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Me and my mother in our hand-knitted winter woollies, 1964

My mother knitted all the time, for herself, for me and my sister, and probably for my dad, although I don’t remember. She was still knitting when she died of cancer in 1990, and in her knitting bag were several pieces – one still on the needles – of an unfinished jumper for a small child, a friend’s grandson, I think. I wrote that half-finished, never-to-be-finished knitting into ‘The Heart Sutra’, my story about two sisters clearing out their mother’s house after her death from cancer.

When my mother, a lifelong smoker, was in Te Omanga Hospice for the last week of her life, weak and confused and half-aphasic, she kept thinking she was smoking, and trying to climb out of bed to find an ashtray. In the story I made the mother believe she was knitting, and crawl out of bed, agitated, in search of scissors. The older sister tries to convince her she’s hallucinating, while the younger sister conjures up imaginary scissors to go with the imaginary knitting, and the mother calms down.

Crowns and wands, and me in my scratchy purple Aran jersey. My mother made us one each.

We must have thrown out her needles, thrown out the long vinyl zipped case they lived in, thrown out the row counters and cable needles and knitting bag with its cunning folding wooden frame. There must have been patterns, piles of them. There must have been half-used balls of wool. But we didn’t want them. We were in our twenties, messed-up girls with a mother who had been sick on and off for ten years, a mother who had been labelled, terrifyingly, terminally ill some 18 months earlier. What would we have done with knitting needles? We must have given them to the Sallies.

I’ve come back to knitting. It’s so soothing and peaceful and simple, a perfect occupation for a winter’s night when I’m too tired to think about anything much. It’s fashionable again too, seized on by riot grrls and punks who knit skulls and anarchy symbols into their scarves, used as a gentle, whimsical form of graffiti by young women who pretty up power poles with knitted leaves and flowers and birds, and add woollen hearts and comforting messages to the city’s chain-link fences. This is probably illegal, but only just; anyway, I doubt anyone’s going to chase a bunch of knitting women ‘taggers’ down the street and knife them. There are stitch ‘n’ bitch groups, knitters at the Southern Cross pub on a Monday night; there’s an International Knit in Public Day.

Snow, in Masterton! We definitely needed to wear wool. My sister's outfit appears to be a twinset.

I’m still an impatient knitter, losing interest in anything that takes longer than a few weeks. I can do scarves and hats, but the top I started last year is sitting, half-finished, in a plastic bag. I hate it when things go wrong: I make mistakes, and lose my temper, and when I drop a stitch down more than a couple of rows, I wish my mother was alive, so I could give it to her to fix.

My sister in a great little 80s number our mother knitted her.

I too attended the 9th annual symposium of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand (http://www.costumeandtextile.co.nz/) and have been raving about this fantastic conference ever since. Thanks to Stella Lange, I learnt that knitters who stash their material use similar vocabulary to those of drug addicts. Apart from stash, there’s your (wool) dealers who assist in your habit as you become addicted in order to complete ‘just one more row’. I was also struck by the number of references to military history. From dresses worn at the time of the 1864 battle of Gate Pa, soldier dolls made for lost loves in the Great War, a souvenir doll of a ship later sunk in World War Two to moving accounts of families surviving during Nazi Germany, the theme of ‘hanging by a thread’ came through strongly. Creativity and more likely necessity saw outfits created from flags, curtains and other fabric remnants.

World War 2 tablecloth

World War 2 tablecloth

Rosemary McLeod’s talk about a post-World War Two hassock stuffed with over five kilograms of rags was a particular highlight. An examination of the contents revealed bits of lace curtains, stockings darned to death, children’s underwear made from adult’s clothing and embroidered doilies used as shoe polish rags. Like an archaeological survey, the reuse of items raises many questions about the changing circumstances of this family. Why did dainty embroideries become polishing rags? Did the 1930s depression followed by World War Two necessitate the careful reuse of fabric before finally consigning it as stuffing? Having once owned a similar hassock, I can only wonder about its contents.

The darning mushroom features the words 'Edith 1943'

A presentation about Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum’s forthcoming Australian Dress Register (http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/dressregister/) mentioned the inclusion of a tram destination-roll transformed into men’s underwear. References to underwear made from flour bags appears in an earlier Glorybox blog. (https://gloryboxtextiles.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/a-tale-of-two-sisters/).  The Australian Dress Register is due to be launched in September and Auckland designer Doris de Pont (http://www/fashionmuseum.org.nz) is developing an online New Zealand Fashion Museum.

Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins looked at the connection between knitwear and representation of gay men on television. From Glee to Ugly Betty, the wearing of jumpers tends to signal gay characters. We were then taken on a hilarious visual tour of knitting patterns and how men have been portrayed in some fairly hideous outfits. Inspired by Douglas’s talk, I found the following scary examples at a local op shop.

Knitting patterns

Patterns include 'Romantic Romano'

The presentations were enhanced by audience discussions particularly around context and conservation. Many historic outfits have been altered with little documentation about the  changes made, leading to speculation about the life cycle of a piece. The exquisite restoration of costumes for the National Gallery of Australia’s (http://nga.gov.au/Home/Default.cfm) forthcoming Ballets Russes exhibition drew debate about whether repairs override the intentions of the designers who had made later modifications. Whatever your views are, this and the work of the Victoria Tapestry Workshop (http://www.victapestry.com.au/news_index.aspx) makes for compelling reasons to visit Australia. But before then, join the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand (http://www.costumeandtextile.co.nz) so that you can become involved with a really interesting group of people.

There’s an embarrassment of riches for lovers of vintage textiles, fabrics and crafts in Wellington in June.

First up is the annual symposium of the Costume and Textile Association of New Zealand, on 12 and 13 June at the NewDowse in Lower Hutt. Delightfully titled ‘Hanging by a Thread’, the symposium will be looking at tales of textile disaster and survival. Sessions include University of Georgia professor Katalin Medvedev on Cambodian women’s weaving, Lindie Ward from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum on the Australian Dress Register, and Linda Tyler from the Centre for New Zealand Art Research and Discovery on John Buchanan‘s calico pattern designs. I’m also rather taken by ‘A nice gay jersey: masculinity and the knitting pattern’, by Hawke’s Bay Museum director Douglas Lloyd Jenkins – remember all those male knitwear models with their jutting jaws, clutching fishing rods?

The complete programme can be found here, and the registration form here.

Also at the NewDowse on Sat 12 June from 10am-3pm, the wonderful Craft 2.0 fair will no doubt once again fill the museum with dozens of innovative contemporary crafters and their fans/customers. Time for some early Christmas shopping, perhaps?

Then, the weekend after, the Fabric-a-brac fabric sale is at St Anne’s church hall in Emmett Street, Newtown, from 9am-12pm on Sat 19 June. I haven’t made it to a Fabric-a-brac yet, but love the idea of people selling groovy old fabrics. If I keep buying them at my current rate, I’ll soon need to have a Fabric-a-brac stall to get rid of them again…

It’s also World Wide Knit in Public Day – or days, rather, from 12 to 20 June, when brave souls are encouraged to get together and – what else – knit in public. The Wellington knit-in-public event is on Sat 12 June, at 2pm at the Offbeat Cafe in the Left Bank. It’s great when knitters come out of the closet – I was delighted to see a woman knitting on the bus the other morning.

I’ve also just discovered the inspired nuttiness of Outdoor Knit – check out the ‘It’s a Tree!’ project.

It’s almost enough to make you forget that it’s winter. Well, hmm, maybe.

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