I grew up in a draughty Victorian vicarage in the middle of Radnorshire where my stepfather – the only ‘Dad’ I can remember – was the Ministry Vet in charge. While the ‘swinging sixties’ kicked off in other parts of Britain (if the fashionable Sunday supplements were to be believed), Mid Wales seemed to be stuck in a time warp, isolated and extremely boring.
In those days before Global Warming was invented, winters seemed to be much colder. But that could have been because the house didn’t have central heating – just open fires in each downstairs room and a Rayburn in the kitchen. This solid fuel ‘little cousin’ of the avaricious Aga became the glowing heart of our home, lit all year round to provide hot water. Apart from warming plates, the rack above it was put to many uses over the years – drying snow-encrusted mittens, proving dough, incubating duck eggs until they hatched…
During the Big Freeze of 1963 we brought our comfortable chairs into the spacious kitchen. Once we’d finished our evening meal my parents and I would settle in front of the stove to listen to the radio (they didn’t ‘believe in’ television until just before I left home at seventeen.) As a special treat, our two black labradors were allowed to join us, instead of being banished to their bed in the passage by the back door – an area we called ‘the caboodle’ to avoid unwelcome quips of a lavatorial nature. (Although the downstairs loo was actually located there, along with a huge chest freezer and the welly boots.)
During one of these family gatherings I learned to crochet. My mother was making blankets from unpicked jumpers that I had outgrown and odds and ends of wool she had left over from earlier projects. I watched, fascinated, until – encouraged by my Dad – she selected a hook and ball of yarn, saying:
‘Watch very carefully, I’m only going to show you once and if you don’t get it, forget it!’
As you may have gathered, she was not a natural teacher – but in her defence we had already attempted knitting and tapestry, with disappointing results.
I got it!
Maybe the fear of failure focussed me, I don’t know. but before I had time to start worrying about it going wrong, I found myself trebling and chaining my way around a (somewhat eccentric) square.
And I loved it!
The single hook was much easier to manipulate than a pair of knitting needles, each with their own agenda. It grew quickly enough to satisfy my youthful impatience and, what’s more, it kept me warm while I was doing it.
As soon as it was big enough, that blanket went on my bed. Years later I could still pick out the navy wool of my school cardigans, the peachy-pink and coral tones that were Mum’s favourites and the rust and donkey coloured Arran from pullovers that Daddy wore in the garden, until the sleeves began to unravel.
Of course my blanket’s gone now – a casualty to the trend for lighter all-in-one bedding, I suppose. But I still retain the skills I learned in making it and as I begin to put them to use once more, I recall that arctic winter, when snow lay on the ground for weeks and weeks until even children longed for it to thaw.
And, as I choose which of my mother’s hooks I’m going to use this time, pick up my yarn and start the foundation chain, I’m taken right back to that cosy kitchen in Wales, where she taught me how to crochet.