Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

In my hands, by my bed

One of the things that I love about John is his habit of choosing me books. He watches the pile on my bedside table, topping it up when it gets low. Usually it’s a stack from the library, but last week, as a half-term treat, he came home with a brand new one, leaving it by my bed for me to find when we went up.

He knows me well. I go through phases of being fascinated by stuff, the objects that we surround ourselves with. In my dreams, and in our holiday-going reality, we travel light,  throwing a few essentials into a day sack: a change of clothes, a passport, a bar of soap. The thought of having too much is suffocating, and yet I can see how people find comfort in the things which surround them. We all do; we’d be lying if we claimed otherwise.

The Life of Stuff is a family memoir, probing the generations through the things they loved and the hoard they left behind. Its lays out a pattern of family tragedy which repeats itself through the generations, and the author’s determination to change things, to be different. It left me wondering whether my own relative lack of interest in stuff comes from the fact that we moved a lot when I was growing up. Home is where the family is, regardless of continent or climate or whether the container with our chattels has arrived.

The stuff I love is functional: quilts and clothes, trowels and teacups. The things I make are always about keeping us warm, fed and comfortable. They are made, they are used, they fall apart. New things take their place.

I wore my favourite white jumper into oblivion last winter, and so a new one is on my needles. The pattern is one I’m developing for release this autumn, comfortable and warm and easy to throw on. And although my tester will be making it from commercial yarn, mine is knit from my own yarn, raised by my aunt, sheared by my cousin, spun soft and light and woolen by me. That’s the sort of story the things in my family tend to tell. Well made, well loved, and, one day, well worn. The stuff of comfort.

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

Madeleine

PS – If anyone fancies reading The Life of Stuff once John and I have finished, drop me a line and I’ll send it your way. UK readers only, I’m afraid, because, well, postage.

PPS – Thank you all so much for coming back, subscribing and reading again after my long hiatus. It really does mean an awful lot to me. Your ‘welcome back’ comments had me smiling for days.

Bronte country

Can you remember how old you were when you first read Jane Eyre? I can. I was ten, and my grandad had given me a set of all three Bronte classics for Christmas just a fortnight earlier. Fliss has read it, of course, and Ilse knows it from a wireless adaptation, and I’m sure Ben must have read it though he claims no recollection. Seb was the least thrilled when I announced that our half term day out was to be at Haworth, visiting the village and the moors but, most importantly of all, the Bronte Parsonage.

It’s hard not to think of it as a sad house, especially as the first death, that of their mother, occurred very soon after moving in. Then were the deaths of the two eldest children, both girls, both of tuberculosis contracted at school. Then later, the deaths of Branwell, Emily and Anne, and finally Charlotte, a few years later, the longest lived of all the children, aged only 38. Imagine, to have all six children and your wife to survive childbirth and infancy only to lose them all, one by one, until you were alone again. No wonder the house feels sad.

And yet there must have been a lot of fun in it, between times. There was an awful lot of life to be lived between each of those deaths, and you can’t help but come away with a sense that those girls made the very most of what they had. Their home is bursting with their sketches, embroidery, tiny childhood manuscripts, family newsletters and the like. It is a house full of industrious play – the sort of play that Emily and Anne and Charlotte never really grew out of, channelling it into their novels instead.

They played on the moors, too, just a short walk out of the village, and when we visited it was the hottest day of the year so far and everything was blooming. Fliss even complained of the lack of bleakness. Everywhere were flowers: buttercups, umbellifers, rhododendrons and forget-me-nots. We sat on a great slab of stone and looked out over it all, from the vibrant moor to the blasted hillsides and the grey stone village nesting in between, and had to be quiet so that Ilse could be inspired. She’s started a new novel: The Return of Wuthering Heights. I think there are a lot of ghosts in it, because later that night she came into our room with a nightmare, too scared to go back to sleep in the dark. There were fingers scratching at her window, even after I assured her that it was only Humbug the hamster’s squeaky wheel.

And now our copies of those novels are off the shelf and to be found on beds and garden benches. There are lots of discussions about which is everyone’s favourite, and why. It’s Wuthering Heights for me, in case you’re curious. Because of the sympathy between people and place, and the blurring of lines between the past and the present, the dead and the living. It embodies everything I think I know about the Brontes, and the lives they lead, and the place they came from. In fact, they are so strongly associated with Haworth and the moors above it that its new name seems entirely appropriate, and not a mere anachronism: Bronte country.

Tiddely-pom

It isn’t snowing around here, but it is pretty cold and dark and foggy. Bad weather for walks and scenic drives; good weather for toasting your toes in front of the fire and speeding to the end of a pair of woolly socks.

They’ve taken rather longer than I anticipated, largely due to the fact that things got very busy around the heels, and by the time I sat down each evening I was so tired that I kept going wrong. I had to wait until a Sunday to make the turn, and even then it was another week before I got going properly on the feet. I was very glad indeed to reach the toes: a pair of socks shouldn’t take so long to knit. If I hadn’t been making them two at a time I might have abandoned them until after Christmas. But it’s cold now, and I have every intention of pulling them on the moment I get out of bed tomorrow, unblocked as they are, to wear to Mrs Thistlebear’s December party. Time enough for blocking in the wash, I say.

With the coming of the cold and the long evenings, the retreat inside is very nearly complete, and the shelves of books and games have been thoroughly reexamined. Our library visits have gone up in frequency, if such a thing is possible – I wish I had the leisure to read as voraciously as the children do. Although I can remember ploughing my way through a novel a day, I am still taken by surprise when, at the end of the weekend, those towering piles they bore home so happily have been devoured. Last week’s hoard included Anne of Green GablesThe Riddle of the Sands, and The House at Pooh CornerWe did so enjoy reading those poems and stories again. And while I was knitting, the plodding yet skippety rhythm of The more it SNOWS (tiddely pom) kept marching around my head, reminding me of the parlous state of my own toes.

Well, they’re done now. Homemade woolly socks – a little pre-Christmas present to my toes. There seems to be a theme emerging, of nice little things to keep us all going until Christmas. This week: summer jam and woolly socks. Next week, nativity plays and carol concerts. I think Pooh Bear has the right idea really, approaching the cold and the wet with a cheerily unconcerned tiddely pom. In fact, looking at the calendar and my ever-growing to-do list, I think it might be the only way forward. Perhaps he isn’t a bear of so very little brain after all.

Swallows and Amazons

There’s been a lot of dreaming about Wild Cat Island in recent months. A lot of den building behind the sofa and at the end of the garden. A lot of packing of knapsacks and traipsing round the house to Rio and back. A lot of pemmican, and grog, and buttered eggs. The stitching of swallows on flags. Piratical attacks. Midnight raids.

At longed-for last, these Swallows headed off with their Daddy – who fortunately didn’t have to be on a ship in the South China Sea – to the Lake District, while I stayed at Holly Howe to look after Vicky (or my vegetables, at least). Three days later, they were back, having had enough adventures to write a novel of their own – which Titty set about at once. Not having been with them, I can only report their travels as they were described to me. A voyage on a ferry to a distant island in the sea, where they camped in the ruins of a castle and made friends with the native children. Post supper swims off the pier. Visits to Rio for supplies, before heading up to base camp, carrying all that they might need. Sleeping halfway up Kanchenjunga, and waking to make the dawn ascent. Searching the cairns for messages from earlier explorers – and, finding none, knowing they were the very first to set foot upon that crest. Returning to civilisation in time to fish for sharks, before the long paddle steamer home across the seven seas.

As I say, I wasn’t there, but I believe what I read in the company’s log. For a little while, at least, they all got to be Swallows: living for the summer, flitting freely about the English countryside. Wild camping in the hills, and messing about in boats. Stories in books are wonderful. Stories shared with friends and siblings, acted out in boats made from apple crates, are even better. And stories recreated in the place where they are set – in the hills and waters set aside for us all to enjoy? They’re the very best of all, apparently.

 

Garden notes: Deep sleep

No spinning wheels just yet, but plenty of gooseberry thorns to leave their tales upon my arms and legs. You have to fight your way past them to reach the hidden treasure. The beanstalks have raced to the top of their poles; the jerusalem artichokes tower above the height of the pergola and Ilse lost herself out there, like a little Thomasina Thumb, yesterday afternoon.

It is no wonder that so many fairy tales are about the garden and the wild woods beyond. After the long dreary winter of pottage and salt meat, who wouldn’t trade their child for a basket of sweet salad? We clear the woods to make a space for our tender plants to grow and then grow they do, becoming a jungle of their own. There could well be giants lurking in the nettles, tall and fierce as they are. Crack open one of my hens’ eggs and pure gold resides inside. Gardens are the very stuff of life itself: magical, exciting, hard work and yet ultimately out of our control. I love this time of year, when the plants are bigger than the weeds and it is all a glorious, fruitful mess. A cornucopia of marrows and cabbage, juicy spring onions and rocket which runs to seed faster than we can eat it. Even those tiny lettuces now tower over the beets, their thick stalks running white with bitter sap. The hens devour them, and I plant more out in their place.

Ben’s talents in the garden come to the fore just now: vanquishing the biting brambles with a blade and a younger sibling to be his knave. This is the kind of weeding he likes: thorny and fast with blatantly wicked prey. Seb is the best at turning over the plate-like leaves of the nasturtiums and squashing the yellow clusters of caterpillar eggs beneath. Fliss likes to harvest with me, filling baskets with blackcurrants and raspberries before the greedy birds take more than their share, and Ilse will do anything to speed me along so that we can play a game together, or read a story on the lawn.

We’ve been reading lots of fairy tales lately – Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Tom Thumb. Then we look around the garden and see why there is a myth of a bean which grows in a single night, or a girl whose mother craved greens. As we do so, I sneak in another little task: tying up the sweet peas, or weeding between the onions. She helped me cut the lavender on Saturday, and lent me her finger to hold the knots which tied it into bunches. They’re hanging from the airier on the landing, and as you walk upstairs the air fills with its sweet, clean, heavy scent. Once it’s dry we’ll shake it into little cotton sachets and make Christmas presents from them, to scent drawers and linen presses.

Just now, though, it is fulfilling an entirely different purpose. The end of term comes with its own particular tiredness: fretful and sleep-inducing all at once. Yet the lavender is working its magic: I’m not alone in dropping off the moment my head hits the pillow. We are sleeping deeply and well, thanks to those bunches of herbs hanging in the space between the bedrooms. I can’t account for the dreams of the others, but mine are punctuated by images of the garden: of brambles to be slain, tall meadows to be shorn, and bounty to be brought in and devoured.

Forever

Every so often a book is published which captures the imagination of a generation. Father Christmas delivered one such book this Christmas, to the stocking of a certain ten year old. He read it in one long go, pausing only to eat meals and, when forced to, sleep, so that by the end of Boxing Day he was able to lay it aside with a bittersweet sigh. He didn’t want it to end, you see.

Ilse was curious, as she always is when Seb is immersed in something, so I borrowed it from him to read aloud to her, in the time between supper and bed, snuggled on the couch. By the end of the first evening Fliss was listening in, hovering, perched on the edge of an armchair. By the third evening she was ready and waiting with Ilse for the story to go on, and Seb had come back in to lie before the fire and hear it all again. Even John has had to read it, just to be able to join in with the incessant chatter and renaming of so many daily things. The children no longer walk anywhere, but tack, arms spread to catch the wind. They request pemmican and grog at mealtimes. The newsagent is getting used to being called a native, and takes it in his stride as he measures toffee provisions into striped paper bags.

No-one wants the younger parts. Seb is, naturally, Captain John, and carries his compass around with him. He has done a lot of cartography, lately, and I am not altogether surprised to learn that the hill up the road is, in fact, the Matterhorn. Ilse wants to be Mate Susan, but all too often Fliss takes that role and Ilse is Able Seaman Titty, instead. I, of course, am Mother, the best of all natives, and our own John is Captain Flint with his green parrot and home upon the high seas.

Only Ben doesn’t join in. He’s too old for such games, and not old enough to enjoy them differently, either. Fliss teeters on the edge. I hear her playing, wholeheartedly, when she thinks it is just herself and Ilse and Seb, but the minute I walk into the room she clams up, and pretends to be doing something else. She is in-between, just now, in that no-man’s land between Ilse and I. I catch her longing for both things: for womanhood and childhood, and not knowing which way to turn.

John and I are very aware that these might be the last few months in which she plays these sorts of games. This might be the last time she can be truly lost, as only a child can be, just around the corner, barely out of sight. A cry goes up from the end of the garden: Swallows and Amazons forever! and while there is abandonment in it there is an edge of something else too, of self-consciousness and shame. Soon, too soon, the role of Susan will be Ilse’s every day.

With this in mind, we’ve hired a bothy in the Lakes for later in the season. A little stone hut, far from anywhere, on the edge of a mere. There are rowing boats for hire, and perhaps a chance to sail. We’ll teach the children to make drop lines and fish for sharks and tiddlers in the boundless ocean. They can build dens amongst the trees, and make buttered eggs over a campfire, and walk the mile to the native settlement for their supper each evening. They can wake each morning to that best of all thoughts: now, what shall I do today? and come up with the answers themselves.

They don’t last long, those years between toddling and adulthood. Much as I would like them to last forever, Ben has shown us that they won’t. So we’ll just have to make the most of them, fleeting and precious as they are.

[whohit]forever[/whohit]

Alice and I

Holidays really shouldn’t be allowed to come to such abrupt ends. Luckily for me, the village school didn’t reopen until yesterday. On Monday I had one little person still by my side, to ease me back into term.

Looking back, I think we all had exactly the sort of holiday we needed. I know I did. Lazy days, in that we didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time. Yet the days were busy, too. Days full of projects and plans, making and doing. Sewing, for me, and plenty of gardening. Knitting in odd moments here and there, which added up to four baby hats and a new dishcloth. For the children there were board games, and long days of make-believe, and reading, and running around out of doors. For John, the pleasure of being at home, snug in the cardigan I knitted him last year, away from worries and work. There were high days, of course, but lots of deliciously ordinary ones too.

Ilse received a beautiful edition of Alice in Wonderland this Christmas. It has coloured illustrations throughout, and gilt-edged pages. She has carried it around with most of her other presents, in her little satchel, and spent hours looking at the pictures and reading bits of it aloud to anyone who’ll listen. She simply makes up any words she can’t decipher – an approach which suits the text admirably. She is bold and inventive, my youngest.

Which is why I wasn’t surprised to be told off numerous times for referring to this little girl by the wrong name. It’s hard to keep up. She’s been Titty for much of the week, and occasionally one of Shackleton’s huskies. But there was no hesitation today. I’m Alice, Mummy. Alice.

Alice, in her blue frock and hair ribbon, helped with the morning chores. She chattered to Mrs P all through the wash, and then to the hens while I cleaned out their house. Finally, while our soup was warming for lunch, we did a quick bit of baking together: the sort of baking Alice would have done in Wonderland had the cook been better tempered.

By the afternoon there was nothing for it but to pull out the sewing machine and make the most of a precious day at home, just Alice and I. I hesitated over a worn sheet, set aside for sashing a quilt. But some moments just beg to be seized; I can source another by next autumn. Together we measured and cut, stitched and hemmed. Alice had a little rest, to look at the pictures in her book and discuss our progress with Dinah. She joined in again for the sewing on of the buttons, and we brushed her hair and retied the ribbon before ceremoniously slipping her arms into her new pinafore and buttoning up the back.

I’ve been meaning to make her one for months – the sort of simple white pinafore I grew up in. It was what all little girls wore, then. Today we made it for Alice, but she can be on the beach with the psammead in it, or waiting for Daddy, her Daddy, in a Yorkshire station. She can be a little princess, sleeping in a cold garret with only the rats for company, or sullen Mary Lennox, learning to skip and laugh and bring gardens back to life. I have a feeling that this pinafore will get an awful lot of wear, by an awful lot of characters. It was satisfying sewing. Not utilitarian in my eyes, but certainly so in hers.

Thus it was an afternoon well spent, for Alice and I. When the big ones tumbled in from school they recognised her immediately, much to her delight. And in turn she delighted them, by serving jam tarts for tea.

[whohit]aliceandi[/whohit]