Housewifely Virtues: Handwork

Sharon July 2nd, 2009

When I was a girl, my grandmother once tried to explain to me why she kept trying to teach me to knit and crochet.  My grandmother was old fashioned, and felt that her three granddaughters ought to act like young ladies, and get something of the education young ladies might have.  We, on the other hand, were products of our age, and saw her attempt to inculcate womanly skills and virtues as an attempt to constrain us, to impose standards that no longer applied from the past upon the present.

My grandmother told me that when I was a grown woman, I would live my life in a sea of labor that was done each morning, and undone before I went to bed.  I would wash the dishes and cook meals, only to see them eaten and the dishes dirtied again. I would wash clothes, dry them, and see them back in the hamper.  She observed to me that it was necessary that I learn to do something that “stayed done at the end of the day.”  She was telling me how important this was to her, and she wanted very much to pass on the knowledge.

I was 10 or so, and I truly did not understand what she was saying to me.  The life she portrayed seemed alien, distant and unimaginable.  Of course I would end each day with some great accomplishment.  Of course my work would stay done.  I wasn’t going to be concerning myself with dishes and laundry (I think I thought magic fairies might do these for me), but with great events and great deeds – dishes didn’t figure into it.  So why on earth did I need to know how to knit or crochet? How could such small things ever matter?  I would never, I thought, be the sort of woman who needs, at the end of the day, to rest quietly and work on that one thing that will not be undone.  I assumed that my grandmother was simply being fusty/

I remember that talk with chagrin and sorrow every time I think of it – even though being an idiot is the official province of 10 year olds.  I’m embarrassed to admit how many years it took me to understand that my Grandmother wasn’t trying to force me into an arcane version of womanhood – she was trying to prepare me for the daily reality of parenthood, of home ownership, of domestic life.  Now I know.  She knew that my airy assumption that “something would be done” about the problem of domestic labor was unlikely, and she was doing what she could to get me ready.  And I didn’t listen. 

Many, many years later, as I learned, slowly, painfully to knit from books and with the help of friends, I wished desperately that I’d paid attention to my grandmother, wished that I hadn’t thought I’d known so much.  She’s gone now, and my son Isaiah’s middle name memorializes her. I wish she could hear my apologies from here.  I know she forgave me long ago, but I wish I’d understood more, sooner.

In my first post on this subject, I made the case for what I see as the deep value of domestic labor.  Now despite the title of thread, it should be noted that I do not believe this is or should be “women’s work” – that is, by “housewifery” I mean work, which like “husbandry” is associated with the basic maintenence of a self-sufficient homestead – whether in an city apartment or a rural dwelling.  The two terms are historically gendered, but they need not be in the present.  In the comments on my last post, we came up with the term “hussy” – now usually associated with the term “shameless” but once merely a short term for a housewife of any kind.  My suggestion is that handwork, along with all the other subjects in this category ought to be the territory of both shameless (for what on earth have we to be ashamed of?) hussies and hubbies ;-) .

Much domestic work for hussies and hubbies is of the sort called ”reproductive labor” by scholars that has to be done over and over again. Whether indoors, where the floors are cleaned and then mud tracked upon them again, or outdoors, where the sheep are moved to new pasture, and then must be moved tomorrow, it is always there.  The children’s water glasses must be filled, the chicken’s waterer’s must be filled, and all must be done day in and day out, round and around the year, and interspersed with big, often exhausting jobs.  All of us, then, need a moment in each day when we do something that gets us, as the poet says, “forwarder.”  Sometimes that will be the big job  – the hay brought back from the field, the new garden bed built, the jars of corn relish lined up.  But most days, there won’t have been a big job to mark the day – just an endless line of little ones, most undone again nearly as soon as they are complete.  And thus the virtue of handwork, the small thing that gets you a little bit further along on something needful – a sweater, a quilt, a tool, a toy.

Why handwork?  What does that even mean?  Well, by “handwork” here, I mean not just any work done by hand, but the kind of work that can be done by hand quietly and safely around others, while engaged in conversation, singing, learning, listening, even prayer. It is the work of quiet times, things that can often be done in lower-light conditions, with small, portable equipment at evening, when the day’s other chores are complete.  Handwork of this sort marks a kind of transition between work and rest, chores and play – often pleasurable activities, with artistry embedded in them, we do them for both beauty and utility, for both work and play, and thus they bridge the margins of each category. 

Often it is the last thing we do, when it feels so good to sit.  Or perhaps they are a way of making a day filled with classes or talks, long drives or even a favorite movie into time where something is also addeed to the well being of one’s family or the beauty of one’s home.

What activities fall in this category?  My own favorite category of handwork is knitting, but among fiber arts it would include spindle spinning (wheel spinning is sometimes possible in these conditions but requires more equipment than most of the others), needle felting, crochet, rug braiding, tatting, light mending, darning, piecing quilts, carding, embroidery, white work and other fabric and fiber crafts.  Many fiber crafts are easily adaptable to these conditions – while it might not always be possible to do, say the finest embroidery in low light conditions, or elaborate fair isle knitting patterns, in many cases is may be possible to sew a straight seam or knit a familiar pattern mostly by touch.  If the craft can be done by the blind, you probably could learn to do it too.

But while things involving a needle or pair of needles and some cloth are easily portable and make up a chunk of handwork, these are not the only possibilities.  Whittling or the carving of small objects like spoons and toys are excellent handwork.  Oiling or maintaining or even light file sharpening of small tools can be done as handwork.  There are certainly categories of handwork that I am not immediately calling to mind.  The general requirements are that they cannot require daylight precision, they must not be so loud that they preclude conversation, listening to music or to someone reading aloud.  They must not be physically arduous, since people are tired at the end of the day.  It must be work that can be picked up and put down again. The work should be relaxing, repetetive, soothing – enough so that the moving hands add to the pleasure of putting one’s feet up.

Handwork is not and should not be a gendered province – all of us have time when we must sit and listen, or time when we want to converse.  As times get more stressful, we may find that we have more of this time, not less – for all that we have more work to do when we must make do with less money and energy, we also often have more of this time.  That is, unemployment, a more seasonal life, less television, fewer nights out and fewer long car trips may mean more reasons to sit, and be quiet together.  If the power does go out, or get too expensive, handwork makes the evening hours productive, artistic, graceful – and the movement of fingers enables conversation.

I think there is more of a prejudice among men against fiber arts than there is among women against carving or mending tools.  This is a great pity, because most fiber arts were historically at least partly the province of men.  Young Scottish boys sent out to mind the flock were set to knitting their own stockings.  The knitting guilds were male only in many cases.  The same is true of many textile works – and while there are some great resources out there for knitting and sewing men, I think there’s an instinctive “is that really a guy thing?” among many gents.  It should be.  I don’t know if it helps to offer a role model, but my 6’2, bearded, father-of-many, scythe-wielding, physicist-farmer husband knits rather gracefully. and while he can’t sew by hand to save his life, is better with a sewing machine and pattern than I am. Just as my readers often feel free to blame me for the crazy ideas they pick up here I officially give you permission (note, I have yet to clear this with Eric, but hey, it is easier to get forgiveness… ;-) ) to blame it on Eric’s role modelling ;-) .

I do my handwork in the car, on long drives, I do it with my feet up across my husband’s lap, or his across mine. We knit together, offering commentary on each other’s projects. I do it when I attend conferences or talks, and when we have guests and I want to hear what they have been doing.  I do it while Simon reads stories aloud to his brothers and to us, or while Eric plays the piano or we all sing.  I tend to make small things – I sew on buttons or mend the children’s pants, or knit hats and mittens for the winter, or a pair of socks for gift.  I brush out the angora from the bunnies and spin it while we watch a movie, or make clumsy attempts at woodworking.  All of these skills took time for me to be able to do them without concentration, while also doing other things – I still can’t carve worth a damn, and it takes more of my attention than I like.  But I remember when I could not knit or sew without my eyes on the needles, and now my fingers have eyes on their tips, at least for those activities.  It took only time and practice.

And each one gets me “forwarder” – even if a whole item is not produced, a dozen rows on a sock or crocheted kippah, a few inches of braiding on a denim rug, two items off the mending pile or the pile of tools to be sharpened and oiled gets me ahead.   Each useful item, each mended thing, gets me forwarder as well – one more thing I do not have to buy, one more year of use, one less broken tool.  It is a small thing in a life full of jobs that wash over me day by day, done and undone, done and undone again, but the rhythym of knitting needles clicking, of needle against thimble, of knife against wood while music or words flow over me is a step, a stitch, a cut in that repetition, a thing that is complete and whole.  It ties me back to my grandmother, a silent apology for what I did not know then but do now, and pushes me forward, to the culmination of good and productive work, and the quiet at the end of the day.


49 Responses to “Housewifely Virtues: Handwork”

  1. homebrewlibrarian says:

    My grandmother tried to show me how to knit, too. I even tried to stick with it by making a simple, rectangular scarf. Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I’d come back to it on and off for months but finally gave up with a dreadful looking thing that might have been useful as a potholder, even with all the dropped and added stitches, had it not been made of acrylic. And that was the end of my knitting experience. Until, that is, winter before last when myself, my landlord/friend and his daughter took a knitting class together. I was surprised to be able to grasp the concept and actually do pretty well which was quite heartening. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a sitter and prefer to be up and moving so knitting hasn’t been something I’ve kept up with. My friend’s daughter, however, has become a serial knitter despite having a very active three-year-old.

    On the other hand, I spent 20 years learning how to sew and can still pull out a sewing machine and mend or create without much effort. I utterly ADORE hand sewing – but not quilting, go figure. Actually, I’ve dabbled in many of the textile arts and have enjoyed them all. Don’t do much of any of them these days but it wouldn’t take much to get back to them should the need arise.

    Unlike you, however, I had no encouragement to learn the “womanly” arts. My mother was only capable of using a sewing machine to put hems in skirts and slacks. My grandmother knitted, crocheted and made clothing for her family but was not all that interested in teaching her granddaughters those skills. I got sucked into sewing by joining the Society for Creative Anachronism (where, at that time in the late ’70s, if you didn’t sew you didn’t have anything appropriate to wear). 30 years down the road and I’m a recovering textile-aholic but hold no grudge against the SCA for that.

    Nope, the women in the family didn’t pass on handwork skills but the SCA more than made up for that – I have embroidered, spun, calligraphed, beaded, woven, dyed, braided and attempted simple woodworking. I also got rather adept at creating authentic looking jewelry by constructing it from various parts and pieces of modern costume jewelry – a skill that may come in handy during the Long Emergency. Hm. Maybe I shouldn’t get rid of all the jewelry stuff and beads that have been gathering dust over the last few years. Hm.

    Kerri in AK

  2. Erik says:

    I never could get the hang of knitting, but my grandmother taught me to sew by both machine and hand, and I still do needlework regularly – as well as the more “manly” crafts of working in wood, leather and chainmail (yes, another ex-SCAdian heard from :) .

    I actually understand exactly what your grandmother was talking about – I work in computer network support, and there is nothing permanent about the work I do… everything is in a constant state of flux and disrepair, and I turn to my crafts for exactly the reason she said. Smart woman, your grandmother!

  3. Susan in NJ says:

    I love your grandmother’s observation about having something that stays done at the end of the day, as Erik notes an observation that applies apart from housework. In the legal world, nothing seems to stay done for long.

  4. Mark N says:

    Beautiful. I loved this. I’m a bachelor. I occasionally take trips through Amish country in the Fulton/Montgomery county area of NY hoping to find a wayward Amish girl. They are awesome, too.

  5. shoshana says:

    My mother got my brothers involved in sewing their own halloween costumes and needlepointing “boy” things like lions and hawks for bedroom pillows. It was great fun. I have fear for my kids, however, who have no practical skills (they’re even hard pressed to light a fire in the fireplace). They couldn’t care less despite the fact that I practiced many of these skills regularly in their presence. *sigh*

  6. [...] write a nice, juicy Independence Day post then. In the meantime, I’d like to point you to a lovely post about the value of handwork, by the ever-thoughtful Sharon [...]

  7. Anna says:

    Hurray for handwork!

    I was once a geeky adolescent, 15 years ago, who saved her babysitting money for a spinning wheel, when my peers where spending theirs on Cover Girl. I was deep into square foot gardening, herbs, and compost. They laughed at me. Now my peers are bat poop crazy over knitting and gardening. Ha! Sweet nerdy revenge.


  8. Tara says:

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of any activity of this sort that I don’t loathe. I guess sitting still and doing something repetitive with my hands is something I just dislike. Or maybe all the things that can be done this way are things I don’t enjoy. I’m not sure which.

  9. MEA says:

    Yet another SCAdian chiming in.

    My grandmother taught me to knit when I was five. This is not as exciting as it sounds, as three year olds used to be able to turn a heel on double pointed needles. For a year or so, I produced lacey, rather short scarves that adorned the necks of my father and several elderly gentlemen at church. After that I was taught to purl, rib, inc and dec, and I was off to the races. Before Children, I used to knit Aran sweaters without a pattern. Now, I just knit the same 5 or 6 garments to the same old patterns that my fingers know.

    When my grandmother taught me, (mid- 60s) hand knitting was still seen (at least by her contempories) as part of the way you obtained clothing for yourself and family, and it was something you did continously and without thought. She was shocked at the idea of a woman putting down a piece of knitting because she was bored with knitting. It was as unthinkable as being bored with breathing. If you weren’t knitting for yourself or family, you were knitting for the poor. Or you were darning sleaves, or swapping them, or knitting new cuffs, and when all else failled, unravelling and knitting up again, with a few rows of simple fair isle with wool from something else to make up the lost wool and the fact the child had grown.

    I absorbed that to the point where I knit when I’m walking or stuck in in traffic. I can do a certain amount in the dark, which is a help on sleepless nights.

    And there is a wonderful feeling that at least I’m getting something done — a premie cap, or a watch cap, or a square for a Red Cross blanket. We may be going to hell in a handbasket, but someone will have warm feet when we get there.

    A man at church asked me why I just didn’t buy some hats and give them to the soup kitchen — and stop wasting my time. I just said I found it relaxing, which I do. But in truth, I can’t afford to buy as many hats and scarves and whatknot what I make each year. At this point, I haven’t brought wool or yarn for over a decade. More wool from people who have giving up knitting has been dontated to the church group I knit with that we could use in 5 years. And that’s all wool people that was just sitting in stashes — all the energy that had gone into making it was wasted until it was make into something useful.

    I don’t do much “pretty” handwork — my dish towels are the unhemmed backs of worn out shirts, not lovely exampled of drawn thread work. I can certainly see the value of creating beautiful objects, though. And I do my share of mending and sewing (dd the younger who is shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh has 2 new pairs of shorts and a skirt for the summer, made from the farmwife’s gift), but, for me, there is nothing like the feeling of wool through my fingers and the weight of the knitted fabric growing.

    (oh, and the fact that it’s easy to fix mistakes — I call it the forgiving art.)


  10. MEA says:

    Tara, I was writing my long screed while your post came in, so I wasn’t directed at your, but I will say that if you can get to the point where whatever you are doing is automatic, you might find you are forgetting that you are doing it.

  11. Karin says:

    Thankyou for such a great post. I come to my role as ” housewife” later in life; as such, I have struggled with the mundane nature of the routine of laundry, dishes and vacuuming. But I am evolving to understand the vital importance of that job. After all, I am feeding my family and keeping them clean and healthy. But it the respite at the end of the day with my knitting needles; it is the quiet winter when I tackle larger projects, that bring me to my quiet place and make the work I do concrete ( in a fine Peace Fleece).

  12. Sharon says:

    I’m with MEA that even if you don’t like this sort of thing, remember, this isn’t just for pretty. We’re all going to *need* socks. Quilts keep you warm. Rugs make it a lot more comfy to stand at the sink. This is not just about beautifying one’s life – although it can be about that. This is mostly pretty practical. Like MEA, my grandmother couldn’t imagine not finishing things because you were bored – this was how you got warm clothes.

    Sharon, who didn’t turn a heel until she was umm…a lot older than 3.

  13. MEA says:

    I think I’m turning into a crotchy old woman .


    who just found out we have Phythophthora infestans in the Northeast

  14. Shamba says:

    Well, I’ve never turned a heel in my life–I never attempted making socks–I have knitted vests for myself. And when I was a little girl, I used very slender knitting needles and fine leftover yarn of my mom’s to make “warm “clothes” for my various dolls and many, many stuffed animals. I seemed to think that my animals needed the same booties, cloaks and hats my dolls needed. We, they and I, were always going somewhere in the cold deep winter snow. ;) And I grew up in a hot, dry place, too.

    My handwork has been, sewing up small rips in various garments, some basting, replacing buttons, hooks & eyes or hemming something. I much prefer hemming something by hand than to do it on the machine.

    A nice post on the small but necessary things of life.


  15. Frogdancer says:

    That’s why I quilt. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing my son curled up on the couch under a quilt I made for him, so snug and happy. I work full time as a teacher and the housework is never finished… but the quilts are!

  16. Tara says:

    Heh – not much need for warm gear where I live (Central Texas) and if it gets any hotter, we may abandon clothes altogether! I have several relatives who are constant knitters, and even though we live here, they send scarves, hats, sweaters and such constantly. We have drawers full that we’ve only worn a handful of times. Perhaps I can make a bikini out of them? :)

    If I ever really NEED to make my own clothes, my wardrobe will probably consist of a week’s worth of sacks with armholes cut in them, and that would be alright with me. I’d rather muck out the barn 100 times over than knit a hat. I can’t help it.

  17. Janine says:

    Count me among those whose grandmothers were fine needlewomen, but did not pass along their skills. I still can’t sew, quilt or knit anything, but have purchased a sewing machine and have some ambition to learn. My grandmother believed that with “advancement” most of the homely skills would be rendered useless. It doesn’t seem to be working out that way!

  18. suze_oz says:

    Oh the memories. Various ladies tried to to teach me to knit and in the end my pseudo uncle did. He still refuses to acknowledge it! I have learned to knit a sock and simple things but most my knitting is basic. My father adores his homemade socks.

    I love to hand sew and will repair many things by hand. I avoid machines most of the time. Too many horrible memories there. I can embroider etc and sometimes do.

    But truthfully, even though we don’t farm etc, my days are so full that there is little time for anything like this. We rarely leave home and don’t homeschool. Television might amount to an hour or so every second or third day. At present I am helping care for my father as well as my children and the days go in whirlwind of repetitious activity. I am glad for the time I do have.

  19. safira says:

    I’m amused by how many people were turned toward handwork by the SCA, as was I.

    I figure that if commercial manufacture comes to a screeching halt today, my friends and I will stay clothed for at least a few years before we run through our stashes of fabric and yarn. Mind you, we’ll look a bit funny weeding the garden in brocade when we get down to the stuff we saved for fancy garb, but there’s plenty of wool and linen to use up first. And by that time, my weaver buddies will have started cottage industries. (Which will only get us so far, I’m aware. Ah-ha, an excuse to hoard more fabric, just in case!)

  20. Mary says:

    I begged Grandma to teach me to crochet after she helped my cousin Joe make and afghan. I made a string of pathetic doll clothes of which I was very proud. I learned to follow patterns when I was about nine, and she taught me to embroider the summer I was eight. I finished off the kits all the aunts had bought and abandoned and gave them back to them for Xmas. I loved making Xmas presents–embrodered rosary cases and crocheted lace trim for handkerchiefs.
    Mom taught me to knit when I was eight–I made a pair of booties for the brother born the spring I was nine. Grandma said she’d teach me to tat lace when I was more coordinated. When I was twelve I pointed out that she might die before I got to be coordinated. She had me visit over Xmas vacation and taught me to tat. I love doing things with my hands.
    When I was in residency, I kept baby booties in progress in my lab coat pocket. I felt they were small enough not to be threatening, and that was the life stage when there was a baby shower every week. Late one afternoon an endocrinologist was lecturing us in a darkened room with white on blue slides. About ten minutes into his lecture, he went ballistic and said he couldn’t believe I was so disrespectful as to knit during his talk. I pointed out that he and I were the only two people awake in the room. He asked, “Is that true?” and no one answered.

  21. knutty knitter says:

    Umm…fiber artist here…began with sewing at three through my grandmother and have simply never stopped since. I had an affinity with this stuff and I still do. My sons have both learned to sew and knit. The younger one is about a third up a reasonable scarf at present. He also goes tp patchwork with me (he’s 10). Elder one is more into electronics and computers.

    Present projects are a hand pieced quilt and a crochet jersey. They transport well and can be done anywhere (and are!)

    My mother and I run a small handknit place for toys for tourists.

    viv in nz

  22. Andrew says:

    Love the term “handwork”. I now have a new word to express what I have pursued over the last number of years, and starting to transfer my skills to my children.

    Although handwork can be beautiful, relaxing, or passionate – for me it comes down mostly on useful. I don’t know when our lifeways will change, but maybe (I’m hoping), knowing a few simple skills well will help out.

  23. Heather G says:

    When I was very young I would go with my mom to her weaving classes and play on the loom in the display area — they had a pattern set up there for people to try. She got me a toy loom and I learned to basics.

    My mom taught me how to hem and how to knit — although that was a bit of trial and effort, as she tried to teach me left-handed knitting (since I’m left-handed for writing) and that turned out oddly. So she tried again with right-handed knitting, which was much more successful. I’ve never done anything complicated — still haven’t made a pair of socks! But when I do, likely it’ll be my husband who helps me do it.

    I think my mom taught me how to thread the sewing machine and what the straight-of-grain was — machine sewing itself I learned at first on my own and then through summer school.

    Embroidery I learned through kits, and one craft class at the Y.

    Then I didn’t do any of that in high school, but took up sewing and embroidery again when…. I joined the SCA! :D Knitting is still very much an on-again-off-again thing for me, but I’ve definitely kept up with sewing and gotten back into weaving — I have her floor loom, which is a definite help, although I did purchase a table loom to go with it. I learned how to spin in the SCA, both drop spindle and wheel.

    Spinning I view as portable, easy to stow away, relaxing and useful. Plus you don’t have to spin just for knitting/crocheting/weaving. You could spin up enough thread for sewing/embroidery/repair work. You could make string for tying things up.

    Various techniques for braiding are useful that way, whether picking out particular threads/yarns for a project or just using up some scrap ends (I always have those at the end of a weaving project) — braid single not-so-strong pieces together to make ties, bag handles, laces for shoes, etc. I do simple braiding (3 or 4 strand), fingerloop braiding, and kumihimo (that last takes longer but you can do all sorts of color combos and different patterns, plus they’re really strong).

  24. don says:

    Nice post, but I think you missed something. As a male, one of the great pleasures of making things (in my case, woodworking) is that you are creating a legacy for your family, something that will in some way represent to your offspring what you were way back when. I suspect the same might have held for our grandmothers who didn’t have much permanent to show for all their efforts except tatted doilies. And I suspect that many of us have those stashed away in a drawer somewhere.

  25. Michelle says:

    I love doing stuff like that. I can sit and be in the moment, but still get something accomplished. Wise woman, your grandmother.

  26. Claire says:

    I too learned to knit, and crochet, from my (maternal) grandmother. After my family moved several states away from my grandmother when I was in my early teens, however, I no longer did either. Not quite the same without her help and encouragement. Eventually I got rid of the knitting and crochet equipment. Don’t know that I would start again, though if I found knitting needles in a garage sale …

    Sewing, on the other hand, I learned in home ec class, hand and machine. Ever since I learned to sew, I’ve mended hems and reattached buttons. A few years ago I found a 1950s era needlecraft book, which taught me enough about darning that I am now darning my wool socks and the moth holes in my one and only cashmere sweater. I keep thinking I’d like to quilt, and there are instructions for quilting in this book too. Maybe someday … I’ve begun to collect some fabric (old clothes) toward this end.

    When my DH and I took the lay ordination ceremony from our Zen teacher, part of the work was to sew a rakusu, by hand. This is a bib-like piece of fabric resting against the chest, with straps so it can be held up by the neck. My DH went first and had to learn how to sew; I taught him what he needed to know. Now he mends his own hems and attaches his own buttons, and has made little drawstring bags. His current project is sewing arm covers for one of our chairs, out of a pair of blue jeans he found in the street. We inherited his maternal grandmother’s sewing kit – lots of good stuff in it, and I added the few things I’d kept from home ec class.

    I hadn’t operated a sewing machine in over thirty years until the last few months. I’ve been working with a friend and fellow Zen student to make the zafus and zabutons (meditation cushion and mat) that our Zen Center offers for sale. Until then I’d stuck to cutting the fabric and pinning the pieces. But finally my friend suggested it was time I learn to sew them together. We have to sew a circle to a rectangle. My friend, an accomplished seamstress, says it’s one of the harder tasks in sewing. Sure has been a lot of ripping out and re-doing. But I think I’ve finally got it, and I feel a sense of accomplishment.

    I usually save sewing for cold weather … that’s when I have some free time. Not sure if I’d say I enjoy it, but I don’t mind it too much, and it sure is useful.

  27. maria says:

    My grandmother taught me to spin with a spindle when I was 10 or so– I picked it up again this winter after not having touched a spindle for 30 years, and amazingly, it was still with me. My mother taught me to knit, sew, & crochet when I was little– I’m not a particularily crafty person, but I do feel so grateful to have learned these skills as a child– it makes it a lot easier later on.

  28. Ahhh yes, the joy of working with fibre. :)

    I have noted before the prevalence of knitters and other fibre artists among the geekily employed – those of us who spend our lives in front of computer screens, making ephemera out of pixels seem to really need something *real* to work on.

    A lady I worked with (a business analyst/coder/project leader sort) knit baby sweaters on her breaks. She said to me one day, “I can look at this sweater and say *that* two inches of fabric did not exist this morning. Now it does.”

    There is something immenseley satisfying in that statement.

    In fact, I’m gonna go knit.

  29. Coleen says:

    For those of us who love it… we call it PETTING YARN. It makes a great excuse for getting the “girls” or whoever together to chat and laugh even if nothing really gets done during the session but building relationships.

    And for Tara…there are always friends who can barter or give you gifts :) and your husband is quite handy with such things.

  30. ehswan says:

    My Mom is knitting prayer shawls while we visit my friend Brown, who lives in a shack in the deep woods of central kentucky, a place name, as I understand it that means “Land of blood and dreams”. She is an atheist. Brown seems to me to be an optimist, but becomes cloudy when I relate to him that all large cats, (he loves cats), will be gone in the wild within this century. They are such fine creatures, and by our very success we are leaving no place for them to live. I do trully love you but find no way to make your story right. There are far too many of us for life on Earth to be beautiful. Love, Eric Swan.

  31. Green Hill Farm says:

    Funny this is your post today, I went to my friends house today to “craft” I knit about two hours enough to finish the left side of the sweater (the second) I am making for my new granddaughter. She’s three months old and I think this sweater is about 18 mouths, I wanted time to finish it.

    My mother taught me to knit as a kid and I’ve made a few things off and on through the years but have really gotten into it lately, new granddaughter helped. I took a couple classes recently, loved them! But the store went out of business, bummer. Not before I learned to Fair Isle knit, and do a simple cable.

    I’ve got like 6 project almost finished I really need to finish before starting a new one : ). One of the projects is tube socks (not real sock ha ha) but I like them have one and a fourth made.

    I am just about finished with one slipper sock of which called for a turned heel, go instructions off the internet and it was fairly easy. They are knit on 15 with bulky yarn quick projects I love them.

    My grandmother taught me to crochet a granny square (of course), my friend has taught me some other basic stiches but I’ve not yet embrassed it.

    I learned to sew, knit, and cook via 4-h and then sew and cook in Home Ec. I still think some of our woes ie: lack of homecooking is due to schools cutting home ec :) .

    I can sew, made all my kids (and some friend’s kid) Halloween costumes, loved making them. Especially when my youngest say 4 ish at the time was so into Ghost Buster (he rewatche the video daily) that the wore his costume till he outgrew it and it basically fell apart then he wore his brother’s till he outgrew that : ).

    I have a fairly good stash of fabric some of it from yard sales or “inherited” I decided I need to make tote bags out of the weirder (and sort of ugly) fabic. I’d like to give them to my CSA members for fun. I’ve got to done except for the handles something like 26 more to go, don’t worry I’ve got fabric enough :) . I also need shorts think I’ll make some. I took apart some pant I never finishe and now really don’t fit, I’d like to say they are too big, but we know thats now true so I am going to see if I can save some of the design like the zipper and pockets and add more fabric and make them shorts, wish me luck ha ha.

    Due to the yarn store that went out of business (and fabulous sale) I have enough yarn to last years. My fabric stash could probably cloth most of my close family and friends for years as well :) especially if we dress like my father as a kid in the 20s, one shirt to wear, one to wash. I am glad I know how to craft at least fairly well.

    I’d love to learn to woodwork but it maybe better to learn to fix a garage full of inherited furniture :) . To furnish the basment for those who may have to move in.

    Good post.

    Beth in rainy Massachusetts

  32. Lori Scott says:

    I have come to dislike the use of the term “housewife” in that so often we hear it used in a derogatory sense. When I was a young women in the ’80′s I was so over the super woman with a family, career, gym membership and power dressing.

    Housewifely is a term that we should respect and be proud of.

    And while I’m on about terms, here’s a little aussie difference for you. We never speak of handwork. It is craft or speaking individually of the type of thing you are doing as in knitting, sewing, crocheting…..

    However, the ultimate of these is “fancywork”. This means embroidery of a complex and decorative nature done with silks or cottons and is most often for show. A girl has to do all her mending before she can go on with her fancywork.

    Call it what you like, its all wonderful.

  33. Teartaye says:

    She observed to me that it was necessary that I learn to do something that “stayed done at the end of the day.”

    As much as I love knitting I’ve never thought of it that way!

    I like routines though. I like having to do x, then y, then z… then again tomorrow. And again the day after. And again. Makes me feel comfortable, like I know what my life is. … I’m too young to have hit my millionth sink of dishes though, and maybe that’s why ;)

  34. Pangolin says:

    I recently had to toss some socks. They were fine wool socks but for a hole the size if a nickel in each that I knew could wear an equal sized blister in my feet when I least needed it. Commercial socks are cheap but since I’ve never been able to find wool yarn fine enough to match the original for darning it’s my fate to toss an 85% good sock.

    I’m renewing my aspiration to learn how to knit my own socks so that I can set by yarn for darning later. Mismatched yarns on the wear point of a sock just give you a new place to limp from.

    I’m a guy; good socks matter a LOT to me. Don’t even get me started on the proper care of cast iron pans….. If you have to do a job learn to do it well. Cooking, cleaning, and arranging a house are simply work that needs doing. There is no gender about it.

  35. Margaret says:

    In our household I’m the breadwinner and he is the “housewife” doing almost all the “here today, gone today” work. And now he has a broken wrist and will has been in plaster for a week and is likely to be in plaster for another 4 weeks. So, I am having to take on much of this work. He can (and does) still sweep a floor, feed the birds and even make a loaf of bread but cutting a slice of bread, washing the dishes or doing the shopping (no driving while in plaster, perhaps we will save on petrol that way) is not possible. And I hate it! Food on the table for four of us once a day! How does he do it?

    But I still have time for the fibre arts. My mother quilts and sews, I knit and spin. My 15 year old daughter is sewing! I had the joy of having a new spinner round yesterday and working out where she was going wrong so that she can work on getting it right.

    It seems as though it was a lot of grandmothers who taught us to knit and it either “took” or it didn’t. Why wasn’t it our mothers? In fact my mother didn’t teach me to knit or spin, but she did teach me that it was possible to use my hands and the general atmosphere of how we use our time may be more important than the specifics of what we do. My husband and I studying by distance learning in our 40′s has taught the children that it is never too late to learn and that the next exam is not the most important thing ever, rather than the specifics of the subject we studied.

    Back to the jelly making. (I do enjoy that)


  36. Anonymous says:

    I never got to really know my grandparents and my mother knows nothing of these skill. I guess I’ve always been a little envious of people that know how to sew, knit, darn.. which I don’t even know what that last one is.. Its sad to me that I’ve never had anyone to guide me in that manner and I don’t think its something I could personally learn from a book. I think its also sad that more and more people are forgetting or just not learning these skills that used to be necessary for everyday life. Even things like cooking, gardening, canning, etc… hell, making soap is a rare art. I’d love to learn it all!

  37. Jenn says:

    I really love the idea of having something that stays done at the end of the day. It’s something I appreciate in my personal life, but also in my work life when I think about how much (or how little, possibly) of what I teach stays with my students, and try to find something more constant to hold onto that will, as you suggest, last.

  38. homebrewlibrarian says:

    @Anonymous up two comments or so…

    If you have any interest in medieval or Renaissance history – join the SCA! Practically everything is done by hand and most SCAdians are thrilled to show others what they do. I had messed around with sewing costumes for a few years and then I joined an SCA sewing group and my skills took off! Fiber arts are well represented but, depending on your area, there will be calligraphers, jewelers, armorers, perfumers, woodworkers, shoemakers and more. To find a group near you, check out:

    If that’s not your cup of tea, for fiber arts look locally. If your community has a yarn or quilt shop, they’ll offer classes. Look around for a fiber arts group for other skills such as dyeing, spinning and weaving. If you want to learn some sewing skills, contact your local Cooperative Extension service office (if you live in the US). They work with 4H clubs and will have contacts in the community of people with those skills. Cooperative Extension can be a wealth of information for hussies and hubbies :) on everything from canning to raising rabbits to soil care to non chemical pest control.

    Good luck!

    Kerri in AK

  39. DEE says:

    Well, I taught all my sons to knit,sew,cook,can,garden–and my husband,too. They are all the better for it and all enjoy “handwork” and find time to pursue it. One son is an excellent quiltmaker; another loves woodworking. They all love to cook and their wifes appreciate that the most!!

    Nothing is more satisfying than having your kids ask for your knit mittens “’cause they are warmer,Mom.” Living in the Ozarks where traditional crafts still are done daily helps. DEE

  40. Tina Cipolla says:

    It pained me to read your words about refusing to learn the home crafts from your foremothers because I did the exact same thing, and like you, I deeply regret it. My mother was the one who was always trying to teach me how to knit, sew, crochet and do needlepoint. I flatly refused to learn any of it, because as a child I certainly knew that I would never need such skills. I was going to have a high profile job and someone was going to do all of those home tasks for me. At 41 years, I cringe thinking about how much “smarter” I was when I was a teenager. The only thing that brings me some comfort however, is that I did learn to cook, garden and do laundry properly from my mother. And the problem of rejecting what our mothers try to teach us seems endemic. My own mother confessed to me that she flatly refused to learn how to clean (eviscerate) live chickens from her mother because she said “it was so gross and I knew I’d always buy my chickens from the grocery store.” Now, I’m the one that is going around my community trying to bargain with the local poultry farmers to teach me how to do this very task that my mother was sure we’d never need! See how things just come full circle!

  41. Chile says:

    Something that stays done – what great concept! I do get tired of my hard work being undone so quickly each day. However, I’ve not taken to fibre arts for a couple of reasons: I’m allergic to wool and I’m uncoordinated and learn handcrafts slowly. However, let me share my thinking. While it’s wonderful to know how to do everything, community is also a good thing. I’m hoping I’ll be able to trade some of my unique canned goods with someone who hates cooking or canning for some custom-made cotton knitted socks.

    On the other hand, if we ever do get moved and my mother-in-law goes with us, I have asked her to teach me knitting and crocheting. For me to learn, I will need her at my side for guidance, reminders, and corrections for days on end until I pick up the rhythm. I’ve tried sessions with others but get totally messed up when I go home and try to do it on my own. Sad, really, considering how easily I pick up so many other things.

    In the meantime, does anyone want dog fur to spin? My new dog’s a shedder!

  42. Laney says:

    An older friend of mine used to refer to housework as “stringing pearls on a string with no knot.”

    I just returned home from a trip to my mother’s, but forgot to take my handwork, a necessity at her house. I had to go buy a cheap set of knitting needles to survive the visit. I couldn’t borrow from her: I was the rebel of the family who refused to learn to crochet and signed up for knitting lessons. Perhaps the best part of my little project (a washcloth) was that my 12-year-old daughter picked up the needles and a skein of yarn and knitted a second one on our drive home — with no mistakes!


  43. Kate-B says:

    I very much agree with what stays done at the end of the day, and when one’s skill turns into true craft it stays done at the end of a generation, a lifetime and beyond.

    My grandmother, like so many others, used to do hand quilting. She did this in parties when it was fashionable and, later, beside her family. Not only did she chose designs and patterns with folk meaning such as marriage knots, but also recycled old clothing. Now, long years beyond her passing, her grand and great-grand-children look over the lovingly stitched shapes of our blankets and sometimes compare the fabric with old photo albums.

    “This piece is from her favorite dress when I was about 10…” or “Remember those floral print bell bottom pants she made you back in the 70′s?”

    The children laugh, but they think it’s pretty cool also.

    As I wrap myself and my loved ones in these blankets, I can feel her arms around us still and recall the laughter, the tears and the patient hours she imbued them with.

  44. Kati says:

    What a beautiful article, Sharon!!! I’d never even thought about the fact that my crocheting is something that I CAN show some accomplishment of, unlike my day to day “chores” and wage-earning-job. At the library, it’s a running joke about our job security because there are always books coming in, and books going out, and more books coming in, books to be shelved and reshelved. But, it IS somewhat soul-sapping on occasion, because no matter how hard one might try, we can never TRULY get caught up. But, to sit down with yet another afghan or grocery-bag-in-progress or baby-hat….. Those are jobs that I can hold up and say “look, I’m FINISHED! I can move onto something ELSE, now!”

    My feeling behind my crochet has always been that it ties me back to my ancestresses, my mom crochets, my grandmother Staley crocheted (made each of her grandchildren, and great-grands ending with my daughter, an afghan before her death)….. I know the history of crochet doesn’t go terribly far back, but for as long as there have been women, we have been some-how or another involved in the making of blankets, clothing, bags and such for our households. To be yet another woman in that very long line of handy-women, makes me proud. It’s like a figurative umbilical chord, that stretches back from generation to generation to the time before history was recorded.

    Thanks for giving me yet another reason to be proud of my crochet (and the minimal knitting and sewing) that I do! (Now, as much as I’d love to take up whittling and carving, pretty danged sure the hubby would appreciate wood shavings on the floor of the house even less than he appreciates my half-completed crochet projects all over the house. *wink*)

  45. Sharon says:

    Remember, Chile and others, handwork is not all fiber arts. No need to learn to knit if you live in a hot climate, say, although if you wear socks, I do think it worth it, since they are the one kind of clothing that people will miss a lot. But having something you can do in company, with little light is a good thing – doesn’t matter what it is.


  46. Laurie in MN says:

    Sharon, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put so beautifully — “something that stays done”. :)

    In my professional life, I’m a custom seamstress and alterationist, so my professional work *does* in fact, stay done. I just never really get to see it, except maybe in pictures. I’ve never really been able to articulate just what it is that makes me crazy about most housework (the cleaning parts) and the secretarial work that I used to do, and you (and your grandma) hit the nail squarely on the head — it just doesn’t stay done. The letters to type may be to different people about different things, but the IN box is always full. (I guess they call that “job security”. *snort!*) The floors and the laundry don’t stay clean, and when I’ve worked through this mound in front of me, I turn around and there is another one behind me. And *we* don’t have kids! =:O

    Something that *stays* done, though…. That is going to be my new reason when people ask why I make clothes or why I’m bothering to knit a sweater (my very first! I’m so excited!). Thank you so much for these words.

  47. Laurie in MN says:

    to those of you who can’t/don’t want to do fiber type handwork, I’ll gladly trade mine for home canned stuff. Seriously. I’m sure we can work something out.

  48. Juliana says:

    My grandmother was a seamstress, and she desperately wanted me to learn to sew and knit. Influenced by my mother (who believed such work to be drudgery), I resisted my grandmother’s attempts. I was born in 1972, and none of my friends were interested in such things. We were going to be career women who would hire people to do domestic tasks for us. I’m now 37 and trying to teach myself to sew and knit. My grandmother passed away 3 years ago. I wish I had that time back with her.

  49. Joaquin Gash says:

    Un blog muy interesante, me ha gustado mucho. Agur

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