Flamingo Magazine, Future Craft issue, March 2013.
Knit, purl, catharsis
In my garden I can hear the distant sounds of traffic, night and day like a constant hum. This is London, where only a few stars are still visible in the light-polluted sky, hanging over a metropolis of grit and push. I feel it surrounding me, like a promise that it’s all within reach.
At a distance, the London creature sounds just the same as the whitewater river where I grew up. I spent so much time wanting to get out of that place, to leave the village where everyone was the same and nothing ever happened. One winter, when I was 19, I found myself back there after my first ever journey outward had come to an end, and I slept all day and stayed up all night in jetlagged sadness. My heart was still out there, across the ocean, where life was happening and where I still wanted to be, but instead I had to come back to the village where the river now slept under a sheet of ice and snow. I wondered if any of it had ever happened, that brief moment of life in the city, and I was terrified that maybe I’d dreamed it up.
I don’t remember much from that winter except for one thing: I made a quilt. Unable to sleep at night I skulked around until I found pieces of fabric in my mother’s cupboards, each reminiscent of a different time: a floral blouse, my childhood curtain, a doll’s dress, some worn-out sheets. I started cutting, measuring the pieces into careful squares, before I started sewing, making strips, adjusting each row using a ruler to get clean corners. When I ran out of patches I went to my grandma’s house, looking for more fabric with another set of memories: an old cushion, grandpa’s worn-out shirt, a threadbare flannel nightdress. I kept making rows of patches and when I had enough, I sewed them together into a blanket. I wanted it to be finished so I could cover myself in these feelings, these stories from a time when I was small enough for the village to be big enough for me. And I never wanted it to be finished because I needed this task; it was my crutch as I staggered through the winter, bewildered by clocks and maps and no longer believing my own memories.
Now that craft has changed from a chore to a hobby, there is something quite liberating about this activity. Whether it be quilting, sewing, brewing or baking, there is amazingly simple and refreshing about letting the brain rest while doing something with our hands. Picking up the knitting needles to make my own socks to go inside my winter boots becomes a meditation, a gesture of order because here is something I can control entirely. A friend found a cookbook in a drawer last year and ended up making something from it almost every night for months, deciphering hand-scrawled recipes of boiled puddings and obscure cuts of meat. It became the thing she did instead of dating, which had gone from uninspiring to upsetting fast. Another friend once knitted a massive jumper during a bout of extreme sadness that couldn’t be explained by life just being a bit rubbish anymore. The counting of the complex pattern created something else to focus on, something other to do than wonder where her life had gone. She found the jumper again recently, folded up neatly in the bottom of a drawer, but instead of it being a symbol of her illness it seemed to carry a promise that it gets better.
I thought about my quilt earlier this autumn, when I went with my friend Peter up to the blackthorns that grown along the brook behind his house. Peter had just split up with his girlfriend, who’d taken the toaster and the soft furnishings and left the man to live with a bare-walled flat and a nagging question about the point of committing, if this is all it’s worth. Our bucket filled with sloes as Peter explained how he wasn’t planning to make jam, nor gin, with them, but how he wanted to harvest the wild yeast living on the fruits to make beer. Brewing equipment had taken over his living room, replacing the girl, and one day the beer will be ready for drinking. And someday, maybe a little later, Peter will be ready to make another promise.
In my London garden, the soft rustle of traffic sounds just like the whitewater river I grew up by, but only if I close my eyes. I came to the city because this is where I want to be. Inside, on the wall over my bed, my quilt hangs as proof of the things that pass.