I blame it on Beatrix Potter. Specifically, I blame the library copy of “The Tailor of Gloucester” that fell into my pudgy hands when I was five years old.
That book, so far as my infantine taste was concerned, had everything. Pretty language. Pretty type. Colors so inviting I wanted to–and once did–lick them. And illustrations, wonderfully and precisely detailed, of things I loved at first sight: painted china, textiles, threads, thimbles, embroidery.
It was not only that these things were beautiful. It was that they were small. The book itself was tiny; the pictures inside, tinier still. The titular tailor was by far the least interesting part of the mix. I was more interested in the mice who took over his work. If a mouse could sit on a man’s thimble, how small must a mouse’s thimble be? A mouse’s embroidery needle? Stitches so small they could only have been made by mice? Ravishing.
It was the birth of a lifelong fascination with needlework on a miniature scale. I sometimes stop for a moment in front of jumbo stunt knitting–using broom handles or telephone poles, rope, and the like. I admire, to an extent, yarn bombings that cover bridges and buildings. I think, “My goodness, how about that?” Then I move on.
What really rivets me is the other end of the
gauge spectrum, the one at which knitting needles (in America, anyhow) break
out in zeroes and are sometimes made of things like piano wire or straight pins.
My own first needlework was very small. In part, that’s because it was done in secret, using scraps and oddments stolen from my mother’s ample stores. I didn’t have enough of anything to go large. But also, I wanted rather desperately to have a doll to sew for, or–greatest of dreams–a dollhouse to furnish. As a boy, however, these things were forbidden to me. Even my treasured copy of Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice, bought second hand for a nickel at a library sale, mysteriously disappeared when I let it slip in front of my mother that it was a book about a dollhouse.
Now, I am a man and have discovered that one joy of adulthood is that one can, within limits, do what one wants. This helps to balance other, less attractive, aspects of adulthood such as taxes, cocktail parties, and hair growing out of my ears.
So I have bought a dollhouse–a battered and
unfinished homemade townhouse from the 1910s–and over the past many years I
have (almost) finished it. And what’s more, I’m knitting for it.
When I got it, the house was untouched inside. That gave me free rein to imagine what it could be. After a pair of well-dressed Edwardian bronze animals–a fox and a boxer dog–came home with me from a trip to Europe, they moved in and became Mr Foxe and Mr Boxe.
And Mr Foxe and Mr Boxe established their textile workrooms on the attic floor of the house.
They’ve been very industrious, gathering furniture and ordering wallpapers. Most exciting, though, has been working on their soft furnishings.
The present project is a counterpane for the bed. I’ve adapted a typical Victorian counterpane square–one of the dozens that begin with a poofy stockinette leaf on a ground of garter stitch–to be worked in linen thread. If you’re curious, the needles are akin to a modern US 0000 (in metric, that’s 1.25 millimeters). I pulled them from a clutch of Victorian steel needles that were given to me as a gift.
Each square is about three-quarters of an inch per side, and sixteen squares are enough for the counterpane. Those have been knit, and now work knitting has taken over while I ponder what sort of edging to knit on the squares once they’ve been assembled. This is, I realize, absolutely absurd. It’s silly enough for a grown person to play with a dollhouse. It’s even sillier for him to invest so much precious time in what goes into it. There are moments in which I pause and ask myself why I do it. What’s it for?
It’s not art. I’m not making a statement. There’s a not a child for whose delight I can claim to be doing it. It’s not practical. This counterpane isn’t going to keep anyone warm.
So, why fidget and swear (occasionally) and peer through a magnifying glass, instead of knitting a hat like a normal person?
I guess I’ve always wanted, like the Tailor’s mice, to make very small stitches. I remember looking for hours at the illustration of the mouse sewing circle inside the wall of the tailor’s shop. I desperately wanted to join them. And I suppose that longing has never gone away
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book (Soho Publishing, 2016) and It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008) and proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. His publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Ply Magazine, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and Knitty.com.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, Stitches Events, Squam Arts Workshops, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.
These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel, two looms, and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.
Visit him at www.franklinhabit.com.
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A dollhouse for an adult is not practical but doesn’t have to be, part of being an adult is the ability to do what you want to do with your time (after you have taken care of all the practical things that adults have to do). Knitting and other fiber arts fall into the same category (except when we are making clothing or necessary household goods). But if the pursuit of whatever makes you happy why not? Enjoy your dollhouse.
The doll house, with tiny things, is something you have dreamed about since you read about it all those years ago. It makes you happy and that is what’s important. We all have dreamed of having something we were denied as children and, now as adults, we are free to have them. I love reading your blogs here on Lion Brand and can relate.
I love your posts! I remember using toothpicks to knit a shawl for an apple doll I made for a school project. She is long gone-along with her shawl, but your wonderful counterpane will live on. Thank you for always inspiring me to try something new. Even when nobody else understands!
Your desire to decorate a dollhouse while trying to explain why you do it when there are so many other (adult) things to do is a question I’ve always asked myself as I work on fiddly projects that will appeal to no one but me. As you and others have said, its because we are adults and can now do the things we wanted to do when we were children, but more than that, this sort of project speaks to our own creativeness, and our desire to make our own kind of art. After all, we create what we love for ourselves; if others like it, fine, but if not, they don’t count anyway! Keep creating, Franklin, and keep inspiring the rest of us with your magnificent work! Hopefully one day we will get to see your beautiful dollhouse!
Not silly at all, Franklin. Not silly at all. Thank you for sharing another story with us. I look forward to, and enjoy, each one
I love thebidea of your tiny counterpane. I, myself, knit pigs. Hilarious pigs in ill-matched colors. Because it’s funny, and because one person whom I particularly enjoy annoying sees no point in it. Which, in and of itself, becomes a point.
What’s it for? It’s for you!
It isn’t silly, absurd, insert-derogatory-adjective-here, etc. I think it’s awesome, in fact, and “because it makes me happy” is all the reason needed.
I am glad that you can fulfill a dream that you have had for a long time. That’s all that matters. That we get to see what you have created is pure joy.
Have fun with your dollhouse! One of the things I remember most fondly from my childhood are the Thorne Miniature rooms at the Art Institute in Chicago. https://www.artic.edu/departments/PC-15/thorne-miniature-rooms Even today, I could spend way more time than my family would like looking at them, oohing and aahing over all the details. One thing Iâ€™ve wanted to do is furnish a miniature knitting studio and this post may have given me just the incentive to do that!
This is something I grapple with from time to time, too. Feeling like I’m “too old” for this or that fun thing. Or feeling silently ashamed because the things I liked weren’t adult enough. Well, screw that, say I! If you want to furnish a dollhouse, you go right ahead and do it! If I want to sew glittery star appliques to the legs of my jeans, then I will do it! Carry on, good sir, and enjoy it!
Not silly at all! I taught myself to knit just so I could do sweaters for my dolls…and proud of it! And yes, they have a house and Iâ€™m an adult .
Franklin, your essay is beautiful from start to finish. I’d love to see the completed counterpane!
I’m aching to see pictures of the rest of the house! Lucky for us that you have this odd interest in miniatures, but I think it’s not so uncommon, of course, for ladies. I’m working on a couple dozen “elf sweaters” for Christmas ornaments. Now that I’m almost 60, I allow myself to work on things that have no practical value, or that I’m not interested in wearing myself. I have a friend who just knits children’s sweaters to give to charity. The world is richer because of people like you!
Oh, Franklin! Of course there is a child for whose delight you create this wonderful dollhouse- your lovely inner child who was denied this fun and wonder all those years ago. Enjoy this creative time and carry on!
Rebecca A. Miller
I think it is a real artist who has a vision and is able to make that vision come to life. How wonderful to have a doll house as your canvas and object for your imagination. Thank you for sharing your story and inspiring those of us who have dreams too and like beautiful things……
Franklin, thank you for a lovely and entertaining story. It is so enjoyable to do something we want to do, not must do.
What joy to find and share your passion. Thank you.
Would be a kinder world if we all did what makes us fulfilled.
Love the glimpse of the workshop and the counterpane! I, too, hope to see the rest of the dollhouse someday. When my son was little, we made things together for his Playmobils — I remember especially a cherry pie made in a bottlecap painted crust-color with nail polish, filled with red Play-Doh cherries and topped with a Play-Doh lattice crust. I still like to create displays on my dining-room table with Playmobils or my old Fantasy Furniture, augmented by things I’ve made or found. It’s pretty and fun…that’s enough of a reason. And it reminds me of happy days…you go, Franklin! Lots and lots of people love miniatures, and even if they didn’t, it only matters that you do!
I 100% get it.
I very much enjoyed reading about your dollhouse and immediately realized what child it was meant for… you!!! Building one is on my bucket list and I hope it becomes reality someday. DH will no doubt help build the actual house and perhaps may even help a bit with the furnishing? He can knit rug hook after all. Keep writing and sharing with us please…. you bring a smile to my face every time I read one of your stories.
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Franklin: I love your Mr. Foxe & Mr. Boxe stories and watching the evolution of their home. Being a WW2 child I remember using shoe boxes for doll rooms, empty thread spools for furniture, and fabric scraps for bedding. Queen Mary’s dollhouse at Windsor Castle was my impossible dream. Nowadays “Brambly Hedge” art draws me in, as does anything Beatrix Potter. Almost 82, so too late to grow up. Cheers, Shelagh.
Actually, you ARE knitting to delight a precious child. You. We may have layers and layers of rules and shoulds and don’ts plastered on, but inside, we are STILL that wonderful child. Go ahead and PLAY!
Not silly at all!!! My heart aches for the young you, whose precious book was taken away. You are doing something that delights your soul, and it doesn’t hurt another person. And actually provides joy to those of us with whom you share it! Please keep working on it, and sharing it with us.
How wonderful to have a project that is done for the pure joy of filling a heartâ€™s desire. No other reason necessary!
I jokingly refer to myself as a 5 year old with car keys and a credit card. But you know what? That is not a bad thing! It means you can still feel the wonder and beauty in the every day. I am nearly 50, no kids, and I have an office filled with dolls, toys and craft supplies, because it makes me happy. It hurts my heart to think of people that give up what makes them happy because it isn’t “sometjo g for grownups”.
You are not alone. My sister is in love with Calico critters animal-dolls. We are knitting for them. I bought 0.75 mm 1,00 and 1,25 mm or 000000, 00000 and 0000 US needles from Australia, and knitted lace dresses and even socks from patterns of Lorna Jenkin available on Ravelry.
You are not alone. My dollhouse is a lighthouse and I’ve made blankets, rugs, placemats and a table runner and it makes me smile every time I walk past it. And that is enough of a reason. Knit on…
“Why do it?” Because it brings you joy! That’s enough!
I very much enjoyed your story about your desire as child to join the mice, knitting! When I was a child, I had a story book that I loved. The name Matilda was one of the animal characters and she received letters from the postman in such beautifully colored envelopes. I wanted to be at that little garden house she lived in too! I liked the dollhouses some of my friends had too, but it wasn’t In my parents budget.
BUT, the love of bright and bold colors has never stopped. I love knitting and crochet and most generally use jewel toned yarns.
BTW, Mr Foxe and Mr Boxe are great additions to your projects.
Franklin, I love this! Itâ€™s so creative, a world apart from ours, where Mr. Boxe and Mr. Foxe live and move and create their lives. It is delightful, and very inviting, to peek into their creative world, and see the things they have made.
The Tailor of Glouchester is a book my grandson always requests whenever he sleeps over. Heâ€™s almost 10 now and still loves it and sometimes reads it to me. I still have the hand-built townhouses from the 70â€™s for his Mum and her sister, along with great furniture.
Well damn. Now I need a dollhouse. I used to steal scraps from my mom’s sewing to make elaborate gowns for my dolls well into my teens, which was considered to be very odd and perhaps as worrying as “abnormal”. But since I was female, eyebrows were raised, but I could carry on doing what made me happy. Tiny clothes for tiny people. I didn’t have a dollhouse as a child. I think I should make up for that. I cannot wait to see your tiny counterpane lying on a tiny bed.
I find so much joy in your adventures with the dollhouse. Always look forward to your next project!
Carol F Metzger
It’s nice to do things just because we want to. Like, I did not NEED needlepointed chair seat covers. Upholstery fabric would have been a lot faster. I did not NEED size 18 French seed beads on the embroidery. No one NEEDS wall art of any kind. But it’s so nice to put your hand heart and mind into something of your own.
Cheryl E Lane
I totally agree, that it is wonderful to have a doll house as an adult. But I feel that it is definitely a piece of art! Especially when one makes so many of the furnishings that go into it.
I have always been a lover of dollhouses. I loved seeing Queen Maryâ€™s doll house at Windsor Castle in England. It was stunning!
Enjoy, and please do share photos of yourâ€™s.
I think most Hobbies have a tendency to tilt over into a tiny bit of fantasy and obsession with things we wish to create. Most of us go a bit too far. Lot’s of us have far more yarn than we will ever knit, but we must have more of that pretty stuff we see. I have a strange obsession for kitchen gadgets myself. We had to build extra cabinets to hold them all. I don’t even cook much anymore. But when I do, I have the Tools! So I encourage your dollhouse and it’s furnishings. I’ll bet it’s taking up way less space than my kitchen gadgets!
When is the glossy photo book coming out!? More Mr. Foxe and Mr. Boxe please!
I’ve knit swaddling clothes for the little naked Jesus in every nativity set my family owns, probably on 000 needles. He always looked so cold coming out of the box!
Your inner child deserves to be nourished just like any other part of you. My sons both played with dolls, we were less concerned with what they played with than what kind of young men we were creating. Both are most excellent adults, as you so obviously are! Enjoy your dollhouse, as I enjoy my overflowing yarn stash. And fabric stash. and knitting pattern stash. Um, I may have a problem here.
So inspiring that you are finally â€œallowedâ€ to follow your heart and are doing so. My mother and I spent hours when I was a kid fussing over dollhouse furniture. Ours was a beautiful wooden house with real electric lights that my flapper grandmother won in an auction decades before. It is unfortunate that gender can be used to deny a kid what he or she loves, but again, wonderful that you are making up for it now! Lisa
I knit because I can. I knit because it’s relaxing, even when I am puzzling out a new pattern (which I often do because there is something in me that cannot knit a pattern just the way it is written). I have to make adjustments, and changes to make it my own. I knitted (and a little crocheting) through intensive cancer treatment – knitting and crocheting helped me through that, and has always helped me in times of stress or in times of relaxation when all is well with the world. Knitting helps all to be well with the world. So Franklin – please continue to knit because you can, and to knit for your own pleasure, not necessarily for a gift for someone else (Although many of my creations end up as gifts for someone else) it is the pleasure in the doing of a project that makes knitting so essential to me. Thanks Franklin – I love your blogs, and hope you continue to knit for you.
It is not sily at all. Nor is it practical.
It is whimsical and magic.
It feeds your creative soul and it speaks to you.
Thank you for sharing this with us.
Mr. Foxe and Mr. Boxe must be highly appreciative of the space they have to work in the attic.
I hope you have marvellous conversations with them.
It makes you happy. What other reason do you need? As a bonus, it makes me happy to watch the progress.
Go for it! Lovely work. I was once sneered at for watching an instructional knitting show on TV. I sneered back with an “You watch golf on TV. When I get done I’ll have a sweater. What will you have?’ The silence was deafening and welcome. If it harms no one and it makes you happy, I’m all for it.
I have really enjoyed watching the progress of your dollhouse on Instagram. Why do it? Why not? It sure is fascinating.
Delightful. Want to hear more about the dollhouse makeover.
Your posts provide a challenge and always make me smile. Thank you.
I’m so with you on the miniature house thing. I went on Instagram to follow you after reading your post, something I only do for my friends. I had to see mores pictures of that house. Miniature houses delight me, it’s the kind of thing that warms the heart. I wish I had the talent for it, but I’m more of a Lego 50-yo kid. I build “dream houses” with the pieces from different sets, ranging from the 70s to present day. Did you know that the windshield on a Tie-fighter spaceship makes a great bay window for your Lego kitchen? But, I digress… Those counterpane squares look promising, I must say. Thank you for sharing them.
Miniature stuff is cool, and if some people think it’s silly, it’s their loss.
As an adult woman of indeterminate (*cough* forties *cough*) age who has a rather vast collection of Lincoln Logs (also due to a childhood fascination), I completely understand. (Also, I now have the urge to leave work immediately and go build a small log fortress complete with railroad and tiny plastic horses…)