15 November 2013

Domesticity: a personal history

Yes.... I keep my ironing basket under the kitchen table.

Not surprisingly, the Matcher book on Domesticity provoked my own memories of when and why I came to enjoy the skills most associated with 'nesting'. 

Remember these?
When I was six years old, I was given a square metal loom on which I would stretch colored loops to make pot holders. Numerous trips up the road to McClellan's Five & Ten would result in more and more bags of the brightly hued loops. Using the small metal hook to pull them in the "in and out" pattern, I would sit for hours and make the waffle-grid squares. I doubt if any of them still exist in my mother's kitchen, but for several years she received them from me by the gross.

By the time I was eight years old I'd been taught how to knit and crochet. My humble projects were nothing like the spider-like lace my mother summoned forth from impossibly small crochet hooks, or the flower garden afghans that tumbled off her knitting needles. But I did my best and had several crocheted doll hats and knitted hot pads to show for it.  (One of those hot pads did manage to survive and although it became slightly felted over the years, it is pressed into service now and then on her table.)

Still knitting, after all these years.
At the age of 12 or so I was taught how to embroider.  Another trip to McClellans yielded my first embroidery hoop and a set of white pillow cases with a pale blue design stamped along the edge. Elementary cross-stiches led to more challenging ones: french knots, silk stitch, and tiny loops that became daisy petals. Although my embroidery skills were fairly decent, my grandmother, who lived with us until I was a teenager, had the exasperating habit of checking the back of my work which invariably looked like a labyrinthian transit map. I was sent back to start again until the back looked as neat as the front.

My local fabric store.
Throughout my teens, I continued to embroider now and then, adding crewel to my needlework repertoire. (My mother still uses a small pin cushion I made for her in those days.) Around this time, I also ventured into the world of sewing, having watched my mother make clothes for us and herself for so many years. Her big brown Westinghouse machine—which perported to be "portable" but took both of us to heft onto the kitchen table—became my new plaything as I produced Hallowe'en costumes, coat-dresses, skirts, and peasant dresses. I adored our trips to the fabric store where the walls were filled to the ceiling with bolts of materials and you could stand for hours perusing cards of beautiful buttons, or rows of colorful zippers, and wooden spools of thread in a rainbow of shades to match whatever fabric you'd picked. And oh the hours I spent flipping through the enormous Butterick, Simplicity and Vogue pattern books.  (Project Runway, eat your heart out....)

By way of complete disclosure I must admit that despite all this flurry of needle plying, my chief love during my teen years was actually barricading myself in my bedroom to read ... and then writing my own poetry and short horror stories. In high school I pressed an English teacher into being the advisor for a writing group and we published our own poetry on the school press, allowing the public inside our hearts and minds for a peek at our very private and very angst-ridden work. Ah, youth...

I'm a baker so I always have eggs at the ready on the counter.
In my twenties, my domestic experiments brought me into the kitchen where I routinely baked my own bread, made my own soups from scratch, tried my hand at fying doughnuts,  picked fruit at a local farm to make jam, and learned as much as I could from Julia Child  about cooking with wine and from Gaston Lenôtre  about pastries you had to waken at 2am to put together so they'd be ready to consume by lunchtime.  I was also schooled by a friend as to how to make a mean dry martini and received an invaluable lesson on opening wine with an antiquated corkscrew which I still own and affectionately refer to as Monsieur Chaque fois [i.e., Mister Every Time] since it has never failed me, even with the driest most recalcitrant corks.  That same friend also taught me how to open champagne: not with a vulgar bang but with a lovely smothered *pop*, by cajoling the cork from the neck with a crisp white napkin. Both were lessons I took to heart.

My Ashford spinning wheel from New Zealand.
When I was in my thirties, a close childhood friend was responsible for my foray into fiber arts.  She owned a spinning wheel and a loom and I was besotted with the look, sound and meditative quality of it all. I enrolled in lessons, starting on the maddeningly difficult drop spindle and graduating to the relatively easy wheel.  I say relatively easy because the first few tries were very like rubbing your stomache and patting your head at the same time. But soon the rhythm felt just right and I was confident enough to send away for my own wheel, amazed at the size of the box when it arrived and further dumbfounded at my being able to put it together by myself.  On weekends in the spring I would visit a local farm to help with birthing the lambs or to watch wide-eyed while grown sheep were flipped unceremoniously on their backs to get shorn.  I would lean over the fencing and point to the fleece I wanted, and within an hour or so the beast would be divested of his lanolin-soaked coat, springing happily into the nearby field and no doubt feeling quite light on his feet after the sheering.  The fleece would be weighed and soon I'd be heading home with 18 lbs of wool to scour, comb, and spin into soft dark brown balls of yarn.

The first year in my own garden.
Within months of purchasing my cottage I spent an inordinate amount of time turning the front, side and rear property into the gardens of my dreams.  While I have never presumed to call myself a gardener-with-a-capital-G, I do enjoy all the pitfalls, joys, despair and successes inherent in amateur gardening and have found comfort in the rhythmic progression—and attendant chores—that the seasons bring.  Cleaning up in Spring, preparing soil, starting seedlings indoors, and then tending, weeding and enjoying them throughout the Summer; putting the beds to sleep in Autumn and then waiting and planning for the next year during the long Winter months.  Around this time I became more and more interested in drawing and painting, thanks to the inspiring images throughout Edith Holden's Edwardian diaries, and I enrolled in a watercolor course. Soon I was sketching and coloring humble representations of my own flowers, placing them in my journals to keep track of my garden's progress.

As I think back on this reconstructed history, it becomes clear to me that I have my mother and grandmothers to thank for imbuing my daily life with their mastery of these skills, and introducing me to so many of the tasks I still love... ironing, knitting, gardening, cooking. Observing them as they worked, benefitting from their advice, seeing the results of their patience and talent, were the inspiration for how I tend to spend my leisure time. By their example they showed me what pride and pleasure can come from a well wrought dress, a well cooked meal, a beautifully knit scarf, or a vibrant fecund garden.

My 'career', I'd decided early on, was to be content. (Not the answer your average guidance counselor wants to hear, but there you are.) And over time I came to realize that the pathway to this contenment was to hone the skills and feed the interests that gave me the most pleasure.  I did go off to work, of course, in order to support myself, and my employment history runs the gamut: from industrial photographer to church secretary to librarian to professional singer. I even body-sat for a local mortician when he and his wife needed a night out. But my heart was always in my home, wherever that might be at the time: a basement apartment, a rented bungalow by the bay, the upper floors in a friend's Victorian house, the ground floor of a two family tenement, or my own little cottage.

Wherever 'home' might be, when I walked through the door I feel I can breathe again and let my creativity express itself in ways that not only comfort me but also make the most sense in terms of my personality and interests.

And that is what domesticity is to me, really: the art of making your home the place you most want to be.


  1. Great post and photos! I find it wonderful that by the time you were eight years old you had learned to knit and crochet!

  2. Well said! I so enjoyed reading that. Though I'm a great appreciator of needlework, *doing* it tends to make me cross-eyed and crabby, so I adorn my home with the handiwork of talented friends! I did enjoy sewing and made many of my own clothes in my teens and twenties. Cooking, I still love!

  3. I so enjoyed this, but stumbled across it entirely by accident, since the feed from your blog isn't appearing in my Blogger reading list any more. Would it be possible for you to check in your dashboard and correct this, otherwise your followers will find it very hard to keep track of your posts. Many thanks.

  4. Thank you so much for stopping by, Linda, and for your kind comments! Those were simpler times when I was small, so along with playing outside, playing with my dolls, and reading, the crafts I learned were part of how I spent my time.

  5. There are things I don't have the patience or skill for, too, Jean, but like you I can appreciate them and enjoy having them in the house when talented friends pass them on to me. (Counted cross stitch is one example!) Thank you for visiting!

  6. I'm touched that you enjoyed the post, Perpetua. I'm not entirely sure how the reader works, or what I need to do at my end, but I'll look into it. Thank you for mentioning that! I appreciate it.

  7. Haworth, the easiest way is to go to your dashboard and from the list at the left choose Settings/Other.

    At the top of that page you'll see Allow blog feed?

    From the drop-down list to the right choose Full and save your settings.

    That should fix it. I'll check back in a day or two to see if it's working for me.

  8. Thank you so much, Perpetua! I think I've fixed it, now. Take care!

  9. Yes, it's definitely fixed, as I've now been able to add your blog to my Feedly account and your posts are showing there and in my dashboard reading list.