I’m in Birmingham, a place I’ve only ever passed through (well, okay a very short stay here as a baby). I’m here because tomorrow morning I’m running a workshop on electronics in textiles.
After a sleep in my hotel room to catch up on several disturbed nights, due to my new neighbours dog trying to settle in back home, I come down to the hotel lobby, it’s almost 7pm, I expect most guests will be in their rooms, out at a theatre or restaurant, but no! The lobby has two sofas, both filled with people, to my right is a small bar area with around 20 more people gathering around tables.
I find an empty table that seats four and take a seat, then as I do whenever I’m seated I pull out my knitting and… well.. I knit.
Within minutes I’m joined by Barbara, there seems nothing strange about our meeting, I don’t need to ask her name. Barbara is one of the hardworking volunteers at the knitting and crochet archive. We chat for a few minutes before she excuses herself and goes to other tables to chat.
I turn around and see an older woman sitting just outside of a table group. I ask her to join me even though I’ve never met her. She sits for a moment then says she’s left something in her room and goes off to get it, leaving her bag next to me – a stranger.
By this point the number of people gathering in the lounge has grown to around 30 and growing. Nothing seems odd, no one is looking out of place. People who’ve never met are chatting and sharing almost instantly… and yet, it seems to be the most natural thing in the world.
Of course, I’m at the national Knitting and Crochet guild conference, we’re all knitters and crocheters.
Yesterday I was at an interview, I was talking about crafting as a business and explaining the benefits of crafting in groups. It’s sometimes hard to put into words the instant friendships that can be created through something so simple as a craft group.
On Wednesday I started a new knitting and crochet group in my local area, seven of us turned up with more people sitting on the sidelines watching. We talked, laughed and consoled while at the same time learning a new, valuable skill. As we meet regularly we’ll find out more about each other, our similarities and differences, we might find we disagree on religion or politics, but we’ll still meet, still share and still look at each other as friends.
This camaraderie is something I’ve been trying to put into words, with much difficulty. On Friday I sat in front of a panel of 10 business people and tried to get across why a social enterprise based on offering affordable and free craft groups was important. It’s hard to describe, but as I sit here in this lobby, with strangers I consider friends I’m realising this isn’t something that can be put into words.
I have friends who belong to a church which celebrates community, I stayed there recently in their community home. If it weren’t for the church my friend and I perhaps would never have met. Her accent often reveals a very privileged background but she met me when I was begging on the streets of London (a very long time ago) and we’ve been friends ever since. Her church often talks about the walls that come down through the church. Rich and poor, old and young…
Her church experience though isn’t often shown in other churches. I go to a church that I consider friendly, very friendly in fact, but the camaraderie isn’t there. In two years of attending I feel I’ve made one good friend who’s close enough to know me and I her. Two years and still there’s a sense that the majority of people wouldn’t feel safe leaving their bag with me to return to their hotel room.
It hit home recently when I was down to my last bit of money. I was still a week away from getting any money and I was owed money from the university. I had some food in the cupboard, but not enough to make a meal out of unless that meal was pasta, fish fingers and custard.
My gas and electricity were both down to their last pound and a recent leg ulcer has left me in agony. I was in pain and couldn’t even afford a packet of paracetamol.
Yet, as I sat there, trying to think of a way to get help, going through my list of friends who would console me, there was only one name from church that I could go to. Out of all the 50-60 people at church, there was 1 in two years that had developed a relationship with me enough to be there in my hour of need. That, my friends, is not real church.
It’s a shame, that the crafting community is doing what the churches seem unable to do, but it’s something that is very powerful.
I see it in the quilting project, where young students begin talking openly about mental health and the effect exam pressure is having on their health. I see it on a Wednesday night when my fellow knitter, Helen, fills her car with folk so no one has to walk home alone, even though it means driving right across town and back again. I saw it on Wednesday as I listened to people begin the process of getting to know each other and I see it here in the hotel lobby.
I’ve been hearing it recently in stories of hospitals taking on a resident knitter to encourage parents to knit whilst their child is in hospital, I’ve heard nurses mention how powerful a neo-natal knitting group has been, and even my friend Helen has shown it by taking her spinning wheel to our hospital.
Where once the church used to be, crafting is coming.