A casual remark by a friend sent my memory cascading through all the sewing of my life, and knitting too, as the memory riff expanded.
My sewing career began with samplers in primary school: pinwheel and needle case showcased my skill at running stitch, whipped running stitch, french knots and lazy daisies. Then there was a pair of white bombay bloomers turning a delicate shade of grime as I learnt about run and fell seams and inserting elastic. When I was introduced to the joys of huckaback, I embarked on my first episode of obsessional behaviour (which later manifested itself in photographing bark and rock faces.) Evidence of my huckaback frenzy surfaced when I cleaned out houses after the deaths of my mother and aunts who had treasured arcane huckaback gifts. Long after primary school I huckabacked a knitting bag for myself in red, yellow and black, before I knew the Aboriginal significance of these colours.
I was very young when I learnt how to knit. My teacher was a missionary friend of my parents, on furlough from some exotic place: a Pacific island? New Guinea? Africa? She sat on our special chair with arms and a tapestry seat, and I stood in front of her as she guided my small hands through the intricate moves of plain and purl, initiating me into the possibilities of stocking stitch, rib, basket stitch and moss stitch. In a bout of enterprise when I was ten, I knitted striped tea cosies and sold them to my teachers. All through high school and university, I knitted as I studied, the same scraps of wool over and over again into strips, portrait or landscape as the whim took me. A bad move, I suspect, in the light of current research into the perils of multi-tasking.
Over the last few years I've been adding hand-knitted jumpers to the wardrobes of different members of my family. The pattern of the current one looked deceptively simple, but I stalled at the idea of repeating a collection of stitches 0 times. Usually I can do a pattern without thinking: this one crawls along at the rate of four rows a sitting as I count each stitch, and tick off each row. I shudder to think how many times at the beginning I had to rip rows undone, figure out where I was up to and start again.
All through my childhood, my mother made my annual new dress for the Sunday School anniversary in November. When I was 15, I bought the blue and green (should never be seen) material myself. I misread the pattern and got half a yard too little. Mum rotated paper pieces and improvised and completed the pintucked, waisted frock, but her patience and skill were sorely tried. She said “That's the last time I sew for you” and thrust me into the world of dressmaking. I made my short white crimplene graduation dress, and a red one, also short, when I was witness at my aunt's registry office wedding. After my own wedding, I manufactured a duffle coat for my new husband, a collection of maxi-dresses out of very cheap material for myself, a particularly hideous pinafore to cover my first pregnant bulge, and then clothes for my first little girl, including one with red ribbons tied at the side. Much later I tackled formal gear for my two daughters in high school: black, short and tight for my eldest daughter who was hobbled as she minced up the hillside and lowered herself into her Corolla; black, strapless and whaleboned for my younger daughter, driven to the venue by me in a shameful battered Corona. (For her year 12 formal, she bought her dress and waited for a limo to collect her.) The apotheosis of my dressmaking career was my sister's simple wedding dress. It ended up with a very classy rolled hem, because somehow I managed to make it too short. My niece had it altered for her wedding shortly after my sister's death.
When my children were small I was a toymaker. I made the whole Ingalls-Wilder family, Pa, Ma, Laura and Mary: hand puppet kings and princesses and the knave of hearts: pencil puppet penguins, parrots and owls. I made them for my own tribe and sold them through a Moruya craft shop.
My blood pressure misbehaved when I was expecting my fourth child. I didn't need medication. Patchwork hexagons did the job. I littered the world with small paper templates and snipped off ends of cotton. I still have the larger hexagonals, bright representatives of my capacity for the unfinished.
Lately, my sewing has mainly been patches on ripped clothes, multiple attempts to save a threadbare favourite skirt, and topping and tailing sheets. Until now. The imminent summer visit of my Polish twin grandchildren has me sewing again. Once again I face the challenge of threading the machine, turning corners, avoiding loopy stitches and a hard-to-manage reverse. Janek's shorts and top in two shades of blue aren't cut out yet as I debate size, but I am already enjoying the reversible sunfrock and flower petal hat draped on display over the back of the lounge chair, bright red and white spots for mała Maja.
Postscript: At this point my sewing machine, never entirely satisfactory, rebelled: loose stitches, bent needles, a recalcitrance when I tried to reverse became overwhelming. I sent it off to be serviced, and bought myself a new Bernina sewing computer. Now I'll have to take on a multitude of sewing projects till the end of my life to justify the expense, or accept the fact that two summer outfits for one year olds cost me $865.
For another take on the family knitting history, read my daughter's blog