The Knitographer Interviews... Rosemary McLeod

I am extremely excited to present my interview with Rosemary McLeod! Not only is she an amazing journalist in New Zealand (I spent a lot of time reading her work for The Listener while I was studying and a working journalist), she is also crafty. 

This month her second book, With Bold Needle & Thread - Adventures in Vintage Needlecraft, was published, and it is one of the most beautiful books I've had the pleasure of buying.
Rosemary creates craft projects drawn from vintage patterns - beautiful cosies, cushions, bags and garments. 

Here Rosemary answers ten questions about her love of craft and collecting vintage patterns and textiles.

“Stitching comes into its’ own in hard times”.  You acknowledge that craft is undergoing resurgence. So you think it is in part to the economic climate of the last five years?

I doubt that the resurgence of textile craft in the past five years (or more) is due entirely to the economic climate, but I suspect that it has a bearing on it, as recycling seems to be an important element. Another reason may be that we are in a new phase of feminism when women feel free to claim the “feminine” in their lives without believing that equates with inferiority. I’d link the increased interest in baking and cooking (TV programmes, magazines etc) to this, and obviously knitting, which are also skills that are about positive lifestyle choices.

Handcrafts had a quiet and constant place in the home for many decades during the last century, before major changes in the way we lived and what households could afford. What do you think the role of handcrafts will be over the next 20 years?

Over the next 20 years I’d expect handcraft skills to become increasingly mainstream.

You say in your book that you inherited some special textiles from family, including baby clothes you once wore. What is the first textile object you actively collected, and what does it mean to you now?

 I guess the first textile pieces I consciously collected were the work my mother left when she died (I was 22). I kept a suitcase of her embroideries and my baby clothes, made by her, as well as a dress I no longer wore, but which she had embroidered. These went from flat to flat with me for years, and I still have most of them. There was more than pure sentimentality behind this. I recognized her skill, which she’d been proud of, and what these pieces had meant in her life. (I wrote about that in Thrift to Fantasy.)

You first book was about the inherent meaning of textiles. Was it an easy transition to follow this up with a pattern and project book?

 The progression from that book to Bold Needle seemed a natural one to me. As well as collecting textile handcrafts for many years, I’ve collected a reference library of magazines and craft publications of their time. These help me identify work, and give me a sense of its social and historical context. It seemed like a good idea to share that resource.

You profile a variety of needlecraft techniques – do you have a favourite or does it depend on what you’d like to make?

 My own current favourite textile techniques are felt appliqué with embroidery, and I always do freestyle embroidery, preferably with perle threads. These feel close to drawing, and I like working with their textures.

What about a favourite decade where you draw vintage inspiration?
My favourite decade is hard to pinpoint, but in general the 1920s-1930s for their sometimes startling use of colour, and the close link I see between textile work and other forms of decorative art at that time.

You must have quite a stash of vintage textiles, objects and patterns. What advice would you give to someone who is starting his or her own collection? Do you keep everything you come across, or are you more selective?
 Textiles are really hard to store, and I do have a problem with that because of the sheer volume of my collection. Luckily I’ve lost a very few pieces to moths or silverfish. I use mothballs, which I think curators despise, and also acid-free tissue paper. I line banana boxes with that before I pack them. I take things out of their stacks quite often. It’s not a good idea to always store them with the same folds, because they get weak along those lines, and taking them out also means you can keep an eye on possible insect damage. I narrowed my focus early on to the 1930s-1950s, but in reality I also have 19th century and early 20th century stuff as well. I do cull the collection when I find better examples, or feel I’ve learned enough from a particular piece.

If you were to recommend some classic books or guides to learn basic needlecraft techniques, which ones would you pick?

 I have found the classic Mary Thomas books useful, also Constance Howard’s. There are others, but they’re harder to find, so I’ll just recommend those.

Are you working on any personal craft projects at the moment?

 At the moment I’m keen to get back to making things, and overwhelmed with ideas I’ve deferred. I’ve been playing around with my quilter friend Katherine Morrison’s off-cuts of blanket wool, making tea cosies with it.  I like making cosies because they’re show-off pieces, but they’re also useful.

Can you sum up your relationship with craft in five words?

 In five words? We do this for pleasure.

All images credit Rosemary McLeod and photographer Jane Ussher.
Find out more about the book here.


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