The Downside of Handmade for the Holidays

Each and every Needleworkers is possessed of demons though our aspirations are pure. We are Wiccans by nature no matter our denominations. We begin with Hope that our gifts will make the shadows recede just a tinge.

But never doubt that the Needleworker in the post office or on the church pew beside you is a Zombie; an innocent in the grips of an impenetrable delusion.

Needleworkers are a tortured lot.  Don’t be deceived when you come across one in the post office and s/he answers your question, “How’s it going?” with a sublime smile and glazed eyes.  Do not be taken in when the worst of us clasp our hands to our breasts  before launching into descriptions of our latest projects or newfangled yarns.

Each and every one of us is possessed of demons though our aspirations are pure. We begin with hope that our gifts will make the shadows recede just a tinge. We are Wiccans by nature no matter our denominations.

But never doubt that the Needleworker in the post office or on the church pew beside you is a Zombie;  an innocent in the grips of an undeniable compulsion.

Like any Creator – Poet, Painter,  Inventor, Metalworker or Potter  —  a Needleworker begins at the vortex of two competing and unforgiving forces: (1)  materials that call like Sirens through all fogs and  (2) an incessant, prickling Idea.  Walk through a potter’s shed.  Its shelves lined and splotched with jugs of slip and watery clay will  leave you in a state of hunger.  Hestia’s command to  “make something of use”  will thrum in your belly and a dream of beauty will whistle through your bones.  There is no escape.

A yarn stash is no different.  The play of colors and textures – fugues whispering in baskets in every room of the house.  Left-behind yarns.  Bits and pieces.  Loose ends.  Enough for a singleton sock or glove, a quarter-afghan or half a hat.

A few Needleworkers — inspired by the likes of Opie’s Aunt Bee or just loopy by nature – begin organizing for the next holiday season, birthday or Ground Hog Day  months before time.

But most of us – those who also huddle miserably on April 14th with our taxes —   surrender to the agony of making  holiday presents when the clocks are turned back in November.   “Holy shit,”  we say, models of holiday joy staring into the early night, “it’s upon me.”

Thus begins the frantic search for yarns to satisfy a yammering Idea or, as the days expire, an Inspiration to match the stash.  Throughout Thomas Kincaid’s Holidayland,  the piping tunes of happy elves drift from lemony windows and over marshmallow snow:

“Oh why oh why didn’t I wind this mess into balls?”

“Where the hell is that three foot piece of lime green!  I know I saved it for accent…”

“How could I have thought that ball was big enough for two freaking socks?”

“What if I made  four two-foot scarves and sewed them together in a kind of mosaic…?”

“Can I really knit a patchwork blanket in 33 days…?”

And on it goes, the mad scrabbling through baskets, pulling at ends that have wound and bound themselves like nettles.

To drink coffee at this stage is to explode into a billion pieces.

If you’re lucky, when all the skeins, threads and scraps have been arranged by texture, color or gauge, Inspiration will begin to surface.

You will  be impelled toward the brink of either Grace or Fire and the same inexorable Spring of Hope and Curiosity that doomed Pandora (and  most domestic cats)  will burn in you.  It’s heady.  It’s crack.  It’s the call of Eos, the eternal dawn.

At this point, I usually switch gears.  I go all Zen and surrender myself to the yarn.  I will eschew  preconceptions and  expectations,  I will  let the yarn speak; feel it flow through me. I will let it become  its true nature.  I will be a conduit for the Cosmos.  I will…

None of the effing gauges match.  I don’t have five  double-pointed size “1” needles.  I do have 3 size “0s” and two size “1s”  but I’ve tried that before and none of the fingers fit a human hand.

Ah hah!  Circular needles!  Two gloves at a time on circulars!  I know I’ve got that pattern somewhere and circulars galore….

Had Dante known about circular needles, he would have created a separate hell for their inventor.  A knitter can make anything on circular needles.  Refrigerator covers, snowmobile boots, and probably trees if you can get the threads of DNA to work just right.  The nightmare is in the limitless variety of circulars because each project requires just the right length and gauge:   42” for afghan panels and 6” for socks; and gauges from 14 mm for bulky sweaters to 0 mm for infant wear.  Obviously, since this is the Dark Edge of Creation,  we  – the Children of Ancient Handmaidens, Nurses and Conjurers  – will never have the elusive Ideal in stock.  As Ahab  or unsated Tantalus should have known,  if we are to survive the Giving Season, we must accept the limitations of our Hell and adapt.

So this year,  beloveds,  you are getting ornaments for your trees and multi-colored mittens.  Each will be a unique blend of textures and hues.

Whether or not they look or even fit right is hardly the point. Remember the year you got a dog sweater and the sleeves forced the poor animal’s legs up and out like the wings on a biplane? Remember the pooch’s worried frown and the hysterical laughter that sent tears flowing down our cheeks?  Of course you do.


Grandparents, The Old Arts and New Ways

Wherever they  lived,  Grandma Marje and Grandpa Amos cultivated the land.  Their organic vegetables, chickens and eggs  sustained their family and neighborhood through the Great Depression. In the 1950s, they came to live with my parents, brother, sister and me.  Soon after, the whole kit and kaboodle packed up and moved to a place with more tillable land.

Together, we grew  enough  organic veggies to feed the east side of Cleveland year-round, re-built the chicken coops, re-wired the farmhouse, dug a new well and harvested  apples, strawberries, cherries and big sweet black caps.

While Mom and Dad worked “real jobs” for money, Grandpa built our beds, wardrobes and china cabinets, ran new electric wiring and plumbed the water pipes running from the well to the faucets.  We ate fish out of the creek and eggs from the hens.  Grandma  baked our bread, crocheted our rag rugs, sewed our clothes and preserved the harvest.  When her fingers were too gnarled with arthritis for needlework,  she spent most Wednesday’s at The Goodwill Store, combing through the bargain bins.

*   *   *

In the spring, with her neck bent far back,  Grandma  stared long and hard at the  black walnut tree.  She was hatching a plan that would harvest every nut the tree could yield.

When  the first frosts of autumn turned their husks green-yellow, I gathered the “tree-fall” nuts in a red wagon and dumped them on drying screens in the garage.  Night after night, the family  crushed and peeled the leathery husks so the shells inside could be dried, cracked and the meat dug out. Our fingers were stained black-green till the New Year.

*   *   *

The snowdrifts were up to Grandpa’s  knees and I was perched on his shoulders as he tramped from the kitchen to the south-facing hill where our cold-frames nested. The frames were constructed of old windows and lumber  rescued from a barn we’d torn down.  Through long afternoons, Grandpa had shown me how to putty the battered  sashes and glaze the old panes.  When finished, the cold-frames were large and tight enough that we  had leafy greens all winter to supplement the carrots, yams, potatoes and onions stored in the root cellar.

It was Gramps’ and my job to clear the cold-frames of snow after a storm  so the sun’s warmth reached through the glass to the lettuce and spinach.  In a few weeks, we’d transplant  seedlings grown indoors, but that morning, as he  tramped through the drifts with me on his shoulders, we were cold and ready for one of Grandma’s breakfasts: fresh bread, eggs  collected before sunrise and strawberry preserves that tasted of the day we’d picked the fruit.

*   *   *

When I (and years later, my children)  jumped off the school bus and ran toward the house,  grandparents waited in the yard. Always, while parents worked at jobs that took them from home, we were greeted by grandparents tilling gardens, planting trees, laying stone, hauling wood, canning vegetables and baking bread.   There was a center to our lives that we could trust, no matter what.

*   *   *

My memories of a family that didn’t make a million dollars but provided itself with much of what it needed from what it  had at hand are at the root of CottageWorks.

As a child, I yearned for store-bought clothes and toys.  Even Grandma, for all her living and baking from scratch, lusted after   Miracle Mix White Bread and chewy Archway cookies.

Today, I want a world where we value our shared labor and take no more than we need. Where money isn’t the only currency and barter is encouraged.  CottageWorks is young but I hope  it becomes a place where we preserve  the old arts and the fruits of our unique labors.

In that spirit, when you have a chance to stop by  CottageWorks,  think  of a skill or trade you can share.  Email me your idea and I’ll bet we can make it happen.  I’m interested in most everything  from jewelry- making to dowsing for water so you’ve got no excuses.

Then,  skip  over to Domesticities & The Cutting Garden.  Email or call Anne and Fritz about the “Story Booth” they’re putting together. Help them build a future that doesn’t neglect the past by recording your memories of the good ole days.

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