Random Thoughts: On the womanly arts. By Jean Bedford
Since tribal days, and probably before, women have been the instigators of, and largely predominant in, several arts – usually demoted to ‘crafts’ in our patriarchal world. (How did men get the ‘martial arts’?) Primarily these womanly arts are gardening, cooking, fabric making (knitting, sewing, crochet, weaving) and pottery making . All originally to do with providing the basics of existence. Child-rearing is a completely different kettle of fish and I’m not going there. This time.
I’m an obsessive gardener, though these days I mostly grow flowers rather than things to eat, which would have been the purpose of most gardening in earlier times. But aesthetics and sensual pleasure, as in growing things because they look or smell nice, must surely be important by-products of this – I bet it was a woman who first transplanted a flowering vine to the doorway just because it looked nice. My gardening is haphazard – I’m not a landscape designer – and I’m constantly changing things around and making mistakes. I start with a grand plan, then the plants do their own thing and often defeat me. But the result (if there is ever a result with gardening) is usually pleasing, after a lot of trial and error.
As for cooking: I’m a good plain cook – I do a mean curry, succulent roasts (with crisp potatoes, though I cheat, parboiling them and then deep frying), tasty soups and my stroganoff and omelettes are not to be sneezed at, either. My grandsons love my bacon butties and my gravy, and my dear departed friend Geoffrey used to drool over my osso bucco. I can do pasta. I don’t very often venture into Thai or Chinese cuisine as I haven’t got the patience, or the touch. My fried rice is pretty good, though. But I’m not a gourmet cook like some of my friends and I don’t experiment much. I take short cuts – herbs (the ones I don’t grow) and spices from jars, rather than ground in my own mortar and pestle; already minced garlic and ginger, also in jars. And my presentation’s not great – I don’t have the eye. Basically it’s: ‘There it is. Bog in.’ Interesting that cooking is one of the womanly arts that men have come to publicly dominate.
I’ve never tried weaving, though my youngest daughter, doing our genealogy, found that my father’s forebears were weavers. It doesn’t appeal, sitting at a loom and manipulating the warp and the weft.
I’ve tried casting pots, on a friend’s wheel, and the results are best left undescribed. ‘Some people just don’t have the knack,’ she said kindly as we threw my cracked and misshapen lumps into the bin.
I can sew, in a rudimentary fashion. That is, I can cut out a pattern and use a sewing machine; I can replace a button and mend a hem. I have made clothes (you had to, if you were a working-class country girl in the 1950s) but my seams were never straight (or finished) and my darts – remember the days when we had darts? – weren’t level. Fortunately my oldest daughter is a skilled seamstress, so she’s the go-to person for tailor-made in our family.
I do knit and crochet, however. But again, impatience and the desire for immediate gratification mean that I’m a fairly basic practitioner.
I suppose we learnt knitting at our mothers’ knees. I remember my first completed item when I was about six – a rug for our cats to sit on. Gnarled and knotted, with many dropped stitches, it lay on the couch for some weeks and the cats disdainfully ignored it. Avoided it, in fact.
I never use less than 8-ply wool – I like to see the item visibly grow in front of me. When we were teenagers we used to knit ourselves sloppy joes in 8-ply and that’s about my level. (If you didn’t have knitting on your lap when you were watching the boys play footy, you weren’t a real girl.) I knitted a few garments for my daughters when they were little, and when some of my younger friends, and then my daughters, started having children my interest was reawakened. Baby clothes and stuffed toys are easy – hardly take any time at all. But also boring. So I investigated intarsia knitting and found that held my interest. I knitted elephants, mice, stars, rockets, lions, Thomas the Tank Engine and panoramas of dinosaurs for various grandsons. I knitted their names into traditional Christmas stockings that also included Santas, reindeer, holly, snowmen and Christmas trees. I’m about to start my ninth, and I hope last, stocking for my granddaughter, who will be old enough to sort of understand Christmas by this next one.
By the time the kids were five or six I dropped out of knitting clothes for them. The garments were getting too big and took too long. I have friends who are proper knitters, use smaller plys, work elaborate patterns and make larger garments. I have knitted jumpers for adults in living memory, but always in 8 or 12-ply, stocking stitch only. I did knit Peter a beanie in Essendon colours, which he wears on very cold days.
I really like crocheting, but again my lack of patience and attention to detail mean I only do granny squares, though I have done several quite complicated variations of them. I have tried crocheting in the round – starting with a long chain – but after two or three rows it’s pretty much in the cat-blanket category.
I’ve just crocheted a dress (in squares) for the granddaughter, who frustratingly grew (outwards!) faster than I could work. So I’ve had to pick it apart and add gussets down both sides. If it doesn’t fit her now, I’ve told her mother, it’s going to the refugees.
The big drawback of crocheting, as with intarsia, is the sewing in of the many loose ends. Some people do it as they go along. I couldn’t do that – it would delay the satisfying piling up of the squares in front of me. So I leave it all to last and then groan and curse for hours and end up with a tongue coated in tiny fibres from licking the wool to get it through the needle. Our middle daughter recently gave me a light-bulb moment when she said, ‘You could do the squares all one colour. Then there’d only be two ends to sew in per square.’ It had never occurred to me. But of course one-colour squares aren’t as pretty …
I see that what I’ve really written here is about patience and finesse, or my lack of them. The above activities do force at least a modicum of these qualities upon you – a bulb simply will not grow until it will, stare at it as you may; a misread graph in intaglio will throw the whole picture out, and an omitted double or triple crochet in the ring will result in a rhomboid, not a square – and that must be good for me. But I couldn’t call myself an artist. I’m competent enough to provide useful and ornamental objects in the world that weren’t here before, and that will have to do. Also, a recent study showed that knitting, gardening and crochet were all high on the list of anti-Alzheimer’s activities, so that’s a plus.