A Mother’s Work

Some repair commissions are so much more than mending a hole or two. I recently completed a very special commission, which I would like to share with you. Bernadette sent me an email with a repair commission request, and as she has put her conundrum in such concise and clear words, I will quote the relevant parts here:

I have a pullover that my mother knitted me in the 1980s.  It was  cream coloured natural wool — I’ve since dyed it grey.  It’s a typically big and baggy eighties style from a pattern by Edina Ronay. It didn’t really suit me, the undyed colour was a kind of dirty cream and the neckline is wrong.  

There’s a lot of my mother’s work in this garment.  I don’t want to get rid of it – it’s about 25 years old and it’s been at the back of a cupboard for a long time.  So I had an idea to make it wearable by dyeing it grey.  This wasn’t wholly successful. The colour is a bit patchy but on the whole I prefer it to the cream.  It still looked massive on me.  I had another idea to turn it into a cushion – it’s got nice (I think Guernsey) textured patterns all over it and the body would be big enough to make a substantial cushion cover.  So I cut off one of the sleeves, with a view to hacking the thing to bits to make a cushion.  As soon as I’d cut off the sleeve I regretted it.  

There’s  a small hole in one sleeve too.  The pullover means a lot to me, especially since my mother died a couple of years ago.  We didn’t have much in common and knitting is one of my only true connections to her.

Visible Mending Programme - Jumper with hacked off sleeve

Bernadette’s jumper, you can see the cut off sleeve with ragged seams. In this picture I already unpicked the top of the sleeve and picked up the stitches

We exchanged a few emails so I could get a feel of what she wanted and come up with a repair strategy before meeting up.

Thank you for your kind reply.  I’m so glad you understand about the jumper – and about mothers!  I’m sure my own mother would think I was completely mad to be trying to fix up this old jumper she made.
As you can see – not only did I cut off a sleeve, I also cut open the seam of the sleeve.  Why  – I couldn’t really say at this point.  The wool is a bit felted through age, so nothing has come unravelled at all.
Re the neckline – it used to be a lot wider. I think maybe the jumper has shrunk a little bit because the neckline doesn’t seem so wide as I remember it. I guess it’s okay how it is.
I had to come up with a way of reconstructing the sleeve without losing too much of the original knitting. As the sleeve had been cut off and open, rather than carefully unpicked at the seams, I had some unravelling to do and fill in the missing inch at the very top of the sleeve cap. I also needed to do something about the side seams, as these could not be sewn together as they were.
The Visible Mending Programme - Shoulder and Sleeve Detail
A sympathetic contrasting colour was used to fix the sleeve and make up for lost fabric
Looking for a colour that would provide some contrast, yet harmonise well with the lavender grey of the jumper, I settled on a dark grey alpaca sock yarn. I chose a cable stitch that resembled the stitch in the jumper, but wasn’t quite the same to reinforce the idea that this repair was not done by the person who originally knitted the garment.
Picking up stitches from somebody else’s work felt really intimate, and throughout the repair my thoughts went out to Bernadette, and her mother. I admired the skill and effort that went into making this jumper, the even stitches. I have never met Bernadette’s mother, but picking up her work forged a connection, and I imagined how she worked on this jumper. I will never know what might have gone through her mind, yet I was wondering about this; wondering what she would’ve thought about her daughter asking to do this Visible Mend.
Visible Mending Programme - invisible mend on sleeve
One invisible mend is hiding on the sleeve – can you see it?
As I had some original yarn from unravelling the untidy cut edges, I did an invisible mend on the hole in the sleeve. I felt that another, seemingly randomly placed visible mend would distract from the visible sleeve reconstruction. Once I had sewn up the jumper, I ‘de-pilled’ it, and then gently hand-washed it before blocking it. I had asked Bernadette not to wash the jumper before giving it to me for repair, as this might inadvertently do more damage: stitches might unravel, or more felting might occur. As always, once I feel I’ve completed the repair, the final touch was stitching the Visible Mending Programme initials into the garment.
The Visible Mending Programme - stitched logo
VMP – Visible Mending Programme
I guess you might want to know what the jumper looks like now?
Bernadette can wear her mother’s handiwork again, and be reminded of their one true connection
Both Bernadette and I were very pleased with the end result, so let me end with her own words, providing another little glimpse on the value of this jumper:
It really does mean a lot that I still have the jumper.  My mum always tried to make me the jumpers that I chose patterns for.  Unfortunately I had such bad taste back in the 80s that they were mostly horrible, but it wasn’t my Mum’s fault. 

When I was older my Mum made my children quite a few little things, but none of the garments have been hardy enough to survive.  There was one pink fair isle twinset she made my daughter that I really hoped to keep but a moth ate holes in it and it made me feel sad to look at it, and I eventually got rid of it.

So this jumper that you are rescuing is the one surviving garment (apart from an astonishing array of teddy trousers and dresses in acrylic!).

24 Replies to “A Mother’s Work”

  1. Oh this is lovely. I’ve recently unravelled a jumper that my mum made for me in the early nineties – fortunately she’s still around to get her blessing for it! It was a jumper knitted with aran yarn held double and her tension went a bit skewiff, so the sleeves came down to my knees! I’m re-knitting it into a cardigan now so it will get worn.

  2. That’s just lovely. It’s now a perfectly wearable and unique garment, which wears its heart on its sleeve 🙂

  3. Tom, that is a really beautiful rescue. I’m especially taken by the cable direction at the top of the sleeve. Completely inspiring.

  4. For me it is my grandmother’s work that I save. I have one alpaca sweater that has numerous repairs after 30+ years. I took the buttons off, and never replaced them. It is a hug I put on when I miss her, and it will never be thrown out. Well, maybe when it is shreds and no more repairs can be made.

  5. For me it is my grandmother’s work. I have a 30+ year old alpaca sweater that has been mended many times, and I finally had to remove the ugly buttons. I don’t think I can throw it out unless it is shreds and cannot be mended.

  6. Love the work you did and I love how much intensive remembering is connected with it and felt. Thank you for sharing.

  7. This post is the best thing I have read in ages with its layers of craftsmanship, and the sense of your building your mends into a legacy of stitches left by Bernadette’s mother. Your mend represents great respect for the history of the sweater, and expertise and sensitivity define your intervention and rescue work!

    I love your sympathetic yet technically accomplished approach to making repairs. How I wish all the work of all clothes makers the world over was treated with the same respect and clarity of thought as Bernadette’s mothers’ handiwork, and how much deep sympathy I feel for Bernadette in that moment of deep regret, after cutting the sleeve.

    Thank goodness you have been able to redeem this with the genius of the Visible Mending Programme.

    Thank you for a beautiful story of clothes, exchange, process and repair.

  8. Yes, thank you Tom for the feelings you have entwined in your story. I empathised with Bernadette as I have a very difficult relationship with my mother, from whom I learnt to knit at a very young age, but I’m so touched to see the bond that she has formed with my youngest daughter who also knits. My daughter is willing to wear whatever tasteless garment her grannie (my mum) produces for her, without self-consciousness, which I was never able to do, largely due to our ‘baggage’ accumulated through my childhood and adolescence.

    Isn’t it amazing how many emotions and feelings are held within our knitwear, and how many memories are evoked by the sight, touch and smell of them. I have managed to hold onto some of the things my mum knitted for my children, and will treasure those and pass them on to grandchildren, if I have some!! It’s all so important, as you have so eloquently put into words. x

  9. I hope some day you’ll make a book about these stories of yours, not only the repairs, which can be repairs of the heart as well as the wool, but of your custom wool knits which have been requested of you to commemorate a celebration….It is so what’s often most missing in modern, hectic, instant life–the ample communication between 2 strangers to make everything right again. I daresay you and Bernadette will never be strangers again!

    Historically, there have been a lot of uses for the word “knitting”. Knitting two people together was the marriage ceremony. A broken bone that was knitted together meant that it had healed itself successfully. Your stories are another knitting together that far transcends the knit stitch and the purl stitch. (Although, if I do say so myself, each stitch may be about giving and loving, even if only for oneself!)

    Thank you for your stories!

  10. Looking at the pictures of the (beautifully) repaired sweater, I couldn’t help but think about how unused we are to seeing anything even remotely resembling a visible mend. This sweater will start conversations, I’m sure.

  11. This story brought a tear to my eye. The patched jumper seemed to symbolise that family relationships aren’t easy or perfect. There are worn patches, mismatches and decisions we regret. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of.

    The knitting in the original jumper is beautiful, and so are Tom’s mends.

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