This hand-made blanket is one of my most treasured possessions, despite its various holes and wonky sections.
My grandmother (whom we called ‘Manma’) taught me to knit when I was very young – apparently I was pretty keen on knitting when I was little, but as she lived several hours’ flight away, I fell out of practice and forgot entirely how to knit. When I was in my twenties and wanted to learn again, I had to start from scratch. My best friend and housemate Maree had been teaching me how, and I ‘d stumbled my way through a scarf or two, when the news came that Manma was dying.
I flew up to Queensland to nurse her during her final weeks. After the first few days, I decided that the many hours of sitting by her bedside might be a good chance to practice my rediscovered knitting, so the next morning my great aunt Audrey (Manma’s sister, with whom I was staying) drove me to a craft store on the way to the nursing home, and I bought some wool, intending to make a scarf.
As soon as we arrived at the nursing home that morning, it became very clear that Manma had taken a dramatic turn for the worst – her breathing was laboured, she was in and out of consciousness, and she died within several hours.
As I sat by the body that afternoon, I again felt the urge to knit – partly to pass the time, and partly as a way of honouring the woman who had originally taught me how. I couldn’t remember how to ‘cast on’, so I had to phone my friend Maree, who patiently talked me through the process as I sobbed and fumbled.
Over the next few days, in between making funeral arrangements, notifying the family, etc., I found the knitting to be really soothing, and my great aunt Audrey was able to advise me when I got muddled or dropped a stitch.
As soon as Manma had died, I’d decided that rather than a scarf I would make a blanket as a special memento. It was to be made up of small squares of various colours. This project went on for the next year or so. Many evenings, if Maree and I were at home, we’d knit squares as we chatted or watched TV. The little piles of knitted squares became a fixture on our coffee-table. I posted some of the wool back up to Queensland, and my beloved great aunt Audrey knitted a few squares (despite her arthritic hands) and posted them back down. My sister Clara also knitted several squares.
When we finally had enough squares, Maree’s grandmother Nell kindly offered to help with sewing the square together. When I moved to England in 2007, I brought with me a big bag full of the knitted squares, many of them paired up by Nell. Over the next while, I completed the blanket, laying out the squares on the floor of my Chester flat and finally sewing together all the various pieces. The blanket is my favourite thing to cuddle up in on a cold English night, particularly when I’m missing my family in Australia.
A year or two after that, Maree had moved to England to study for a year, when her grandmother Nell died suddenly. I lent Maree the blanket (which we’d come to call ‘the grandma blanket’) and she kept it with her for the rest of her time in England. Maree was on the other side of the world from her family, and couldn’t attend Nell’s funeral, but she found the blanket was a comforting reminder of her grandmother’s kindness.
Every time I snuggle into the blanket, I think fondly of those who contributed to it, and of what it signifies: the passing on of love, skills and generosity between generations, and the astounding network of support that has been provided by the women in my life.
Reading Sarah’s entry on this blog reminds me that that these textile stories seem very often to be about the network of friendships, family and support between women. Indeed, when Sarah was staying with me recently and had forgotten the piece of knitting that she likes to carry with her as a comforting habit, I found a square from the blanket (not all of them had fitted into the final shape) and gave it to her. It felt right that Sarah, who has become a wonderful friend during my time in England, should be drawn in to this network of friends and family.
Dr Francesca Haig, University of Chester