Friday, 21 October 2011
Handing on handmade
Last week I went a-visiting and took tea at the most charming little cottage in the country - a cottage quite out of a Country Living 'dreaming of the country'-style magazine spread - and there on the table I saw an array of pretty patchwork pieces, stitched together by hand.
My eye was of course immediately drawn to such prettiness and upon enquiry I found that this stitchery was the work of a little girl of very tender years, who has taken to working with the needle quite recently and with an enthusiasm and tenacity that made a great impression on me.
She had little in the way of equipment and her needle and thread sat in a recycled plastic tub. I thought of the needle case that Jane Austen gave to her niece Louisa two hundred years ago, also the housewife or hussif (a sewing case) that Austen made for her sister-in-law, described by the recipient's son as 'the kind of article that some benevolent fairy might be supposed to give as a reward to a diligent little girl', and enclosed within which was a little poem:
This little bag, I hope will prove
To be not vainly made:
For should you thread and needles want,
It will afford you aid.
And as we are about to part,
'T will serve another end:
For when you look upon this bag,
You'll recollect your friend.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries women often gave gifts of needle cases and pincushions to each other, and I thought of this little girl taking up her needle and stitching away, an occupation which was so commonplace in th past, so bound up with female gender identity, and which now is really quite unusual in one so young, not something that girls or women are bound to do whether they will or no, and which has become purely an expression of creativity rather than necessity.
But perhaps in the loss of compulsion, other things have been lost, too, and somehow I wanted to encourage that expression of skill and creativity, and retain a sense of continuity, of things being passed on from one generation of women to another in a positive way, and that sense of feminine friendship and community inherent in the exchange of handmade gifts.
So I sat down and made a little needle case and pincushion for this little girl; she too is moving away, and perhaps one day she will pick up these small artefacts, and recollect a friend, and her first hesitant stitches, and the beginnings of creativity in her world.
And maybe you could give such gifts too - so simple and quick to make, two pinked rectangles of felt, a stitched felt flower and button on the cover.
The pincushion was eight squares of fabric from my stash (including some early Cath Kidston left over from a skirt) - I used my Go! Baby die to cut 2 1/2in squares, 2in finished size, to make up a 4in square pincushion wrapped in ribbon like the gift that it is, and trimmed with buttons either side.
A gift that was a pleasure to make, and a pleasure to give, a handing on from one generation to another of the joy of the handmade, and a lesson to me that actually giving is oh so much better than receiving.
(And if you want to find out more about needlework in the works of Jane Austen, the poem and the photo come from Jane Austen Fashion: Fashion and Needlework in the Works of Jane Austen, by Penelope Byrde, a delightful and informative little book which is a great introduction to the subject. You can get all colours of felt and felt shapes from Paper and String, and the original idea for the pincushion came from Indigo Blue.)