I was indulging in my favourite pastime of the season, which is to moan about the short, dark days, when A. modified my melancholy. ‘The darkness gives you more time to be creative,’ she suggested, ‘for example, I’m feeling a jumper coming on.’ A. is a knitter. ‘New pattern or new wool?’ I asked. Maybe both, was what she told me. I thought about M. who, at 17 weeks old, has the finest collection of hand knitted jumpers belonging to anyone I know. He wears them with the solemn grace of one who appears to have been born expecting no less than bespoke apparel. They are undeniably gorgeous on him, yet there was a time, as a child, when I hated the sight of a hand-knitted gansey and having to wear one came with a squirm of embarrassment. All I wanted was modernity; to be the same as the next girl, dressed in gaudy polyester from British Home Stores. It was the same with Christmas decorations. Ours were mostly homemade, apart from the fandangle ones that were sent from America every year, the ones that blew us away with their originality. There was Santa waving from a ski-lift and an old-style locomotion with a snow plough up front – we had never seen the like of them in eighties Ireland. They were the height of sophistication compared to the five-pointed star blu-tacked to the top of our tree that was cut from the side of a cornflakes box and covered with tin foil. A tree that was hung with half walnut shells that we sprayed with gold paint, trimmed with glitter and inset with tiny seasonal pictures retrieved from behind the doors of last year’s advent calendar. I didn’t want homemade cake on my birthday either. Forget about it. I wanted something mass produced, preferably with royal icing in an unnatural shade of neon pink or emergency yellow. In fact, specifically, I wanted Mr. Kipling’s French Fancies, not another homemade butterfly bun. The last thing I wanted was something straight out of the oven, I wanted e-numbers.
So, when did it all change? Is it a function of age, is it thrift, is it the movement towards sustainability, or have we become craftier? Nowadays, there is almost a not-too subtle pressure to make it yourself. Take the case of over-stretched working mums who sneak to the supermarket to buy their charity bake sale items, smuggle them home, stealthily remove all packaging and render them ‘artisan’ with a sift of icing sugar and a re-brand with brown paper bag and string. I know someone who wanted to bring a cake to a wake (yes, a wake) but hadn’t the time to make it herself so in she went to her local bakery and asked for something that could ‘pass for homemade’. The server looked her up and down, as if able to assess baking ability from a long look, then reviewed the counter of goods and suggested half a dozen Rice Krispie buns. Ouch.
Things that start off small, footering away of a dark evening, can lead to unexpected greatness. 575 Wandsworth Road is one of the National Trust’s most unique properties. From the outside it looks like a deceptively ordinary two-up-two-down in another London suburb, which indeed it was when a civil servant named Khadambi Asalache bought it in 1981. In a poor state of repair, he proceeded, slowly and steadily in his spare time, to decorate it with intricate fretwork — lattice carvings, filigree designs, intertwined patterns, replicas of animals and people, all of which he cut by hand from discarded pine doors and wooden boxes. Over the years, this work grew to cover the walls, the ceilings, the doors, and he even painted designs onto the floorboards. He made cabinets and shelves, tables and frames, archways and fire surrounds all in the same style – it is like a miniature domestic cathedral to his craftsmanship and dedication. I’ve not been to see it in person, but I have taken an online virtual tour and it is incredible.
We might not all be Asalache, but we all have a crafty side and I seem to be surrounded by makers these days. There’s no doubt that time is a major factor in going homemade, but if you can find the time, what you make–even if it’s imperfect–will be special. A homemade gift can tether you to a place and a time and a person in a way that other gifts, precious as they are, can’t manage. J. tells me she is spending today painting plates and bowls for her family for Christmas. A. is a one-woman Christmas card factory at weekends. G. has made so many jars of mincemeat that when you stack them high, they reach the moon. K.’s stitching of velveteen rabbits, dresses and bodices would put the shoemaker’s midnight elves to shame. L.’s bobble hats are so popular they are on order from across the Irish Sea. H. has weaved her way onto a stall at a craft fair this weekend with her yarns. Yes, they all take time, but, as my knitting friend A. reminded me, these short days and long nights are the perfect time to be industrious. The extent of my craft comes from carving words from a blank page scarf, I wonder does that count?
The Craftsman, by Marcus B. Christian
I ply with all the cunning of my art
This little thing, and with consummate care
I fashion it—so that when I depart,
Those who come after me shall find it fair
And beautiful. It must be free of flaws—
Pointing no labourings of weary hands;
And there must be no flouting of the laws
Of beauty—as the artist understands.
Through passion, yearnings infinite—yet dumb—
I lift you from the depths of my own mind
And gild you with my soul’s white heat to plumb
The souls of future men. I leave behind
This thing that in return this solace gives:
“He who creates true beauty ever lives.”