  35. Kate. Such a piece… and so near Mother’s Day. In reading all of the posts I find everyone was touched. Hand made is so special to those we love and care for. As I was reading I kept thinking of a saying of my mom’s. “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.” What a great tribute your special skills are to your mum and grandmother.
    Take care and thank you! … Off to work on my son’s sweater.

  36. Such a sweet and special post!
    I love all your handmade garments from recycled tissue paper to the aran blue hoodies (I think also my fave). It is so clear you and your sister felt so loved and nurtured by your mother and grandma’s constant making of things for you!
    It is such an expression of love to sew and knit for your family. Sometimes when our family of five are out (usually in Winter), and I stand back and look at all the garments I have knitted or sewn (mainly knitted) I feel such a warm glow, like I have done a good deed and fulfilled my task of caring for my family. It’s kinda primal; the urge to provide shelter, warmth and food. But handmade clothes particularly have the loving thoughts invested in them; it’s almost like the garments carry some aspect of the maker’s soul. Your photos sure show that! I feel I have such a clear feeling of your grandma and mum now.
    I am particularly struck by your glow in the Communion photo.
    Thanks for sharing, Kate!

  37. This post was a delight to read and really enhanced by all your reader’s own memories of their homemade childhoods, both good and bad, and how people are carrying on the tradition with the next generations.

    As for me I would certainly fall into the camp of someone who was lucky enough to have a very talented Mum when it comes to sewing. Over the years she made many outfits for both my two sisters and me. I can recall some proper 70s jumpsuits, lots of skirts and dresses as well as pale pink bridesmaid dresses when my cousin got married. She also worked as an home sewer for a lady who had a company making padded and appliqued jackets, waistcoats and accessories. We had an endless supply of these including a jade jacket with a ditzy flower lining and parrot on the back and an autumnal waistcoat adorned by a squirrel. I know that she still has some of her favourite ones hidden away at her home and I am definitely going to look them out when I next visit.

    Probably one of my most treasured memories was from my Nanny who was a great knitter. One Christmas, before sister number 3 had arrived, my other sister and I had been given a Tiny Tears each from Santa. Nanny had made us each a set out of outfits to go on our dolls. You name it, it was there. Knitted or sewn there were hats, booties, dresses, tops, trousers, cardigans. All that a little girl and her doll could dream of.

    Now many years later I am enjoying creating little handmade crafts for my niece Daisy. I am not really a sewer but more of a knitter and it was very special when she asked me to knit her a bigger version of her favourite cardigan as she had grown too big for the one I knitted last year. How could I refuse and it was posted to her this week. I know she is already wearing it. The smaller one is now being worn by her doll, baby Daisy. The circle is complete.

    As for my Mum gardening is her big thing these days but her trusty old Bernina still gets plenty of use, especially when it comes out each summer to help me make simple fancy dress costumes for the girls in the Rainbows group I run when we take them away each August on a sleepover. So far we have had fairy, pirate, mermaid and cowgirl outfits. This year Hawaiian hula girls are the order of the day. I can’t wait to see what see produces. All I know for sure is that they will be fab.

  38. this is such a lovely post Kate, thank you. My childhood was full of handmade things too, and the ones I still have are the first to go into the emergency get away boxes in bushfire seasons. I still wear handknits that my mum knitted in the 80′s (from Traditional Knitting with Wool by the Australian Wool Corporation) and they are a bit worse for wear but going strongly. Now I’m making things for my mum and daughter, with much love along with them.

  39. Thanks, Kate! This was one of your best posts, ever. Your mother’s tissue paper flower costumes were incredible! No wonder you are so creative! As usual, your readers’ comments are great to read; what a thoughtful, interesting group of people! I am going to call up my 93-year old mother and thank her again for all those special-occasion clothes she sewed for me – including my wedding dress. AND the salmon-pink argyle double-knit bell bottoms and tunic which I wore on my first date with my husband.

  40. Kate,
    Many thanks for reminding me how much my Mother showed me, and what a positive influence my Mom and Dad were on my life.. I can see my Mom using my Fathers Mother’s treadle sewing machine (electrified) making my dance costumes. I am so lucky. I love your pictures. I am lucky to still have my Mom with me although she lives in a different world now but I did tell her how much I appreciated her before she entered the world of dementia.
    Carole

  41. What a childhood you have had.. so lucky to have all the knitteds. I was such a child as you, and yet I have no photos of me wearing anything my mother knit. I do have a couple of dresses in a photo, cute little thing. You’ve inspired me to find and scan the photos of my childhood. Dynamite idea to post, and thanks for posting it !

  42. I find myself smiling as I see pictures of kids, grandkids, and great grandkids wearing things I’ve made them. My daughter says my 6 year old grandson won’t wear a hat unless it’s one grandma made him.

  43. Just lovely. And the hoodies are my favourite too. No wonder you have such an interest in handmade clothes. My great-aunt Isabel was the one in the family who did our knitting. Mostly it was mitts–there couldn’t ever be enough for our Canadian winters. I wore them for years after she died and only now realize how much they meant to me.

  44. Love these photos Kate, beautiful knits and love the hailspot voile communion dress. I made one similar for one of my daughters, hers was trimmed with satin ribbon and long ties at back.

  45. Have to say this post and comments brought tears to my eyes, Granny, Mum, aunties, all the things they knitted and sewed, and I even remember my Dad who was in the Merchant Navy sewing a gored grey flannel skirt for me! And the Woman’s Weekly ran a brilliant series on the Twins dolls, little dolls with weekly outfits, I learned all kinds of knitting techniques, a great way to teach knitting through fun! I knitted those Arans for our children, now I knit for grandchildren, and although I’ve not made First Communion dresses, I’ve handstitched christening gowns, and I loved every single stitch. It was wonderful to read everyone’s posts. Thank you Kate. And your photos are beautiful.

  46. One of the memories I have of my childhood is standing by the kitchen table as my mum pinned my new dress onto me – I was always worried she was going to stick one into me. She went through a phase of making exactly the same dress, in the same fabric for me and my 2 younger sisters – we looked a lovely little group when the dresses were new but my poor youngest sister had to wear our hand me down identical dresses for years. I don’t know how my mum found the time to make all our dresses, towelling jumpsuits and brushed nylon nighties as well as clothes for our (identical) dollies as well as her glam sixties dresses.
    One of the best presents I gave to my son was when he was 4 or 5 . It was a hand made Robin Hood outfit – I sewed and dyed and interfaced hats all the while looking forward to seeing his face when he opened his present from Father Xmas – it was worth it and he wore it and wore it…

  47. My mother is a textile conservator and so has lots of sewing experience under her belt. One of the most amazing things she made me was a reproduction renaissance costume for a school fair. It was an amazingly beautiful piece of art. I am only sad that I can no longer fit into it.

  48. This post brought back so many memories of my own! My mom made most of my clothes until I was old enough to make them myself. My first creation was a hot pink polka dot (& I do mean HOT pink…when I sewed , I saw chartreuse!) for a school picnic. Mom finally relented & bought a dress for my church confirmation. Don’t you know, someone else had the same dress. That never happened with mom’s dresses.
    Thanks for writing this post. l can see by the comments that it conjured up memories for many of us.

  49. Ah the Woman’s Weekly! That used to get passed round between my mum and her sisters for the patterns. I remember my sister making me a beautiful lace v-neck jumper out of it for my birthday (sadly, I grew out of it). My mum was a sewer, I remember a blue sprig cotton with puffed sleeves.
    Thank you for writing this post, it brought back many happy memories.

  50. I grew up in the 50s and 60s and my mum made most of the clothes my sister and I wore. I was so proud of them all. Sadly there are not many photos. In the late 70s and 80s I made most of the clothes my daughter wore. She liked her original clothes but did treat herself to a “Laura Ashley” dress when she was about 10. I could have made her 3 for the price :)

  51. What a lovely post, brings back so many lovely memories. Grandma used to knit for us. I remember her knitting the sweaters with the matching cardigan, the wool underwear for the winter and the matching thing to tie our hair. My mother would do the matching socks. When I was a teenager and went to the USA for a visit grandma knitted two sets for me (now without underwear or hair thing) one red and one blue. She would do those with number 2 needles. They had beautiful details!! Oh how much love!! Thanks for your post Kate. I love your pictures and the beautiful things they made for you and your sister! Those blue hoodies are adorable!

  52. Thank you for sharing! Your photos are amazing (the flower costumes are fantastic) and remind me of my own childhood filled with clothes made by my mother or aunt who even made me elaborate hats (apparently, I once had a pillbox to match a tiny yellow suit) . Lots of love in handmade (though ungrateful girl that I was, I just wanted a pair of Levis). My own daughter loves her mommy-made sweaters and even my recent foray into sewing (wonky seams and all). There is love in each handmade thing and it it is so nice to have you celebrate it here on your blog!

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