Handmade marvels


CRAFTS:As autumn draws in, ANNA CAREYrecommends a spot of sewing or knitting. It’s cheap, it’s distracting and can lead to a certain satisfying smugness

WHEN I WAS nine years old I decided to knit a platypus. But although I began this project full of enthusiasm, I never finished it. After knitting both sides of the woollen beast, I gave up before I’d even got to the beak. This set the tone for many of my creative and crafty endeavours over the following 25 years. Today, there’s a drawer in my spare room containing an unfinished hand-sewn patchwork quilt, several metres of printed cottons, and an almost-finished felt mug-cosy.

The thing is, when I do finish something, I’m always glad I did. I’ve knitted many pairs of socks, and not only do I find knitting them incredibly relaxing, but every time I wear them, I feel a little bit happier. The fitted scarlet sweater I knitted last winter is my favourite jumper. And I love the polka-dot dress I made last summer, even if the neck’s a bit wonky.

I’m not alone. Lilly Higgins works in her family’s building restoration company in Cobh, Co Cork, but in her spare time she makes all manner of things and shares the results on her blog, Things I Make, Bake and Love (http://lillyhiggins.blogspot.com). “Anything I draw or make will have one eye bigger than the other or something like that – they all have a bit of personality,” she says. The personal nature of handmade items is a major plus. “When you spend a lot of time making something, it’s more special to you,” says Caoimhe Derwin of Dublin band Talulah Does The Hula, who has been sewing since she was a teenager and comes from a family of dressmakers. “And you know no one else has anything like it.”

The word “empowering” is overused, but being able to make stuff yourself really does put power into your hands. “I was in Brown Thomas a while ago and I saw a beautiful Orla Keily laptop case,” says Higgins. “I can’t afford that but I think I could make something very like it.”

Many women say they were drawn to crafting as a way of acquiring the garment of their dreams. “If you have something in mind and can’t find it in the shops, you know you can make it,” says Derwin.

Debbie Stoller, editor of feminist magazine Bust, spearheaded the knitting revival with her bestselling book Stitch and Bitch (Workman, £10.99), and there are a number of hip and imaginative craft books in the shops (I have two entire shelves full of them but, true to form, have only made a couple of projects).

It’s all very different from a decade ago, when nearly all the yarn shops in Dublin had closed down. But over the past couple of years, several have opened, including This Is Knit in Dublin’s Powerscourt Centre. More and more people are taking up their knitting needles. “We see so many people at our beginners classes, we’ve gone from two classes a week to four,” says Lisa Sisk, who runs the shop with her mother Jacqui. Dressmaking classes around the country now have long waiting lists and Fran Dalton, who runs Stitch in Santry, regularly sees customers who just want to learn a few basic sewing skills.

Of course, craftiness can be frustrating. When things go wrong, there can be a lot of swearing. “I’ve called my machine the worst names in the world,” says Caoimhe Derwin. “Once I was trying to make table mats for Christmas and my needle kept breaking. I wanted to fling my machine across the room. And I’d have done it, except it cost a couple of hundred euro.”

But crafting is also soothing. Working with your hands can be grounding for people who don’t usually engage in skilled manual labour – which is most of us. Lisa Sisk made a beaded shawl for her wedding and found it calmed her down. “I’d start off stressed,” she says. “But then I’d stop being worried about all the other stuff in my head because I had to focus on what I was making.” And at the end of this soothing work, you get something you can give as a gift or wear yourself. “If you make something and it turns out really well, you feel like you’re disco dancing inside,” says writer Eithne Farry, whose book Lovely Things To Make For Girls Of Slender Means encourages even the craft-phobic to give DIY a try, even if it’s just by customising something you already own. “You can feel like that every time you wear it.”