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My latest TradeMe find came in the post a couple of days ago, and it’s a goodie – a linen tablecloth with a deep crocheted edging. In each corner, each embroidered in a different colour scheme using blocks of satin stitch, is a Dutch couple, complete with clogs, bonnet, tulips and a windmill in the distance. The woman’s eyes are modestly downcast; the pairs of figures might even be dancing.

I particularly like embroidery that features people (and animals, but I’ll come to that another time). I love the carefree expression on the face of this lass (somehow the right word!) on a swing.

Like many embroidered women, she holds flowers – but unlike many others, she has a relatively contemporary look about her, with shortish hair and what appears to be a ’50s dress.

Many embroidered women sport crinolines and bonnets. Below, one woman gives flowers to another (a prelude to a 19th-century lesbian romance, I expect).

This wildly glamorous woman with her haughty expression and red nails is on an apron, probably from the 1930s – it’s somehow ironic that the apron hasn’t been cared for, and is spattered with paint.

Is this unfinished (but beautifully embroidered) apron, below, meant to be Marie Antoinette? I love it that the embroiderer has given her a beauty spot while leaving other parts uncompleted. These highly decorated aprons were typically intended for special occasions, not for everyday use.

While I appreciate elegant work (most of it from kits), I’ve also got a particular fondness for more homely, awkward pieces, which may have been designed by the maker. This girl (again on an apron) seems to be gazing just off-screen with an expression of horror as she clutches her bouquet. The tight rows of chain stitch used for her skin and dress also make her look slightly… well… diseased. This apron has no neck strap, and would have been worn pinned to the wearer’s dress or blouse.

And I love this perky madam – a woman who knows her own mind, I reckon. Look at those eyes. Her flowers are particularly colourful.

But one of my favourite pieces is this unassuming little dressing-table mat featuring two Māori wāhine. No flowers here, but flax bushes or bulrushes/raupō. Both women are barefoot, wearing cloaks, and with feathers in their hair.

This woman, below, carries her baby in the traditional style, on her back, tucked under her cloak – the only embroidered depiction of motherhood that I’ve come across anywhere. It’s interesting that representations of parenting or heterosexuality (of men, in fact!) are almost entirely absent from these embroideries, most of which depict a rather dreamlike, female-only world of elegant dresses, flowers and hair done in ringlets (!) – a fantasy of escape from daily drudgery? Men and babies appear only on the Dutch-themed tablecloth and Māori-themed mat. Perhaps the ‘exotic’ nature of other ethnicities (I’m assuming a Pākehā embroiderer, which may or may not be right) added a little glamour, or at least distance, to what would otherwise have seemed mundane or everyday.


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.

May 2018
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