My creative inheritance – the story of three generations of women and our textiles

I have been making things with yarn and textiles for almost as long as I can remember.  I can vividly recall the first time I saw someone crocheting (I was about four at the time), which I described as “knitting with one needle.”  Evidently I already knew about knitting with two needles!  As a child in the Netherlands I grew up around embroidery and cross stitch – my aunt used to make amazing tablecloths embroidered with naturalistic leaves, berries and flowers in tiny cross stitch, a style which is very common in the Netherlands but rarely seen here in the UK.  It always impressed me that the reverse was very nearly as beautiful as the front of her work, and I was taught that this was something to aim for.  My Oma (grandmother) was skilled in a wide range of embroidery styles – blackwork, drawn thread work, and crewel work as well as cross stitch and needlepoint.  She always had something on the go – unless she was immersed in one of her beloved English-language whodunits!

Occasionally she would knit – I have a vague recollection of cardigans she knitted for me when I was very small – but it was my mother who was the prolific knitter.   Rarely working from patterns, between the 1940s and the 1980s she produced a vast number of garments, not only the usual sweaters and scarves, but also entire dresses – with panelled skirts – fully fashioned and a perfect fit and, astonishingly, knitted from the finest 2-ply or laceweight yarn on knitting needles barely thicker than sewing needles.  She always claimed to hate knitting, but nevertheless she put a lot of time and effort into her creations, even when knitwear was easily and cheaply available to buy and knitting was no longer the necessity it perhaps was in the 1940s and 50s.  She also made her (and my) clothes occasionally, including her own wedding dress, on a 1950s Singer sewing machine with an electric motor.

Image of textile art. Skyscape in blue wool with vapour trails and clouds suggested in white and oyster silk. Image and art copyright Lisa Tulfer 2012.

Beacons Skyscape. Wool felt and silk. Lisa Tulfer 2012

It was probably inevitable that I would continue the tradition.  I was embroidering (including blackwork and drawn thread work) by the age of 6, and I also remember learning to knit when I was 6 or 7 – it was a scarf for one of my dolls, made out of scrap yarn in stripes of olive green and burgundy.  I made all my dolls’ clothes, sewing as well as knitting and crocheting.  Up until my late 20s (when my eyesight started to struggle) I made fine cross stitch cards and bookmarks as gifts.  After that, I moved onto needlepoint, as it is larger scale, uses chunky wool instead of fine cottons and silks, and is altogether easier on the eyes.  For a time I took commissions, creating unique bespoke designs for cushions.  In my 20s I acquired a 1930 Singer hand cranked sewing machine, which is my pride and joy, and started dressmaking.  Unfortunately, full-time work and the demise of fabric shops in the 1990s eventually ended that, but I still use the machine to do alterations, shorten trousers, and make things for the house, even if I haven’t made myself an item of clothing for many years.

Image of a hand knitted sock, with a second just begun, and a ball of yarn, in stripes of three shades of green.

I knit compulsively – I’m more than a little obsessed with yarn, especially wool and silk, and deeply in love with the self-striping sock yarn which has been developed in recent years in a kaleidoscope of colours.  I think that for me it’s often about the process of knitting – the meditative rhythm of it, and the tactile and visual enjoyment of the yarn – as much as the finished garment.  I rarely use commercial patterns, usually sketching out my own designs and often making it up as I go along.  If the yarn is colourful or has a great texture I try to keep the design simple so as not to compete with the materials.  Over the last few years I have set myself new challenges – I have learned to knit socks (my partner is now the proud owner of a number of pairs of custom socks in the knock-your-eye-out colours she loves) and also plucked up the courage to try lace knitting, with generous guidance from Liz Lovick of Northern Lace.  Both of these do require patterns, as well as intense concentration.

When I was very young, I was told I couldn’t draw.  With art therefore not open to me as a creative outlet, I turned instead to the skills I did have, inherited from the women of my family – textiles.  For me, there has always been more to making things with yarn and cloth than simply making functional garments – colour, texture and pattern are paramount.  In my late 30s I discovered feltmaking, and rather than making the clothes, wraps and bowls which many of my contemporaries created – often very beautifully – I ‘painted’ with coloured wool fibres to create wall art which was mounted and framed like a picture.  I then discovered spinning – with a spindle, still my preference, and with a wheel – and with the unique yarns I was making I started to weave.  I did make myself a scarf, and a table runner is currently awaiting its bead fringing, but otherwise everything I weave, too, is wall art.

Although I have inherited a number of things which belonged to my Dutch grandparents, I think the one I would save from a fire is a blackwork wall hanging embroidered by my Oma in 1966 – before I was born.  It hung on her kitchen wall for as long as I can remember, and now it hangs on mine.  It depicts the signs displayed outside Dutch hostelries and other businesses in former times.  It could do with specialist cleaning, but the marks on it tell the story of family life, and for me, as the work of her hands, it’s infinitely precious.

Photograph of a blackwork embroidery, dated 1966, depicting old Dutch inn signs and associated advertising slogans.

 

Going Dutch again: reclaiming my bilingual heritage

I have just finished reading my first ever book in Dutch.  More precisely, my first ever book of fiction for adults – as a child I read many children’s books in Dutch, some of which I still have.  The book in question is not exactly literary – it’s a yellowing, fragile paperback entitled De Cock en de wurger op zondag (De Cock and the Sunday strangler), by A C Baantjer, published in 1965, and it is a police procedural whodunit.  Nevertheless, this is a big thing for me.

Ironically, I learned to read and write Dutch a year or more before learning to read and write English.  I am half Dutch, half British.  When I was small, we lived with my Dutch grandparents (Oma and Opa) in the Netherlands, and my parents decided that the best way to bring me up bilingual was for them to speak English to each other and to me, while I would hear Dutch all around me and would converse in Dutch with the wider family.  This worked well – by the age of 5 I was completely bilingual verbally, and I learned to read and write Dutch easily – it’s phonetic, very regular, and pleasingly logical most of the time.

There is a myth that if you bring up a child bilingual, it will be confused, will mix up the languages and be held back in its language development.  This is, in my opinion, rubbish.  I knew full well which language was which, and which language was used with to communicate with which person.  For example, my (British) father’s Dutch was appalling – I remember being embarrassed by how bad it was, and wishing he would stick to English.  I only borrowed from the other language when the one I was using didn’t have the exact word I was looking for, e.g. there is no English word to translate ‘gezellig’ (it’s a bit like the Danish ‘hygge’ which is so trendy at the moment, but with more sociable connotations – see what I mean about there being no English word for it?!).  I could switch effortlessly between the two, and thought and dreamed in either language.

Moreover, I am convinced that a bilingual start makes it easier to learn subsequent languages.  There appears to be something about understanding from the very beginning that there’s more than one set of sounds and language that makes the acquisition of a new set of language skills less challenging than it seems to be for those raised monoglot.  I went on to learn French, Spanish, a bit of German, a bit of Welsh, some Hebrew, and beginners Latin, all with very little effort  – I am convinced that learning more than one language to begin with makes it easier to learn subsequent languages, and I consider that being brought up bilingual was a great gift.

When I was 5, two things happened.  Firstly, we left the Netherlands.  Secondly, I started my education through the medium of English (starting with learning to read and write English, which was way harder than Dutch as it’s so irregular – in fact, it’s so irregular there seem to be more bits of the language that break the ‘rules’ than follow them!).  I was home schooled, something I have very mixed feelings about, and until I was preparing for public examinations I was taught by my father.  My parents continued to speak English to each other, and to me, and because our lives were (for reasons I won’t go into here) nomadic and we were not well integrated into the countries we lived in, I was heavily influenced by the BBC World Service (and the radio was on for much of the day), so that what I was hearing every day was formal standard British English.

My mother was Dutch, and (in common with many of her compatriots of that generation) had been educated to school leaving standard in English, French and German as well as Dutch.  Her accent was near perfect in all three languages – no one ever guessed she was foreign, they simply assumed she was from a different part of their own country that they couldn’t quite identify!  She lived in Scandinavia for some years, and was fluent in Swedish and had a good command of the notoriously difficult Finnish.  She learned Malay in her colonial youth, a smattering of Spanish when we lived in Spain for a while, and Welsh in her old age.

My father’s family were Liverpool Welsh, and were of the generation who felt that it would disadvantage their children if they spoke Welsh, so although Welsh was spoken at home, he lost it as soon as he started going to school, and sadly was not able to pass it on to me.  He did not have a Welsh accent, though, and neither did he sound ‘Scouse’ – his accent was more the very precise, formal tones of the (probably fairly well educated ) first language Welsh speaker, from North Wales or metropolitan Cardiff, speaking English.  If you’re not familiar with it, it probably sounds like rather ‘posh’ English – something I am often accused of being!

Growing up, I really only spoke Dutch to my grandparents.  My main writing practice was regular letters to them, and no one seems to have thought to buy me Dutch books after the age of 7 or 8.  When I was in my late teens and at school in the UK, it seemed sensible to do an ‘O’ level in Dutch, as it was a painless way of getting another qualification.  I revised for that by reading a couple of old copies of Libelle and Margriet, women’s magazines, which were sent over for me by family in the Netherlands.  I found the exam ridiculously easy, and got an A grade.

Fast forward 30 plus years.  My Dutch-speaking family are long gone.  It’s been 30 years since I visited the Netherlands, as I only went to visit family.  Because I never spoke Dutch as an adult, and didn’t go to school there, my vocabulary was childish and old fashioned – not only because I haven’t been around to pick up contemporary idioms, but because I learned my Dutch from elderly, formal and middle-class grandparents who didn’t really do slang and idiom!  I had reached the stage when I was too nervous to engage in conversation with Dutch people I encountered here in the UK – knowing it would take too long to get my brain in gear, saddened that I was no longer fluent or bilingual.

Enter my partner, who announced a couple of years ago that she wanted to learn Dutch – not least to encourage me to engage with it again, and stop me losing it altogether.  She is making good progress, although as we are not currently following any one course of study, it’s a bit erratic and her vocabulary is random and eccentric (she knows the Dutch for ‘volunteer’ (vrijwilliger) but not ‘plate’ (bord), for example!  For a British person, her pronunciation  is quite good – she’s inevitably struggling with ‘sch’ as in Scheveningen, but it’s coming on nicely.   She follows the exploits of the Dutch royal family on Twitter, which gives her not only a nice bit of translation and comprehension practice in fairly correct Dutch, but also glimpses of Dutch culture.   We are planning to visit the Netherlands soon.  I am very nervous about this, because somehow I feel I ought to know all about it, how the transport system works, how to book things, what the rules of the road are, etc because I’m half Dutch – but of course I don’t, because I didn’t grow up there and have never been there as an adult, having to engage with such things.  I am simultaneously native and a foreigner, which is very confusing.

However, what I am very excited about is my reclaiming of the Dutch language.  With my partner’s encouragement, I have been reading Dutch on the internet, subscribing to Dutch language magazines online (who knew that you could get National Geographic in Dutch?!), watching YouTube clips of Dutch comedians, and have joined a Facebook group for Dutch people living in the UK.  Half my Facebook feed is now in Dutch, and a couple of months ago I realised that I am now back to just reading Dutch, rather than translating it into English first.  I’m not yet thinking or dreaming in Dutch again, but I suspect that might happen if I was in the Netherlands, hearing it around me all the time.  I have to look up some words in the online dictionary, but generally I’m surprising myself how rarely that happens.  Bit by bit, I am becoming bilingual again.

And then, just before Christmas, I happened to glance at the second hand books table in my local supermarket – and amongst all the chic lit and gardening books I spy De Cock en de wurger op zondag – so of course I had to buy it!