When my father went across to Ireland for a week, my mother came to me. It grieves me to see her sofa sit when once her hands were busy - knit one, pearl one, cast off and round again. That or tiny stitches, one crossed with the other, building castles out of silken thread. Past-times lost to her along with central vision. We bought a large flat TV screen for the arches and a leather abbot's chair to sit upon, screen close and sideways on; "A Grandma Fishing". Her catch - the edge of soapy dramas. There are "talking books" that shout into deaf ears but the tales, however loud she plays them, encourage her to sleep and sleep some more. A hobby then? (Aside from me.)
I dropped in at a course for "proggy and hooky" rug making in a nearby village hall. As I walked in, there was warmth and scarcely a murmur. I thought: "This is how a convent would have been five hundred years ago - industrious sisters intent on art and prayers." There is all sorts of words for the craft - proggy, proddy, clootie, cleekie, stobbie, tab, rag and clippy as well as hooky. Hooky involves long strips of material brought up by hooks in a series of loops to make a flat pile at the front sometimes with detailed pictures. Alternatively, working from the back of the sacking, the rug maker can use a tapered metal or wood spoke to prod through a strip of cloth then prod the other end in a little way beyond. When the proggy rug is finished and turned over, it is a riot of woollen fronds, traditionally with a dark border. A rug to plough your fingers through, pulling slightly much as you would a lover's hair. In Northumberland these rugs are often worked on frames. Unlike quilts they were not valued and passed down the generations. Instead they were born of necessity, associated with poverty and few have survived the years. One rug maker told me: "They started off on the bed, went on the floor infront of the fire, then into the scullery, dog basket and finally the compost heap." Families sat together; father cutting old clothes and rags into strips, children poking through the strips into the hessian with half a wooden peg and mother overseeing the colours. I thought: "Right, let's see if my mother could manage this."
I fetched down an old black wool skirt; designer - naturally, black - is there any other colour? I would like to say, despite the years - a fit, but that would be a lie. I laid it on the kitchen table, sliced it and bagged the pieces. A butcher to my chic and office past. I cut a test square of hessian and ironed a hem to make a second square inside the first. I sat my mother alongside, picked up the metal spike, made a hole and threaded through the ribbon black, made another, closed my eyes to feel the hole, the spike, pulled the ribbon out the other side. "Do-able," I thought. "I'm glad though that I can see." My mother felt her way around the edge, the ribbons on the table and the spike. She made a hole, worked through the cloth and then another, worked through some more. She said: "I hope pet you won't have me down a mine next week."