This was stupid, I finally realised. If I was going to knit, and I had to admit it was surprisingly easy to knit when nothing else was easy, then knit I would. I could knit and cry simultaneously: stitch, sob, stitch, sob; then that knitting had to be an item that would actually be something – other than just for saving my life.
So, I decided on a tea cosy. Why? It matters not, but it seemed like a short, happy, achievable project. Thankfully I found a pattern without too much effort because if it took much effort none of it would have happened. The pattern was an old basket stitch design that had pansies on top of it and I was off and running. I made the base in no time. I chose the colours for the flowers from my substantial stash of wool and was frankly disappointed with the result. I knitted about twenty more flowers than the pattern said and now I was inspired. It looked great but still it needed more. I created some leaves and stitched them in between and under flowers. When I put it on the tea pot it was still a bit underwhelming. Mmmm, what to do? I knitted a second base and sewed that in as a lining and voila! It was gorgeous. I knitted a second cosy in a different colour. My girls thought I had lost my mind. But my fingers were busy and my mind was busy and all the while I knew Peta would be laughing at me.
Two cosies down, I wanted to create something different. My eldest daughter arrived home with a fancy pattern book that had many crocheted designs. In all honesty, crocheting ties my hands in knots trying to master – it is just not my thing, but I was inspired by this book nonetheless. What to make? I know – a rooster! A bright, shiny, glorious rooster.
I thought about this rooster for a while before I began and decided I could do it just like I pictured it in my head. I didn’t need a pattern it was all right there ready to be constructed. Colour is very important to me. It’s in my DNA, I am fastidious about it. So the choice had to be just right. I found some bright wool in variegated colours and knitted a ribbed base with a range of reds, greens and browns – very farmyard. I then knitted triangles in various colours as tail feathers. I knitted a long narrow piece that would become the covering of the wire that would form the neck and a bright red cockscomb and a fluffy sort of frill that would be the downy feathers. Awesome, but it needed more … glass beads were sewn onto the tail feathers and there was one spectacular rooster, once I made that all important inner lining, of course. Wouldn’t it be nice that an extra layer made us all look so good!
My rooster was so handsome. My friend loved it so much she wanted to give it to her mother-in-law as a gift and gave me fifty dollars for it. Fun and cash… I was on to something. My creative mind was going off when nothing else was. I cannot explain it but at that time when all things were so horrendous and my mind so frazzled by my grief that I couldn’t find things in my kitchen or remember most things that needed to be done, I could imagine something to knit and make it. It was that easy.
I made a second rooster, albeit a very effeminate looking one. But he/she was fabulous all the same. This one went into a bookshop window in Foster and drew much admiration I heard. It was all I needed to know that my creations were bringing people joy. But life being as crappy as it can get just kept dishing us more. Out of the blue, notice came that our rented house had been sold. The owners had sold directly to their son and he being young had no concern for our plight. We had to move house in sixty days and that was the most torturous event. Packing up and moving a house full of stuff as well as my seventeen-year-old daughter’s life and pack it into boxes knowing it wouldn’t be unpacked was so physically and emotionally difficult. I cannot put the emotion of that into words that could give any sort of adequate expression of that ordeal. My knitting would have to wait.
If anyone thought moving would help me just “move on” they were grossly wrong. Things got worse for me. My girls had returned to work and were doing “normal” things while nothing was really normal, my world became even more insignificant. By that time my lounge chair began to trap me or it felt that way and my needles became my only distraction. I could spend hours in that space not aware of the time lapse. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t watch TV or a movie or do a crossword puzzle. I needed quiet and that was purely self-preservation, as my head hurt as much as my heart. People were getting busy with their lives again and I was treading water and very badly at that – only just keeping my head above water.
I found my stash of wool again and the first thing I made was a penguin. Then I made a thank you cosy for my long-suffering doctor for all his attention and care he was giving me – an ode to his Saints footy team with red and white roses and silver leaves to denote all the premierships they hadn’t won and that same sense of fun and pride that I could create something so beautiful made me smile. And I could feel Peta smiling too. I made tea cosies that looked like Santa hats, I made a babushka doll, I made owls and art deco style cosies. I fashioned a MR T and adorned it with rows of chains around the top inspired by B.A Barracus from the A Team, himself. I went crazy and made noodle like strips that had bells on them and tied them in a knot on top of bright orange bases… oh the places I could go…
My friend displayed them in her art studio in Leongatha and people would stop and smile and many sold and were sent all over the country as well as overseas. I made an emu very much modelled on Ossie Ostrich as a wedding present that went to Ireland where the actress Maureen O’Hara offered to buy it. It was fun for me, and a means to make that little bit of cash to keep me making more.
If there was an Olympic event for sizing up a tea pot, I was in medal contention. One look and I could ascertain what was needed. The spout position noted and the size needed for the handle all taken into account. One look and know how many stitches I would need with what size needles. Look, mental note – yep, 22 stitches and 6mm needles, 12 ply wool or 38 stitches, 4mm needles and 8ply wool. It was a simple calculation. I would do rib, basket, broken rib, moss, blackberry – whatever stitch I thought would work. Sometimes my brain went blank and I could only do bases until the inspiration would come and just the right thing would pop into my head; something random like a cup cake. A cupcake with a fluted base, the cake, the dripping icing and that would mean sequins sewn all over it and a knitted stuffed cherry on top. Then that became a plum pudding with holly and then one inspired by beautiful angora wool with fabulous floppy ears that suggested a rabbit and one magnificent cotton tail… This was pure joy for me and the crazy part was people were very happy to pay up to sixty dollars for my designs. I made small two cup pot cosies for the local specialty shop with spectacular hibiscus inspired 3D flowers on them and I made loads of them. Eventually I had a stash of about thirty and my mother had been scouring the op shops to gather up all the tea pots she could find so I could display my wares. It was time to get brave.
I had started going to a local craft market at Foster, then Inverloch on occasion but Kongwak, although small, was quirkier and so were the visitors. Nervous as I was, because I was on my own with a trestle table and a chair and my own products on my random tea pots of various shapes and sizes that sat positioned on a tatty old tablecloth. Not exactly high spec. I would sit at my stall with my wares and knit as people came up to look at the crazy knitter who appeared to be trying to break speed records. “Do you know how fast you knit?” I had no idea I was fast. Completely oblivious to that. I found it really nice that people wanted to know why I was making tea cosies. And why wouldn’t they? I can guarantee that I was the only tea cosy maker in the whole arena. Many said “people don’t have tea pots anymore”. I found that many people did or they just found the reason to get their tea pot out of the cupboard.
I think I sold six on my first venture and I felt that was a great success. But a few markets in and people were actually looking out for me which was so wonderful. But the best bit was by now I was brave enough to talk about Peta and that her death had been the reason why I did what I was doing. I got to talk about her when that place and opportunity was getting smaller. I was learning that grief while infinite for me was finite for others. People truly expected me to be “better now”. That was all okay while I received that enjoyment seeing people’s faces as they looked at my cosies. They made people smile and that made me smile. Sometimes I even felt my girl’s presence in the car beside me as I drove to the markets like she was coming with me for the day, and that was precious.
Next thing I was being told was there was to be a Tea Cosy Festival. The inaugural Fish Creek Tea Cosy Festival - Wow! Will you submit something? Of course I will submit something. Happy to. Will you have a stall? Sure. Happy to. I made three cosies as entries. Two were nice although I honestly can’t really recall what they were, but the third I was really proud of. It was pretty much what had become my signature cosy design for a family size six-cup tea pot.
I found some fabulous wool and the brightest colour combinations and created a ribbed base with more rolled roses than I had ever put on a tea cosy before. Then I made about thirty leaves in shades of green and interweaved them. It was fabulous. To this day one of my very favourite cosies ever and as such I put a price of eighty five dollars on it (because I really didn’t want to sell it and I thought no one in their right mind would pay that much). Well, the day came and I submitted my entries for judging. Celebrity Prue Acton was officiating and I wasn’t at all confident I would even get a place but was happy in myself that my work was original and really well made and as a maker that is what it is all about as well as my work being seen by an audience.
My friends made the trek down the South Gippy Highway from Melbourne to check out the display of which I hadn’t even been in the hall to admire. I had been given second prize! (Yours was better, they said). Well, who am I to argue with an artist/ex fashion designer judge. I was thrilled to get a prize but even more surprised that someone had paid what I considered a pretty inflated price of $85 and bought my cosy. When I ventured into the hall late in the day to have a look at the offerings on display, I was very proud of my cosy and I have to say with the benefit of hindsight that it was truly show stopping. That’s smug – yes, I know, but it was. The winning entry was a beautifully knitted vintage style tea cosy of around the 1940s era, I would think. It had foxglove flowers knitted into it and it was very, very sweet. Imagine my horror years later when I found that very pattern amongst my mother’s faded and dusty stash of falling to bits patterns in her shed. It wasn’t even an original design! I was horrified. I felt well and truly gypped … but then nothing was ever written into the rules about original designs. You can see that I have gotten over it, can’t you!
I knitted tea cosies for years and they supplemented my Centrelink benefits and quite honestly it kept me alive financially but, more importantly, emotionally. My lovely doctor and I had many discussions about it as I was quite the anomaly, it seemed. He told me that normally in grief your creative brain goes into hibernation and yet for me that was the only thing that did work as well as seeing my visions in colour which is apparently unusual and it did that for making cakes too. For so long I could do nothing else but those two things. I could create fabulous tea cosies that were also functional and cake; thank god for that. I remember spending six hours creating a Hazelnut Dacquoise one day for no other reason than I could. I had nowhere to be and nothing major to do. Thankfully, it took us days to eat as it would have been unworthy to demolish this amazing and delicious construction in one sitting. I can honestly say that if I had not had this bit of joy in my life that I would never have survived the absolute devastation of my daughter’s death. It was all about comfort food and we needed comfort like others need air. I like to think that perhaps it is the connection that Peta and I had and her love of art that made this happen for me. I don’t know if that is even possible, but frankly I do not care. In my mind it was our connection and it was for the love of her that I managed to make my way and survive what I thought was unsurvivable.
What I didn’t count on was the battle that I was to have with my creative chair – Martha, I called her. Martha held me so close that it got to the point that leaving the house would fill me with the worst kind of anxiety (Brutus, I named that) and I would want to rip my skin off so that people couldn’t recognise me. So, it was safer and certainly easier to stay home in the safety of Martha and with the company of our two dogs who stayed by my side as my protectors – well actually one tried to sit on my shoulder frequently, and I would knit because that was the thing that I could do. There was something about the silence and the knowledge that the people that I relied on would call in and have a cuppa with me that made it okay. The truth is I was so happy to live like a hermit, it was as comfortable as Martha was. If it wasn’t for my other children I would have detached myself from the world or even checked out of this world – but that battle was still a way off.
Wools and textures would talk to me and by now I would bravely venture out to specialty wool shops on an expedition to find special yarns that could enhance my designs. My sleepless nights would be full of images of what I could make and the colours that would suit – it simply seems so very normal that an idea would come from nowhere and I could manifest it into exactly what I was going to do and how, because for me that was what I did. I would see it in my head, think about it and do it. I never considered myself an artist. My girls were arty, both Peta and Naomi loved art – Justine, Madeline and Ellie had it in other mediums, but me … no. I was the one who sewed and yes, I was creative but I didn’t see myself as an artist. This wasn’t about art for me. It was survival.
I was getting invitations from all over the place to submit a tea cosy for a competition here, there and everywhere but there was only so much I could do and the worst thing I was developing arthritis in my left hand and big knobby bits on my fingers that were so bad I had to put my needles down for days to rest. I was getting selective about what I did for whom and one creation that I chose to do was for local high-jumper Eleanor Patterson before the Commonwealth Games. I made an effigy of this gorgeous athlete soaring over the bar with her ponytail flying behind her. I even gave her little stuffed breasts in her Australian uniform and she laughed at that detail. It was nice to be able to do something so little that brought joy.
My other designs were also changing, I was incorporating embroidery into them and doing cottage style houses with sewn flowers as well as mottos sewn into vibrant bases with slogans. Words of wisdom like “tea makes you pee” and “hot stuff” across them. I made little characters like paper dolls and sewed them on holding hands around a cosy and made spectacular hair that I finger knitted in various styles which was so much fun to do in a ring-a-ring-a-rosy theme. Coming up with these designs still made my heart sing. They were still making me laugh and consuming my days when out of nowhere came an opportunity to start work.
I never thought that would or could ever happen, certainly not at fifty-four. The job was at my daughter’s old school. Some worried about the close connection that would be there and whether it would be healthy. I had no concerns about that. So, I jumped at it and I worked three days a week and that changed my whole sense of self- worth. I slowly began to believe that I still had something to offer and so my knitting became less.
Not totally. I submitted entries to the next Fish Creek Tea Cosy Festival where I won a first prize. This festival had a musical theme. My entry was called “When the Fat Lady Sings”. I have no idea where the inspiration comes from – it just does. This was a design that had a festooned type of skirt and a very theatrical costume on a very buxom bodice. I remember not knowing where I was going with her when I started her but she sort of evolved on her own and she was fabulous, and again I put a ridiculous price tag on her and again someone bought it. Perhaps that particular cosy was a metaphor for me because I was having some sort of a metamorphosis from years of absolute devastation and desolation and I was emerging from a very bleak place of despair.
By this time I was living on my own, had moved several times as I couldn’t settle anywhere, and I had lain on my bed waiting to die so many times I can’t put a number to them. I truly believed I could will myself to make that wish happen. When I eventually realised that was never going to happen, I chose my tree – the one that I would drive into at speed. It’s not shameful to admit it several years on as it is part of the journey that I have been on and I am sure I am not alone, as the grief journey is about the worst of life’s experiences to endure. Some don’t survive. I did. Knitting saved me. In truth I had been saved by a few sets of bamboo knitting needles and the wonderful product that comes at the end of the fuzzy skein from nature’s lawn mowers, very woolly sheep. If I didn’t have creative blood running through my veins I would have undoubtedly succumbed to the depths of despair that I carried with me for years. This I know.
I thank all of those people who bought my creations and gave me their tea pots to “dress” and I like to think they might still be making people smile as they do for me. I also thank all of those people who allowed me to talk about Peta while I sat at my trestle table and knitted, as that was something that I cherish every day. Who would have thought that two simple things, knitting and a crazy mind could have been the tools that saved my life? But I assure you from everything I have lived through, there is a mite of power in those two little sticks and the mind can do whatever it has to do to survive!
You might be pleased to know that I am still knitting, not in Martha; she has been deposited to the dump and probably rightly so. She had done her work and served me well. She has been replaced by a nameless grey recliner. It’s comfortable but my dog will most likely dictate its course in my life as she has to fit along one arm of it. These days my knitting is mostly for my three grandchildren and it is always bright and colourful and beautifully made – even if I do say so myself. My eldest grandchild is a seven year old zany artist much like Peta and I know that she would be more than happy for me to whip her up a fabulous jumper that might have a large three dimensional flower sitting on her shoulder with a carefully wired bee hovering over it with a giant gecko about to take a bite.
Now there’s a thought … I can see exactly how that will look …