I love it when people you know well still have the ability to surprise you. Having recovered from the discovery of my sister’s gambling, this week I get an early morning text and accompanying photo from a friend on her daily commute; ‘when you’re stuck on a very slow bus to work, thank goodness for a crochet hook and some leftover wool, ‘ it reads. I’m not surprised at her ability to turn a slow commute to her advantage, but I am shocked to learn that she owns a crochet hook and that she’s not afraid to use it in public. (So unafraid in fact, that later that day she instagrams the fruits of her ‘yarnbombing’ – lots of crocheted/knitted hearts beating in unison from city centre trees to mark the work of the Bristol Institute Heart Appeal).
I’ve always struggled to knit and feel quite envious of friends enjoying the resurgence of knit and click in lots of local communities. My mother is not a keen knitter (preferring dressmaking) but she could wield knitting needles and fashion plain, pearl or cable if the fancy took her. She decided all of us should learn to knit at a young age – nothing too Arts & Crafts mind, more greyish, utilitarian squares which (regardless of holes) she could then use as dish clothes.
It was my grandmother who was the real knitting dervish. Before arthritis put paid to her penchant for wool shops, she always had a knitting project on the go. To my shame, as a child, I longed for a shop-bought school jumper and I was too selfish to realise the discomfort she went through to ensure four of us were kitted out at the start of each new school year. Any leftover wool was quickly fashioned into a tea cosy or pair of mittens (she drew the line at crocheting toilet roll covers) for she couldn’t abide waste and yarnbombing wasn’t a thing then).
Knitting of tea cosies was abruptly stopped, however, in the summer of ’67, when grandma discovered an uncalled for niche in the knitting market – dolls’ knickers – or the lack of them to be precise. She took my father aside to share her shocked discovery that the lady bits of all her granddaughters’ dolls were without ‘bloomers’ and that she clearly held my mother responsible for this over-sight. She spent the rest of the holiday fashioning knitted triangles into scratchy undergarments through the nifty marriage of garter stitch and press-stud. It certainly felt like a long holiday – two weeks of burnt martyr, clicking knitting needles and undisguised disproval of her daughter in law – but doll dignity was restored and grandma returned to Yorkshire in high dudgeon ready to write to the manufacturers of ‘Tiny Tears’ and ‘Goldlocks’.
We could do with the talents of Her Knittiness now, for I’m in need of knitted school jumpers (lots of them) once again. It’s not for me you understand; fortunately there’s not a great call at our school for teachers to wear the same uniform as the students. No, since you ask, I’m taking students back out to our twinned schools in Kenya this summer and a few hundred knitted red jumpers (or blue, or green) will be warmly welcomed there for students are only allowed to go to class if they are wearing one. To see the hand-me-down jumpers that these children wear just so that they can get an education – sleeves unravelling and often a few sizes out of kilter – I feel more than embarrassed about my childhood tantrums over grandma’s knitted gems.
This will be my fourth visit to Africa and for the fourth time I have tried knitting a jumper, honestly. I know there is knitting muscle memory embedded in me somewhere, and I have tried to unravel it. It’s just a bit humiliating when you need to ask someone to cast on and cast off for you in order to get going. Instead, the call has gone out in the local community and thankfully jumpers have started to arrive. No-one is asking for dish cloths, sadly.
Two years ago I challenged myself to return to Kenya with at least one jumper that I’d actually knitted myself, but the story ended badly. It’s embarrassing – when waiting at the hospital for your mother to return to the ward from her cataract operation – to produce some knitting from your handbag and to think smugly that the jumper is actually growing apace, only to have your knitting confiscated by your returning mother (one eye still bandaged) because she can see even from her wheelchair that I’ve dropped some stitches and that the neck is never going to regroup itself into a v shape. Mum pulls out the rows I’ve ‘produced’ and calmly continues knitting, cyclops-style. The rest of the ward look on disapprovingly as if I’m running some out-patient sweat shop – in truth, once she’d corrected my mistakes, I was hoping to be allowed to take up the needles again, but my mother has other ideas. I hear knitting is therapeutic, but this is not my experience.
I don’t see a request for dolls on any of the wish lists from our partner Kenyan schools*, so I don’t see my knitting skills being required for underwear provision, either. This is hardly surprising when the only toys we’ve seen in the villages we visit are footballs made from string bags stuffed with old plastic carriers. (The only downside I can see from Kenya now having the good sense to totally ban plastic carrier bags, will be the difficulty children will have to make their own footballs).
I think we can safely say that I will not be knitting my training kit for the London Marathon (I’m running, did I not say?), however my current yarn is all about my intended fundraising for this event which starts now* http://www.justgiving.com/Jeanne-Fairs . At the very least, I should be able to finance those footballs and some much needed games kit. It might also fund the massive skeins of wool that our local knitters seem to be smugly getting through . As the mileage creeps up, my running may start to unravel, but I think it’s the only chance I’ve now got to make my grandmother proud and to get some serious yarnbombing going. Have a heart.