I love camping: I suppose there is just something about taking the time to simply be in the outdoors that allows the world to insinuate itself upon you in the most pleasing way. And I find Islay a particularly inspiring landscape. I like to potter about just looking at stuff, and always come home with a head and notebook full of ideas. Good weather helps too, of course: being able to sit outside in the long, light evenings watching hares, and listening to the wark-wark of corncrakes is a delicious kind of treat.
The things I see around me in Scotland, and the photographs I take of them are certainly my principal source of inspiration. Oftentimes it is the “feel” of something in a photograph (or perhaps more accurately the memory the photographs invoke of the feel of a place, thing, or occasion) that sparks off an idea. Here are a few groups of images that may or may not work their way into a thought . . . that later works its way into a design.
We live in a typical, late-Victorian, Edinburgh tenement. It has high ceilings, and the rooms are reasonably sized, but there are not many of them. Most of the other flats in our building have an extra room which has been created by the division of the kitchen into two. But we kept the large kitchen, and took the unusual step of making a room in what most folk would regard as a cupboard. This room – known as ‘the pod’ – is the size of a single bed. Above head height is a stash of yarn and fabric and half of my (seasonally-rotating) wardrobe. Down below there are print-covered walls and book-covered shelves, a desk, a chair, and a computer. As it is small and windowless, there are no distractions: the pod has seen the thrashing out of many ideas and is a really good thinking space. It is also posessed of mysterious tardis-like properties — we have actually managed to fit a (small) sleeping guest in it, and, if there is something that we want to to watch on the iplayer, Tom and I and my knitting all get in it together (though things become tight when the animals want to join in). I wrote a book in the pod, and this blog, as well as all of my knitting designs are produced from inside it. It probably sounds a little peculiar to say that this tiny, windowless box is my favorite room–but it really is.
The pod has been a sort of faded-mid-blue colour for several years (we did what everyone does when they buy their first place, and painted every room a different shade). You can get a reasonable sense of the colour of the walls (as well as of the teetering terror of the upper shelves) from the picture in this post. (Were marvelous Messy Tuesdays really three years ago? Perhaps it is time to revive them.) Anyway, I have wanted to freshen up the pod up for a while, and particularly so now that my change of employment circumstances is imminent. My delayed birthday present was some paint from Farrow and Ball and we have spent the past couple of days sorting things out, and redecorating.
Sorting through things one has gathered generally prompts reflection, and this was certainly the case yesterday as I rearranged my shelves. As you might imagine, I am an inveterate buyer and hoarder of books. Now, in my mind, there has not been much buying and hoarding over the past couple of years, because I have had a stroke, but the contents of my bookcases show how far this is from being the case. Imperceptibly, a change has taken place. Rather than lots of books about eighteenth-century American politics, there is now a whole shelf of books about Scotland, and another one dedicated to the history and representation of the Scottish fishing industry. The woollen trade has its own area, and who knew that I had acquired so many of the pleasingingly idiosyncratic volumes published under the Shire imprint? I also seem to own everything that came off the Dryad or Odhams presses, and there are a disturbing number of gigantic tomes about fashion illustration and design. On another shelf, there are neuroscience textbooks, alongside memoirs of those who have suffered stroke, Parkinsons, and other conditions. Oliver Sacks has his own space, too, as I have, with increasing distaste, been working my way through his annoying essays with a view to writing about him at some point. (I regard Sacks in much the same way as my former colleague, Tom Shakespeare, memorably describes him: “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”)
I wrote a little glumly not so long ago about facing the fact that I was no longer an academic. But what my bookshelves reveal is that — as many of you pointed out in your comments at the time — I clearly couldn’t stop being one if I tried. I have many interests, and I love transforming the things that I am interested in into other things — words, photographs, sweaters. I no longer have an institutional context, and I am also considerably poorer than I was. Donuts are not everything, though: I still have a brain that works, a whole lot of ideas, and a pod of my own in which these ideas can take whatever shape I choose. I will never be happy about having had a stroke; about having to deal with its debilitating, chronic consequences; or about having to leave a job that, despite the many horrors of the ‘current climate’, I genuinely enjoyed. Yet I very much doubt that the working environment of UK Universities PLC was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she wrote about the hopeful prospect of women’s intellectual and creative independence in 1929. Perhaps, with a couple of years hindsight, I will be glad that I no longer have to implement national and institutional policy decisions with which I do not agree, and produce research ‘outputs’ so formally, always with an eye to the next assessment deadline.
In any case, re-painting the pod was an extremely good move. We are still working on the finishing touches (prints need hanging, the computer is not set up and, most unusually, I am writing this from the living room). Perhaps I’ll show you some photographs tomorrow.
I am writing a feature about the history of protective clothing. As part of this, I’m conducting a series of short interviews with people who wear such garments as part of the work that they do. Does your job involve wearing a pair of dungarees or overalls, an apron, a tabard, a hi-vis vest, or a boiler suit? Would you mind having a quick email conversation with me about your protective clothing and how you regard it? If so, please leave a comment on this post or email me at the address you will find in the ‘get in touch’ section on this page. Muchas gracias.
The gloves were still there when I passed by earlier, but had been joined by a wee stripey companion. . .
Happily, I was able to stop Bruce before he made off with the gathering.
Perhaps folk are abandoning their winter accessories willy-nilly – it certainly feels like Spring today.
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.