The return of knit wits and sew'n'sews


TIME OUT:DO YOU remember the sewing basket? You have to be of a certain age to have encountered it in original form and utilitarian glory. Brightly coloured, wicker-framed, fabric-finished, much-used, it was a battered treasure trove of practicality.

Sewing baskets had needles of all sizes stuck into their cushioned inner lids. There were packets of needles in rigid hierarchy of thickness, length and eye size. There were small scissors and saw-toothed pinking shears that left zigzag patterns on fabrics preventing the edges from unravelling or fraying.

Sewing baskets held buttons of every make and shape. There were leather-bound buttons, bobbles for duffle coats, wooden oblongs, bright pearls for twinsets, mother-of-pearl for party dresses, shiny beads, dress adornments, glass buttons and stray sequins that had escaped from their packets.

There were utilitarian buttons for men’s shirts and school blouses, enormous single coat buttons, buckles for belts, hooks, eyes and stud fasteners that had to be lined up precisely when sewn. Not to mention patchwork squares; small swatches of silk; little clouds of chiffon; bunting-bright ribbons; streamers of lace in silver, gold, bronze and white; delicate trims of satin; and twist ends of darning wool.

They held more sinister things: curious metal instruments such as large-eyed bodkins, narrow-eyed beading needles, crewels for embroidery, crochet hooks, blunt-tipped darning needles, quilting and appliqué needles.

From the sewing basket spilled socks to be darned, frayed collars to be mended, bias binding to secure hems and let them down, squares of leather to reinforce jumper or sports jacket elbows and spools of thread encompassing the colour wheel. And if the sewing basket held magic, beside it was the knitting bag, big and soft with ebony handles, the sewing basket’s co-conspirator in the business of caring for and clothing children, family and friends.

Ever since the Knitting Madonna was appreciated, knitting has retained the imprint of devotion, nurturing and pure love. It is using craft and skill to keep small children snug, workmen warm, fishermen encased in sturdy ganseys, the frail in delicate bed shawls, the adventurous in sturdy socks, the family in snug scarves and gloves and images of knitted Christmas gifts with crazy reindeer patterns.

The knitting basket held unfinished scarves, socks ready for the heel turn, strings of crochet, practice pieces for casting on and off, for plain and purl, lattice, seed and single-leaf, Fair Isle and Aran: patterns of identity, tradition and locale.

But most of all knitting had sounds: the click and clack of needles, pause at end of line, resumption, click to knit and bind and slip a stitch while fabric unrolled from those speedy needles into something of beauty and of use.

When the baskets were produced, it was often the final nightly task for women when they might sit and darn, knit and mend, trim and turn, model and make, when austerity was a way of life. This was when women never heard of repetitive strain but kept going forever; when mending and making do was what women did before recycling became politically correct.

And now there is an upsurge. What once were chores have become celebrity chic. The needles left idle are being retrieved, the art restored, the crafts revived, the skills renewed, the importance rediscovered. There is appreciation for sewing and knitting, their reward and therapeutic use of time. Sewing and knitting are mentally restorative, they “redeem odd corners of disposable time”, they empower those who undertake them, they reward the maker and the recipients of the end product. Knitting and sewing are relaxing, portable and creative and link people together anew.

For information on the Big Knit Campaign for Age Action Ireland and for the Knitting and Stitching Show in the RDS see

Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist and author