I come from a family of women who are really talented crafters. My grandmother was an amazing professional dressmaker for most of her life (making everything from wedding and matric dance dresses, to teen Goth gear). My mom has always produced the most incredible knitted creations and – having tried almost every craft out there (if you want proof, just look at her craft supplies) – is known for the diversity of craft skills. My aunt has always been a truly gifted quilter and textile artist. My entire life has been spent around needlework, crafts and handmade goods – from candle-wicking to quilling, from quilting to crochet, from beading to pottery. Like the Jane Austen novels I love, the women of my youth always had some sort of stitch work project on the go.
The women that helped to shape who I am spent a lot of time making beautiful things and, while they made, they shared. They shared their time, their skills, their stories, and themselves. My mom, aunt and gran used to attend craft courses together. Sometimes, one of them would go on a course and come home to teach the others her newly-acquired skills. In hindsight, I recognise that this is probably because we weren’t rich and those courses were likely too expensive for all of them to attend. Yet that never stopped them. One of my most distinct memories is of sitting around the dining room table with the women in my family; hand painting vases and quilling decorations for my sister’s wedding. I can’t tell you what happened to those decorations, but I could describe in great detail the warm light that night and the soft hum of women’s voices interspersed with cackles of laughter. I have a similar memory from years later: of sitting with the same group of women, in the now-married sister’s home, working on various decoupage projects. (Mine wasn’t very good)
This constant activity provided a wonderful environment in which to grow up. I hold dear many memories of the comforting hum of a sewing machine and the steady click of knitting needles. It was an environment in which women supported and loved each other – one in which the everyday grind of work and parenting was put aside, along with family politics and all the other things that seem to work to keep sisters, mothers, daughters and women apart. The nurturing support that the women in my family provide to each other is one of the greatest reasons that I miss my mother, sister, aunt and gran so very much.
As a child, being surrounded by so much creativity never really struck me as unusual. But I realise now how lucky I was to be exposed to so much skill and talent. Watching these wonderful women spend time together as they worked on projects both individual and communal is probably the direct cause of my love affair with all things handmade and my obsession with the artisanal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until very recently that I tapped into my own desire to craft and express myself creatively. So while teaching myself to knit and sew has given me great joy, I’ve also felt a great deal of sadness as I missed the women who should have been here to teach me. I have felt a keen sense of longing for the older generation of women from whence I come. Perhaps it is because I miss them and yearn for their presence so much, that I have become so fixated on possessing one of the heirloom items that they have produced – a quilt for my marriage bed. Fabulous hand-knitted jersey’s for my young son.
And yet, I don’t own a single item created by one of the incredible women who helped shape who I am. This has really bothered me for the longest time. In fact, it’s become a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But tonight I had an epiphany as I sat browsing $500 dollar quilts on Etsy – seriously and unrealistically considering saving my pennies so that I could buy one (even though I know that the women of my family could produce much better work). As beautiful as the hand-made products are, as much work and time and craftsmanship as they demonstrate, it is the love that they signify that makes them so important to me. It is the sense of family and continuity that they demonstrate that makes me so desperate to own one.
So I won’t save up for months to buy a quilt on Etsy. Because, even though I so often feel disconnected from the sense of belonging and continuity that one feels when one’s family lives on the same continent, I do have that love. It just happens to be love sent from afar. It shows in my love of all things craft-related, in my burgeoning creativity, in my never-consciously learned knowledge of selvedge and fabric grain.
But most of all it lies in those tender memories of watching my mother perfect the art of the colonial knot (a candle-wicking stitch), of knowing that she loved me enough to search every fabric store in Durban to find the perfect fabric for the perfect matric dance dress, of countless dress fittings as my gran went on to make that perfect dress (which I still own), of time spent watching my aunt sew while we shared a cup of tea and I begged (ok, manipulated) her to give me chocolate. And of evenings spent surrounded by women – mothers, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, sisters and cousins – quilling wedding decorations over a cup of coffee. The true legacy of the women in my family lies in those memories and not in anything made by human hands.