I initially decided to write Handywoman after being interviewed on BBC Woman’s Hour, which led to a discussion with a literary agent. This agent was really smart, interesting, incredibly professional and represented other writers of what the book trade describes as “intelligent non-fiction” whose work I really admired. I’d had no thought of writing something classed as ‘memoir’ but she thought that I had something to say, and through conversing with her I agreed that I probably did. Without this literary agent’s encouragement, I’m not sure I’d ever have pursued the project that became Handywoman: researching and writing a substantial (85,000 word) book is no small undertaking, especially when the work involved me grappling with, and articulating my thoughts about, some potentially thorny and tricky topics involved in my experience of brain injury and disability.

My initial misdiagnosis, for example.

The fact that a neurologist (initially) didn’t believe I’d had a stroke because of my gender and mental-health history, and that it took 36 hours before my brain injury was correctly investigated, diagnosed and received any sort of treatment, is not something that particularly bothers me from day to day, but it is a messy part of my narrative, and to tell the truth of it I had to think carefully about debates surrounding somatic disorders, gendered bias, and patient care, as well as the story of my own stroke.

There were also some parts of my narrative to which I knew it would be difficult for me to return – such as the overwhelming grief I felt upon coming home from hospital and having to live life as a newly disabled woman among the lost remnants of my able-bodied self. But when I sat down to process these experiences for the purpose of the book, I found that thinking and writing about them was not only useful for me, but inspired me to think and write about lots of other things as well.

Writing about my own experiences of stroke and disability led me to explore several different debates about walking, creativity, good design, public policy, patient care, feminism, craft and making. I read books about the brain, about the body and phenomenology, about occupational and physiotherapy, about accessible design about hair and identity. I thought about my own childhood, about how I’d been brought up in an extraordinarily creative family, and how my parents resourcefulness and invention had continued to inspire me.


(in an early introduction to political protest, I am here dressed as a flower in an outlandish costume made by my mum, Sue Davies, articulating local community grievances)

In short, I soon found that in writing this book I was not simply writing about myself: I was writing about what really interested me, as both a thinker and a maker. And as the project developed, I began to wonder whether I would be true to it and to the Handywoman philosophy I was espousing, if I didn’t just make it myself. I now run a small publishing business after all, and one of the things I enjoy most about my job is making really nice books.

The more I thought about it, the less sure I was about the benefit of working with a literary agent in conjunction with a commercial publisher. I expect that Tom and Mel might tell you that my insistence on excellence in the things that I produce sometimes has a definite tendency towards control-freakery, but I do know from my experience of different kinds of manufacturing that the more intermediaries there are in a project the less sure one is likely to be about the quality of the finished product. If I worked with a commercial publisher there would be much less choice about the way the book looked and felt, but if I made it myself I knew I would feel pretty confident about the end result. By working closely with a range of professional readers whose feedback I really trusted, together with reliable copyeditors and designers, surely I would be able to create a book whose quality would match that of the commercial publishers I was considering?

So I made my decision. I moved away from the agent / commercial publishing route, came up with an idea for a new brand and imprint (under which I might create books that were narrative-based rather than instructional in content), and decided to go it alone. I knew several readers whose editorial acumen would be useful, I already had the privilege of working with Scotland’s best copyeditor, and I happened to be married to someone who now designs and makes books for a living. I continued researching and writing and every time I finished a chapter I sent it to the people I knew who were either implicated or interested in what I’d written about. For feedback on the whole book, I chose to work with three brilliant and generous readers (whose professional expertise ranges from women’s writing and cultural history to the literature of medicine and trauma) and their input proved utterly invaluable. Later, because I felt that Swedish native speakers might be interested in a particular part of the book in which I discuss accessible design, I was able to appoint a skilled translator to produce a Swedish version of that chapter. Then, working with our fantastic local printer (who produces a wide range of academic and mass-market books) Tom was able to develop a wonderful book design and format that I’m really happy with.

Then I thought about what I could do to get the word out there about Handywoman. I delivered readings at Edinburgh Yarn Fest and Woollinn, and was given the opportunity to give a TEDx talk, which some of you may have now seen. I also built a new Handywoman-dedicated website to provide clear information about the book and to enrich its content. It simply isn’t possible to combine textual narrative with hundreds and hundreds of images in a paperback format, yet often what I am talking about in Handywoman has a rich visual context with which I really want readers to be able to engage. So I developed a series of chapter-specific image galleries, in which you can explore different parts of the book, gain some sense of the debates I examine and the things I talk about, as well as have fun looking through my album of 1970s family slides.


me, my mum, my sister, Helen

Would a commercial publisher have listened to my request to develop such a website? Would they have allocated funds for my Swedish translation? Would they have supported my desire for editorial input from several readers with advanced academic expertise? I doubt it.

Really, the only downside to all of this is that it is me who has, in the end, provided that support. I’ve essentially spent large portions of the past two years working for Handywoman. I’ve made the decisions, I’ve financially backed the project, I’ve thought about everything that has gone into producing the book, I’ve done the vast majority of the work myself.

But then in the end, that is kind of the point for me. Producing this work is not about the cash or the publicity. It is about making something whose quality I can be sure of and whose content I really believe in. I think Handywoman is a far richer and more interesting project because of my decision to just go ahead and make it myself.

At every stage of making Handywoman, knitters have been involved. It was a knitter – Maylin Scott – who recommended me to Woman’s Hour; a knitter – Áine Ryan – who introduced me to the TEDx team. The book’s readers, and Swedish translator, and editorial team are all knitters (or practitioners of other crafts) and it was a kind colleague in the knitting industry who pointed me in the direction of the company with whom I now hope to explore the possibility of producing a Handywoman audiobook. Knitters are everywhere, in Handywoman’s deep background, and they are at the heart of it too. You’ll find many knitters celebrated within its pages.

So thank you, all you knitters and crafters, all you handywomen and handymen, who have helped me to make this book!

Find out more about the book and explore the Handywoman website here.

35 thoughts on “making Handywoman

  1. Dear Kate,

    Your posts always give me so much reason to not give up. On another note – please let Tom be praised for the absolutely beautiful cover.

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  2. Dear Kate,

    I usually receive your newsletter, but not the last one. Could you please check?

    By the way, your designs are really beautiful and I love your blog, a perfect combination of great photos, most interesting texts and information on knitting.

    Thanks a lot Beate

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  3. You are a publisher’s dream author but I so respect your decision to self-publish and get your story told exactly how you want it told, with the look and feel and design of it too. I think the website and added images is genius and is really going to engage your audience.

    Oh, and make sure you DO send a copy to Jane Harvey. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they have you back on the show again.

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  4. Really looking forward to your book Kate. All your tenacity and self determination produce such great results. Even if it makes Tom and Mel shake their heads in amused resignation.

    R

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  5. Hi, Kate, Just a head’s-up – when I clicked on your final Handywoman website link, it comes up with a page that says “”502 Bad Gateway.” Now, it IS early Sunday morning and perhaps that site is as slow-moving as I feel today, but I thought you’d like to know.

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  6. Seriously, is there a medal for bravery in our ‘new’ world? You should have it! All good choices due to so many previous good choices. Bravo!!

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  7. Coming to terms with slowness! Oh yes, that’s such a valuable insight and one I find myself learning and re-learning constantly.
    I look forward very much to reading your book.

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  8. So interested to read about this. I am part of a craftivist group and it feels as if there is a newfound respect for crafting of all types. It must have been heartbreaking for you to be unable to knit (as well as so much other loss) during your recovery. Very much looking forward to this innovative and multi-layered book.

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  9. I have been so excited for this book since you first mentioned it!
    My best friend had a stroke last year (during surgery from a liver transplant) and she’s making a good recovery. I can’t wait to share this book with her.
    I’m also beyond pleased to hear you’ve done his on your own terms. You’re an inspirational around.

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  10. Hello Kate,
    I can’t wait to read your Handywoman Book. I suffered a massive pulmonary embolism in 2005. I had a few missteps with the diagnosis. My entire life as I knew it changed completely. I have troubles walking, low energy levels and breathing issues. Most importantly my spirit and zest for experiencing life has not changed rather it has modified. I still head to work everyday in my wool shop. My creative juices still flow and I crave learning new things.
    I look forward to reading your new book. Thanks for writing about your journey.
    Sincerely, Karen

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  11. Having also been hit by a very disabling disease at 36, and with five young children to care for, this, and the Ted talk really spoke, to me and helped clarify some things that I have felt, but never articulated. Not getting diagnosed for 14 years and not beginning to get out from under the cloud until four years later, there has been a lot of grieving about the life I thought I would have had. Now, at 63, I am trying to accept that I will never be “young” again. Very helpful, thank you.

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  12. I had already ordered a copy of Handywoman because I work on the juncture between objects and emotions, and in particular the embodied nature of emotions. Most recently I have been thinking about the relationships between making and emotions, and the historical dimensions of those relationships. Now that you have told the story of your making of the book as both text and object, I’m anticipating my copy even more.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. I cannot wait to get my copy. When I had my stroke, it affected my balance and eyesight. I recovered almost fully within about 10 weeks. Still have balance issues and had to stop riding my motorcycle which I loved. My late husband commented at the time, “are you sure you had a stroke?”. He died of lung cancer five years ago. He had quit smoking 30 years before and was an avid high mountain hiker. I still feel like I should have gone first. My knitting keeps me going and your emails and publications are an inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Dear Kate,
    Thank you for sharing your journey ,the strength possible within oneself to continue forward, and the power of love from our relationships with others to sustain the effort. Brain injury is not always visible on the outside and that is what leads to the misperceptions that make the journey that much harder. My son walks this road too. Thank you for helping others to become aware of the challenges and the possibilities. May we all learn to journey together in a way that is empowering to all with compassion, kindness, and grit.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Dear Kate,
    Again, well written and also very very recognazible.
    Your last words “I make, therefore I am”…. Amen!
    I’m looking forward to your book.
    Take good care of yourself.
    Love,
    Margot

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Brava! I first ‘discovered’ you when I decided to knit Carbeth as my first sweater. And I was immediately drawn to the style and substance of your work and your website. I only found out about your stroke recently, and was blown away by all that you have accomplished.

    I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in1987. I was a young architect, in the early stages of a demanding career. The first words from my brother, a doctor, upon hearing hearing the diagnosis, were “perhaps you should consider retraining in another field”. I was devastated and frightened. As it turned out, I had a mild case and have very little disability, and, despite my brothers words, had a successful career. After an early retirement, I turned to painting, and then to knitting, as my creative outlets. Working with color and design and making beautiful things is life-sustaining.

    All this is my wordy way of telling you how much your story resonates, and how much I admire your journey. Thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I’m very impressed too. Last year I was finally diagnosed with MS after four and a half years and five relapses. Currently I have no ongoing disability though I do notice cognitive effects and some visual disturbance when I am tired or stressed. The knowledge that my brain and brain stem are covered in lesions and I have lost brain matter is distressing.

      I’ve been knitting a lot less since I took up running marathons and ultramarathons, but I know it’s there for me to return to one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I remember when you where debating between going with a commercial publisher and taking the task on yourself. I am very glad you went solo! I can hardly wait for my copy!

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  18. Looking forward to reading the book. Having seen the TEDx talk I realise why knitting means so much to me. I have been lucky enough to raise a family, attend mainstream school and do part-time clerical work but was born premature in 1953. I survived with cerebral palsy affecting my left side, I don’t know which parts of my brain were affected but I am also clumsy (dyspraxic) and wore out my right hip, which has been replaced, compensating for my lazy left leg with shortened Achilles’ tendon. Now retired and very arthritic I spend every spare moment knitting as I have done for the last 60 years. I can relate to the unexpected and unpredictable tiredness. Thank you for all you have done to inspire me since I discovered your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Watched your TEDxtalk which was so moving and informative – so am looking forward to my (pre-ordered) copy of Handywoman!
    Much of what you said in the talk resonates with me as someone who has lived with the confines of a chronic illness for over 40 years. Knitting gives us so much, it lets us be creative, stops us from standing still.. and gives us limitless possibilities!
    Thank you for your valuable contribution in this!

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  20. You are always an inspiration Kate. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book. This piece is so interesting about choices, confidence and hard graft. (PS what is the red thing you are knitting in the photograph? It looks gorgeous.

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  21. Hi Kate, you may well find, having done the work the way you describe it that a commercial publisher will pick up the finished book. Once it’s been reviewed, and of course you’ll send a copy to Woman’s Hour and the magazine equivalent whether in print or online, it will get widespread attention. That will bring commercial publishers to your door, or email at least.
    I’ve worked in book publishing all my life, freelancing as a book editor, both copy editing and developmental editing. Your book sounds terrific, and much needed. It will bring hope to those who are disabled by a stroke, and also those caring for them. The best of luck to you–great cover! Cheers, Pat

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  22. Hi Tanya – if you click on the “closed caption / subtitles” option on YouTube you should be able to see a live transcription of my Tedx talk – I have watched it, and it does make the occasional error (like many subtitling services) but it’s not bad. Please pass on my very best wishes to your mum – auditory issues are so hard to deal with on top of everything else.

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