Warm head, snug hands, calm heart

There are rhythms all around us, so familiar that we barely notice them. Our heartbeats, our individual strides. The rise and fall of our chests at rest. Those tunes which play in the back of our minds, as though we had a wireless tucked away in there and couldn’t turn it off. Much of the time we simply tune it out. But then something sends the blood pounding through our veins. Ugly thoughts whip themselves into a frenzy, and our pulse lifts the internal music to an uncomfortable tempo. Fear begets fear, unless we intervene.

The best way to do this is to reset those rhythms. To slow things down, to take control once more. You can’t panic when you are walking at a comfortable pace. You can’t be tense if you push your shoulders down.

It seems that worries come in batches, feeding on each other. Some are legitimate: an unwell friend, the rise of xenophobia. Others are self inflicted: musical performances which set the stomach churning at the very thought. I’ve been for lots of walks, these past few weeks, read lots of comic novels. I’ve been for many cycle rides and felt better every time. Most of all, though, it is the basket of little knits I reach for. Knit one, purl one, focus on those cables. A hat, some mitts, a pair of woolly socks. It is almost all knit up now: all the wool left over from last year’s projects, plus a ball or three passed on from Ada. The scraps are eked out with care, so that the only tension is over whether there’ll be just enough to make it down the wrist. I love these little knits, where each completed object is a bonus, and squirrel them away for gloomy autumn mornings when a new hat or some fresh red mittens can chase away impending winter blues. Leaves are formed with yarn overs and slip-two-knit-one-passes, yellow gauntlets with endless stitches marching round and round on double pointed needles. They soothe my heart twice over: once in the making and then again in the rediscovery, next autumn, when even I feel as though someone else must have tucked these little bits of warmth away for us to find.

Calm is good, I know. This recent spurt of knitting tells me how much I need its tranquil influence. And yet. There are worries I have brought upon myself. Little ambitions, self-inflicted aims. When this performance is done, I know there will be something else, because I will set it. Just now I crave the calm that knitting brings, but I wouldn’t want it all the time. Because the other side of fear is thrill. Anxiety is just excitement, viewed from the wrong angle. Dread is anticipation, backwards. Failure: the flip side of success. It’s all about that moment, standing up in front of others, and yet it isn’t, really. It’s the preparation, the hours of practice, the setting oneself a task that one might not actually achieve. I need the thrill every bit as much as the calm. And well, if nothing else I’m getting lots of knitting done with all this nervous tension. Lots of knitting, and lots of practice, and neither is a bad thing in my book.

Squares

They are curiously compelling, these little squares. I had intended to make a few each summer, using up odds and ends of aran until one day I might have enough to make a blanket. It was a plan for dealing with the sort of balls that aren’t big enough to be worth casting on with. And as the pile of such balls grew smaller they went from pesky to precious. I found myself divvying them up with care: these ones for the centres, those bigger scraps for outer rounds, so that each square would still change colour with each row.

This is a portable craft – more so than knitting. A hook and a ball of wool can be slipped into a handbag, or a knapsack’s outer pocket, or a basket for the beach. By the time we came home from Filey I could have made them in my sleep: three triples, one chain, three triples, one chain, until you get to the corner and do everything twice. Once home, Fliss asked me to show her how it was done, and for a day or two she commandeered my hook and a half-ball of double knitting, until her surprise for Ilse’s birthday was complete, and wrapped carefully in tissue in her highest drawer.

Before I knew it, the aran was gone and there were no more squares to be crocheted. It was back to the leftover 2 ply for a pair of fingerless gloves with leaves growing up the wrists: fiddly and comparatively slow. Sometimes it is fun to make something you have to think about, but sometimes it is the repetitive twist and pull that we long for at the end of a busy day. So a second blanket was begun, simply a giant double knitting granny square to which colours will be added whenever there is wool left over, or a child’s pullover outgrown and frogged.

Because, really, it is when our hands are busy that our minds are free to wander. Perhaps I should have been thinking of more important things: of politics or literature or the people I know and love. Perhaps, another time, I will. Just now, though, I found myself content to plan a blanket or two. I’m quite looking forward to a bit more crotchet, once the last little knits are done. It’s a soothing shape, a square: predictable and easy. It doesn’t matter where you start from, or where you have to pause. I might keep them all small, or pick a single shade to link them all together. Other colours will be added as new jumpers are knit up, but the steady brown and cream will be the same. I’m not after a wild old time, just at the moment. The school year is coming to an end, there’s a riot in the garden, there are bigger projects underway. All in all, this was a good time for these squares, and I may not wait until next year to make some more.

Lovely ladies

There was a changing of the guard this week, with the arrival of six new hens from a local farm. We set their boxes in the vacated hen house, having moved the older girls into the tractor for a few weeks, and they were out and exploring their ladders and perches in no time. I think they like their new home: in the morning we found an egg apiece in the nest boxes. Then in the tractor we found Ilse’s hen, dead, having quite literally dropped off the perch in the night. There were a few tears, as befits the passing of an old pet: the last of our original trio of hens. But we’d known it was coming: she stayed close to home and ruffled her feathers into a cosy eiderdown even in the sun. Ben had built her a step to help her in and out of the house, and she had special permission to sleep in the nest box at night. Seeing this, I’d added an extra to my original order of five new birds, anticipating the need to replace her. Of course she didn’t know that, and of course she was just a hen, but she was a lovely, gentle, inquisitive old lady, and her timing felt quite dignified, somehow.

We motored over to the Dales later that day, to have lunch with John’s mother, Ida, and walk up onto the moorland. I like it best in the autumn, when the tops are purple with swathes of flowering heather, but this time the fresh green growth only hinted at such beauty. The ewes were up there with their lambs, already grown sturdy and strong. The sheep were beginning to shed their fleeces, leaving handfuls of rough wool lying here and there, and as she picked some up my mother in law told me about a woman in the village, blind with age, wanting to pass her spinning wheel and knowhow on to someone new. What a lovely gift to give. It made me think about the all those millions of acts, big and small, that people do for one another. And as we talked we dropped down into a little valley full of wild garlic and forget me nots, where the bees were out gathering pollen with their sisters.

Even though there was no purple on the moor, we’d bought a little with us in celebration of Ida’s birthday. A bunch of lilacs from our massive shrub in York, further along than those in the chilly Dales. Mauve cards from the children, made by shaving coloured pencil leads over paper and gently brushing the pigments across the page. A violet peg bag, made long ago with floral sprigs and polka dots and satin ribbon – and Ida in mind. Little gifts, gathered together with care.

In turn she sent us home full of roast dinner and sticky toffee pudding, with a jar of her excellent marmalade, a stack of Good Housekeepings and a few balls of wool to transfer to the growing pile of little knits. And on the way I got started on a granny square, crocheting the way Mrs Roberts had taught me just a couple of weeks earlier. Home again, I found a postcard on the doormat from Mrs Eve, and then there were the hens, new and old, to check on. We made a quick supper of the pork pies Ida had wrapped up for us, with lettuce from the garden and a bit of bread and butter, feeling glad for a day without any cooking, before shooing the little ones off to bed. An easy evening, at the end of a delightful day. Really, it’s no wonder I couldn’t help but think that there are a lot of lovely ladies in my life.

All over

There are many ways to greet the rain, but my favourite is with a cup of tea, a spot of knitting and a day spent resolutely in. Why try to carry on with springtime plans when you could revel in a little cosiness instead? As it turns out, a day or so of rain was just what I needed to finish off the cardigan which had been languishing in my knitting basket for some weeks, with just one buttonhole band to make. A drama on the wireless, a blanket on my lap and, in next to no time, it was done.

I have been very glad of it, over the past few days. Finished and blocked, it was ready just in time for a chilly weekend, and goodness knows I wanted nothing more than a new woolly to ring the changes this late in the season. An old red one, long since consigned to house wear only, can now be thrown in at the end of the hot white wash – a quick bit of felting will deal with the holes, and I can make it into a hot water bottle cover, ready to be loved all over again.

I think this may be my favourite of all the knits I’ve made myself, but apparently I say that every time. Still, it is pretty perfect, for me. Made of Shetland 2-ply, it has a fineness about it that I love, but the stranding makes it two layers thick and deliciously warm. I know I’ll love its hopeful green in winter as well as in spring, and the gay yellows and blues bring it to life. It’s bright, but also earthy, with a hardy woollen steadfastness I adore. This is a knit for a busy person, one who needs to be warm in the garden in midwinter and won’t have time to change before cycling into town. The sort of knit I can wear on a campsite. It’s a knit for me, designed by me, ready to meet my every need. The sort of knit everyone should have.

Woven into it are the memories of rather more months than I had intended. Of casting on not once nor twice but three times before making it work. Of filling long winter evenings with a little colour and pattern and industry. Of passing a storm in a bothy, and watching the children fish from a pebbled beach. Of all the long months between Christmas and now, May, when the garden is in bloom and I probably won’t need it much until the nights draw in once more. There are bluebells in this jumper, yes, but also fireside logs and Christmas stars. Knitted over two seasons, this jumper was made to be worn in three or four.

While I was ribbing knit one, purl one with the back of my mind, the front of my mind was otherwise engaged. Because of course with the end of one knit comes the start of another – or several, in this case. We are officially in the season of little knits, and by my side, where I could eye up the contents, was my wool basket. It’s a long time since I filled it at the autumn fair, and only a few odd balls remain. This year I think there might be a few little crochets, as well as little knits. Perhaps the start of a granny blanket, to use up scraps over several years. I can think of a girl who’d like a foxgloves hat to match her big sister’s cardigan, and I’m sure I can come up with a pattern. I’d like to make some mittens with leaves and vines running up the back – or perhaps just some fingerless gauntlets to wear around the house. This is the best sort of play: before decisions are taken and anything is possible. And I find my thoughts heading outside again too, after those blissful days of sun, to quilting in the garden. I’ve a quilt to make for Fliss, and I’d like to do it all by hand, making the most of the bright long days.

There are so many things to dream up, so many things to make. Perhaps I should be sad when I come to the end of a long and familiar project, but I’m not. That jumper might be all over, but the making isn’t. On with the next project, and the next and the next. It’s never all over, really.

Knots

Ever since my aunt sent me my very first snood, I’ve been wanting to learn how to crochet. I borrowed a book from the library and pored over it for hours, hook in hand, but couldn’t work it out. Other people were encouraging: it’s easier than knitting, they told me. You only have to learn four stitches. I’m surprised you can’t do it already.

I was sure I could do it, if I could only get started. I crocheted the cut steek of Fliss’ foxgloves, pulling slip stitches through the edge of the knitted fabric, making it secure. With something there to connect to, it was simple. But starting from scratch, with a length of cotton before me, seemed impossible.

So Mrs Roberts and I hatched a plan some months ago: an afternoon in a cafe, for tea and cake and a skills swap. I would teach her to knit intarsia. She would teach me to crochet.

I think it is a mark of how lovely a time we were having that we suddenly noticed the diners coming in for their evening meals. Our lunch dishes had long since been cleared, afternoon tea had been taken. Waitresses had stopped by our little table to see what we were making, and add their own tips to the mix. Mrs Roberts had written out a pattern for me, unintelligible at first and entirely comprehensible by the end. With her encouragement I made a flower, and once we were onto double and triple crochet it all made sense. She showed me how to vary stitches on the scarf she was making, before pulling the yarn free again, rolling it up and stuffing it back into its little pouch. Her attitude was so can-do, so why-not that I caught it. I think I could make anything now, with crochet.

Of course she needed very little help to get started with her fairisle, knitting together a stunning medley of creams and purples. She has plans for a jumper for autumn, and I can’t wait to see it. Watching other people make things is very nearly as much fun as making them yourself. In fact, the next day, I showed Fliss how to crochet and she whipped up a set of matching bracelets to share with all her friends. It was fun to watch her pick it up so quickly. That was easy, she said. Because it is. And I’m so glad I’ve learned to do it at long last. It was a good afternoon, for Mrs Roberts and I: both productive and purposeful.

Better still, though, was what was happening while our hands and eyes were busy. A long talk, without thought of chores or deadlines. Sharing anecdotes and hopes, long stories and their meanings. Being able to focus on just the two of us, without interruption or complaint. We tied a lot of knots, that afternoon, but the best of all was the one which pulled us closer. Continue reading “Knots”

Spring fashions, 1931

Hail one day, then glorious sunshine the next. April, in Yorkshire. Except that the sun has stayed with us for several days now, and temperatures are on the rise, and all that wool seems suddenly unseasonal. The time for cotton is most definitely here.

I have to admit that I really like changing our clothing over from one season to the next. There’s not that much involved. The pulling forward of cotton shirts and frocks. Making sure everyone has a set of decent bathers. Exchanging felt hats for straw, and heavy winter coats for canvas.

It’s the putting away which takes a little longer. Mrs P and I have been doing extra washes this week, of the woollens and the dressing gowns and so forth. Some things will stay out, refreshed, ready to be worn on cooler days or chilly evenings. Other things can be put away at the back of the wardrobe after a good airing, buttoned up and with the pockets basted shut to hold their shape. Boots are cleaned and polished ready for the next year or next child. Blankets flap on the line on a sunny afternoon and it feels like a thank you of sorts, this ritual week of putting things to rest. Sewing up little tears or undone seams, sponging dirty marks out of a lapel, putting our coats and jackets on the best padded hangers. They’ve kept us warm and dry all winter, and deserve to be looked after. They’ll be waiting when the calendar rolls on once more.

In the meantime, the cotton is shaken out and pressed. The girls head off to school in crisp green gingham, with white ankle socks and goosebumps on their calves. By first play, they assure me, it’s simply scorching. The boys are eagerly awaiting shirt sleeve orders. They ride home with blazers draped over their handlebars.

And I? Well, I’m getting to know these summer frocks of mine again. I’m enjoying seeing something different when I open the wardrobe door. I’ve been thinking about the season ahead, and what it holds for us, and making sure we all have what we need. There’ll be lots of normal life: gardening and housework and popping into York. The odd smart occasion, for which I think I’ll dress up my peonies frock. And lots of camping too, in July and August, which can be awkward in a skirt.

I decided to be bold, in the end, and bought a pair of slacks each for Fliss and myself. Needless to say, she looks the part in them, and loved them at once. I may take a little longer to get used to mine – a process which has not been helped by Mrs P’s reaction. But they are blissfully comfortable and so very, very practical. I wouldn’t wear them to church, or out to tea, but they’ll be perfect for life in a tent. And I must say, they look rather smart with a gay pullover and a pair of heels. So you can think what you like, Mrs P – I’m going to wear them anyway. It is 1931, after all.

[whohit]slacks[/whohit]

Foxgloves for Fliss

Fliss’ cardigan has been cast off and crocheted, the steek cut and button bands knitted on. I left it on the chair in  her bedroom, having sewn on the last button as she slept. She held me in its woollen arms, next morning, and whispered thank-yous in my ear.

Fliss is my shy, thoughtful, imaginative girl. She lives half in this world and half in some other, make-believe realm. She’s my war baby, born in 1916, the child I wanted only to keep safe and close to my heart. When I was having her I was afraid of so many things: zeppelins and their bombs, food and fuel shortages, and, most of all, losing John. Other women, of my age and younger, were entering the factories and fields. The war opened their eyes and their worlds. They were fearless and pioneering. As a married mother, my own world closed in around me.

Once John had joined up, I went home to live with Mother and Father, accompanied by two year old Ben and the knowledge of Fliss. Looking back, it seems as though Mother and I sat across the fire from one another every evening for three years, knitting. We didn’t, of course. We visited friends, went to the odd concert, and laughed at the antics of the newly all-female amateur dramatics society. But what I remember most is the knitting. Bootees and balaclavas, layettes and extra layers for Fliss and for John, for my brother Pete and for other, nameless, soldiers. Cream and khaki, khaki and cream, keeping them safe the only way we could. I would have knitted charms into those garments, if I could.

Once she was born Fliss turned out to be a quiet baby, as long as I was nearby. Her brother Ben was always off, as soon as he could toddle, launching himself into the world. Not Fliss. She would lie on her blanket for hours, playing with her hands and following me with her dark eyes. As she grew I got used to suddenly finding her by me, slipping her paw into mine, sliding into my lap.

I took Fliss, Seb and Ilse into York yesterday, to buy their winter shoes. Seb and I strolled behind: he is spilling over with plans for our conker expedition. Ilse bounced ahead beside Fliss, hanging off her patient hand. It has been a mild autumn so far, not yet cold enough for coats. Instead the air is damp and grey and thick with muffled mists. Fliss’ foxgloves shone back at me through the murk, clear and bright, free of the shadows of hedgerows and old fears. She glanced over her shoulder, once or twice, to check that I was near, but found a place for she and Ilse to sit, alone, on the busy tram. She is pulling away, as she should. But however far she goes from me I will always be able to sense her, unexpected and quiet, surprising us with flashes of her fantastical beauty.

[whohit]foxglovesforfliss[/whohit]

Little knits

Autumn does not deepen in a steady flow, but hesitantly, advancing and retreating like an incoming tide.

This morning was the occasion of another little rush forwards. We woke up to clear skies and a heavy dew and, suddenly, out of drawers and cupboards, came the little knits. They have been squirrelled away, tucked in, all summer, behind the socks and vests, but their time has come. October is the month for little knits – on go hats and mittens, scarves and socks – enough to keep that nip in the air at bay without recourse to a heavy coat.

Like autumn itself, though, the day will grow warmer before it is colder, and those same hats will be shoved down the sides of satchels on the journey home from school. Because of this, October is also the month of lost little knits. Gloves, discarded, cannot be found when the frost strikes a week later. I sewed Ilse’s mittens to a ribbon and ran it through the arms of her cardigan. The others are disdainfully too old for such precautions, but Ilse, at least, will still have two mitts by November.

Outside, I wished I’d put my new wool socks on. By the time I’d pulled out the shrinking cucumber vines my toes were numb. I found no fewer than twenty-six cucumbers, hiding from the cold in the remains of the lush tangle. The hens were sunbathing, snuggled together in a corner of their run. And happily, the slugs had not ventured near the windfalls.

Inside the house, a ladybird had come to share our warmth. She ambled along the white windowsill, unconscious of how conspicuous she was in her red and black jacket. I took her out to the bush where hundreds of her kind sleep each winter. There is still time for her to bed in.

In the warmth of the afternoon I knitted. At the bottom of my basket, beneath the sleeves and half-knit body of Fliss’ Foxgloves, is a half-finished scarf for Ben. I worked on this, today.

Most of my little knits are made in the summer months. I like to use up the odds and ends of wool – balls left over from cardigans, half a skein remaining from my nordic pullover, or from another little knit. There’s a rhythm to my knitting: cardigans for John and I in the spring and then little knits right through until late September, when I know the children won’t grow out of their new pullovers before they’ve worn them. These smaller knits are easy to take on the train, to the beach, and on a picnic. They don’t lie hot and heavy in my lap. By October, my wool basket is empty and the corners of everyone’s drawers are full of cosiness.

I looked at John in his new hat, and remembered the three evenings I spent knitting it: mid-August, the windows open, a serialisation of the latest Agatha Christie on the Home Service. My own oak leaf hat: a rainy week in July when we couldn’t get out of doors. Ilse’s mittens: the meandering train ride to my brother’s family in Devon, one either way.

When all the others had left, I watched Ilse from our bedroom window as she set off for school, exclaiming over jewelled webs with muffled claps of joy. Those mittens will remind her of dewy mornings, frosty gates and, hopefully, pushing carrots into snowmen’s faces. But they remind me, already, of telegraph poles oscillating by train windows, of the first glimpse of sailboats in Devon harbours, and of the promise of the summer ahead.

[whohit]littleknits[/whohit]

Fair isle at the fair

My mother in law invited me to attend her local wool fair. As the train approached Skipton, the fields were full of sheep, busily growing their fleeces to keep them warm this winter.

It seems apt then, for a woollens fair to take place in the Yorkshire Dales, and in the auction mart to boot. Each of the stalls was set up in a pen, and none was the same as any other. There were looms, tweeds, felts, crochet hooks, knitting needles, baskets and needle cases. There were piles of patterns, too – not just the ordinary brands, but those written by the vendors themselves, proudly sporting their own designs.

I’m not sure whether it was because I was looking for it, but there was fair isle everywhere I turned. Patterns, subtle and bold; hues, natural and bright – there was almost too much choice. Pullovers, slipovers, gloves, hats, scarves, snoods, socks…all in fair isle.

It wasn’t really a surprise: fair isle is beginning to come off yachts and golf courses and into our homes and streets. In truth, I had gone looking for some patterns and wool to make another attempt at it, having knit my first nordic pullover last winter.

As a result, I came home with a basket bursting with wool: Shetland 2 ply in nature-inspired hues for John, Ben and myself, and brights for the children. We could each do with a gay new pullover, so my hands will be busy this autumn. I have decided on a Foxgloves for Fliss, to begin with. We need patterns to remind us of what is missing: foxgloves and bluebells, echoes of mountains and blue-grey waves, steady lines of trees in leaf. Like the cave painters of old, I like to imagine that what we create in the long winter encourages these things to return.

Opening the curtains this morning, the world was fuzzy and dull with mist. It still hadn’t cleared by the time Mrs P and I were hanging out the last of the wash. Peer as I might, the garden remained  grey and indistinct. The wash struggled to dry in the saturated air.

By this afternoon the autumn sun was breaking through once more, burning off the last of the haze. Yet the morning was a timely reminder of what is to come. We need pattern and colour to keep us cheerful through the grey months ahead. Perhaps the islanders know that better than us, living as far north as they do. I am more than happy to learn from them. With a rug over my legs, a cup of tea at my side and the sun on my back, I spent a happy half hour on the garden bench, casting on.

 

[whohit]Fair Isle at the Fair[/whohit]