-Originally appeared in Black Purl Magazine, Spring 2007.
I think I was probably around 4 years old when I completed my first needlework project. My mother drew large dashed lines on a scrap of fabric and helped guide my fingers to hold the needle and pull the thread in and out for a total of about 30 stitches arranged in 5 parallel lines. She framed the stitches with bright calico; applied batting and backing to the back and hand quilted the piece with hearts in the corners. I was the proud co-author of my very first doll quilt.
My aunt taught me to crochet at seven and another aunt taught me to machine stitch at nine. I sought out a knitting teacher at fifteen, since the only knitter in my family (my great grandmother) had passed away some years back. My grandmother sent me my great grandmother’s needles and said she would see if she could find the lavender kimono sweater her mother had been knitting for her when she died. To this day I cannot picture my grandmother in a lavender kimono sweater, as I think I’ve only ever seen her in earth toned neutrals. But that is what I love about crafting, the open door of possibility. Needle and thread are tools for transformation, ever ready for a make-over or even just a temporary costume or disguise.
My daughter isn’t quite ready to master most of the technical elements of needlecraft. Though I have seen pictures of prizewinning three year-olds hovering over exquisitely complex bobbin lace, I want her technical mastery to be guided by her imagination and desire to create, rather than my desire to have a daughter versed in the needle arts. Heaven forbid I become the mother in my daughter’s favorite fairy tale: “The three fays,” in which the mother beats her daughter with a spindle and lies to the Queen, telling her that her daughter pines for spinning, thus exposing her to death if she doesn’t rise to the Queen’s challenge. The girl manages to avoid death and marry the Prince in the end, but she gleefully abandons the needle arts forever (and who could blame her?).
This is why we’ve taken a broad and intuitive approach to our needlework lessons, as much lessons of discovery for me as they are for her. These are the lessons that stand out in my mind, the ones I learned the most from, but doubtless she’ll have others:
Lesson 1: The Tweed Hat- Introduction
My daughter was about 18 months when she fully grasped that I had crafted something just for her. I will never forget the joy on her face when I pulled the hat from behind my back. The love that passed between us in that moment was as tangible as a strong hug. She lived in that crocheted black tweed hat for weeks and made it her own, our first collaborative project.
Lesson 2: A Scarf for Pooh- The Tools of the Trade.
Having grasped how wonderful it is to give and receive a homemade gift, Frida busily set to knitting a pink scarf for Pooh. Yes, he of hundred acre wood. Not for a stuffed animal of Winnie the Pooh mind you (we didn’t have one). She clicked away at the blunt wooden circular needles in the car on the way to the grocery store, while I made dinner, after breakfast, clickety-clanking out airy (literally) scarves. Sometimes she’d poke into skeins of yarn as though she were trying to eat Chinese noodles with chopsticks, but for the most part she relished in the work of the needles, having learned early on that the process really is its own reward.
Lesson 3: The Sweater the Indians made- Craft in Context
Of course, the day would come when she would turn her nose up at one of my hand-made creations.
“I want to wear this sweater! Who made this sweater?”
I cringed at the words on the label: “The Gap”… and below that: “made in India”.
“People in India made this sweater…on a machine,” I replied, quick to make a clear distinction as to the special qualities of my garment.
This was a humbling lesson for me. Not just because Frida had snubbed one of my hand knit, but because, after all everything we consume represents the effort of many people to bring it into being. The directed and concentrated love I put into my sweater may not be there, but there is still a love of children who need to be fed and dreams to be realized. I am priviliged to have time, money and love to invest in my craft.
Lesson 4: The Swashbuckling Knitter- Safety Training
An exploration of the tools of the trade leads to all sorts of exciting other possibilities and cautioning words. Knitting needles become swords, crochet hooks are drafted into service as soup stirrers, fishing poles and hair sticks. Scraps of fabric make marvelous doll blankets and skeins of mussed embroidery floss are held between the fingers to act as swings. I am reminded never to give up on the endless possibilities, but also remember Ani Franco’s cautioning (or threatening?) words “Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right.”
Lesson 5: The Emerald Letter – The First Project
Watching my daughter patiently write out the letter “F” and a few other random letters I thought back to my fist embroidery project. The letter “F” is after all, just three straight lines arranged differently. I asked Frida if she wanted to sew. She did. She chose her color and drew out her letter. We learned that while embroidery is quite suited to little Princesses, it help to take off your gloves first. Her face was a study in concentration; mine was a study in bursting-at-the-seems silly pride and joy. A half hour later a beautiful letter “F” emerged. I carefully cut and arranged floral fabric from departed dresses around it to make a cushion-cover for one of the pillows on her bed, as I thought of my mother and her quilting projects.
Lesson 6: When Disaster Strikes…- Creative Solutions
A half an hour later I returned to stitch up my carefully arranged pieces. I was horrified to see
dark pencil scribbles across my daughter’s new heirloom embroidered “F”. This was creative license taken too far. I rushed it downstairs to scrub at the scribbles. As it turns out the fabric was not color fast. I now had no scribbles, but three light splotches remained in their place. Not only had I thwarted my daughter’s creative vision, I ruined the piece in the process.
Once I regained my senses, I scrubbed vigorously at the entire square to release all loose dye. I scrubbed especially hard around the edge of the letter to create a halo effect. The project was redeemed. Frida was pleased with the result. Many lessons were learned (not least of which: always pre-wash new fabric!)