An arts project that knits together creative work, single parenting and paying the bills

A writer is crowdfunding a childcare-inclusive arts residency for fellow single mothers

Betsy Cornwell: “I’m a writer – sometimes I can’t help but see good stories everywhere I go.”

Betsy Cornwell: “I’m a writer – sometimes I can’t help but see good stories everywhere I go.”

 

“Part of me thought all along that the Old Knitting Factory and I were meant to be. Like I was drawn here by the universe or something.” Betsy Cornwell touches the stone wall of the 1906 Connemara knitting school where she lives with her young son. For the past year, she has been working to crowdfund the building’s purchase so that she can use the space to create a childcare-inclusive arts residency for other single mothers like herself.

A bestselling young-adult novelist, magazine editor, and tutor at the National University of Ireland Galway, Betsy speaks candidly of her “struggle to balance creative work with single parenting and paying the bills” and how that struggle inspired her vision of a space for other single mothers to make art. To date she has raised nearly €40,000, but she is still working towards covering her down-payment and the renovations necessary to open the residency.

Betsy shakes her head at her own words. “That’s silly and melodramatic, I know. But when I found this place, I wanted so badly to believe it was meant to be. I’m a writer – sometimes I can’t help but see good stories everywhere I go.”

The Old Knitting Factory, a rambling white-and-yellow building on the shore of Lough an Mhuillin in Carraroe, has certainly seen its share of stories. First built at a cost of £600 by the Congested Districts Board for Ireland, it both taught knitting skills to local women and used their labour to create textiles for sale. Many of the women who worked in the knitting factory used their earnings to emigrate to America, which Betsy notes is especially touching for her as an American in Ireland.

In the 1970s, filmmaker Bob Quinn and his family moved into the factory and turned it into the first Irish-language cinema, a project that was later documented by his son Robert Quinn in the film Cinegael Paradiso. In the 1990s, the factory became a home and jewelry-making studio for Jackie and Ed Keilthy of JEK Jewelry. The knitting factory’s views of Lough an Mhuillin have also served as inspiration for artists including Charles Lamb and contemporary painter Pigsy.

The Old Knitting Factory: the history of women’s work there was no rosy vision of sisterhood.
The Old Knitting Factory: the history of women’s work there was no rosy vision of sisterhood.
The interior of The Old Knitting Factory in Connemara
The interior of The Old Knitting Factory in Connemara

“The Old Knitting Factory has always been centred either on women’s work, or on art,” Betsy says. With her childcare-inclusive arts residency, she hopes to bring those two parts of the building’s history together.

The history of women’s work at the Old Knitting Factory, however, was no rosy vision of sisterhood. The Congested Districts Board operated as a branch of the British Conservative Party, working, in their own words, to “kill Home Rule with kindness” -- to stifle Irish desire for independence by funding public works.

“Every day, I think of the women who worked here,” Betsy says, looking around at the high-ceilinged space that now serves as her living room and kitchen. “The research I’ve done so far tells me they were likely underpaid and exploited. I recently found out that even the height of the windows was designed so that the women who were knitting here all day wouldn’t be able to look outside and get distracted from their work. So the idea of giving modern women the chance to look out the windows, to slow down and be able to take in some beauty, is close to my heart. It’s incredibly hard to find that time and space as a single mother.”

Betsy intimately understands the struggle of balancing a creative practice with single parenting and paying the bills. After leaving an abusive marriage several years ago, she experienced a brush with homelessness that became the spark of her determination to find a stable home -- and her inspiration to create a space that she could share with other single mothers.

“I remember ringing the doorbell at the domestic abuse centre with my baby on my chest in his carrier, knowing we couldn’t go back to our house that night, knowing we didn’t have anywhere else to go. I remember the nights in a hotel in another town where my ex wouldn’t find us, staying in a friend’s spare room while I looked for a place we could afford. I remember my friends helping me pay my rent when it turned out I couldn’t afford even that tiny bungalow one month,” she says. “And then I think, how dare I have thought I can buy a house, let alone a knitting factory. But here I am, and no matter what happens next, I know I am trying my hardest.”

With the deadline to buy the Old Knitting Factory approaching on October 1st, however, Betsy is beginning to fear that if she can’t meet her crowdfunding goals, her work on the project will be in vain. She has recently encountered major expenses that depleted the funds she’d initially planned to put toward a downpayment.

“But I couldn’t not have tried,” she says. “That’s the only thing I keep coming back to right now. I remember how scared I was, how scared I’ve been in the years since we left our home, my baby and I. I couldn’t not have tried. And when I look back at the last year of single parenting through lockdown, switching between this project and my three other jobs, I can’t see a single day when I wasn’t working at or above my capacity. I want to be proud of myself for the hard work and passion I’ve poured into this project, regardless of the outcome.”

In her fear, she turned to the online community that has been following her progress at the Old Knitting Factory. “It didn’t feel like a story I was telling any more, that had to work out somehow in the end. It just felt hard. I was so scared to admit what a hard time I’m having with finishing this project. But when I did, when I told people I’m scared that I’ll fail, that’s when they really saved me once again.”

In the last month, the Old Knitting Factory’s crowdfund has doubled, reaching over €38,000 – enough to cover a down payment with a co-signer. Now Betsy hopes to raise enough to purchase the factory independently, as well as to cover the costs of renovations.

“I still don’t know if I’ll make it on my own,” Betsy said, “but I’m hopeful. I think that is the best kind of story I can tell.”

For more information about the Old Knitting Factory, visit betsycornwell.com

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