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.

 

Variety is the spice of life, or why I can’t read one book at a time

 

For years, I thought it was just me.  Everyone else I knew seemed to read a book from start to finish, and then move on to the next one.  If asked them ‘what are you reading?’ the answer would be quite simple – one title.  Students, of course, would be reading a lot of books for essays, but their leisure reading seemed always to be done one book at a time.

I have never managed this!  I have always read a lot, although the nature of what I read depends on how I am feeling and what I am doing by way of work.  The more tired and stressed I am, the less likely I am to read anything very demanding, and you know things are bad when I can only manage magazines.  Usually, though, I read books.  Plural.  It’s not that I have a grasshopper brain – I can become engrossed in things for hours, missing meals, completely losing track of time.  But when it comes to reading, I find it very hard to have only one book on the go.

‘But don’t you lose track?’ I have been asked.  I can honestly say I don’t.  Within a paragraph I’m right back in the heart of whatever I was reading.  It’s only a problem if for some reason it’s weeks or months before I return to a book, but that rarely happens.  I usually have at least two, sometimes as many as four or five ‘leisure’ books on the go at once – plus ones that I am reading for research purposes in ‘work time’.  I like to have a range of different genres, or subject matter, so that when I sit down to read I can match the book to my mood or how much concentration I can muster.   It’s such a treat to be able to make a cuppa and retreat to my reading chair on the sunny landing, or curl up on the sofa, or settle into bed, ask myself ‘which book shall I read now?’ and know I have an inviting selection to choose from.

Recently, I have found I don’t want to read fiction at all.  Even my beloved whodunits are failing to entice me – I now have three new ones by favourite authors waiting to be read, and I can’t quite bring myself to open them.  I don’t know why – I can only suppose that our current circumstances are so surreal that my brain recoils from engaging with further imaginary universes just now.

At the moment, I am reading the following books for ‘leisure’:

On the Red Hill, by Mike Parker.  An intriguing blend of place writing, memoir and queer history, this is set in the hills of mid Wales, in a landscape that’s very familiar to me.  Lyrical nonfiction with a large element of social history, I’m finding it totally beguiling (and Mike Parker has written a history of the Ordnance Survey, which I must read next – regular readers may remember my map obsession!).

Walled Gardens, by Jules Hudson.  I have coveted this beautifully illustrated and pleasingly square book for ages, and when I was having a melancholy phase recently my partner thought she would cheer me up by contacting the author and requesting a signed copy.  I was very moved – both by her loving gesture, and also by Jules Hudson taking the time and trouble to pen such thoughtful words from one writer to another.  The book is not only a guide to walled gardens in the care of the National Trust, but also an overview of garden history and a considered exploration of the social history which provides a wider context.

Ghostland: in Search of a Haunted Country, by Edward Parnell.  Nonfiction again, this is a quirky but effective weaving together of ghost story, place writing, gothic and memoir which defies categorisation.  I met Edward last year at an event at the National Centre for Writing, and on the strength of that and Ghostland I am about to start a 12-week creative nonfiction course for which he is the tutor.

Writing this post has made me think that it might perhaps be worth, every couple of months, writing about what I am currently reading, with a short review of each book.  Occasionally the books I read are a chance discovery, but the majority have been recommended by someone else, and it’s good to be able to pass it on!

 

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Noticing things differently – why creative nonfiction is like poetry

Apart from the occasional poem, most of what I write is nonfiction.  Creative nonfiction is a genre which is increasingly discussed – hard to define, but including narrative accounts, personal responses, place writing, reflection and imaginative explorations.  This is what I have written since long before I knew it had a name!

I have long thought that the two forms of writing I engage in – creative nonfiction and poetry – are two sides of the same coin.  That statement may make a bit more sense if I take you back to Wales in 1986, when I first started writing in an intentional way.

In a recent blog post I wrote about being fortunate to be part of a pilot for an A level creative writing course.  The exam board commissioned leading Welsh writers to run creative writing residentials for the students in the pilot because, as most teachers were used to delivering a traditional, Shakespeare-and-the-classics English Literature syllabus, teaching creative writing was something quite new to them.  Six of us from my school travelled with the Head of English, Liz Pugh, to Plas Tan y Bwlch (now the Snowdonia National Park Study Centre) for two days with, amongst others, Gillian Clarke.

A word here about Gillian Clarke.  Now aged 82 and something of a ‘national treasure’ in Welsh cultural life, she had at that point recently published her fourth collection, Selected Poems (although I didn’t read her work until later).  With decades of experience of teaching English and creative writing in schools and colleges, she was the perfect choice to encourage young people to explore the process of writing poetry.  From 2008-2016 she was the National Poet of Wales (the Welsh version of a Poet Laureate), and as well as her award-winning poetry she has created a fine legacy in the form of Ty Newydd, the national writing centre for Wales, which she co-founded in 1990.

Back in 1986, it’s a glorious spring day, with sunshine flooding into the big lecture room at Plas Tan y Bwlch. Huge windows offer panoramic views of the valley and the wooded hills beyond, but we aren’t paying much attention, because Gillian Clarke is speaking.  She has seated us – some 30-odd students aged 16-18 – in a large circle.  She has a basket beside her, and from this she takes a small object, about the size of an egg.  I’m going to pass this round the circle, she says.  Take as long as you like when it comes to you.  What I want you to do is notice.  What do you notice about this object?

The object passes slowly from hand to hand, as each student holds it, turns it over, gazes at it, frowns or nods in recognition, maybe runs a finger over a detail, passes it to their neighbour.  I watch them as the object makes its way to me, about two thirds of the way round the circle.  Then, it is in my hands – feather light, delicate yet curiously strong, like an eggshell.  The size of a small egg, and almost the same shape, with a hooked point at one end.  Smooth, with hollows divided by sharp, paper-thin membranes.  Notice, Gillian had said.  How should I notice?  I have looked at it.  I have turned it over and over and looked at it from all sides.  I have used touch to explore its textures and weight.  I’m not going to taste it!  But there are other senses I could use – maybe, if I hold it to my ear it will sing of the sea, like a shell?  No.  But how about smell?  Tentatively, I lift it to my nose – earthy, organic, and yet almost like stone.  I hear a soft hiss from Gillian – yesss.  I look at it one last time, and pass it to my neighbour.

Afterwards, Gillian tells us about the object – it’s a buzzard’s skull that she found on a walk, and she has written a poem about it.  But, she says, that’s not why she brought it today.  It’s just a way, she says, of getting us to notice things differently.  She mentions that one person went beyond looking and touching by listening and smelling (I squirm with embarrassment at this).  She’s delighted – this is what she was hoping we would do.  Now, she says, go away and write a poem.

As we move away, she calls me back, and we talk about the senses, and how important she thinks it is that a writer should notice differently – from a different angle, using different senses, and without what we think we know about the object getting in the way of our noticing.  She is enthusiastic, encouraging.  I take my notebook to a corner of the terrace and start to write – this is the poem.

The Buzzard’s Skull

This ritual is new, and yet
along the distance of my mind
I know that I remember.
The circle is held, spellbound;
the sacrament is passed from hand to hand:
a ceremony of initiation?

Blindfold and afraid, I hear
the holy word approach,
rhythmic, sinister,
along the chain.
The object is in my hands,
stirring a memory that
my fingers cannot grasp –
a forest or a beach?
My life,
or life that lingers in my mind,
beyond (my) memory?
My fingers’ eyes have been in the dark
so long,
they are blinded by this light,
and cannot see.

Although I never saw Gillian again after that residential, I followed her career and occasionally heard her on the radio.  I know that many writers were encouraged into writing by her, and I am always grateful to her for that hissed yesss that made me realise that I was on the right lines in how I observed the world around me, rather than just being weird.  She made me realise that I was starting to think like a writer.

And like a writer, rather than solely a poet – because the nonfiction I write is also about noticing things differently.   Poetry is about precisely that – a good poem leaves the reader thinking “wow, I never looked at it like that before” and can weave magic around the most familiar and mundane subject.  Creative nonfiction, I would suggest, has a similar role – to explore the homely as well as the exotic, looking with fresh eyes and an unexpected perspective, touching and listening and smelling and tasting, and telling the stories of people, places and objects with new voices.

Cover of Selected Poems Gillian Clarke