Thursday, December 9, 2010

Mother Teresa's bin babies and my knitting career

In 1980s Ireland with unemployment and taxation high, money was scarce even for those in employment. Sound familiar?

I was single, living in my parents' home and my social life consisted of involvement in an amateur drama group, one night’s boozing and dancing at the weekend and of course gossiping with friends. We didn’t do gel nails and hair straighteners, clothes from BT2 and designer handbags, we had no internet, mobile phone and few of us drove our own cars but having a laugh with pals, listening to music, chatting about what was on TV and admiring each other on a night out as we searched for a mate we did – much as men and women have always done. Imagine that! We aren’t such dinosaurs after all.

One thing I have noticed a return to in this recession is knitting. A friend of mine alerted me to Springwools in Tallaght. Springwools has been on the go for decades, they’ve always had loyal customers but are now experiencing an upsurge in trade thanks to the attractiveness of a non-expensive past-time and the fact that they use the internet to promote their business, a webpage, a facebook page and secure online shopping – this last a godsend to those of us who have had difficulty in sourcing yarn (particularly something a little different) over the last decade or so. The lovely Zita and her family are doing all in their power to make knitting popular and sexy again, of course those of us who always knit always knew this!

My knitting history started with Mother Teresa in the early 1980s. Two of the girls I worked with were feverishly knitting up little white articles on four small needles everyday at lunchtime (this before such things as flexitime, paninis and lattes) We made tea in the canteen ( now called staff restaurant) brought in out own sambos and bitched our lunch hour away. It was dangerous not to be in the canteen at lunchtime – because conversation always tended to be about the absent one! When my workmates explained to me that the white articles evolving on their needles were in fact vests for Mother Teresa’s bin babies I thought it wonderful. These tiny knitted garments would leave our canteen and wing their away across the world; ending up warming the tiny malnourished body of an unwanted baby. I begged the girls to show me how to knit. I drove them mad for a week, I couldn’t hold the needles or wool properly, my tension was too tight and as I smoked at the time I had to stop after every few stitches for a pull of my fag smouldering in the ashtray in front of me (Imagine! Smoking indoors! In work! Where food was consumed!)

I wasn’t a great pupil but my enthusiasm was infectious and soon I had several others signing up And we all sat around the table knitting and bitching. The lads who normally sat with us left when they saw the needles coming out. I think they intimidated them in some way, as our needles clicked so did our tongues. Perhaps we reminded them uneasily of some powerful matriarchal figure in their lives! Whatever. They left - we knitted and talked about them!

I could not finish off this little vest properly. I was a disaster and as days went by I was ripping back, cursing and attempting again to knit off in a way that would permit a baby’s head to pass through the garment, doing it wrong, re-ripping, re-knitting , re..etcetera etcetera – you get the picture. At this stage my Calcutta baby’s vest was dingy and disgustingly bally from all the abuse the wool got. In frustration one morning on the way into work I decided that I’d had enough and deliberately left the vest, wool needles and all on the bus. I went into work with enormous relief and quite enjoyed my performance of faked annoyance at tea-break that day, ‘all the bloody work’ I wailed ( I was 22 and single with no responsibilites, I didn’t know what work was!).

Hoist by my own petard – as always. My kindly workmate who had so diligently helped me learn how to knit went down to CIE’s Lost and Found that lunch time and arrived back triumphantly to the canteen with the offending garment in hand. My heart sank and I had to come clean. The girls roared with laughter and I was never, ever, let forget it. They finished off my vest and it was duly sent off to India. So at that canteen table I learned how to knit, helped dress a baby and had the best time in the company of lovely women. I went on to knit garments for myself – some successful, others not. I knit lots of little cardigans hats and bootees for the boys when they were babies, some dreadful some gorgeous. I have knit alone and in the company of others – it is intensely therapeutic. It is a skill. You can make garments that are quite truly original (not always a good thing!). But I think the thing I liked most about knitting is the conversations I have had around it. People seem to regard it as a defunct skill of a backward rural populace – and yes I know all about cheap mass produced fleece etcetera. It may no longer be as widely practised but it’ll never be defunct. Not once we have women who like sitting together and blethering, or sitting alone and relaxing while still being occupied.

So off with you now to, buy some needles and wool and start your own little Stitch 'N Bitch group – you might surprise yourself with a new found talent. At best you’ll have a life long hobby, at worst a good night in with pals! And something new to wear.


  1. Very good Evelyn, just a pity mad mother Theresa and the pope didn't believe in population control via contraception, it would have made a lot of more sense.

  2. Have you seen Dublin Knit Collective ( who tries to keep weekly updates there and on the Dublin Knit Collective group on
    Irish Knitting & Crochet try to keep an eye on what's going on with Irish Knit, Crochet and allied crafts bloggers you can find us here:
    Would you mind if I linked to your story for the weekly wrap-up?

  3. No problem Deirdre - link away.

  4. Oh I did like your story of trying to lose your first attempt, only for your friend to find it for you! But at least you carried on. I did try to learn knitting once with my mum - but I was given a really boring colour to work with, and soon lost interest. My Nan used to knit me amazing clothes for me and my dolls though, and I still wear a fantastic cardigan that my mum knitted in the 1970s. So I am very impressed by the skill of knitting!