Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

From the Heart


Back in the days when I wore suits, was known to give a presentation or write a report, and even enjoyed some business class travel, I was deeply, thoroughly, scathingly mocking of women who stayed at home and made stuff. To me, crafting and baking and – God forbid – knitting were tragic signs of averageness, for why make something when you can buy something shinier and prettier, why bake something when you can buy something tastier and why knit, period. To me, hand and homemade objects were sad and tatty versions of the lovely objects found in the temples of joy known as The Shops, and spending time making them was wasting hours that could be spent in restaurants, watching films or reading books.

Perhaps it was a partial rejection of where I was from, for most of the women of my family were practioners of genteel arts. My British grandmother was a milliner in Thirties London until she met her dashing young South African lawyer and, on the eve of the war, left her flourishing business to raise children and dogs in humid Pietermaritzburg. While she made herself the odd hat, for the races or for a wedding, she channelled her creativity into sewing, embroidery and cooking. She made entire wardrobes of dolls’ clothes for me and my cousins. My maternal grandmother was a talented seamstress, but a truly wonderful watercolourist. My mother’s home is filled with her beautiful paintings. As children, we would arrive in her home and the painting things would all be set up on the floor ready for us to splatter our artistic energy everywhere. All the women of my family were painters, embroiderers, bakers.

Somehow, though, when I was in my twenties, that was something to mock. I was too busy fighting racism, sexism and the over-arching patriarchy to waste my time with twee handicrafts that were too redolent of the Women’s Institute and getting third prize for the marmelade. There were bigger things to grapple with. Once I started working, I was too busy dealing with temperamental bosses and sleeping off the stress at weekends to do anything creative. When we moved to Germany to work, I made one friend who, puzzlingly, quilted and another who sewed herself clothes. While shopping with the latter (who went on to sew her own beautiful wedding-dress) in London one weekend, we ended up on the fourth floor of Liberty’s and, without knowing how or why, I found myself buying an embroidery kit. Perhaps Liberty’s reminded me of my English granny, who always kept her latest creative project in one of their lovely dark blue shopping bags, or maybe I was connecting to the young, glamorous milliner who had once had London at her feet, but there I was, fighter of the patriarchy, buying some violets to embroider.

Clumsily, lovingly, over many months, I turned those violets into a cushion and, when I next visited South Africa, presented it to my mother, who has a room decorated with pictures of violets and violet-decorated porcelain. She was so stunned she had to sit down, and I think I cried. There was something in that gift that said not only I love you, but I love your love of beauty, and I love the traditions of our family. I think it said fighting the patriarchy and having a great career on another continent is all very well, but my family and where I come from is also important to me.

And now that I am a mother, and have a family of my own, I’m starting to look at handicrafts and the skills that women pass to each other through the generations with new eyes. For me, there’s something about connecting with the women of my family who cooked, baked and sewed for me. There’s something about love, about beauty, about thriftiness and about the pure joy of making something good, whether it’s a pretty muffin or a scarf. I’m finding new levels of friendship with friends who’ve crafted and made things far longer – and far better – than me. While staying at home with my children is my choice, making something for them is my outlet for that energy that I used to give to my career or fighting the patriarchy.

People who’ve known me for a long time are still stunned that I might bake a cake. My husband is terrified that I might start sewing for him, and rightly so, because I’ve knitted everyone in the family a scarf and he’s up next. I expect my produce to be eaten or worn, and he may have to complement his chic working gear with a ratty homemade scarf, but he can always take it off in the car. My mother-in-law almost fainted when I made her a birthday cake last year. My girlfriends in South Africa, who may or may not be reading this, will laugh hysterically at my paean to handicrafts. As I fire up the knitting needles, I do enjoy a postmodernist cackle on my own behalf, because a little bit of irony goes a long way during a not-so-desperate housewife’s day.

However, between finishing one scarf and starting the next, I had the pleasure of teaching Lily to knit. Despite being left-handed, she picked it up quickly and made a scarf for one of Daisy’s dolls. There it was: her satisfaction in learning well and fast, in making something lovely, in giving it away for someone else’s pleasure. And I had taught her a skill that my mother taught me, from the heart. It felt good.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

26 thoughts on “From the Heart

  1. I love your light and bright new look, Charlotte. Very cheerful kite swooping overhead.

    Great image of postmodernist ironic cackling over the knitting needles…it is definitely the love sewn into the seams that makes children’s sewing so beautiful and cooking with several pinches of love beats anything you can buy.

    I think you have to spend part of your twenties chucking out all the stuff you grew up with – after you’ve cleared it all out, you can then look with fresh eyes and take back what is valuable to you. Plus children tend to bring it all back into perspective..sometimes I worry I might be turning into my mother..!

  2. Thanks, Kit. In the middle of this looooonnnngg grey November (to quote Aphra) I’m needing some lightness and brightness. And I’m sure that chucking out and regathering is part of the growing-up process. Dare I say it? I think I might be a grown-up. Certainly grown-up enough not to care if anyone laughs at my knitting!

  3. This struck a huge chord with me.

    My mother weaves. There’s a large loom taking up an unfeasibly (spelling?) large space in her living room. Recently I’ve found myself pouring longingly over her pattern books and stroking her spinning wheel lovingly.

    And I’ve just got a book out of the library on embroidery.

    I’m obviously not a grown up yet though – my husband does all the mending by sewing.

  4. This reminds me of how the twenty-five-year-old me was never, ever, ever going to be “one of those wives who cooks all the time. Part of my husband’s vows to me had better be something about fabulous meals and trendy restaurants.” Fast forward fifteen years: “Ever notice how all the restaurants basically have the same menu? It’s so boring. I much prefer to eat at home.” And that room in the house called the “kitchen”? Well, it’s MINE.

    Knitting, on the other hand is not something for which I have any patience (believe me, I’ve tried. My expletives were far more creative than anything I might have made). I’m very envious of those of you who do. I have friends and relatives who knit beautiful things.

  5. This is such a lovely post, Charlotte. I guess I’m still in my twenties, for a few more months at least, but I too have found the joy in making things to give away, whether its food or a scarf. For me, I think, it’s a different mind space, another way to be creative without reading or writing – it lets my mind wander while doing a different kind of work. And there is something so satisfying about making something beautiful, for others to enjoy.
    Wonderful post!

  6. Love this post. I felt the same way for years and years…until I got into cooking and fell in love with the creativity of it. And now I’ve started knitting, too — I expressly refused to learn to knit while my friends were learning in college on the grounds that it was antifeminist. I would like to go back in time and shake some sense into myself.

  7. I feel exactly the same, Charlotte – you’ve articulated it beautifully. Well, I feel the same about cooking. I would be terrified to start knitting! I would be completely hopeless. And anyway cooking seems to swallow enough time. But I agree with what Kit said above: we spend the beginning of adult life erasing what came before (or fighting it) and then we begin to recreate it, slowly, emotionally. Fascinating post!

  8. My mother in law is very crafty. When we got married she gave us a quilt which had a sheet her mother had given her for her wedding sewn into it- which I thought was rather touching. Continuity with the generations and all that.

    I’m not really that crafty myself though. I will knit scarves and went through a stage of making cross stitch bookmarks for presents for presents- but that is as far as I have yet gone.

  9. Solnushka, with your mother who weaves and your husband who sews, you seem to live in crafty heaven. Let us know how the embroidery goes.

    Emily, yes, I have reclaimed the kitchen. It’s mine. Occasionally, I share it, but only when I’m in the mood. As for knitting, I am deeply useless, but finding it quite fun.

    Courtney, you’re quite right. It’s such a different creative space from the writing one. It’s a place to dream.

    Yogamum, cooking hooked me in too. Then baking. Then knitting. Now I’m looking at the quilting blogs and thinking ooh, how lovely …

    Thanks, Kathryn. Time is certainly a factor, and I remember when I worked fulltime, I seldom had the energy for cooking the way you do.

    Ms Make Tea, that is a touching gift. I’ve always thought, if I ever got around to quilting (recurring theme here) I’d like to make my daughters’ quilts made from scraps of their dresses. As for the cross stitch, that’s pretty crafty, isn’t it?

  10. Well, I never designed the bookmarks. Just bought the kitsets so I never felt it was much more personally creative than say doing a jigsaw. It was fun though- except when, as frequently happened I miscounted and then it was actually VERY STRESSFUL involving much cursing and irritation.

  11. Love this post but oh dear, while you were fighting the patriarchy, I was busy knitting jumpers and cardigans and sewing clothes for myself. My mother was very crafty, out of necessity, and taught all of her children (son included) how to sew, knit and crochet at a very young age. It seemed very natural to have a craft project at hand and there was a certain sense of pride in being able to say “I made that myself.”

    Notice the past tense? My craftiness has suffered over the past few years and I have drawers stuffed with half-finished projects. I do find cooking to be a partial outlet but I think it’s time to sort through the unfinished and take back what was important to me and is a part of who I am.

  12. I’m learning to sew, and while it’s incredibly frustrating for me because I don’t have any common sense, I just have this need to create. And also, I needed to be creative without baking all day. I am too tired to fight the patriarchy–I’m still trying to learn slipstitch!

  13. Make Tea, perhaps as creative as doing a jigsaw, but I’m sure it was satisfying and fun …

    Kerryn, your mother sounds wonderful! I’m going to take a leaf from her book and teach my boy the same skills I teach my girls. I’m so envious that you can knit a cardigan! All I do is scarves, but I’m determined to take my knitting skills up a notch (as it were).

    Nat, that’s precisely why I’ve taken up knitting again – baking was fun but not very good for the waistline!

  14. This struck such a chord with me, and is particularly apposite as I am right in the middle of my January marmalade making marathon. A few years ago the new wife of a much younger cousin asked me if I made marmalade every January, and I said yes, my mother did too and so did my sister. She gave a huge sigh and said her mother-in-law (my aunt) was the same. “Do you think it’s genetic?”she asked. I said I think its just because the women in our family have handed it on like an heirloom, and so I feel connected to the past generations, apart from being personally satisfying to make something that others will consume. BTW I am ex SA too.

  15. I smiled at the image of you handing over the violet-embroidered cushion to your mum. That is lovely.

    My mum is so talented at sewing and dressmaking. She is so creative, sews all her own curtains and home-furnishings, and she has a successful career – she really is superwoman! When I was a kid, people expected I would follow in her footsteps and would give me gifts of sewing kits. I’m hopeless at sewing. I think I actually got chucked out of knitting class at school for being bad (a.k.a. hiding behind the desks and reading rather than doing any knitting). I don’t think I will ever have any patience in these areas, but I did manage to hem some sheets for Kiko by hand before he was born. It was difficult but I really appreciated my mum teaching me to hand sew in lots of different stitches. I can’t remember her teaching me, but she did, and taught me well.

    But Kiko might have to get his daddy to teach him how to sew! Heh!

  16. My opinion is that as we become more affluent it becomes more meaningful to spend time and effort on doing something rather than paying for it. I know in my 20s if someone had offered me a handmade thing I would have .. I don’t know… looked shocked maybe?

    Now that I can afford to buy pretty much anything I want, having something that another time-poor person invested their energy and themselves in, becomes very meaningful.

    I loved the story of you giving the violet cushion to your mom. My mom taught me to sew and I know she treasures anything I make for her.

  17. The violet cushion really resonated with me. I think what I love about crafting is that the entire time I’m making something, I’m thinking about the person who will receive it. The thing becomes infused with my love for that person. And the activity of finding something to make that represents something the person loves is a much, much more meaningful gift that anything store-bought.

    I never had problems with the patriarchy/crafting conflict. I could see how if women were *required* to craft, a la spinsters, then it would be tool of oppression. But for me it’s always been joyous.

  18. I found your post extremely interesting, Charlotte. With undergraduate school not that many years behind me and my month of May studying at a “Women’s Study” out in the mountains of Oregon, something new has emerged in me. It’s happened slowly- tiptoed up on me. I have become a crafter.
    I, the token girl of literature classes (where mostly the guys would speak and the women would be silent. I was one of the few who spoke often and often against their very male-centric views), I, the strong believer in overcoming the silence of sexual abuse, abuse, downtrodding of women and marginalized groups, I have become a crafter! I knit, sew, cook and tend to my garden.
    And that’s what I’ve been pondering over in this last year…I have forsaken academia for a bit. Oh, I still read, write, of course but I have become all housewifey. And what I wonder is this…can you do these craft things and still be a feminist? Fight against silence, marginalization, inequality, all these things?
    I’d like to think yes. I’d like to think that making things, giving them away, the pleasure derived from working with the hands and the pleasure of delighting others…this is intrinsic to enjoying life and being human. And maybe this is what being a feminist is really about (this enjoyment of life and being) and maybe it really is fighting the patriachary. It’s a sneaky way but I think quite possibly it is a way.

  19. Dear Ms Herschelian, I’m impressed by the marmelade-making and even more that it might be genetic. What skills.

    Helen, I was shamed at school too with my lack of skills in the sewing department. The scary old lady who taught me had taught my mother and each time I presented my tragic scrap of cloth for her attention, she would say, “Antonia would never have sewn such a crooked scheme.” Oh and Kiko’s Daddy might have to teach him how to sew, but you’re definitely going to teach him how to cook!

    Henitsirk, it’s definitely all about the joy for me. Ridiculous, discovering how much darn (yarn) fun it is to knit …

    Hi Catherine, yes I think crafting and making in all its forms can be quite subversive. For me, that’s half the fun.

  20. Freudian slip there, Helen. Antonia’s “seam” was straight and not her “scheme” ….

  21. Lovely post. I think it’s so important that children, girls and boys alike, be introduced to the domestic arts early on and learn the value of gifts that come from the heart. I also come from a crafty family and we really enjoyed making home made gifts for each other. I wish I could find more time these days to be creative, but I do my best.

  22. Now that you mention it, my own beginnings as a quilter do date back to about the time I left my 20s and entered my 30s. Hmm.

    I never had the disdain for crafts – always enjoyed using my hands – but I did feel a personal rejection of the role of housewife. I felt that I was expected to become a working mother (if a mother at all), not because that was what I wanted but because I couldn’t fathom embracing the traditional role or catering to paternalistic expectations.

    In the end, I became a semi-working mother (doing freelance translations at home but spending most of my time with the girls). Now that my youngest is in full-day kindergarten, I’m looking for ways to begin making a greater financial contribution to the family.

    Making money through my quilts is somehow more attractive than going back to a desk job…funny, that.

  23. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be a crafty person, but I do admire those people who can make things, and I agree absolutely about the beauty of passing along traditions. Nice post!

  24. This is a very interesting topic, as the amount of comments show! I like how you link crafting to the rejection of housewifery, and then how many of us seem to come back to it. It also lets me say to you Charl ‘Your roots are showing, dear’.. in the best possible sense, of course.

  25. I totally relate to your experience. But while your DH is terrified to have to wear a home-made scarf in the office, mine is worried that I have turned away from being a modern young woman and turned into a Miss Marple… (that’s his words) I guess he doesn’t quite understand post-modernism and new feminism…

  26. Pingback: What comes after « White Thoughts

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