Literary Handwork

Reading and handwork make a perfect pair, in my opinion: the two things I enjoy doing most, miraculously combined. Sometimes I even enjoy the reading more than actually doing the thing itself. And on those occasions when a project outlasts enthusiasm, what better to rekindle the fires than finding the same spark in a book?
Albert Anker - Strickendes Mädchen beim lesen (1907)
Happily, literature is full of examples of hand-workers – particularly in those classics which were written in the days when handwork for women was just ‘work’ and everyone (unless a gentleman of the purely decorative class) was expected to keep themselves busy.

So it is with the Dashwood girls in Sense and Sensibility. “Sir John Middleton, who called on them every day for the first fortnight, and who was not in the habit of seeing much occupation at home, could not conceal his amazement on finding them always employed.”

Or take Mansfield Park, also by Jane Austen. One of her more underrated books, I feel, with one of her more underrated heroines. Fanny is always busy with handwork: her own, or someone else’s. Helping Aunt Bertram the indolent, or being press-ganged into the thrifty machinations of Aunt Norris. And unlike her cousins, she does work of a high calibre.

Mp-Brock-10Then there are the March girls in Little Women, who ” adopted Jo’s plan of dividing the long seams [of sheets] into four parts, and calling the quarters Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, and in that way got on capitally, especially when they talked about the different countries as they stitched their way through them.” The book also includes knitting, dressmaking (for humans and dolls), and the embroidering of a pair of slippers (“grave yet cheerful pansies on a deeper purple ground”).

Not all literary hand-workers are enthusiastic. Catherine, from Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman, is continually being nagged by her old nurse Morwenna to work on her spinning, sewing, embroidery and the like, when she would rather be running wild outside. “They found the remains of several spindles, many skeins of wool, and an unfinished tapestry in the muck from the privy. Why is everyone so certain they are mine?”
Reine Berthe et les fileueses, 1888
Other fictional handworkers include Miss Silver, who is always knitting something, usually for her great-niece or great-nephews, and who designs and executes her own crochet trimmings to boot. Miss Marple also knits, but in less detail. Devotées (or, indeed, devotés) of quilting can enjoy the works of Jennifer Chiaverini and Earlene Fowler. Embroiderers, or those considering taking up embroidery, should make a beeline for Embroidery Mary.

On the non-fiction side, there are plenty of books about the history and practice of various crafts, and then there are books of craft humour. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee is an outstanding outlier in this field.

For those who are passionate about both literature and craft, there are books of crafts inspired by books, which you can add another layer to by making the crafts from the books of crafts inspired by books. While reading the originatory books, if you want to complete the circle and you have the much-desired (by me at least) ability of reading while working with your hands.

Meyer von Bremen Strickendes lesendes Mädchen 1863Alternatively, you can follow the grand old tradition of having one person read while everyone else handworks; or its modern, more solitary equivalent: the audio book.

What are some of your favourite handworky books? Recommendations eagerly sought!


Beware of Heirlooms

"Aunt Baker" of Dublin New Hampshire (5084522184)Advice for a new knitter:
When choosing a pattern, look for ones that have words such as “simple,” “basic,” and “easy.”
If you see the words “intriguing,” “challenging,” or “intricate,” look elsewhere.
If you happen across a pattern that says “heirloom,” slowly put down the pattern and back away.
“Heirloom” is knitting code for “This pattern is so difficult that you would consider death a relief.”

from At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much, by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, a.k.a. the Yarn Harlot

Plus Cat

It seems to be a quirk of creative types to be accoutred with a cat – or several. Writers are particularly prone to cats – Ernest Hemingway’s collection of polydactyl cats being perhaps an extreme example – but the link is well-documented in both word and image, albeit not entirely understood.

Sorry about that deadline
“A catless writer is almost inconceivable,” says Barbara Holland. “It’s a perverse taste, really, since it would be easier to write with a herd of buffalo in the room than even one cat; they make nests in the notes and bite the end of the pen and walk on the typewriter keys.” But not all writing cats are so unhelpful. Kerry Greenwood says she has “a censorious cat called Belladonna who supervises the process and won’t let me write more than two hours without a break. She slyly hits the caps lock with her little black paw. Thus I am saved from carpal tunnel syndrome and she is well supplied with cat treats (those expensive green ones).”

It’s the same with knitters. As Stephanie Pearl-McPhee notes in her book At Knit’s End, “the tendency to be accompanied by a cat is an oddity among knitters that cannot be explained…. Most cats have a thing about knitting. They are honor sworn to pester knitters and be involved in knitting as much as possible. They lie on patterns, play with balls of yarn, bat at the end of a moving needle, and given two seconds of opportunity, will spread themselves all over your knitting, intentionally shedding as much fur as possible. When selecting a cat to share my life and knitting with, I will consider choosing one whose fur doesn’t contrast with my favorite color yarn.

Rudolf Hirth du Frênes - Young Friends 01
My cats know better than to play with an active ball of yarn (though you can see the temptation growing on them as they stare at it) but they do like to be in a lap that has knitting on it. The more mature of the two is happy to just sit alongside the knitting (she’s the one who’s a fibre snob), but the junior seems to think his life will not be complete until he has somehow climbed into the needle-portal and merged his dimensions with those of the knitting. I live in fear of ending up with a Klein-bottle-sock-cat (which isn’t a Dr. Seuss book, but should be).

Then there are sewing cats. Cats love sitting on rustly paper. Newspapers are better than books or magazines, and the delicate tissue of pattern paper is even better. Add the plethora of textures afforded by fabrics, and you have an irresistible cat-magnet. Leimoni Oakes, aka the Dreamstress, has a whole category of blog posts dedicated to the ‘assistance’ of her sewing-cat Felicity. The blog at Cation Designs has both a tag and a tab about the dedicated sewing-cat and model Walnut.

Jean Siméon Chardin - Still-Life with Cat and Rayfish - WGA04740
There are also cats who dwell with artists, no doubt taking every opportunity to filch food from still life compositions, leave little painty footprints about the premises, and bat shards of stone across the floor to where an unsuspecting foot will encounter them. (Cats are very thoughtful in that respect).
Doubtless there are many more examples of cats and their creatives, which simply don’t happen to have come to my notice (but please mention them in the comments).

Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, you can pretty much guarantee that your cat will climb into it. Knitting? Yes please. Sewing? Let me help you pin that down (with my claws). Reading? I’ll hold the book open for you (by lying on it). Hanging out the laundry? I’ll turn unintentional back-flips while trying to uproot the washing-line pole (since you won’t let me play with the pegs). Pruning? I’ll hide in the bush and dab at the secateurs as they come past. Playing pétanque? Let me lurk on the sidelines and dash madly into the path of the steel balls as you hurl them. Cooking? The floor will seethe with cats at every turn, especially if you’re cooking anything animal based (although one of our cats will eat bits of raw kale that have fallen on the floor – if she thinks you’re not looking).

you never put the cheese in the refrigerator, because you don't put your cat in the refrigerator
Why it is that cats do this is unclear. Boredom? It’s hard to bore an animal that is content to spend its days eating, sleeping and licking itself. Are they offering support? Are they offering – or seeking – companionship? Or do they merely wish to come between their person and anything that might look like it’s getting more attention than they are? Whatever the reason, it seems the attentions of a determined cat are inescapable, so we might as well accept them for the furry little joy-bringers they are, and do our best to get on with life despite their ‘help’.