We are in a new era of make-do and mend so it is no surprise to learn that many of us are re-visiting the knitting and sewing skills we were taught at our mother’s knee. There are a host of craft-based groups to join, for example the Knit and Sew group in Headcorn, and where we lead, our children follow.

At home, we can teach them the basic skills of sewing on badges, replacing buttons, and basic stitches, as well as how to cast on using our long-lost knitting needles to master garter stitch! Schools are increasingly discovering what mothers and grandmothers have always known: that learning these practical skills can save money and engender feelings of achievement.

Wealden Times spoke to Leeds and Broomfield Primary School headteacher, Steve McGill, about what he is doing to equip children for their roles as domestic gods and goddesses of the future, and member of Headcorn WI, Margaret Baker, for her views on the importance of household skills.

While traditional subjects of needlework and domestic science now have fancy names in secondary schools – textiles and food technology – basic skills can be taught very young as Steve has found. ‘Children are being defined more and more on how good they are at literacy and numeracy, but the majority of pupils don’t fit with that but yet they have incredible talents and abilities. We offer pupils Talents and Interests sessions which encourage children to foster their talents in a range of creative activities through close coaching, practice and development in things like woodworking and fashion design.

‘Domestic teaching is part of this but has been squeezed out of the curriculum time-wise. However, we have added in cooking and sewing skills. One class designed and created lectern covers so that they fitted in with the church seasons. This involved a great deal of research about events and celebrations in the seasons but it was also a practical way to teach other skills, like sewing – and their work will be used.

‘One of the Talents and Interests groups was woodworking, run by one of the class teachers. The team of five pupils (four boys and one girl) cut out their materials, learned to follow instructions and created objects like cars and bird boxes. These skills have applications across the curriculum – maths (measuring) and assimilating information for practical use to name two.’

Putting practical skills at the heart of the curriculum can have other benefits – growing confidence and aspirations. Steve tells the story of one lad who had had lots of problems outside of school and difficulties with literacy and numeracy. Steve says: ‘I made a deal with this lad – that he would do maths and English in the morning and then construction all afternoon. He shone in this area and this gave him confidence. When it came to literacy and numeracy – apart from the fact he was doing it – he soon realised he was actually the best person in the room in subjects! And he constructed the most amazing models.’

No such connections were made when Margaret Baker was growing up during the war. The member of Headcorn WI is an accomplished baker and maker and learned her skills in the home. She told Wealden Times: ‘There really wasn’t anything else to do in those days. I learned knitting and sewing and my mother taught me. I am one of those war babies when Dad went off and came back! I remember knitting squares in plain knitting – garter stitch! I knit more now, with patterns for instance.

‘I didn’t need to do these things to fill my time when I was little but I am now pleased I did! I was brought up on a farm and there were lots of things to do – if you weren’t seeing what the workers were doing, you were making a hidey-hole – you just didn’t sit at home saying I’m bored. When I became a housewife, we were still darning in those days!’

But did she pass on those skills to her daughter? ‘No! I didn’t teach her to knit. She is left-handed so it was difficult for me but my mother helped her to knit! It is important to learn how to sew – buttons, for example, because they drop off quite easily now. I don’t think anyone embroiders much any more. I was quite good at that but you need peace and quiet to do that. But I can darn and can sew.’

Margaret, who has three sons and a daughter, believes the skills are seeing something of a renaissance. She said: ‘I have a granddaughter doing an art project so it’s coming back like that but it’s not at mother’s knee now, as in our day. I don’t know why people don’t do it so much now – maybe it’s what is called progress!’

Learning to cook was part of home activity and homespun skills passed down from generation to generation. Margaret recalls: ‘I cooked from scratch with the good old weighing machine. I didn’t do much at home when I was growing up but after I got married because I’d watched my aunt, I knew what to do. When the children were growing up it was better to cook than to buy.

‘My children had to learn cooking – two of them went to Scouts. My daughter learnt to cook – she would look in and help and I have done that with my granddaughters, especially buns because they like to ice them.

‘It is important for children to learn the skills because when they get older and they have the time they’ll be sad they didn’t start in the first place. If you’re making something for someone else it’s more important than if you’re doing it just for yourself. You’ve got to feel good about doing it but also you’ve got to learn to do it well because it will be used by someone else.’

Margaret continues to knit and cook as a hobby. She says: ‘I like to knit dolls’ clothes, in fact a lady gave me a bear dolly and I knitted all the clothes for it. I like to do it in the evenings – as you get older you get tired and while I’m watching television I like to knit.’

The Knit and Sew group in Headcorn, which started five years ago now, has around 20 regular members. As member Margarette Gilham said: ‘It’s more Knit, Sew and Natter! We decided to set this up five years ago and are going from strength to strength. Some people like to do their own thing but we have done many things like making quilts for the Help the Heroes charity. We have since made clothes for premature babies, scarves and mittens for the Shoebox charity and we are just supporting the Keep Warm campaign by making blankets for the elderly.

‘There is plenty of expertise within the group so we can teach people to knit and sew – and you don’t need to be able to knit – as we will be able to teach you!’

• Headcorn WI meets at Long Meadow Hall every third Wednesday at 7.30pm. New members are always welcome.
• Knit and Sew takes place in the Meeting Room at Long Meadow Hall each second and fourth Friday between 10am-noon. Sessions cost £2. For details please telephone Margarette Gilham on 01622 891281

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