Marie O’Shea – Picking Up Stitches – 4

 Picking Up Stitches

by Marie O’Shea

The envelope is crumpled, somewhat worse for wear.  Inside are ten pieces of card. Stapled to the left hand corner of each is a narrow length of card punched with holes.  Looped through each hole is a single strand of wool. Each card contains twelve different coloured strands, variations in the most part of green, purple, rust, beige and cream.  Written beside each strand, a brief note on the combination of plants and minerals used to obtain that specific shade. The notes read like an alchemist’s spell book. Examining it more closely, I see that bloodroot mordanted with tin will produce a deeper shade of yellow than when it is mordanted with alum.  Without any mordant, the resulting shade has hues of buttermilk. Quite different to the shades of yellow produced by dahlia, chrysanthemum or indeed, acorn.  

The log was created by a person who dyed and spun her own wool, who experimented with colour and who detailed her results with forensic accuracy.  When she died, her spinning wheel was sold. The new owner found the envelope in a bag of wool scraps that came with the wheel. A scrappy, torn envelope.  The sort of thing that easily could end up in the bin.  

It reminds me of a story my aunt told about a jumper she knitted.  Marrying late in life, she’d moved to the country home of a widower and his brood of grown up children.  Being a solitary lady, she initially felt awkward and out of place. During her first winter, she discovered a knitting bag at the back of a cupboard.  It contained the front section of a jumper knitted by her husband’s first wife. Being of a generation that hated waste, my aunt felt compelled to finish it.  Picking up stitches knitted by another hand, bringing the project to conclusion, was for her a practical way of honouring a person whose life she had in some sense inherited.  Ever after, when she wore the jumper, she spoke about Cath. I like to think the needles brought them together, helped them forge something of a posthumous friendship.  

In every charity shop, in every town, you will find pillow cases embroidered in chain stitch and dubious French knots, pieces of patchwork ragged at the edges, moth eaten hand knits, discoloured  doilies and stained table cloths. The sort of things that inevitably get thrown into black dustbin bags, when drawers are emptied and houses cleared.  

One time, my husband discovered a sampler behind a stack of old picture frames in Vincent de Paul.  Measuring over a metre, it depicted twenty eight figures, each wearing the national costume of a particular region in Holland.  I do a little cross stitch myself, enough to know the level of skill required to produce such a complex and well executed piece.  The hours and hours of work, the squinting at pattern charts, threading and rethreading of needles, snipping of ends and tidying of loose threads.  Compared to the Dutch sampler, my work is pocket sized. I guess the person who stitched it has passed away. I find it sad that her beautiful sampler ended up in a charity shop, that no daughter or daughter- in-law, or niece was moved to keep it, declare it an heirloom and pass it on to their own children, or that it was sold for five euro and hangs instead on my wall.  

Many years ago, a friend lent me a copy of, The Third Policeman, in which novelist Flann O’Brien, pronounces on the molecular relationship between animate and inanimate, the relationship, more specifically, between man and bicycle.  

“People who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky road steads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personality of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them.”

 I remember finding it hilarious.  Talking, late into the night, with housemates about the possibilities of polymorphism and the ways it might manifest in ourselves and the people around us.  Polymorphism. As a two-way process, I’m not persuaded.  

I do, however, believe that in the interface between people and objects, there is something of an exchange.  When shaped and worked on, when used and worn down, that things absorb energy, our energy, and that it radiates through them.  That’s what makes them special, draws us to them.  

It took me some years to figure out that there are different types of history.  That most of what is considered history is written about people who wield power.  It is the story of their wars, their beliefs, their alliances. The sorts of things that are celebrated in the exhibition spaces and history books of official culture also belong to these people.  Ordinary people living ordinary lives, who kept house and taught their daughters to sew and spin did not, for the most part, make it into the history books.  

 Around about the time I realized this, Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize with her novel, The God of Small Things.  Straight away, I got it.  Small things. Inconsequential things.  My aunt’s jumper. The Dutch Sampler. The sort of things I scour charity shops for.  Elusive, mysterious, hidden things. Diamonds in the rough.  

Alongside the hundred and twenty strands of coloured wool, the envelope in front of me contains a story.  It is a record of experimentation, a work of scientific precision, an magnum opus, created by someone who didn’t feel important enough to write her name on the envelope.  These are the things that get thrown away. Abandoned, discarded, unvalued things. Catalysts and powerhouses of an alternative history.  These are the stories that need to be rescued.  


Marie O’Shea is living and writing in Ireland. She studied at UCC and received a PhD in Sociology in 2010. Since then she reared three children, worked in adult education and family support and runs a small glamping site on the Beara Peninsula. What she really wants to do, of course, is write creatively! With that goal in mind, she’s taken a number of online writing courses and experimented with different genres. Her short stories have been published in the ‘Caterpillar’ magazine and ‘The Galway Review.’