I cannot remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by natural fibres and textiles. I have knitted, sewn, spun and dyed for much of my life, with spells of feltmaking and weaving thrown in for good measure.
At the age of 5, about the time I started school in the 1960's, my grandmother taught me to knit. I don't remember any struggle with this - or any particular interest - until I had produced a rose pink, slightly shining square of a wonderful, intriguing texture. I carried my little square everywhere, it meant more than any other object. My mother, a keen dressmaker, handspinner and weaver, taught me to use a sewing machine and by the time I started at secondary school I could understand the making of clothes. I learnt early to think for myself and make my own designs.
I have always felt that the connection with textiles should be as important to us as that to food, and that, since the rise of urbanisation and industrial processes, those connections have been eroded. Little value is attached to our clothing, our linens, our furnishings; when we buy we expect that they last forever but then discard them when the latest fashions arrive. We constantly look for the new and the innovative, for complexity and multi levelled interest. Many have no idea how their acrylic jumper or their wool coat came to be, how the colour is developed and applied, animal, vegetable, mineral...or the true cost.
Textiles at their simplest can ground us, literally a continuous thread with the past. A great aunt was a pattern cutter, and using my mother's spinning wheel connects me to her, as knitting does to my grandmother. I love wool for its history and its stories as well as its material qualities - the same applies to natural dyes. There's a simplicity to the process, hidden in the mystery that comes with disconnection and mass manufacture.
It wasn't until I was in my late 20's, after much searching and experimenting, that I resigned myself to the realisation that the amazing texture of that little pink square was, after all, just the reverse side of simple stocking stitch.
susan james - knitwear