Last week, post swimming, I designed a new cross stitch pattern as – inevitably – one of us forgets something important. Jill is notorious for forgetting her pants, Sue and I both turned up without a towel one (fortunately hot) day, all of us have had to borrow a tow float or buy a new hat. A checklist was needed, so I had a bit of fun with the graph paper and pencils. I’ll share a picture here when I have stitched it up, but the point of this story is that when I’d finished the design I headed to my shed to find the materials for making.
I love my shed. It came from Freecycle, and it only had three sides and no floor so it’s tucked up against my beloved’s shed. It doesn’t have electricity or really enough space to work in, but it’s my shed and it fills me with joy. It’s the home of my frivolous shelves, which you can see in the cover photo this week and in more detail below. Jars of seaglass and buttons, pretty crockery from charity shops, my beautiful hares from AP Ceramics, ladybird rocks, things that remind me of holidays in Aberaeron, and my crocheted bunting.
As the top of the garden is a bank, I had to dig out the hole for it myself – 10′ x 6′, and nearly 3′ deep at the back. Then we laid broken paving slabs, tarpaulin and plastic pallets, gave it a new plywood floor and I painted the inside white and the outside with wood protector. I added a laminate floor made of offcuts from our kitchen and from Freecycle again, and for my birthday a year later my beloved bought me some decking and a trellis so I could sit outside the shed and make things in the garden. It has a solar panel so I can power LED lights, and plug my phone in when I am pottering about up there.
My moongazing hare lives on the deck and only occasionally gets used as a doorstop. I have some Black-eyed Susans on the trellis, and a tiny fairy door. Next to the shed is where I attempt to grow hydrangeas, hollyhocks and the sad plants I bring home from the garden centre on my rather grandly named ‘terraces’ that we created with tree trunks and the earth from the shed dig.
In the shed – and this is really the point of the story, I promise – are all my craft materials and with them the history of how I ended up doing all the things I do.
As a child, I dabbled. My mum tried to teach me to knit during the Odpins craze in the 1980s – Odpins was knitting using one big needle and one small, which meant garments worked up quickly. Not quickly enough, of course, as she ended up finishing the garment for me. (A batwing cardigan, as I remember). Someone gave me a printed tapestry kit of a squirrel for Christmas one year, and I remember loving that, and even attempting a very ambitious design when I was at university that I carted around for years but never finished. That was in the days before I discovered the joy of graph paper and stranded thread. I am glad I never finished it, it was supposed to be a present for my mum and I suspect it would have been so awful it would have ended up in the craft equivalent of the freezer where my school cookery attempts went to die.
I think I had something like this kit as a child as well – I remember making the purse and the scissor keeper. I found this in the handling collection this week, and it triggered early crafting memories!
So how did I end up with a shed full of craft materials after all those early disasters?
Well, counted cross stitch turned out to be my gateway craft. Way back in 1995 I was looking for a Valentine card for my then boyfriend and couldn’t find one I liked. In the paper shop where I was looking I saw a cross stitch magazine with a pretty pattern for a card on the cover, so I thought I’d have a go. The result wasn’t perfect (much like the boyfriend, in fact) but I loved the process. I was working on the card in the pub where I worked part time, and a customer said his wife did the same thing, and offered to pass me the pattern she was using when she finished with it. It was a Dimensions kit of nine cats in a garden, and again it wasn’t perfect but I really enjoyed making it. I still have the framed picture in the attic – my cats are distinctly cross-eyed and wonky in places, and I’m not sure I used the right colours as I was matching from scraps, but I was so proud of myself.
I like smaller cross-stitches as you can do them on the tube on the way to work – for a few years I was working in Chelsea and living in Epping so I had a long commute! All my Christmas cards for a few years were done on the Central line, in fact, as were many Flower Fairies. I like giant cross stitches too, but there’s only so many you can put on a wall.
In the shed the other day I found my file of finished cross stitch pieces, and I am determined to start using them so they see the light of day. One – a Margaret Sherry cat – has been turned into a birthday card this week. I have a box of kits to work through, too, and that might have to be my 2021 resolution as I am really enjoying cross stitch again at the moment.
Next up was knitting, which I never really mastered as I can’t get the tension right and don’t enjoy enough to persevere with. While I was expecting Thing One I experienced some very odd cravings: Walkers salt and vinegar crisps, Bruce Willis films, and the urge to knit. The last one can probably be put down to a nesting instinct but the less said about Bruce Willis the better. I even watched Hudson Hawk.
Anyway, I bought a book (of course!) and taught myself to knit. Very badly – I created a wonky small blanket, a cardigan where one sleeve was twice the size of the other, a bag I have never used and eventually settled on making phone socks which you really can’t go wrong with. I don’t knit any more but that was really the start of my love affair with self-striping sock yarn.
I also tried patchwork after Thing One was born, after a crafty friend and I picked up mini-quilt kits at a stitch show. I finally finished that tiny kit in lockdown this year, along with a much larger Attic Window quilt I started at the same time. There’s nothing like an ambitious beginner!
I stopped knitting but carried on with the cross stitching, and tried my hand at simple embroidery. After Thing Two was born I used a bag with an aida (cross stitching fabric) panel to stitch a design of a pair of penguins. Bag charms were quite a thing at the time, so I found myself in the Ebay rabbit hole and discovered beads and findings. One penguin bag charm turned into making jewellery which I still do for school Christmas fairs and gifts, and several boxes full of shiny things. Things One and Two have enjoyed making ‘goth’ jewellery this summer, with ribbon chokers and charms. One of the things I like about making jewellery is that you can combine it with other crafts – I have made crocheted earrings with granny squares and Christmas trees, cross-stitched pendants, origami leaf jewellery, and tiny polymer clay charms.
My mum gave me her sewing machine many years ago, which I never got to grips with, and then after Thing One was born my mother in law gave me her 1960s Husqvarna Viking, which terrified me. We didn’t do much textiles back in school – I have written before about my creative education – and I made a stripy apron back in the one 10 week block we did in first year comp and then nothing else. I used it to back a cross-stitched afghan for Thing One’s first Christmas (that makes it sound a lot easier than it actually was as I has no idea what I was doing!) and then put it away in a cupboard where it lurked until after my MIL died and we moved to North Weald. I became determined to learn how to use it, and started dressmaking. There were a few disasters there, but a friend of mine was learning at the same time so we formed a mini support group. Crafty friends can’t be underestimated: company at the craft shows, someone to share triumphs and disasters with, sources of advice, ideas sharers and crafternoon bee buddies. I have some excellent ones, online and off!
And then one morning I woke up with an overwhelming urge to learn to crochet. My mum and my late MIL (who was an avid crocheter of cat blankets for an elderly cat rescue charity) had both attempted to teach me in the past and I had never got past a wonky chain. I had both yarn and hook, and with the aid of Bella Coco, a couple of handy books and a lot of swearing I taught myself to make a granny square. Crochet quickly became my go-to commute craft, and one unexpected side effect of this has been the number of lovely conversations I have had with people of all ages.
Anyone in London knows that talking to people on the tube is not done but – as we used to find with historic interpretation – anyone doing a ‘domestic’ activity becomes approachable. Sometimes crochet feels like performance art!
My favourite moments have included the two ladies who were watching me put an amigurumi unicorn together and spontaneously applauded when they worked out what it was, and the elderly gentleman who struck up a conversation about what I was making and ended up telling me about his mother’s ‘bottom drawer’ crocheted and embroidered table linen which was always kept ‘for best’. As we got off the tube he thanked me for bringing back happy memories of his mother who had died many years ago. Just this week I was finishing off a square for the Zoom blanket as I was waiting for the bus, and a woman stopped to watch, confiding that during lockdown she’d started embroidery again after not doing anything for 30 years. Craft breaks the ice and makes the world a community. It also makes the inevitable hanging around in tunnels much more bearable.
In 2019 I ran a 10-week after school craft club at my favourite primary school in Bethnal Green – eight children, and we made pompoms, paper plate wreaths, and miles of crochet chain. The real joy of that for me was not the craft, but the conversations that the children and I would have while we sat in the classroom. As we crafted they’d tell me about their day and the things that mattered to them, and going to the school became a highlight of my week: reminding me why we were making a new museum about creativity, and how happy the act of making can make us.
All the materials for my crafts live in my shed, and when I feel the need for inspiration I potter up there and see what makes my heart sing that day; whether that’s a ball of sock yarn, some lovely material or a cross stitch kit. I also have a library of books to fall back on – sometimes just flicking through a book can spark ideas, and the pages of beautiful projects never fail to make me happy. I love a charity shop mooch to find new books, and the Etsy, Pinterest and Ravelry rabbit holes have stolen hours of my life. I don’t mind at all…
So this week I have been working on the Hydrangea crochet blanket, another post-swim robe for someone up at the lake (who described it as like being wrapped in a hug when she put it on this morning), and the Marble Floor crochet. And ALL of them have made me happy.
So there you have it: how I ended up with a shed, a lifelong addiction to craft shops and a whole set of post-apocalyptic life skills.
Let’s see what week 33 brings…apart from Lockdown part two. Stay safe!
What I’ve been reading:
Alexandria/Nemesis (Falco series) – Lindsey Davis (Audible)
The Blood Card/The Vanishing Box (The Brighton Mysteries) – Elly Griffiths