17th Jun 2010

Handwork as Meditation and a Meditation on Handwork

I’ve recently been working on Cecily Glowik MacDonald’s Provence Baby Cardigan as a “welcome to the world” gift for a friend’s brand new granddaughter. Although it wasn’t part of the pattern, I decided I would sew some grosgrain ribbon onto the back of the buttonband…ostensibly to add a sturdier anchor material for the buttons but really because my grandmother used to do this on her handknits. When my own daughter was born, the cardigan sweaters knit for her by Nana all had grosgrain on the buttonbands and I suppose I consider that ribbon a sign of something well-made (and made well) with love.

As I was sewing, I found myself falling deeper and deeper into the rhythm of the stitches and not surprisingly my thoughts turned to things beyond the work at hand. At first I pondered the wonderfully relaxing effect the hand-sewing was having on me but then my mind wandered off into thoughts of handwork in general and giving handmade gifts specifically.

As much as I love to make things, there is always part of me that feels more than a little insecure about giving handmade gifts. I look at the baby cardigan and, even though I know I made it out of caring for my friend and her family and even though I know that it is a beautiful reflection of that care, I see every little mistake I made whilst knitting it and I wonder…is it good enough? Surely something bought at the store would be better, wouldn’t it?

Growing up, we did not have a lot of money. I still remember some of our family “experiments”…like eating vegetarian for a month “to be more civilised” (in fact: because meat was expensive and we didn’t have enough money for it) or going without television for six months because “it rots your brain” (in fact: the TV broke and it took us six months to save up money for a new one). Handmade gifts were part and parcel (sorry…it had to be said!) of growing up without extra disposable income. My mum would make the most amazing Barbie doll clothes for us at Christmas time. There was none of this “buy a new Barbie along with a new outfit for her”; we had one doll each and most of her clothes were handmade!

I suspect that that sort of existence was pretty much the norm for most people prior to the rise of rampant consumerism. Gifts were handmade because they had to be and they really meant something…you certainly didn’t have the time or money to hand gifts out like Chiclets. As being a consumer became a sign of prosperity, handmade gifts settled into the world of the underclass. And there they’ve remained for quite some time.

Over eighty years ago, the promise of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” was issued and I think it’s safe to say that, for the vast majority of people, that promise has been fulfilled. Why then are so many people returning to the idea of handmade gifts? It’s not just knitting a sweater for a new baby…it’s also baking cookies for a helpful neighbour, giving a hand-drawn card to a friend on their birthday, sewing an apron for someone who loves to cook.

It’s awfully trite to say “money can’t buy you love” or “money can’t buy happiness” but maybe it really is that simple. Or maybe we’re just waking up to the fact that the care and love put into a handmade gift should have a higher value than the cost of a similar gift from a store.

As for me, I will continue to make and give handmade gifts. And I’ll try not to feel too bad about it.

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