I do hope that all of you reading this blog realise, by now, just how important you have all been to me over the past year. It has been a very strange and challenging time for me, but you have all been there every difficult step of the way. It has helped me enormously to read your encouraging and supportive comments, and at key moments, you all helped me to stay on top of things. You were willing to share with me your own experiences of loss, illness, disability, and the endless, weird frustrations of brain damage and fatigue. You assured me that I could deal with these things. Coping with serious health issues can put one in quite a lonely place, but, because of this space, I have never felt alone. I was incredibly moved by the cards and letters you sent to me while I was in hospital, and since then, the postman has continued to deliver things to me from my ‘virtual’ friends that I have found both touching and heartening. And, a few days ago, as the first anniversary of my stroke approached, a package turned up whose contents really floored me.
Check out my new felted-tweed scarf! What a thing of knitterly JOY it is! These mitred squares were designed by Pam; the co-ordinator of the whole collaborative enterprise was sneaky, wonderful Heather; and eleven other women were involved in its production. I had the pleasure of meeting Heather in 2009, but the other knitters / crocheters are only ‘known’ to me, to a greater or lesser degree, through the interweb. I have their blogs marked in my feed reader; I follow them on flickr; I favourite their ravelry projects; I read their comments here. A couple I do not ‘know’ at all, but they know of me, and cared enough about my situation to lend their hand to a shared project that might bring me love and cheer.
In my other life as an academic, I’ve spent a lot of time researching eighteenth-century women’s correspondence, their commonplace books and albums. I am interested in these books both as material objects and as works of collaborative authorship. Transatlantic gift-books particularly intrigue me as, on many occasions, the contributors to, and recipients of these books never met each other, but felt a close connection that was just the same as if they had been friends in person. Often, (and particularly in the case of the many Quaker women I have looked at) it was the bond of family or religion that first forged that connection; but women were also brought together in the material world of the letter or gift-book through their political affiliations, a love of gardening or stitch, poetic talents, or other shared interests. Contributing to a gift-book allowed dispersed communities of women to consolidate a virtual connection in and through a material object.
Now, academic folk like me can be sniffy about drawing casual comparisons between moments and cultures that are otherwise vastly different, but particularly since my stroke, I have been very struck by how close-seeming the worlds of the transatlantic eighteenth century and the contemporary craft-related internet can be. Myself and the makers of this lovely scarf ‘know’ each other because of our mutual interest in making things; our shared likes and dislikes, our favourite patterns or techniques, our tastes, our knowledge and our expertise. Just like an eighteenth century gift-book collaboratively produced by women who did not personally ‘know’ one another, this scarf is a material object that illustrates just how meaningful such ‘virtual’ connections can be. Though I have never met them, I can see the individual signatures – the ‘handwriting’ – of my friends in their personal choice of yarn colours or design, their different gauges, and their ways of making stitches. Like many an eighteenth-century woman, I am massively cheered and comforted by their gift, and by the shared affection it suggests. And certainly, this scarf is, to me, just as precious a thing as a gift book would have been to its eighteenth-century recipient.
I love this beautiful scarf, and I love what it represents. I am grateful to its makers, and, in a larger way, over the course of the past year, I have become increasingly, incredibly, grateful to the larger knitterly community of which it is such a heartening iteration. Sometimes it seems too easy to be sentimental about knitting, but, bloody hell, over the past year I have been in need of bucketloads of knitterly sentiment. I have indeed felt the knitting LOVE.
So I am grateful to Alice, Anne, Ashley, Babs and big Babs, to Christy, Carolyn, Erin, Heather, Lauren, Maryse, to Sarah, and to Pam. And I am grateful to all of you who come here, silently or vocally, and who have all, in one way or another, buoyed me up with your good wishes. Thanks for sticking with me over this hideously testing but, in many ways, strangely re-confirming year. Big knitterly love to you all.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you stood the course through my radio burblings the other day, you might have heard me mention the thing that I’d like to contribute to the BBC / British Museum’s History of the World in 100 objects. I thought you might be interested to see it. While I was researching my piece for the current Rowan Magazine, I became very interested in the different tools that enabled women to knit while standing up, outdoors, or on the move. Circular needles now mean that our knitting is easy to carry about, but in earlier centuries, there were many different devices to enhance the craft’s portability. Shetland islanders used wisps:
. . . and later, leather belts . . .
. . . like this one (bought from Jamieson and Smith and demonstrated by Ysolda. ‘Goose-wing’ or ‘Gulls-wing’ knitting sticks, shaped to be tucked easily into skirt or apron top, were common in the Scottish Borders, the Yorkshire Dales, and Wales :
. . . and all over the country, there are examples of straight or slightly curved knitting sticks, hand-carved, machine turned, and sometimes inlaid with shell or bone, dating from the seventeenth- through the early twentieth centuries. Here’s a simple eighteenth-century turned one:
As these photos might suggest, I’ve now amassed a small personal hoard of these things, but they feature in local museum collections all over the country: I’ve seen some great examples in the V&A, and National Museum of Scotland as well as at Dent, Whitby, and Beamish. (If you click on the Beamish link you’ll see a gallery of many interesting examples)
Here’s another view of my favourite knitting stick:
It is a small oak object, less than 15 cm long. The top of the stick has been reinforced with a cage of carefully soldered lead, which provides a secure and durable holder for the knitter’s needles:
Carved into the wood is a name (Jane Brown), and the date:
There are a number of reasons why I like this particular knitting stick. First, of course, it is a personal object — an object with a private connection, a name, and a story to tell. These sticks were frequently given as love tokens, and this one was probably carved for Jane Brown by her feller. This is, then, an object with private and sentimental meanings, and which may carry other intimate connotations too. Jane’s stick is very like a busk — small wooden or whale-bone objects that were worn by Georgian and Victorian women under their clothing to stiffen and enhance the effect of their stays. Wooden busks were similarly formed, similarly carved, and similarly given as love tokens (to be worn next to the heart). Indeed, from its particular tapered shape, and its resemblance to other busks that I have seen, I would speculate that Jane’s knitting stick was first intended as a busk, but then adapted to another purpose by the addition of the soldered top. I like the idea that an object designed to maintain the stasis of a woman’s body might be put to more practical use as a device enabling her to knit-on-the-move. I also like Jane’s knitting stick because it is an ordinary thing. The carving is neatly, but not professionally done, and unlike some sticks of the same era whose condition is pristine, Jane’s shows evident signs of wear. Her stick is a sentimental object, a decorative object, an intimate object, and most importantly, a functional one as well. It is an unpretentious, everyday tool, used by a woman who was clearly practised in her craft.
While the things that Jane Brown knitted are almost certainly long-gone, the object that enabled her to create them has survived. For me, Jane’s knitting stick, — ornament, tool, love token — illustrates how historically rich everyday things can be, how they can tell us so much about the connection of people in the past to the material culture that surrounded them. That, to me, is what is so great about the BBC’s / British Museum new project. I’ve added Jane’s knitting stick to their online gallery, and encourage you to upload a photograph and story of your own object here. (I have a strong desire to fill that gallery with lots of knitting and sewing related things . . . but I shall resist)
ETA: Jane Brown’s knitting stick is here in the BBC’s online gallery.
You will note that this advent calendar is turning out to have a determinedly snowy theme. Behind today’s door are some images from our lovely weekend away in the woods and hills. I do enjoy the snow — both for walking, and for photographing. I love its eerie quietness; its crazy, sculptural qualities; the incredible things it can do to the light. When you look at a snowy place from a distance, it seems almost felted, softened, somehow — its sharp edges smoothed away — as if the landscape were sleeping, or at rest. Close up, though, you see that the landscape isn’t sleeping at all, but rather that it has assumed a new outlandish, wintry form. The snow effects a total transformation as it covers the landscape, enacting its own playful metamorphoses. I like the way that it gave each reed its own little hat . . .
. . . and made these grasses shimmer with their own delicate sort of bling . . .
. . . these seed husks bend and tremble under a snowflake frosting . . .
. . . and the shape of these new buds is mirrored in the snow droplets beneath them. . .
I spent a long time with the underside of this fallen tree.
It is a bare, dead thing — but the snow makes it marvellous, makes it more than itself. . .
Snow, of course, is treacherous as well as beautiful, and I hope all is very well with those of you on the other side of the Atlantic, for whom snow has meant severe storms, punishing temperatures, and terrible disruption over the past couple of days.
To close this snowy post, here is a West Highland forest in the act of transformation.
When thinking about process, there is nothing more instructive than unpicking someone else’s stitches.
I found a beautiful hand-embroidered cloth on ebay. I have plans for it. The plans involve deconstructing and transforming it into something else. I began by undoing the slip stitches of its heavy, worn cord edging.
Then I started to unpick the tiny stitches which attach the embroidered front to the cloth’s very fine silk back. The silk is faded but luminous, alive with copper and green.
The secrets written in the cloth began to reveal themselves. Neatly folded hems. Pale green silk thread that moved through the cloth like clockwork. An outer layer of heavy cotton satteen. An inner layer of lining satteen, fresh and bright because unseen for decades. Embroidery worked through both layers. Each thread end carefully woven and hidden. The back of the work faultless in its steady execution.
. . .and just as mesmerising as the front.
It was then that my fascination with the little mysteries of this cloth changed into a something else. I felt a sense of privilege and respect — in unpicking the stitches I was re-living the work of their making, admiring the skill of a talented needlewoman. But my act was also one of trespass: me and my snipping embroidery scissors were destroying a once-whole thing. And as I, blithe, curious, surgeon-like, began to examine the cloth’s insides, I uncovered the truth of its age: the satteen was of a certain kind, and a little older than I’d imagined. I was an historical vandal, cutting through the threads of time.
In cutting someone else’s threads, as in wearing someone else’s clothes, there is the frisson of encounter. We don’t know and will never know the person who made or wore the thing, but they are speaking to us nonethless, in the movement of their hand through the stitches, or in the the shape of their body left in the garment. There is something deeply uncanny in the silence of cloth and clothes: the trace of an unknown and never-to-be-known physical presence. (One does not buy second hand shoes, because one shies away from the ghost of the foot inside.) As I unpicked the stitches, then, a simple encounter between me and the cloth changed into a more complex one between me and its maker. Because I was un-making a made thing my act seemed an intimate one, but it was an empty intimacy, an intimacy with no content. The embroidered cloth was both speaking and not speaking: of a someone living in those stitches and of the silence of the grave.
Wallace Stevens’ brilliant poem, The Emperor of Ice Cream, (1922) has much to say about the dumb intimacy of embroidery — and of death. Stevens describes the covering of a woman’s corpse with a cloth she embroidered when alive.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam
(lines 9 – 15)
Here the corpse is, like the cloth she embroidered, an everyday material object. She reminds us of death’s easy finality. Yet she also suggests the mute compassion of the world of things. We feel the weight of her hands on the lost knobs of the well-worn dresser; her fingers quick movement through the stitches of the cloth that decorates her dead countenance. She does not speak, all we can know is her corpse and her cloth. And it is in the relationship between these two material objects that the essence of the poem (perhaps another object in itself) lies. Gaudy embroidered fantails will never cover death, but each small act of making is an end in itself, capturing the (perhaps pointless) vitality of the human. Now get back in the kitchen (says Stevens) and enjoy your ice-cream.
Having unpicked my thoughts I will get on with the uncanny work of unpicking.
Those who’ve read it might remember that the plot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion turns on Mrs Smith: Anne Elliot’s former schoolmate who, widowed after an unfortunate marriage, has fallen on hard times. Mrs Smith’s difficulties are compounded by physical pain: Austen describes her as an “invalid,” who is clearly suffering from what today we’d call arthritis. When Anne visits her friend, she finds her living “in a noisy parlour, and a dark bedroom behind…in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.” That “of course” says so much about the position of a nineteenth-century woman like Mrs Smith: her situation means a particular kind of social exile is inevitable. The difficulties of penniless widowhood are compounded by disability, and while her polite education might have fitted her for marriage, it has excluded her from the kind of paid employment a woman of labouring rank might seek.
Anne is surprised to find Mrs Smith both cheery and resilient. After a period of observation, she attributes her friend’s attitude to an “elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself.” The employment that carries Mrs Smith “out of herself” is making, and being paid for the things that she has made. She is able to sell sewn and knitted items through an intermediary, a nurse who, Mrs Smith tells Anne, is “an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pincushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about.”
Women like Mrs Smith abound in nineteenth-century fiction. Because they are of a certain class, they are excluded from the division of labour, and their only means of any sort of financial independence is through the sale of their own plain or fancy work: an acceptably feminine employment in which all women of virtue might apparently participate (for the grim fate of those whose domestic virtues are questionable, see Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth). In nineteenth-century novels (and indeed, in nineteenth century reality) these women retain the respectability of their rank by not undertaking the grubby business of buying and selling themselves: remember for example, how important it is that Cranford’s Miss Matty is saved from the fate of the shop by the interposition of her long-absent brother. However dire her financial circumstances, then, a gentlewoman stays a gentlewoman by not being seen to sell stuff for money. Mrs Smith happily has the nurse to do the selling for her, and other women might preserve their anonymity though the mediating actions of charitable institutions like The Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self Aid Society, which still exists today.
Founded in 1882, the Royal Edinburgh Repository and Self-Aid Society was established “to assist those of limited means to achieve an independent livelihood by promoting the sale of their own handiwork.” Originally managed by two New-Town sisters, the Society sold on the work of its indigent members at bazaars whose “tea cosies and Shetland wool cravats,” were satirised by a young and waspish Robert Louis Stevenson. Since 1946, the society has operated from a well-placed shop on Castle Street. Though its general social context has (thankfully) radically changed — making and selling things for money is no longer a source of shame for a woman of any class — in spirit and reality, the society remains remarkably true to its original aims and ethos.
Today you do not have to be a gentlewoman (or even a woman) to be a society member — but you do have to be of limited means, and be able to knit (or sew, or crochet) to a certain standard (everything sold by the Repository is ‘passed’ for quality by its executive committee). The member-makers are identified by number only, and all receive the full proceeds from any sale of their work. The Repository’s commercial politics seem quite complex to me. On the one hand, there is more than a whiff of the Victorian in maintaining the fiction of exchange relations between an anonymous maker and a charitable patron. Yet on the other, there is something incredibly contemporary and utopian in the Repository’s support of co-operative enterprise, its celebration of craft and making, and in ensuring that each maker receives the full amount from any sale.
Ysolda and I visited the Repository last weekend, after she had the genius idea of producing The Definitive Craft Tour of Edinburgh (of which much more later). We were completely blown away by it. The shop is known as “the treasure trove” — and this is indeed what it is. We found amazing Fairisle gloves, tams and sweaters: all luminous and intricate, the work of incredibly talented knitters. There are Shetland christening shawls, and wonderful aran sweaters; baby clothes and blokes cardigans; colourwork, cables and lace.
Today, it is often hard to buy hand-knitted items without worrying about the labour practices that produced them. While admirable organisations like Thistle and Broom ensure that craftswomen and men receive two-thirds of the profits of their labour, there are many other less scrupulous organisations in the UK and elsewhere who, in remunerating per finished item rather than time expended, are not only paying knitters poorly but illegally. While I personally feel that the Repository would be well within their rights to charge quite a bit more for the things that they sell, you still know that if you buy a handmade item here, that you are directly supporting the maker.
So I am now the proud owner of a pair of gloves made by member no. 66. They are beautiful. My only wish is that I might pass on my thanks to knitter 66 directly, but perhaps that anonymity which, a hundred years ago was there to protect the knitter from the taint of the shop counter, now has another function entirely: if I were knitter 66, I probably wouldn’t want to be bothered by the likes of me in full-blown rhapsodic knitting mode.
I am still musing on the fate of Austen’s Mrs Smith, and wondering how the modest financial independence she gained from making might have been rather differently inflected, or perhaps enhanced by the collective and co-operative structure which the Edinburgh Repository provided, and indeed still provides. I feel some research coming on. In the meantime, I urge everyone, whether in or near Edinburgh, or if planning a future visit, to make your way to 23A Castle Street, where you are sure to be inspired.
The title comes from Bernard Mandeville’s 1705 poem of the same name. Its only relevance here is that I have bees on the brain, and because, since I am feeling peaky (again) there’s been a bit of grumbling going on in this particular hive. Bees on the brain, you say? What’s that about, then?
1) I heart bees. Whats not to like? Bees are brilliant. I will leave the precise beescience to Tom (who knows more about bees than I) but as creatures with a unique and intriguing social organisation I find them both mysterious and appealing.
2) Right now, I am busy like the bee. And I find the bee a very pleasing symbol of purposeful activity. In the mid-nineteenth century, bees were often used symbolically in this way – on a a quick walk around Manchester’s city centre, for example, you will spot many bees carved into the gothic edifices of the city’s great Victorian public buildings, and bees still adorn what the planners refer to as ‘street furniture’ in Manchester (such as the rubbish bin above).
My favourite British bee, however, has to be this one:
This fabulously jolly creature, standing over six-feet high, was the gift of the people of Kandel in the Bienwald (bee-forest) to those of the town of Whitworth, near Rochdale, with whom they are ‘twinned’. I understand that these carved bees are a Kandel speciality — and isn’t this one just fantastic? I like the fact that its feel and style speak of craft methods that are so characteristically German, even as its union-jack colouring proclaims it as firmly British. I loved this bee so much when I read about it in the Rochdale Observer (or, in local parlance, th’Ob), that my mum found me a picture, and sent it to me. The Whitworth bee-photo now sits on our fridge, and is a very cheery addition to the kitchen.
The details are hazy, but I understand that a sinister bee-themed crime subsequently unfolded in Whitworth — the bee was apparently stolen from its civic home (just imagine the logistics of sneaking off with a six-foot wooden bee) and a replacement has had to be commissioned from the generous folk of Kandel. If anyone has any further information on the Whitworth bee mystery, or news of the secret whereabouts of the original bee, I would be really interested to know.
(brakspear bee. I highly recommend the ale.)
3) I am knitting and designing something involving bees. I *love* it. I really do. Everything about it is immensely cheering. More soon.
4) I am suffering with a terrible throat infection (really not good for delivering lectures – groan) and require the healing power of the bee. I need honey and propolis! Bees, fire me up with your tasty bee goodness! Allow me to buzz at the correct volume!
Erm, well, that’s all I can say about bees for now: the bees will heal me (one hopes); I shall knit like the bee and the the bee-thing shall emerge from my needles. And if you are really good, next time I’ll talk about the bees in Virgil’s Georgics.
In other news.
1) Today is the closing date for submissions to the parliament. You can send me your owls until midnight, your time (whenever that is). The grand winner of the competition will be selected at random, but I just love all the pics so much that there are going to be a few other minor prizes. I can’t say too much about this (don’t want to spoil the surprise), but will just hint that these lovely Edinburgh designers have generously donated something. More from them later in the week.
2) The Paper dolls pattern is nearing completion. I have entered mathworld. It’s strangely familiar and reasonably satisfying– reminds me of calculating student degree profiles when I was chair of examiners! Good to know that part of my brain still works.
3) Remember I was going on about Jane Gaugain, last summer? Well, I’ve written a feature about her in the new Twist Collective. Go and check it out! There are so many amazing patterns in the issue. It is probably symptomatic of where I am right now that Mary-Ann Stephen’s Sleepy Monkey and Luke’s Diced Vest by Mary Jane Mucklestone speak to me so. Just look at that colourwork! And the yarn for Luke’s Vest comes from lovely Carol Sunday! (Carol’s yarns really are gorgeous, and I am just one of her many Edinburgh admirers). Oh, and I also produced a knitting-walking tour of Edinburgh for Twist (in which you really can walk in the steps of Jane Gaugain), which will appear on their blog soon.
What a miscellaneous post this is. Buzz buzz.
This in response to Colleen’s post. I’ve been enjoying her advent calendar immensely, and today she writes very evocatively about the toys behind advent calendar doors; the promise they contain; and the associations of such objects with domesticity — that is, the way toys act as a sort of preparation for one’s adult life in the domestic interior. “There may even,” she writes of her childhood toys, “have been a sewing machine.” I am intrigued by the way that non-functional toys suggest adult functionality, and so was Walter Benjamin, who collected many of them while he was in Moscow in 1927. So here for Colleen (a door within a door of her advent calendar, if she’ll permit me) is Walter Benjamin’s toy sewing machine.
Walter Benjamin’s Archive © (Verso, 2007).
Benjamin’s caption, preserved on the card in his archive, reads: “Wooden model of a sewing machine. If one turns the wheel the needle goes up and down and as it strikes it makes a clattering sound that suggests to the child the rhythm of a sewing machine. Peasant handicraft.”
Benjamin eventually wrote about the Russian toys he collected in a short essay published in 1930. I think he had a lot more to say about them than he did in that essay. I would like to say something about them too — his sewing machine, in particular, really gets me for reasons I daren’t go into now for fear of descending into a vein of sentiment that may also have something to do with the season. But one day I want to write more about Benjamin’s toys. I’ll leave you with another one that really kills me.
Walter Benjamin’s Archive © (Verso, 2007).
The card caption reads: “Old wooden horsey from the governorate of Vladimir.”
Mai Tomangi, Wool, 100% (2006)
Really, what’s not to like? In a Japanese cross between Bagpuss and the Wombles, two elderly sisters, armed with pokey sticks and shopping trolleys, collect furniture, toys, and other discarded items from surburban rubbish bins. Their house totters and teeters under the weight of their gathered spoils, and their bodies beat time to the tick of a thousand pilfered clocks. This world of lost memories and found objects is invaded by the destructive, succubus-like presence of a girl they call “Knit-Again.” The name is an apt one, for she is wearing a tatty, badly knitted, chunky red sweater that looks like it might have been designed by Twinkle. But her work is incomplete: the girl labours away at the sweater frantically until her blood-red wool runs out. Only then does she notice what a terrible job she’s made of the knitting: “Damn!” she wails, brandishing her needles, “I have to knit it all over again.”
Starring Ayu Kitaura, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and the wonderful Kyôko Kishida (of Woman in the Dunes fame) Mai Tominaga’s debut feature is strange, unsettling, and very, very witty. Combining elements of fairy-tales and dream work, as well as puppetry and animation, Wool 100% is an incredibly powerful meditation on desire, loss and the secret life of things. It is also, of course, a must-see for every knitter.
The girl’s red sweater is full of meaning. The rhythms of it’s knitting match those of the female body through menstruation, childbirth and death. Knitting sublimates sexual desire (“If you knit, a baby will come” one sister tells another, looking with hate and longing at a young man outside their window). And, for the two sisters, who are forced to confront the story of their youth as the plot unravels, knitting also literalises the work of memory, showing how much the past is something that we are constantly making and re-making, in a daily effort of stitching and piecing together. The blood-red yarn is menacing, murderous, and also a figure for the discontinuous narrative thread of the film itself. I was strongly reminded of Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls, in which guilt, trauma, and narrative memory are similarly suggested in the long red cord by which an unfaithful lover drags his suicidal beloved through eternity.
Dolls figure importantly in Wool 100%, too, as do several other kinds of inanimate objects which might, at any moment, spring to life. The objects the sisters collect are living presences: as they catalogue and care for the things that other people throw away, so these things, in their turn, seem to watch over and care for them. Their cuckoo clock chimes to cheer their morning repast; a futon snores and shudders as it envelops its silent sleeper. At the beginning of the film, a group of children sing a song for the two sisters: a neat, suggestive fable that sounds like something straight out of Blake’s Songs of Experience. A sheep sneezes, and an apple falls from a tree: “it is now the sheep’s apple,” sing the children. But, after the sheep munches the apple, it becomes part apple itself, “it is now the apple’s sheep” the song concludes. The subject ends up being possessed by the object it incorporates, just as the sisters are ultimately owned by their things.
Much of Wool 100% seems to be about finding the appropriate process to deal with things and the memories they embody: to engage with them, to confront them, and ultimately to discard them (there is much funereal burning in the film: painful and theraputic in turns). And the film definitely suggests that there is something more than a little pathological in the repetitive, relentless activities of both knitting and object-collecting (the knitting will never be finished; the collection will never be complete). “Sleep tight,” says the sweater-wearing succubus to the two sisters, before her final destructive act, “when you awake, you’ll have to knit it all over again.” Hell, we all know that feeling.