I did it!

I barely believe this but I did it - look, two socks! I took Pipany's advice to put my time by the fire to good use and here they are.  Inevitably the second one is better than the first but only I know where I struggled.  Now they are on my feet and incredibly cosy.

Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time (both of you) will know that I am bit conflicted about women's traditional skills.  As a 70s feminist I embraced wholeheartedly the idea that the most important thing for a woman was financial independence and I have lived that life, partly by choice and, when I was a single parent, with no choice at all.  I have worked in a traditionally man's world for twenty years and loved it and thrived.  And if you have children and a job it is hard to find time to blow your nose, never mind to make aprons and peg bags and to darn socks as my grandmothers did.  But because I grew up in New Zealand at a time when everyone learnt and practised practical skills, I can knit and sew because I was taught as a teenager.

While I was raising my children and working and chasing my tail the only thing I continued to do that I suppose is a traditional woman's skill was to cook and bake.  I love cooking and eating and the food that my family ate was and is important to me.  Now adult, all my children can cook and cook well.  That must be something to do with the years spent sitting in the kitchen, stirring and tasting and being consulted and involved and, from quite early on, cooking things for themselves and being pleased with the result and the resulting applause.  My nearly four year old grandson arriving to stay for a couple of days came through the door saying today "Maybe we can make some chocolate tiffin tomorrow Grandma."

But the sewing and knitting fell by the wayside.  Something has to give.  I used to think it was my social life.  On bad weeks I thought it was me.

But I still thought while I juggled my job and my family and my sadly neglected house that those traditional female skills should be valued.  I thought of the extraordinary skill of my grandmothers as they made and mended and turned shirt collars and sheets side to middle and produced rag rugs and knitted gloves and children's cardigans while making pastry and cakes at the drop of a handknitted hat.  My generation turned their back on those things because we needed to get out of the house and into the world.  I'm glad I did get out there but I look at the demands on younger women now and I see that they are working so hard both inside and outside the house that we cannot yet begin to say we have got it right.  And some younger women have turned back to the house, choosing to stay home to care for their children and embracing once again some of those traditional women's skills.

Can we do both, carve a professional life and knit socks?  I would like to think so but I wonder if that is just asking too much of one woman in one day.  I am sort of doing both by doing them sequentially rather than all at the same time but I wonder if there is a better way.  Can we have our education and our jobs and our place in the world of work and still honour and practice some of the skills of our mothers and grandmothers?  What do you think?

I can't tell you how much I enjoyed making my socks.


  1. Well, if so I don't know how. Or, not an impressive professional life. Not that I ever really wanted one. I envy my mother's generation, who stayed at home (mind you, I don't envy them the war).

  2. I have worked with children. I now stay home with children. The number of traditional skills I practice has changed greatly. For instance, I darn socks. The would never have occurred to me when I worked. Now it seems natural. For me, my entire attitude and approach to life changed when I quit working. At first, it was very satisfying. After six years, I find I sometimes miss being in the adult world.

  3. btw, they are not meant to be exactly the same! It is one of those wools which stripes itself if you know what I mean.

  4. Not sure I have a definitive answer to your question, Elizabeth, but I do have my own experience, and that was that I did my best, but couldn't do it all, certainly not all at the same time. So as a single parent and a working mother, some things certainly did have to give; these changed over time, and the higher up my profession I climbed, the more things 'gave', including all those traditional skills.

    Now that I have been retired for a while, I have both the time and the interest to pursue more traditional activities, but I also have choice in the matter. Our mothers and grandmothers didn't pursue their craft recreationally, as we can - they did it through necessity and lack of alternatives. My grandmother's clean, well-run home, and my mother's skilful dressmaking for us were cause to feel proud, but they weren't seen as expressive of creativity or just fun, in the way that our knitting or home making is now. Two bright, thoughtful women, I suspect they would have loved to have had careers rather than 'only' home and family duties, but that they too would have found that some things had to give too!

  5. As a farmers wife with little money I had to stay home and help on the farm and then 4 children in quick succession meant that I had to sew and knit and make clothes for them. Not learnt at my mothers knee but out of books, so my knitting style is a little odd and I do bless a short 4 weeks singer sewing machine course I took.
    My cooking was much the same, going to a house with a wood stove and 32 volt electricity and no refrigerator or washing machine, a boiler!
    Coming from the city I learnt a lot but it was fun and now I have time to play it is even better.

  6. Wow - those socks are impressive, Elizabeth!! I haven't ever tried socks, but I'm tempted. The trouble is, I fall asleep as I knit in the evening. I do better on ferries or ferry line-ups or on the odd Sunday afternoon.
    I will give your question some more thought - it's not as though I haven't turned this around in my mind, but I'm not ready to put something out there. I may end up answering you in an email - perhaps the topic is a little too close to the bone.
    til later.......

  7. Another supremely interesting post on a subject on which I often mull. I write as someone who has never really desired a career other than art but who nevertheless has had to work both full and part time at various points. I certainly had no time to do these things when I worked full time or cared for children full time, yet I always wanted to. I guess I always used to do a little bit - mending etc - but the really fun stuff has come now when I've got more time. I struggle with this issue a lot as I think it is terrible that not just the skills but the ability to reuse and recycle and love the old and worn is disappearing in favour of our consume/buy/throwaway society. I don't know what the answer is!

    I am really interested in what I have heard about NZ being a place where people appreciate and learn traditional skills - this is certainly reflected in the number of crafty type blogs coming from there and may well have been catalytic in the huge revival in crafts worldwide for all I know - can you tell me anymore about this?

    PS I don't know if this is just me but I couldn't access the comment-leaving page unless I went via your homepage - I couldn't find a way to do it from inside the post url...??

  8. Fabulous socks! Coincidentally I have just been looking at that very same pattern and promising my husband that I'll make him a pair. I've just finished the wrist warmers too.

    I agree about traditional 'women's skills' (although I do know men who knit, sew and bake). I think it is possible to carve a professional life and knit socks, but perhaps (in my case) one would have to lower one's standards (regarding the socks!)

  9. Wow - I am mightily impressed by those socks. I love knitting but am not very good at it - yet.
    I too am always in a quandary about women's work/skills, as you know. I love cooking, baking, knitting, sewing etc, but feel that it doesn't really qualify as a justifiable spend of my time. I don't know why.

  10. Well done with the socks. I love making socks, and have tried to have a pair on the go as well as whatever else I am knitting. Except that I have just discovered knitting shawls, and that seems to have taken over from the socks.
    I have to say that I truly enjoy the slow pace of life that we have chosen over the hectic one that we led whilst I went out of the home to work. It has been a conscious thing but I know that I am very blessed in that I don't HAVE to go out to work, but we choose to live life more simply. You can't do everything, and the money only goes so far, however much you have. It seems to me that it all boils down to quality of life, and what matters the most to the individual.

  11. Golly, that's a question and a half Elizabeth. Truthfully, I think both requires a lowering of standards which sounds depressing, so perhaps it should be seen as raising one's standards? After all, how can managing a job/home/family AND creating something along the way, however imperfect it all may be, be considered as lowering? I think you have done an amazing job on those socks. They look so warm and cosy - just perfect x

  12. Love those socks.Theres nothing more satisfying than doing some craft or other by a cosy fire at night.

    Nuts in May

  13. Well done with those socks. I know you've used a very cunning wool but I've knitted fair isle patterns and they are great fun.

    Your question is a hard one - I now have the luxury of time to do some of the things which there was no time for when work and family took up most of my waking hours. I never stopped cooking - mainly because there were 4 hungry people looking for meals )though why in later years they never took a turn I don't know.)

    I'm saddened now that some basic skills are not taught to young people, either by their parents or school. We had a young farmer last week - probably aged 17/18 who couldn't even tack a length of ribbon to a dress. We didn't need fine tailoring just cotton threaded though a needle - tacking!

  14. An interesting and thought-provoking post Elizabeth.
    It's great that we can have financial independence and careers and it should absolutely be a choice for everyone, but something always has to give because of lack of time. I think everyone has summed it up really well. For my own experience, I've never had children or a proper career as such, but I spent a long time working full time in extremely busy jobs in the City before deciding I wanted to slow down and live more simply with less money. We moved here ten years ago now and its the best thing we ever did! We both took lower paid jobs, in my case self-employment working from home, and now I'm in control, much happier, and able to pursue the traditional skills mentioned above (I love 'keeping home') but more than that, for me it is the quality of life, taking each day as it comes and having time to 'smell the roses'. Traditional female skills, and indeed any traditional skill, are happily enjoying a revival and are no longer frowned upon as having lowered your standards. I applaud this.
    I really think many young women (if they are able) are now turning their backs on the whole superwoman thing and embracing the kind of lifestyle their mothers and grandmothers may have had, albeit in a recreational way rather than through necessity.

    Oh and I think your socks look great Elizabeth - I love that wool.


  15. Oh, your socks are just darling.I read an article once , that some women who pursued a professional life felt cheated out of the chance of motherhood and staying at home with a family.I wanted to become a nurse but stopped going to college to marry and start my family, and I'v never looked back. So, here I am now starting college and hopefully getting into the nursing program! It's never to late, right!

  16. I came across your post while blog-surfing, as it were. I'm an independent, 30-something woman with a decent job and a degree, admittedly without a family to look after, and I'm not much of a homekeeper, but I have to say that I *love* knitting, especially socks, and it brings me much joy to know that I have a pair of hand-knitted socks on each day.

    My mum taught me to knit when I was young, and then I've had phases of knitting and not knitting ever since. The current knitting phase started about 2 1/2 years ago, and it's kicked in with avengence. There are some wonderful resources out there on the internet, and I have also met a great bunch of people who feel the same way as I do.

    I've tried other crafts such as spinning and crochet, with varying degrees of success, and I've recently acquired a sewing machine.

    I wouldn't like to romanticise too much about carrying on the skills of my grandmothers, but I do feel very accomplished when I have finished making something that calls for a particular set of skills. I try to spend some time each day being creative in this way. So yes, I think it can be done.

  17. Isabelle - my mother didn't stay at home and I always liked the fact that she was more interesting to my eyes than other people's mothers. Mind you she didn't start working until I was about 11 so I had had a childhood of being cossetted. Also not entirely sure you mean it!
    Kim - I think you are spot on. The balance swings back and forth. Too much work is a trial in one direction, perhaps too much domesticity can be stifling in another.
    Rachel - I think you make an important point about the way in which our mothers and grandmothers had no choice but to exercise these skills. They might have found them an outlet for creativity is they were really skilled but for many I suspect they were simply a necessary part of making ends meet. We do at least have the luxury of choice!
    Penny - It is amazing what you can learn when you must. I wonder how many of our daughters and granddaughters will do these things and whether it matters?
    Pondside - I would love to have your thoughts, however you choose to share them (or not if you'd rather!)
    Sue - I thought this would be an area you had thought long and hard about too. Part of my interest in these skills is a resistance to what you call the "throw away society". If you make do and mend and make things from scratch they have a value which a £2 purchase from Primark can never have. NZ does seem to be a place which has retained a culture of doing things for yourself. I think it is partly that they are a very hardy, self reliant society where the smaller population produces a slower way of life than here in the UK. Great place.
    Preseli Mags - I know just what you mean about low standards. When I was working in a very demanding job when my children were young I always used to answer the inevitable "I don't know how you do it" comment with the line that my standards were low. People thought I was joking I suspect.

  18. sequentially is the word.
    Like you, I didn't have the luxury of choice. It was work, get home, work some more and do the kids with my left hand while the right was catching up on housework.
    Even the nicer sort of housework, like cooking, preserving etc., fell by the wayside.
    I learned all that when i got sick and couldn't work. The kids were grown up and I found a chap willing to support me in the style to which I would have loved to have become accustomed years ago.

    Now I love cooking and gardening but there's no time now for the making and mending, I'm blogging and reading and writing.

    Superwoman I am not.

  19. I worked until I had my children and then I quit and raised them. I figured if I was going to have children I owed it to them and myself to raise them and not have someone else do it. I had a great time. Home schooled.

    You have inspired me to learn how to knit a pair of socks. I found some of my knitting needles today, so maybe there is a message in there somewhere. I took great pleasure in learning to quilt in my 60's. I wish I had been quilting all my life.

  20. I see you have an enourmous crowd come to add their views on a subject to which there is no answer. Guess horses for courses is the best way. Each person finds their own solution. I love the socks - especially that multi-coloured wool you used. Are you taking orders?!Please?

  21. Oh great, it's working again! So, Elizabeth, I'll tell you again that I love your socks and that they put my scarves to shame. I like knowing how to sew (don't do much anymore) and knit and crochet, just because they've all come in handy at one time or another. I think it's a pity that none of my kids know how to do these things, especially the sewing. I mean, things need to be mended from time to time, don't they??

  22. Terrific socks, I love them! I tried a sock last year but my carpal tunnels didn't like it much. Might try and achieve wrist warmers for next winter though (it will take me that long to finish!)
    I do think it's sad that many young people are growing up without the skills that let you make the most of what you can afford - those clothes in charity shops that only need a button replacing! I must have been married for about 20 years before I bought a cushion cover, and I've never bought a pair of curtains. I don't cook often now, but that's because my retired husband does it all, but I'm very proud that my sons are both excellent cooks (mind you, they do bring me their buttons to re-attach!)
    I suddenly wish I had some grandchildren so that I could teach them french knitting and how to make raffia mats or woolly pompoms. Perhaps I could teach the dog felting?

  23. I bow to anyone who can knit/crochet following a pattern. I am an avid crocheter who gets hives at the very thought of a pattern. Everything I make is "by eye".

    Also - please stop by my blog today, if you get the chance. I'm in need of some advice!


  24. Kitty - I suspect that part of the reason that some of these skills are being lost is that women's work like this has never had much status. Perhaps that is changing as things that used to be necessary for making ends meet have become recognised as crafts. Cooking certainly seems to me to be more widely recognised and appreciated than was the case when I was a child.
    Helen - as you say, we are lucky to have the choice. I also feel I am consciously trying to live life more simply but I can't say I feel I am always succeeding!
    Pipany - I think it is extremely difficult to do many things well and doing many things is how life works for most women these days. Perhaps it is better to have the choice and juggle than not to have? I am chuffed that you like my socks since I regard you as one who knows!
    Maggie - it is satisfying isn't it? Must be something primitive about the need to make.
    moumtainear - I agree about the basic skills and how saddening it is that they are apparently no longer taught. I must admit though that, although I was taught all sort of things at school, I learnt much more at home. Maybe with women out in the workplace now there simply isn't time to teach children how to cook and knit and sew. I hope this is not true.
    Jeanne - what an interesting perspective. I think there is a revival of sorts, partly now perhaps helped along by the recession and associated belt tightening. I suspect the only ways these skills will survive is if they are undertaken as "recreation" or a means of self expression. Some other replies certainly seem to suggest that people who practise them find them an expression of their creativity. I am not sure I am good enough for that but I rather admire it.

  25. I love this post! I am 56. I grew up in the 60's and early 70's. I was a feminist through and through. Worked full time, raised 4 boys, found time to also play sports....because that is what I was interested in at the time. Softball, tennis - not knitting or quilting. Now that my children are raised, I am finding an interest in all things domestic. Decorating, baking, cooking, gardening. So I think that you can pick and choose and do the things you like, no matter the stage in life you are.

  26. My kids are grown and I have often regretted not finishing my college degree--even went back when they were elementary school age, but caring for 3 children and my widowed mother who couldn't drive stressed me to the breaking point and I gave it up. You can't do it ALL-well. I have preached to my two daughters the value of a college education BEFORE you have kids preferably. I advised my youngest daughter (age 24) this weekend to finish her degree because even if she marries someone and doesn't HAVE to work, it is your "insurance" so to speak if say your spouse dies prematurely or if divorce becomes necessary. You just never know what life is going to throw you so it's better to be somewhat prepared. I think the best senario if you have children is to work part-time- to keep your foot in the door, and I did work part-time. I must say that I haven't met a woman yet who enjoys carrying a crying baby out into freezing cold weather in the early morning hours so she can be "fulfilled" by a career. Most women I've known "HAD" to work--didn't really want to leave their home and children. Also there is the problem of sick children--they just don't fit into the career woman scheme of things. Sick children want the comfort of home, not an institutional daycare. I worked in daycare when I was a college student, and I saw enough to know it wasn't ideal. Workplaces do not take well to mothers staying home with sick children. We live in an imperfect world and there will never be a perfect solution. Women just have to do the best they can. This is a great topic to discuss. Enjoyed reading the feedback!

  27. Beautiful post. I am amazed at how women can be all they are and stay sane. I work with all women (teachers) and marvel at how they juggle home/husband/children/teaching/etc and maintain all of them and themselves.


  28. I think the key is 'choice'. If we chose to learn and practice these skills for our own pleasure then that adds to our experiences and enjoyment. If we are forced to do them for others benefit then it's a lessening of our options.

    Generally, I'm pro-choice... and anti-darning.

  29. Hi Linda - I suspect one of the ways women will increasingly make their lives work is to do what you are doing and come to their career after family. Best of luck!
    deepseaknits well clearly you are one are doing both. Having visited your blog you are a serious and creative knitter. I am in awe of some of your projects. This is definitely knitting as a creative process. Maybe my socks are one small step..
    Friko - I am definitely not superwoman either. Firstly I did what I do sequentially and secondly I don't do the stuff I don't like. You should see the state of my oven!
    Callie - I would seriously recommend the tutorial link for sock knitting in my blog. I don't think I could have managed it without it.
    Jinksy - not up to taking orders yet (or probably ever!). I shall make another pair as soon as I have finished a scarf I am knitting. Presumably I will get more proficient the more pairs I get under my belt.
    Deborah - yes, there is a pleasure in the self sufficiency somehow isn't there? My kids can cook and my daughter can knit a bit. My stepdaughter is the only who sews and she is very good at it. I think that is more her mother's example than mine!
    geranium cat - raffia mats and woolly pompoms? now you are talking!
    Penny - I agree. What interests you shifts with the stages of life. Always loved cooking, have been a gardener for about twenty years, but the pleasure in knitting is both quite new and a throw back to a very much younger self. We are fortunate to have the choice.
    Marcheline - you can crochet by eye? That's extraordinary. Must be harder to do that follow a pattern surely?
    Don - I think we shall just agree that women are wonderful shall we?
    Dawn - deeply pro choice here. Anti oven cleaning (see above) and for all my comments here about making and mending, I hate mending!
    Stickhorse - it is fascinating reading what different people have to say and thanks for joining in!

  30. Bother. You've done it again. I want to write a post in response to yours!

    Knitting has a particular advantage over other skills in that you can do it at the same time as other things like reading / talking / watching the television.

    I once left a ball of wool on a bus when I (and the knitting) got off. As the bus sped off into the distance, the wool unwound until it pinged and broke.

    How are people going to see your socks? Will you go out shoeless?


  31. I think I could do with knitting myself a spare pair of hours! No time at all at the moment to make anything - I've got to make a plan of attack. Enjoy the socks.

  32. This is the third time I've popped back to leave a comment, but couldn't really decide if I could get across what I wanted to say.
    I think I'm quite a traditionalist. I personally believe that society does not value the traditional role or skills of women.

    Not only raising children, but making a stress free, safe, loving caring home for the whole family is sooo important and usually it's the woman who is the anchor for all of this.

    I have always worked, changing from full time to part time when the children came along. I have been lucky that the days I worked my husband was at home to take care of the children and vice versa, so they didn’t' have to be farmed out left right and centre. Yes, I used to get up a 4.30am and work a 12 ½ hour shift. Yes I do realise that some women have to go to work to put a roof over their families heads and food in their bellies. I also realise that some women need to go out to work for their own sanity.

    We're not bothered that our car is 17 years old, most of our furniture is second hand, we don't go away on holiday every year. Our children didn't do dance class, brownies, piano lessons, judo they didn't have birthday parties at McDonalds or wear the latest designer trainers. They didn't want or need to.

    We try and lead as simple a life as possible, making a less stressful life. Our marriage is strong because we focus on each other. After all, we are the rock that our family is built on. Our children are courteous, caring, and happy with decent values. They don't see their parents shouting and screaming at each other; in fact they don't see their parents raising their voices at all. They see respect and that is the norm for them. Children learn what they live.
    So for me 'women’s traditional skills' aren't just sewing and baking. They are so much more. Such a fine balance of caring for the whole family. I believe society expects far too much from us. We are now expected not only to be wife, mother, homemaker, but to go out to work and have a career too. (Is this equality?) As you put it so well yourself… something’s got to give, we only need to look at society today to see the results.
    So bring on home knitted jumpers made with love, socks darned to last a bit longer, homemade cakes and biscuits without several layers of wrappings, crochet blankets to snuggle under and read stories, colouring books and pens, sticky glue…homemade jam…tents made from an old sheet….dare I say it, lets bring back the housewife.

    Right I’m going to press the post button now before I chicken out!

  33. Thank you so much for stopping by. I loved this post and can so identify with it... single mum of 16 years, both sons really good cooks, and also I've just started knitting again, only I'm doing a cardie. Can't tell how much I'm enjoying it.

  34. Karen - well actually I am impressed with the socks too! Sorry about the boasting but feels like someone else did it!
    Esther - I think not many people will see my socks but my immediate family will be bored witless by my enthusiasm.
    Chris - maybe you can't run and knit socks? Running makes you thinner,socks make you warmer.
    Marmalade - thank you for commenting and so interestingly and extensively. It is fascinating to read about how people make their choices and you sound very comfortable with yours!
    Firebyrd - great to see you here. Loved your bag blog!

  35. I actually explored some of these things in my thesis, which looked at representations of needlework in 19th century literature and art. And funnily enough, this is what really fired my interest in sewing and knitting - which I had totally rejected in my teens at school, because I saw myself as a feminist, intellectual not domestic. But actually I see all this as creative and empowering now, not oppressive, and I work and make, and love doing both! I don't watch TV, rarely iron, and keep housework to a minimum, all of which free my spare time to make things - which is much more fun!

    Pomona x

  36. Your socks caught my eye because I am in the midst of making a pair with the same colours of self-striping yarn. I'm impressed that both of yours are finished. The second one is always my nemesis. I'll happily start a different pair rather than finish off the second sock of the first pair.

    I've grappled with the same issues for many years. Recently, I came across an interesting article in which it talked about how men in some societies used to knit. It made me wonder how knitting became considered women's work (or a hobby). That got me thinking about how we view so many creative activities as being women-oriented.


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