Craft skills have always been an important part of my heritage. Both sides of my family have practiced crafts, and many relatives have made their livings that way. I have aunts who were florists and seamstresses, and my father is a mechanical engineer by trade. As an apprentice he had to make his own tools from scratch, and they are beautiful things: smooth curves of burnished metal.
My mother was always making something while I was growing up, and she made most of my clothes when I was very small. The hems were always let down as I grew until finally a strip of wide lace would be sewn onto the hem to eke a last bit of usable life out of a dress or skirt. She taught me to knit when I was seven years old. She still has the first thing I made somewhere. It’s a Tom Baker Doctor Who scarf. It starts off with a wobbly edge, gets narrower as my tension has the death-like grip of a new learner, before loosening drastically. The stitch count varies wildly as I inadvertently create and lose stitches, and it’s full of random holes. But my skills grow along with its length and it settles into something recognisable as a scarf. My mother also taught me basic dressmaking skills on her ancient Singer. The first thing I made was a skirt. Two rectangles seamed down the sides and gathered into a simple elasticated waistband (exactly the method I used to make the skirt for my Nyssa costume last summer). With such a basic machine (it only did straight stitch) I also had to learn a lot of basic hand sewing skills: neatening raw edges, invisible hemming, setting in zips by hand and making button loops.
Craft skills are something that it is difficult to learn from a book. They are handed down teacher to learner, often within families, or between friends. Famously, there is one style of embroidery – Mountmellick – that nearly died out. It went out of fashion and the knowledge of how to do it wasn’t passed on. Eventually, the only person who knew how to do it was a former nun living in a nursing home in Ireland. The style only survives because someone took the time to sit with her and learn it, before passing that on to other embroiderers.
Yesterday, as part of a series of wellbeing themed events at work, I had the opportunity to do my own part in passing on craft skills to others by teaching some colleagues to knit. My excuse was the wide range of evidence out there showing the beneficial effects of any type of crafting on stress levels, mental health and, in the longer term, staving off mental decline. But mostly I just wanted to share the joy of creating.
I assembled some needles and small balls of leftover yarn, and pulled together a small display of finished items, yarn and pattern books and magazines. Over an hour and a half, and with the help of a fellow knitter, we taught people to cast on and knit. For the whole of that time there was intense concentration in the room and not a word was spoken about work. There was that wonderful buzz that comes from creativity and learning and accomplishing something new.