Written by Emma Mitchell

Arts

Knit yourself a beard

We’re in the midst of a craft revival. It’s the perfect time to make this season’s woolly chin fashions, says Emma Mitchell.

During the ‘80s, bright, plastic, disposable things made by machines were affordable and highly fashionable. We adopted a throw-away attitude to homewares and clothes and much of the appreciation for the time and skills invested in handmade items was lost. If our Grans needed a new skirt or a pair of curtains, they were far more likely to run up a jaunty number on a treadle sewing machine. We may have been rather awestruck at Gran’s skills, but the ruffles in a ra-ra skirt were tricky to master, so we tripped off to Chelsea Girl rather than the haberdasher’s. There was no real need to learn to sew, so many of us didn’t.

As prices became inflated and the cost of living soared in the recession, an £8 skirt and an 80p loaf became holy grails. Alongside this inevitable search for bargains came something that had lain dormant for 40 years. If we fancied a new cushion or a pair of mittens, we began to consider making our own. There was catching up to do, though. Knitting knowledge had fallen fallow. Sewing machines sat forlorn in attics. For many of us, the craft skills we may have learned were forgotten, replaced with a limber texting thumb and the ability to whip up a report on the market potential for 5G while keeping half an eye on Game of Thrones.

Along with the urge to rekindle neglected craft skills has come a renewed respect for handmade goods. It echoes the drive for authenticity in food. Just as the sales of Marjory’s homemade sausages in the farm shop down the road increased, so did the sales of Bob’s chopping boards. And good for Bob, his handmade wooden goods, his chisels and the hours he has spent whittling. Individually made items are created with care, each one is slightly different and the small imperfections are what make them beautiful.

Rosy Greenlees, Chief Executive of the Crafts Council says: “There has been an extraordinary revival of interest in crafts. When I joined the organisation eight years ago there was no sign of this shift.
“There is a greater acknowledgement of the value of craft skills, more appreciation and interest in how things are made and in the social aspect of making.”

My Mum has always been a handmade groupie and she was not deterred during the dark years of the ‘80s. Craft fairs were like hens’ teeth during that time, but if there was one within a 10-mile radius she would find it, like a homing pigeon in search of wicker.

We trailed past racks of Des Lynam-style jumpers made on knitting machines and leering neon knitted squirrels. No matter! If Mum’s handmade spidey sense unearthed a locally-made willow basket and a jug with a speckly glaze, the world was good. I do rather regret the day my Mum discovered the stall of children’s handmade clogs. My red ones, worn with a miniature fisherman’s smock and dungarees may have taken the folksy look the tiniest bit too far. This was the age of the neon legwarmer. Lori Singer didn’t wear a smock.

Pudding the frog

Pudding the frog, made in 1981, filled with pudding rice and sporting a felt hat and waistcoat. He’s always ready for parties.

 

Despite this reef knot-tying, frog-stitching childhood and almost feverish enthusiasm, the breadth of my craft skills remain somewhat limited. Until recently I was unable to crochet anything other than a series of tragic, tangled birds’ nests. Apparently my knitting is ‘over tight’ and my French knots look like dead spiders. I eye sewing machines with some fear. There is something of the dalek about them. I am nervous of being in the same room with one lest it begin to sew things of its own accord. I am determined to overcome this fear, although I doubt there’s a self help book that can assist me.

The internet has been an essential tool in the resurgence of the handmade sector. As early as 2003 bloggers started to document the socks they were knitting and the quilts they were sewing. They posted tutorials, the urge to take up hook and yarn spread and publishers began to take notice. Knitters and crocheters began to share their projects and patterns on the woolly forum of craft happiness that is ravelry.

Crochet commission

In 2005, one of my favourite places came into existence. Etsy is like a 24-hour international online craft fair and each seller has their own electronic shopfront. Shortly afterwards Folksy, a UK-based handmade marketplace appeared. Both are sources of handmade joy and temptation, regularly giving me a pleasurable pain in my purse, and are means of supporting small-scale artists and craftspeople. What’s more, there are craft materials for sale and PDF tutorials that can be downloaded for just a few pounds, allowing crafters to make their own.

Recently I was commissioned to crochet something unusual for a friend. As ever Etsy came to the rescue and £2.50 bought me just the right pattern.

Here are a few handmade online recommendations:

Lucy O’Regan began writing her blog Attic24 in 2008, documenting her crocheting odyssey and her family life in a small Yorkshire town. As soon as she began to share her tutorials they spread across the internet quicker than the video of that monkey riding on a pig. Bloggers far and wide wanted to make her sumptutous ripple blanket and her striped yarn bag. Her use of colour is joyful and her patterns are carefully explained and free (see her lefthand sidebar). Hook yourself a rainbow.

Melissa Wastney is the shopkeeper at tinyhappy. Her collections of free-form botanical embroideries, foraging bags made from vintage floral print cottons and baby slippers made from antique embroidered linen have long been a favourite of mine. Her shop is like wandering through a whimsical fabric woodland.

Reversible baby shoes made from vintage embroidered linen, £15.26 by tinyhappy

tiny happy baby shoes
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I’m a biscuit fan. They’re even better when they’re homemade. Imagine then, a biscuit cutter in the shape of Mr Darcy and another in the shape of Elizabeth Bennet. You could dance pretend biscuit gavottes. You could even fling one of them into a pond. These biscuit cutters are designed and then 3D printed by Printmeneer. It’s a technology that boggles my mind entirely. There’s also a ‘golden ratio’ cutter and another that celebrates the Helvetica font. Genius.

Pride and Prejudice cookie cutters £8.75 by Printmeneer.

Little Conkers crochet, run by Clare Trowbridge, is like a woolly harvest festival. Never has a turnip given such joy since Miriam Margolyes ate a suggestively-shaped one at Edmund Blackadder’s dinner table. This pattern incorporates crochet fair isle. It may be the craft equivalent of particle physics but I’m determined to give this a try.

PDF crochet turnip pattern, £2.50 by Little Conkers

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Knitted beard mosaic

I defy anyone to not smile when faced with a laptop screen covered in knitted beards. They’re cosy in winter and perfect for channelling Brian Blessed. Being clean shaven is overrated – middle-aged bristles can take an aeon to grow into a full chin rug. Why wait when you can click and go or make your own? Fling out your tweezers.

1) Knitted wizard beard by Foamy Wader, £59.80, 2) Denim beanie hat with integral beard £21.36 by Knit Like the Dickens, 3) Knitted yellow beard balaclava, £40 by Wife of Brian, 4) Beard beanie downloadable pattern, £2.44 by Danis Knitting

Buying handmade feels as good as buying Marjory’s sausages. Learning to make your own scarf feels as joyous as mastering Paul Hollywood’s Genoese sponge. I speak from experience. I feel that the knitted beard will be a must-have accessory for A/W ’14.

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Written by Emma Mitchell

I make things, mostly out of silver, sometimes out of wool. I’m never too far from a bottle of PVA glue.