The return of the needle

Needlework has drawn women into hobby communities, both online and off; creations by Nisha Thomas. Photo: M. Karunakaran  

You’ve seen her in the classic films of our youth and the fairy tale books of our childhood-that old woman in a rocking chair, bent over with age but sharp-tongued as ever, exchanging gossip or plotting danger, all the while knocking knitting needles together at rocket pace, weaving beauty from streams of coloured yarn balls strewn around her. It’s a trope so frequently pedalled that the very crafts of knitting, crochet, embroidery and quilting are mentally associated with aging grandmothers. A motley crew of women in Chennai, in their 20s and 30s, is swiftly changing that though. From college girls and young mothers to homemakers and entrepreneurs, they’re bringing the cool back to vintage needlework by reinventing it for new designs, materials and merchandise.

“Thirty years ago, every home had a sewing machine, and we watched our mothers and grandmothers hand-make everything. The next generation, however, hasn’t grown up that way. But thanks to the Internet, there’s a definite renaissance in needlework,” notes R. Shreevidhiya, founder of S.V. Arts and Crafts, Adyar, which specialises in crochet, knitting, Indian and Western embroidery classes. With tutorials freely accessible online, needlework skills are no longer solely inherited, adds Tina Katwal, quilter, tutor and owner of The Square Inch, a Tiruvanmiyur store that deals in sewing machines and needlework accessories. The Internet has also united craftswomen across the country through social media platforms. Tina’s online community, Desi Quilters, for instance, began with just her friend, but now connects 1,200 women nationwide.

Needlework has made a comeback because it’s been revamped for contemporary needs, believes Anitha Murugan, who founded Amrutha’s Craftie to teach and market crochet work. She learnt the craft at 18 from her grandmother, but returned to it a decade later, after marriage. “I realised that the sweaters, scarves and shawls my grandmother knit were no longer practical for our times, so I began making crochet jewellery and accessories.” For Nisha Thomas, founder of Crochet Corner, the fun of crochet lies in the experimenting. A marine biologist by training, who took up crocheting to make caps and booties for her baby girl, Nisha now mixes crochet with denim, satin and jute, often adding beadwork and ribbon embellishments, on her products for children and adults.

In some ways, this new-found return to needlework is a by-product of our time-starved, stressed-out modern lives. “It’s therapeutic! Among my students are doctors and IT women, who knit just to de-stress,” notes Shreevidhiya. The women at her school have also found a sense of community in their classes together, going on collective yarn-shopping trips to Mumbai and Bangalore annually, besides meeting up at homes just to stitch in each others’ company. In the sheer concentration and patience it takes to finish a product, and in its creative release, needlework forces your mind to block out the world and focus on each stitch, turn and fold, letting you return refreshed, explains Anita. “It’s also addictive. I could sit for hours, ignoring back and neck pains, just doing this continuously. Besides, anything I look at now, I automatically wonder how to render it in crochet. It’s freed up my imagination,” adds Lakshmi Kalaiappan, who teaches crochet from home.

Learning needlework could take you anywhere between just one session on the basics, to month-long classes replete with multiple projects. Most classes in the city provide primary tools and materials, besides a set of design templates for students to work on in their own time. For the most part, their raw materials are bought from T. Nagar and Parry’s, with the occasional bulk order for yarn from Coonoor, Ooty or Mumbai. Many craftswomen have also opened online retail stores that operate from their home studios. “Increasingly, I see women giving up formal careers to take up craft for life,” observes Tina.

Business aside, needlework has first been a means of self-expression for her, says Tina. As she puts it, each quilt tells a life history in the scraps of fabric chosen, its patterns, stitches and designs, for each brings with it stories and memories. “Rarely will you find a quilter making something for themselves. So, it holds a lot of meaning both for the one making and the one being given the quilt,” she says. For all the fulfilment that the craft brings, it still attracts its share of mockery, notes Nisha. “‘What is this old-woman-like behaviour?’ people laugh. But there really is nothing to be shy about! To the beginners, I say, ‘Just go ahead and break the stereotype. The art is worth it.'”

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 12:42:55 PM |

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