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.