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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Timeless stitching..

I had a real soft-spot for my Grandmother, one that ran deep. As an art student in my early twenties I would catch the bus about once a month to spend the weekend with her in County Limerick. A traditional hot meal always lay ready for me and an old-fashioned nightie lay neatly folded on the spare bed.

She would sit by the range knitting, two needles clicking away in the still evening as we caught up. It helped keep arthritis from crippling the hands she'd heard, and she repeated this to me somewhat hopefully! I'd join her later with my crochet. I had the basic stitches then and I went through a stage of making cushion covers for friends and family, made of the granny square stitch. I knew nothing of wool then, of the value of natural fibres and the amazing qualities of pure wool. I doubt I ever gave a second thought to the origins of the yarns I used. I simply sought the very cheapest and the very brightest. Acrylic, inevitably! Nana seemed to find both the garish colour combinations and the openwork of the crochet itself somewhat exotic, relative to her stoic, undyed wool and solid aran stitching. This amused me as, for me she was a master of her craft and despite those neon colours, mine paled in comparison!

When the making of aran jumpers had become too heavy and involved for her as she aged, she moved to knitting panels. Strips of cablework that would then be attached to the sleeves and collars of jumpers machine-knit by another woman. For this, she was paid a meagre fee and the assembled jumpers were then labelled 'handcrafted' and sold, mostly to tourists. She was glad of the ongoing arrangement I think, the work helped her keep active, the bit of pocket money handy in whatever small way.

By the Sunday afternoon of my stay, loathe as I was to return to my cold, grubby flat in the city, she would always send me on my way with a batch of freshly baked scones wrapped in wax paper to share with my flatmates. Welcome indeed on a Sunday night!

Looking back, I envy those quiet amiable evenings sitting together by the range, the turf burning warm, when she'd often ask me to sing a song for her as we stitched away. I'm not sure if I fully appreciated then the richness of those times but I cherish the thought of it now.

 she is knitting away here as her great-granddaughter plays around her

Years passed, other creative pursuits took over and in the meantime I'd all but forgotten how to use the humble hook! Until recently, through my involvement in my son's school craft group, I became interested in crochet again and realised I still love it somehow, but yearn to find life beyond the granny square. I never managed to progress past the bare basics and the very idea of being able to follow a pattern seemed way beyond me. So, how to move beyond these frustratingly limited skills I know I share with many..?

Enter Liz, our dear friend and Crochet Queen...check out her beautiful shop here . This girl can dream up her designs as she goes! And I realise, every beginner needs a mentor, no? And I was thrilled at the opportunity to become involved with these Woolly Gatherings.

Hence, here are my very humble beginnings. As a refresher, the first thing I made was this hook roll. It was novel to make something that is everyday useful. This is the first pattern I ever managed to follow through to the end, and while its not perfect, hey, it worked out! This pure wool yarn is really vibrant but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to beginners as it varies a lot in thickness as you go.

At the first of our Woolly Gatherings Liz bravely started us off with a simple pattern for wrist warmers. One pair made in an evening and decorated the next. Deep Satisfaction!

I cannot explain how I have become besotted with such things of late, as buttons, ribbons, embroidery hoops (what..?!) and of course yarn, glorious yarn. Like a child in a sweet shop, even our modest local haberdashery can have me all in a sweat. All number of possibilities, but I settled on ribbon, buttons and embroidery and really had fun with that part on my second go:

These days, I'm interested in where the wool comes from and I try, where possible to buy Irish, or at least Celtic! Here's the lovely Donegal Aran Tweed. Really affordable and very hard wearing. From my favourite local wool shop.

And, for old times sake...? Ye old granny square. And who knows, maybe another cushion cover in the making.. but this time in pure cotton that I got here, a pure pleasure to work in. I worked with a size 3.5 hook. I'd really recommend this particular yarn to beginners, as your stitches will be clearly visible without any of the fuzziness of wool, it makes any mistakes easy to see and ripping back is a breeze. .

If you can get over the name of the website! I found this a really fun inspiration ; )

Then, Valentines was in the air and Liz helped us find our way through this surprisingly tricky heart pattern:

At home I tried out some simple flowers,

but at our last (for now)gathering Liz presented us with what must surely be the mother of all flower patterns, and voila! The petals seemed to unfurl before our very eyes as we stitched...

And I remember, that in contrast to the need for solitude while working on a painting, which is my background, I do love sittin round a table with a bunch of women, stitching, helping each other out and sharing patterns. Thank you Liz!

As a result of these sessions, I'm in the process of beginning my first ambitious project, a cotton waistcoat for meself. Yikes! One thing I've discovered through bitter experience is that the tension swatch is essential, though I really want to dodge this part of the pattern. I'll write again to let you know how it works out. I'll actually feel like I've arrived somewhere when I can make my own clothes.

Joining the local steiner school community has raised my awareness of the importance of wearing natural, breathable fibres and the insulating layer provided by wool, particularly in our climate. I got to thinking about the aran jumpers that I wore at different ages, and perusing old photo albums, I was really struck by the presence of these handknits, down through the generations and differing social contexts. Like here's my mother at home in Kerry in the sixties, with her brother and sister, going to the well for water

And here she is wearing an Aran at work, in New York where she'd emigrated and gotten a job in a bank..


Here's me at three years old wearing one of the many made by my grandmother. (over a dress that a dear friend had crocheted for me!)

And years later, this Aran Cardigan also made by my Grandmother, which proved a worthy ally day and night against the cold and wind, in my cycling and caravan years in Dingle. These jumpers truly stand the test of time.

And so... work in progress, a connection to my past rekindled, to the historical context of traditional handcrafts in Ireland and to that dear old lady working peacefully by the fire.

 Mia Foley


  1. Love the way you write about your grandmother and you write so beautifully. I want more..and an aran jumper!

  2. This is a wonderful blog!!!!
    So lovely to hear of your grandmother- this is how are hands are meant to work. Thank you kindly for the lovely mentions of myself.
    You have a beautiful touch with all you create and your crochet is no different.

    I so enjoyed the crochet classes and will write soon on my own perspective of the classes. Looking forward now to knitting with Sara.
    Write again soon Mia, wont you?
    xx E

  3. Wow, what a lovely read! I love the old pictures....especially you at 3....I would think that was a recent picture of Luka! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and memories. Wonderfully written....I look forward to reading more.

  4. What beautiful crochet and knitting. It is such a pleasure to visit your blog! Lovely seeing all the inspiration here.

    Best wishes,

  5. Marie - what a beautifully visual descriptive stories of your lovely times with your gran, lovely to connect in to your world again my friend - I see you still love turquoise. Lots of love from me, Dan, Oisin (14!) and Ayesha (8). Genevieve xxxx