Over the last week I have been engrossed in a newly published book Handywoman by Kate Davies.
Kate Davies is a knit-wear designer now living in the Western Highlands of Scotland with her book designer/photographer partner Tom Barr. She designs beautiful sweaters, drawing her inspiration from traditional knitting of the north. Her website and pattern books feature her modelling her beautiful hand knits against stunning Scottish backgrounds.
Previously an academic in Edinburgh, she became a full time knitwear designer after experiencing a life-changing stroke at the age of 36 in 2010. Initially hemiplegic, she regained much of her previous function after enormous personal effort and those of the rehabilitation professionals she worked with for months after the stroke.
Always a lover of knitting, she slowly but surely returned to the craft after herculean efforts to regain the functioning of her hand. Knitting became a vital part of her recovery.
In Handywoman, Kate writes about her experience of becoming suddenly and dramatically disabled at such a young age and of her journey since then. Her writing is frank, moving and inspirational. She applies the thoroughness of her academic training to an analysis of her self and her body through the recovery experience and describes major shifts in her thinking about her body, her environment and the profound and often under-acknowledged role that tools have in our lives.
“…I would say that brain injury really opened my eyes to the deeply human potential of made things and practices of making”
Learning to walk again and to use her hands to their full capacity opened a world previously unseen and underappreciated. The astonishingly nuanced movements of the hands that cooperate so easily and unconsciously in a ‘normal’ person were at first inaccessible to her. She describes how she slowly reconstructed the multitude of hand movements involved in knitting a stitch or, in another example, making a sock ball from two matching socks.
This reminded me of my experiences of learning to teach knitting and crochet to beginners. I found myself having to deconstruct my hand movements in order to be able to explain and demonstrate them to others. I became fully aware for the first time of the complexity of the movements of my hands that had become automatic and unconscious after so many years of making.
For new knitters and crocheters, the clumsiness and awkwardness associated with learning to use their hands a new way is one of the most frustrating and challenging aspects of learning a new craft. And they have two working hands. I have experienced this recently as I have been teaching myself to knit continental style (holding the yarn in the left hand, rather than the right as is more common in England and Australia). I have been watching numerous you-tube videos to try to better understand the subtle hand movements that bring fluency to the actions and will give me the much touted ‘faster and more efficient action’ of continental knitting. It is still a work in progress.
Kate describes the act of existing with the ongoing impairments from her stroke as one of great creativity as she is constantly required to readjust to her environment and find a way that she can adapt her environment to her altered abilities or vice versa.
“ I began to understand that recovery from brain injury might be less about overcoming limitation than it was to finding ways of using limitation to one’s creative advantage”.
In her inspiring and Ted Talk she states:
“ knitting grows slowly over time. Knitting helped me to accept the demand of my post-stroke brain and body and to be able to live within their slowness….when I was knitting I was always moving forward. A row would get to an end, a pattern repeat would change and the sock that was on my needles would always grow a little bigger. There was something about knitting that enabled me to do that, so I really can’t overestimate the importance of knitting to me in my post-stroke life”
As well as its more existential and psychological benefits, knitting helped her develop upper arm and finger strength and dexterity. It was excellent physiotherapy.
Whilst our stories are very different and her experience of recovery such a gargantuan challenge compared to my own experience with chronic illness, many of her stories rang true to me. For instance, the sense of grief and loss that comes with an unanticipated and unpredictable major change in one’s capacity to do what one did before; the need to reinvent yourself to accommodate your new limitations but also the possibilities that this creates.
Like Kate, being unable to do what I had done before allowed me to explore new directions and emerge happier than I have been for years.
Kate decided to publish her book herself with the help of her husband Tom. The book is a beautiful object in itself. I would have bought it for the cover only! She has created a Handywoman website where you can see a gallery of photos relating to the book and read more about it and of course put in your order. You may also want to visit https://katedaviesdesigns.com/ https://katedaviesdesigns.com/https://katedaviesdesigns.com/and sign up to her newsletter/blog.