A stitch in time

Keeping up with friends during the current pandemic has meant an increase in contact through social media, and sharing what we are doing in isolation, has uncovered some hidden talents on the craft scene. A recent photo on Facebook of an amazing quilt nearing completion, showed me the skills and dedication that a dear friend has invested in a stunningly difficult piece of needlework. The intricate patterns, the professional stitches, the blended colours and subjects, all made for a visually amazing article that she has been working on over many months. It was a joy to behold and the many congratulations posted, confirmed that she certainly is gifted and creative.

It got me to thinking about my childhood when I used to watch my grandmother sitting quietly at the end of the day, busily wielding her crochet hook, and some fine English thread, making an intricate design that would grace a table centre or run across the top of a sideboard. The linen yarn was so fine and her deft fingers pushed and pulled at the loops with just the right amount of tension, to form a web-like pattern, that grew quietly but steadily each time she took up the piece. She had a needlework basket that contained numerous catalogues of crochet designs and lots of clippings from newspapers and women’s magazines, showcasing the latest in functional or decorative items for home sewers. The basket held an array of hooks, reels and shanks of the finest thread that she had purchased from mail-order purveyors or waited patiently for to be delivered to the haberdashery store in nearby Canberra or Queanbeyan. Often she could not procure the recommended ply or perfectly bleached, white thread, but the temptation to complete a difficult design, photographed in all its impractical Englishness in an overseas journal, would not discourage her from tackling the challenge with a courser thread, in a dull, utility beige. A colourless, but truly competent testament to the harsh farm life that occupied her calloused hands for most of every day.

The increasing affluence of the post war years, especially when wool fetched “a pound a pound” during the Korean war, gave my grandmother easier and more affordable access to a greater range of threads, cottons and fine yarns. Her productivity and diversification reached new heights, and as she was now able to order or buy coloured cotton and linen thread of very high quality, and a myriad of woollen yarns, her old basket was always overflowing. She began crocheting the most exquisite baby wear as well as soft toys and edgings for doilies and linen craft. She seemed to have numerous projects on the go at once, and reacted with excitement, and a feverish searching of pattern books, whenever the birth of a new baby was anticipated. There was always a “neutral”, white bonnet, matinee jacket and matching bootees wrapped and waiting in a drawer to be gifted fondly on hearing of a joyous pregnancy, then to be followed quickly with a “correct” set in pink or blue confirming the safe arrival of the newest member of the family.

But Nan moved with the times and her uncanny ability to keep up with the next generation, saw her branching out in the daring sixties and seventies when mini-skirts and Twiggy, the Beatles and disco, set the scene for a whole “new” look. She started making ponchos, crazy small rugs, patchwork stitched quilts, sleeveless vests and rakish “mod” caps. Her arthritic fingers relished the freedom that a bright yellow, 8 ply, synthetic yarn allowed her, at the end of the day, sitting quietly watching Bellbird on TV or chuckling away at the last of the radio serials. The old needlework basket with its finer, more difficult contents was still there beside her and she still completed some beautiful work, but it was obvious that the dictates of fashion were a handy excuse for her putting aside the intricate pieces of only a few years before.

I was living with my grandmother when I got engaged to be married – I worked in the Public Service and “boarded” with Nan on weeknights. The suburbs of Canberra were expanding, relentlessly outwards, and the old farm was just an agistment place for horses, as most of our larger cropping and livestock paddocks were now merely, brick-veneer statements to progress. Nan seemed to take all this in her stride and her acceptance of change was admirable. She had been pre-deceased by her husband and her beloved daughter, but lived happily with her second son and his family on what was left of the farm, not far from where a golf course, a race track and sporting fields now occupy pride of place. Nan enjoyed my company, and I in turn, craved her advice and wisdom as I juggled the roles of a young career woman with those of marriage and domesticity, in a time of upheaval and change in society. Whitlam was in power and the world was charting a different course.

It came as a complete surprise to me, but I seriously think my grandmother was somehow “in the know”, when I interrupted her post-dinner stitching one night and blurted out – “What would you say if I said I would like to make my own wedding dress?” Her fingers didn’t even pause, the crochet hook picked up the next thread and the wool pulled off the ball smoothly. “I mean, not just make it, I mean crochet it. Do you think I could do it? Would you help me?” There it was, I had committed, and I was precariously straddling the chasm between what she had shown me over the years (the skills and talents of an era which I had admired and envied in my own inadequacy) and the frantic unknown future of opportunity, choice and fulfilment. The fact that my dear Nan quietly enquired, “What patterns are you looking at?”, rather than answering my question directly, set the stage for an epic undertaking over the ensuing months.
I had absolutely no idea what crocheting a wedding dress would entail. To date, my part time efforts with knitting needles, or a 12 ply crochet hook, had produced some amateurish rugs, a jumper with sleeves of different lengths and a smattering of ill-fitting ponchos. So we spent nights sitting together, the mistress effortlessly manufacturing exquisite baby clothes, the apprentice, working and re-working a pattern found in a Women’s Weekly magazine. “Tension” was a constant topic of conversation and my struggling fingers learned that droopy stitches were the capital of all sins when expecting an elastic, natural fibre to retain shape and context in a full length dress.
Every stitch was my own, she didn’t ever offer to help, there were no “fairy godmother” additional rows awaiting my nightly return to task. The patterned sleeves didn’t suit the “look” as I was quite tall and I hated the neck treatment in the over glamorous magazine photos. That is where she helped … we re-designed the sleeves using the pattern from the bottom of the skirt, we introduced a cowl neck and a shawl-like piece of the same pattern, done on a bigger hook, to make a gossamer-fine hood. The garment was made from undyed, fine merino wool, processed into 8 ply balls. I think I bought every ball of the batch and lost count as the dress progressed through bag after bag of yarn. I was a keen machine sewer and attended TAFE classes at the time, and was able to create and complete an undergarment for the wedding dress, in fine wool crepe. This, and a jersey-knit, pure, wool, pant-suit (made for my “going away” outfit) became exam pieces and I passed.
Each night, Nan would make supper, wrap my “work-in-progress” in a huge white flannelette sheet and put it away safely before insisting on bed and a good night’s rest. This of course went on for many weeks and her quiet confidence and words of encouragement, when tears of frustration flowed, got me across the line for a 14 July, midwinter wedding.

The dress has made a few appearances over the years, and it greets a changing materialistic world, when emerging briefly from its moth-proof cocoon of bubble-wrap and plastic. It struts briefly on a stage that highlights the amazing qualities of wool as a sustainable, natural fibre, before fleeing, Cinderella-like, to the safety of storage once more. It is a stunning garment and I look at it in disbelief as I admire the stitches and overall pattern, but it represents far more than something I created, on a whim, all those years ago. To me it represents my Nan sitting there night after night, it represents a life, well-lived, it is her legacy, her gift to another generation at a time when links with the past were out of favour and endurance and resilience were old fashioned virtues. Thanks Nan.

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