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.
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.
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.