English stitches

When you travel to a place that’s been shaped by human culture for millennia, there are so many layers of craftsmanship and beauty it’s hard not to stand gobsmacked in the middle of it all. I’ll bet I could spend a lifetime visiting Bristol Cathedral and still find new details in its architecture and decoration to admire. I had about four hours in Bath, which wasn’t remotely enough to take in its sweeping Georgian crescents or properly imagine the Roman temple. Everywhere I traveled there was so much to take in it almost seemed futile to point my camera anywhere at all, as I’d be missing so much more than I captured.

But one thread that drew me, particularly in the churches, where so many centuries of best work have been preserved, is how that work is still going on. These places are not museums; they are living and changing and responsive to human needs and aspirations. Stones that were shaped and set eight hundred years ago are now cushioned by beautiful kneelers stitched by modern hands:


I was charmed by these humble native birds and thistles, so elevated by good composition and color choice and expert needlework, full worthy to rest among the countless artistic treasures of Salisbury Cathedral. (Pssst, want to see some astounding stained glass and learn about how it’s made? Of course you do.) Having tried my hand at a bit of basic counted cross-stitch, I know just enough to appreciate the skill in evidence here. Look at the variety of stitches in the thistles and the way the artisan has held the brown and cream threads together to give the bird’s breast more subtle coloring:


In Oxford I wandered through the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and was struck by another piece of modern stitching. This beautiful embroidery was adorning a lectern in the Adam de Brome chapel:


This part of the church once served as a courtroom, and this hanging depicts scholars and common folk waiting for judgment. (Note the rats, who don’t seem to be waiting for anything.) Issuing from the judge’s bench at right are some of the actual decisions handed down 550 years ago: “The inspectors shall test the quality and quantity of the beer in the colleges. Beer shall not be sold before it has had time to cool.” – 12 November 1462. “Simon Marshall and John Merton shall forgive each other all past offences and provide an entertainment of goose, wine, bread and beer at St. Mary’s College.” – 10 January 1462.


My curiosity about this wonderful hanging lingered and I spent some time on the internet trying to ferret out its origins. Lo, I found the blog of the artist herself! There I was able to learn that this is machine embroidery—an entirely foreign country for me. I’d love to watch Suzette Smart at work. I can hardly imagine the squillions of stitches that must go into a piece like this and I wonder how long it takes. Plus there’s such subtlety in the shading of the colors. (Must not get too interested in this. I do not need more hobbies!)

I’m thinking a lot about the interplay of old and new as we press on through our big house project, too. Imagine, a 1″ x 5″ ridge “beam” has been holding up our roof for the past hundred years! Somehow I think of things having been built to last in the olden days—somehow they have lasted—but the contrast with the hefty and numerous slabs of laminated veneer lumber supporting the new construction is striking, and not just because the LVL is brilliant vermilion. (Everyone is to run for the east end in an earthquake.) I feel a deep affection for all the quirky details coming to light for the first time in many decades—the toothpaste green siding lurking on the wonky old interior (!) attic walls, the lath and plaster, the frail wooden beams. (I don’t think the builders have a lick of regard for the poor roof, which was so far out of parallel that they had to cut every new rafter a little differently and rough cut the plywood out of square to cover them.) Today the roofers are hard at work applying composite shingles, which is excellent in light of the forecast for rain all the rest of this week. Inspection is tomorrow, and then we can do the exterior siding, trim, and paint. That’s all exciting from a weatherproofing standpoint, too, but it’s the interior spaces I’m keen to see taking shape. I’m loving the nesting decisions—which lights, which paint, which tile? I’ve already dragged home a sturdy farm table to serve as my new work surface and can hardly wait to steal a sander from my father and set to fixing it up. We’re ever so lucky that we get to do this, to give this house just what it needs to be an ideal home for our growing family and evolving lives. My romantic side wishes we could quit work and do a lot of it ourselves, but my practical majority is just grateful we can afford to have it done quickly and professionally. The craft room, though? That’s mine to finish. After the kids go to bed I’ll be up there lovingly applying coats of the perfect grey paint, sewing curtains, building shelves in the closets, moving old things into new spaces, adding the work of my own hands to that of many capable others.

Another world

Texas (5 of 5)

West Texas in February. It hasn’t rained since November. (No longer quite true now that I’m posting this; the temperature dropped 40 degrees and it sleeted the day after we left.) The air and the earth are bone dry. In fact there is little division between them, as the windy season is arriving and the two elements have struck up a permanent molecular barn dance. We get intimate with dirt. Grit in our nostrils and pores. Great clouds of it billowing out of the children’s pants when I try to thwack them off before letting them indoors. Ada’s hair is a tumbleweed.

But the sun is warm. (The dirt loves the sunscreen. The children look like tiny miners squinting in the light after a day in the pit.) The little peach tree behind the barn is already setting blossoms. My in-laws’ new house is muscling up out back, shrugging on its plywood and Tyvek and half a roof, and there is no playground like a construction site. The kids bicycle through the future rooms and pull Jolly in a wagon. They haul in scrap lumber to block in the furnishings. They excavate the big dirt pile and slide down the sides.

And it is livestock heaven: six sheepdogs, a brazen and friendly cat, five horses, a little herd of heifers, Muscovy ducks, and sheep. The kids are beside themselves. “Hwose ooouuuut! Wide! Wide!” Jolly pleads, shaking the gate to the corral, trying to scale the saddles in the tack room. And we do. His cousin’s gentle old horse is willing to amble along with a speck of a boy on his broad back, and there’s room at the front of his aunt’s saddle to nestle him aboard the more sprightly gray mare. Jolly is alight with joy, humming happily and crowing “Bump bump bump!” when a faster pace jostles him a little. And when it’s Ada’s turn, the lead rope comes off. She listens seriously as her aunt explains what to do. She is calm and confident, sitting tall, unflustered when Brownie shakes his head or stretches his neck enough to pull her forward. She coolly steers him right and left, circles the arena, stops and starts as she wishes, waves to us railbirds with our cameras.

Texas (4 of 5)

Texas (2 of 5)

Texas (3 of 5)

We put the horses up and then help move some sheep to the pasture near the house. They’re half-grown Dorper lambs, born last autumn and still impishly sneaking milk from the ewes, so Amy cuts them from the flock one at a time and passes them through the gate. We straddle their stout warm bodies, fingers buried in their coarse wool. My lamb yaws and plunges; I tighten my grip and stroke her under the chin. Amy heaves the trio of sheep into the back of her ATV and deftly ties their limbs with twine. Their ankles are wonderfully delicate, slender as my small son’s wrists. They blat and void showers of moistly shining pellets. Their sides heave with worry and I speak soothingly to them. “Why are they frightened, Mama?” my daughter wants to know. “We won’t hurt them!” “Yeah, we’re not going to kill them yet,” chimes my unsentimental nephew, old enough at almost five to have seen the cycles of life on the ranch a few times over.

All these years I’ve been a knitter, and I grew up with horses and plenty of other animals, but it’s my first time handling sheep. Even with three legs hobbled, the lambs periodically struggle to right themselves. I clamber into the back of the ATV to ride with them and make certain they don’t try anything foolish. Sure enough, the largest gets some leverage with her free leg and tries to plunge overboard. I hoist her off her little flock mate and keep a grip on her wooly neck. Her breath is moist and warm on my arm. The third lamb gives up the struggle and closes her eyes. I like these sheep. It might be better if I didn’t; they aren’t wool growers or pets and there’s no escaping that they’re raised for meat. But I am pleased to be cozily amongst them, hands and a knee on their round bodies, rubbing them gently to make the restraint friendlier. I’m a long way from being a shepherd, but I’m glad to know my fondness for wool holds up when it’s on the hoof.

Texas (1 of 5)We’re far from home. Ada begs to stay forever. The journey back is three and a half hours in the car and two plane rides. I knit as we roll west over this unfamiliar country, studded with yucca and treeless mountains. We’ll be back.