When my Northmavine Hap sold me on the virtues of a shawl over a scarf, I knew I would knit another before long. Even so, my second shawl came along much sooner than expected thanks to an unexpected gift of wool from JacquelineM. Shortly after Christmas two skeins of gorgeous variegated hand spun yarn landed on my doorstep. This sumptuous wool, that conjured up all shades of a damson, called out for a special garment. One that would show off its cosy texture and rich colours but also the spirit of giving. The result is my Generous Visitor shawl.
My splendid one-off shawl will in my mind always be associated with generosity. Hand spun wool is an absolute joy and what knitter would not appreciate such a generous present. However, as my self-imposed clothes rationing has even curtailed my knitting, a gift of yarn takes on a whole new meaning. It is an absolute treasure!
I have always valued generosity. As with all traits, they are present in different people to varying degrees. Humans may be born with a predisposition to generosity but much of it is learnt. So it was in my family. Generosity mattered to my parents. That was very obvious from the time and effort they invested in inventing bedtime stories and making beautiful toys for us. Even as a little girl, though, I was aware of a greater form of generosity. That of my parents towards friends and strangers. There was always a welcome and a meal for visiting friends. Whether convenient or not, mum would offer unexpected visitors tea and cake or could stretch dinner to feed an extra mouth.
My mother’s ability to usher guests into the kitchen and feed them was rooted in more than domestic pride. As we lived abroad, visits from family and old friends mattered. They were a link with our country of origin. Generosity and hospitality to new friends and impromptu visitors was equally important; they were part of the compact of being a stranger in a foreign land. My parents didn’t believe in expat living. They had chosen to move to another country so the onus was on us as a family to extend ourselves to our new neighbours, our hosts…. It was in this migrant context that my attitudes to generosity were shaped.
I don’t know whether it is a coincidence but the delightful gift of yarn came from the granddaughter of a migrant. I like to think that for all the miles that separate us, we are both connected by the same ancient generosity of nomads.
Migrant or visitor?
When trying to decide which pattern would showcase the amazing yarn, I thought about more than wool weight, yardage and aesthetics. I wanted the shawl to be more than a fusing of wool and design; I wanted it to be suffused with the concepts of generosity and migration.
Then I remembered this post by Karie Westermann, a very talented Glasgow-based Danish knitwear designer, and knew the shawl would have to be one of her designs*. Shaken to the core, Karie writes about her experience of sitting next to a “very nice woman” who shared her anti-immigrant rhetoric with fellow train passengers, oblivious she was talking to a migrant. Her tale resonated with my past and present. It’s a scene I have witnessed more times than I care to remember.
As the daughter of economic migrants (my parents left England in the Seventies when engineering was in the doldrums), I have been the immigrant. I first saw the ugly face of xenophobia when I was five. Of course, at that age I didn’t have the words to name or challenge it but I understood that it hurt.
Throughout my youth, I listened to strangers complain about foreigners, sometimes to my face unaware that I too was foreign. With the years I learnt to challenge their prejudices but the sting never disappeared. On “returning” to the UK I would hear the same rhetoric. Fifteen years ago it was fortunately a rare occurrence but, fuelled by a recession and a media frenzy, there has been a worrying increase in anti-foreigner sentiment in recent years. Hearing my countrymen and women come out with such prejudices hurts, just as being on the receiving end of them did. I empathise with the intended audience as I know the punch these words deliver. I also feel ashamed at what a scarred society we must have become for such rhetoric to be so widespread.
How do I respond these days, when someone pipes up with their anti-immigrant bigotry? Challenging these attitudes based on facts and statistics rarely achieves much, alas. Increasingly I suggest that even if we don’t move beyond the town of our birth, we are all just visitors on these shores, merely passing through, in a place purely by luck or happenstance. And surely as visitors we should show others the generosity of spirit we would hope to receive ourselves. I’m not sure how many minds this will change but occasionally I see a flicker of discomfort at this observation. It’s a start.
For all the marks my experience of migration have left, I would not change it for the world as it has also brought friendship, understanding, inspiration and connection.
Every time I draw my Generous Visitor shawl around me, I think about the generosity of individuals and societies; of my parents’ hospitality; of the very generous gift from a distant kindred spirit; of the generosity our nation can muster in response to natural disasters… I feel part of a rich human tradition of migration. Of individuals and communities, who have left their homes through necessity or aspiration. Of craftsmen, thinkers and scientists who spread their skills, ideas and technology and enriched lives. Of people like Karie Westermann who leave a country they love to follow their heart and so doing, share their art & beauty with a wider audience… I remember the many generous visitors I’ve met along the way and count myself lucky.
* I settled on Karie’s Roskilde pattern, inspired by lattice work in Roskilde, the medieval capital of Denmark. The choice seemed apt. We can love and be proud of our home land and still leave it, in the same way that we can fall in love with a new land and settle there. For visitors, ties to a place are not just found in history and stones but in the people we meet and tales we live on our journey.