Sunday, 1 June 2014

Perfection, imperfection, parenthood and the importance of handmade things

I've been spending this week with my son (half-term holidays). We have been revelling in all my favourite things. We've been to the library, to several playgrounds (I am quite happy to spend hours in the playground, even in the rain, if I get to sit on a bench under an umbrella reading a novel), to the museum, to many fine cafes, and even to a fascinating talk by a classicist from the University about narrative devices in epic.

During one of our many cafe trips we chanced upon Jane Bull's "Crafty Creatures" for sale (ALL cafes should have books for sale, right?). My son was incredibly excited by the "pocket pets" section of this book - it was so special that he wouldn't even let me take a photo of the page with his favourite one, Patch.

We wrote out a shopping-list (comprising: felt, thread, and stuffing), and off we went to the Needlepoint Cafe to select our materials. The Needlepoint Cafe, by the way, is an amazing place - stocked full of inspirational delights, from kits and books to raw materials. Also, coffee and cake (although we didn't stay for those because we were so excited to have bought our materials).

He was worried that he wouldn't be able to do it, and reluctant to try at first, but I reassured him that it didn't have to be perfect, and anyway nothing in life is perfect… So we made a deal that he would trace the pattern onto greaseproof paper, that I would do the cutting-out and other fiddly bits, and that we'd each take it in turns to do the stitching. I was surprised how well he did with the stitching, given that he'd never held a needle in his life before: and also, remarkably, how quiet and focused he became while doing this (usually he plays noisily at battles and suchlike).

We started out by making Red, a tiny rabbit. Red is only a baby, so he had to have a nap on my bed while my son sang him a lullaby which went like this: bouncy bouncy bouncy away to sleep. Then, buoyed by our success, we made the coveted Patch. But then Patch wanted a bone, so we made him one of those too.

Lastly Red needed a sleeping-bag "so that he could sleep on his own". My son was very exacting about the design, which had to be redrawn several times. He also designed the star-and-five-dots motif all by himself, and helped stitch the star and place the dots. It's quite hard to see it in this picture: there is one dot in each of the five gaps between the star's points.

"Perfect!" I exclaimed, as he pulled through a particularly well-placed stitch.
"But Mummy ... I thought that nothing was perfect?" he said.
"I meant nearly perfect," I corrected myself hastily.
"Well, why does the word perfect exist," he said after a little thought, "if nothing is actually perfect?"

I thought back to our earlier conversation about why things are often so good in your head and then don't turn out as planned.

"I suppose perfection is an ideal," I said, thinking of Platonic idealism, "it's something in our heads, like the paper patterns we used for our sewing which didn't come out exactly the same when we traced them and cut out the fabric pieces. But we still need the pattern, the template,  in our heads so that we can compare the real things to the ideal."

That comes close to expressing why handmade things are so important to me. What we make with our hands is an imperfect representation of something that's in our heads: maybe not always a template but sometimes an idea, an emotional truth.

I don't know what his truth was: but I do think that one of the many roles of a parent is to give a child the shielding it'll need to cope on its own one day, just like Red's carefully-decorated little sleeping-bag.

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