Rag Doll

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Rag Doll

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Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.

habit-illo-03-14-lowresWinter in Chicago takes no more notice of the first of March than a mean-eyed general takes of boundary lines. It tramples right along, both fists swinging. Winter here is a bully, unstoppable, and knows it.

As the months drag on I always find myself growing smaller and smaller, retreating under blankets and into tighter corners. The flowers in the borders–if they ever existed, I may have dreamt them–survive the cold by shrinking, and so do I.

In the stillness I turn contemplative. I’ve been thinking through my early childhood, which seemed always at my fingertips until with a snap, a few weeks ago, it withdrew to a place so remote I worried I might lose sight of it completely, forever. If you have dropped a piece of complicated knitting that has fallen off the needles, you know this feeling. One moment, there is a shawl. The next, there is a tangle.

Perhaps this is how life goes, as you grow older? I must have crossed a border without noticing, like the mean-eyed general–punching away without realizing what I left behind.

So now I sit under the blankets, eyes closed, and try to gather up the threads that slipped.

This is my first memory of needlework.

I am four years old, and it is very hot. We are living in Arizona, in the early seventies. Arizona is still something of a frontier, and to elderly visiting relatives from the east it must seem like the moon.

I am perfectly accustomed to things my grandmother marvels at. Spanish spoken on the television. One hundred degrees at eleven o’clock in the morning. Cactus in the yard twice as tall as my father. Darting weird birds and lizards, and poisonous spiders right under the doorstep.

My grandmother has brought needlework with her. When she sits, out comes the needlework. My grandmother is small, even smaller than I will be thirty years later, but she is never still. When she sits, her fingers move. She has fabric the color of Arizona sand stretched tight in a big metal hoop. She is embroidering a scene in rough yarns, mostly green and brown. She can talk to me, follow a soap opera, and at the same time sketch the outline of a leafy potted plant with her needle.

Once, grandma takes the fabric in its hoop and puts the hoop on my head like a keffiyeh. My little Arab, she says–and I am, her late husband my grandfather was Lebanese–and I am thrilled. It is the only time I am ever allowed to touch the hoop.

I have a rag doll who has been too much loved. She was a birthday gift, on my first birthday; then one day I decided she was my best friend. She goes everywhere with me. I have taken to using whatever I can find–rubber bands, belts, shoelaces, handkerchiefs, kitchen towels, pillowcases–to expand her wardrobe to include veils, turbans, capes, aprons, and flowing gowns. This amuses people greatly, but will amuse them less when I turn five. There will be a furtive attempt to dispose of all my dolls. It will be unsuccessful.

Because my rag doll has been too much loved, she is badly hurt. Her cloth face has burst at a seam. Her right temple oozes stuffing, just below the hairline. I notice, but don’t care. She will never be less than beautiful to me. I tie her up in a new creation–a strapless evening gown that is really a flowered bath towel–and show Grandma.

Grandma pokes the burst seam and clicks her tongue. The hoop is set aside and I don’t remember the negotiations, but little Annie is removed from my clutches and undergoes a full physical examination. Not only her face, but her legs are sorely in need of repair. Her original dress is so threadbare won’t stay on. That dress is no longer respectable.

The hoop disappears for a few days while Annie is given new legs and–most dramatically–a new face, cut from muslin and embroidered by Grandma to match the old one. My mother steps up and sews her a new dress from a serviceable red-and-blue fabric covered in anchors. It’s a little boy’s print, made into a dress for a little boy’s doll.

Nobody questions this, yet. All they notice is that I love this doll, and she needs help. So they give it to her, and they give her back to me.

In celebration, I make her a new veil out of one of my father’s undershirts. Like the little sister who will be born next year, she looks good in hats.

The doll is here in my workroom. She was not disposed of when I turned five. She has always been with me. Grandma, too, was always with me.

And then suddenly, she was not.

But here is her work, still with me. And so here she is, still with me.

Are you still and small in the cold?

What do you remember?

Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008–now in its third printing) and proprietor of The Panopticon (the-panopticon.blogspot.com), one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. On an average day, upwards of 2,500 readers worldwide drop in for a mix of essays, cartoons, and the continuing adventures of Dolores the Sheep.

Franklin’s other publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue KnittingYarn Market NewsInterweave KnitsInterweave CrochetPieceWorkCast On: A Podcast for KnittersTwist Collective, and a regular column on historic knitting patterns for Knitty.com.

These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with an Ashford spinning wheel and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.

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  • I love this Franklin – our memories keep those we love alive. http://letissierdesigns.com/2010/09/19/grannys-hap-shawl/

  • I found this warm, touching and thought provoking.

  • What an exquisitely beautiful love story! My daughters have similarly rejuvenated “best friends” from their childhoods–and they are tucked away, but not forgotten, in their adult lives. Thank you, Franklin, for sharing your Annie and her story with us!

  • This is lovely……just lovely. Thank you for sharing this beautiful memory.

  • This is a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • I don’t remember being taught to crochet (knitting came much, much later) but do remember my grandmother, on her quad-yearly (every 4th year) visits from Germany crocheting just about every moment. She must have taught me because she was the only needlework person in my family or circle of parent’s friends who did so. I think of her when I crochet as I think of my mother-in-law, when I knit.

  • What a beautiful story. I have a doll made by my grandmother and dressed in little clothes she made to match hers. She made it so that I wouldn’t forget her when we moved out of state when I was 2 1/2. I called her Oma Doll, as this grandmother was called Oma. She never had to be repaired, but my much-loved Mama Bear went through quite a few rounds of open-heart surgery to fix her fragile chest.

  • I have a raggedy ann I got when I turned 1 and a second I got when I turned 21. Obviously the 59 year old one is much loved and her clothes disintegrate at the littlest touch which is why she is in the china cabinet next to her newer sibling. Both gifts from my Mom that I could never part with. I understand the story and feel it.1

  • I have numerous things my Polish Busha made for me and made in general. Afghans, and a crocheted throw are just a few. She died in 1977 at age 96, and did remarkable things. She once worked for Hart Shaffner Marx, sewing buttonholes in men’s pants. But she could do any kind of handcraft and barely spoke English. Some things are more special than others.

  • I have repaired the stitching to the face of my (now 30-something) daughter’s beloved “Pillow Bear” more times than I can count, and replaced the yellow gingham he is made of at least twice. Some things are loved too much to be tossed aside, no matter your age or the condition of the object! Thanks, Franklin, for the pleasant reminder!

  • Franklin – thank you for making me remember both of my grandmas with your memories. It makes me realize how blessed I was as both of them were part of my knitting history. http://knittingrobin.blogspot.ca/

  • I’m 48 and I still have my Raggedy Ann and Andy in original clothes. They were always my favorite dolls. Both were much loved and show the years. At one point Ann’s arm ripped and needed surgery. If I remember correctly my grandmother was the one to repair her. She was an expert seamstress. She worked in a factory much of life. Her job was to make sample little girl dresses. Salesmen brought these samples to shops in New York and orders were placed with the factory. She sewed for everyone, our dresses, pajamas, wedding dresses. She rarely followed a pattern. She was an artist. I think of her especially when my roses bloom. Her roses were huge and smelled beautiful. She just brought everything to life. I think I’ll go and dust off Annie today. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

  • Thank you for reminding us that needle arts are our living history. I still remember the felt poodle skirt my grandmother made for my 6th birthday. I had hand smocked dresses as a toddler and the afghan she made for me when I moved into my first apartment still graces my home.

  • Love it, Franklin. And how much they must have loved you!

  • So heartwarming, Franklin. You were very lucky to have such a caring mom and grandmom. Will you tell us what happened after you turned five

  • A beautiful memory and a beautiful story.

  • My grandmother sewed, quilted, crocheted and tatted. With a shuttle. She tried to teach me several times, but I could never figure out how that little thing worked. NO ONE else in my family learned, and when I discovered needle tatting, it was a revelation. I could tat! By then, Alzheimer’s had taken Grandma’s tatting ability, and eventually, it took her life. But the ability to tat is still alive in me, so part of Grandma is, too.

  • You made me cry, remembering my Gramma lovingly taking my dolls to the doll hospital for surgery. Oh how I wished my girls had played with dolls more and watched television less.

  • I remember a Cupie doll dressed in crochet pink and white baby outfit, now tucked in a bag behind my pajamas. A tiny doll with a wardrobe and sleeping bag, now in a box. I’m small and sitting under the board stretched across two bookcases my grandfather made for my grandmother. It was her cutting table, her old Singer sewing machine right beside. My blankie from childhood, in a tote in the attic, more than once she fixed and replaced the points that go around it. Mostly I remember her after her stroke, and how she fought to crochet and sew again. Never with the success she had before. Her frustration. But we had many, many good times sitting together at night. And though she couldn’t crochet anymore, she taught me. I didn’t get proficient until years after her death. Now, every year I get out the snow-couple she made, shortly before her stroke, and remember. Thanks Franklin, it was wonderful to hear yours and think of mine.

    • Tears of love and gratitude. I’m the one lucky member of the family who inherited all of Grandmother’s skills (although my mother was a fair seamstress) and continue to practice them to this day; I’ll turn 65 in August. Not too many minutes go by that I don’t have a knit, crochet, tat, patchwork, or Japanese sashiko in my hands. Thanks, Franklin, for the lovely travel back in time. I am newly rejuvenated! JustJenna

  • Splendid. It speaks to the child I was, and the mother I try to be, and the grandmother I hope I will become.

  • oh my, I still have the rag doll that my grandfather and mother made for me 65 years ago and she resides in a chair in my bedroom. my grandmother was the one who taught me hand sewing and crocheting when I was 5

  • I did the same thing for my nephew’s beloved Doll (that was her name), who had first belonged to his older sister. Every holiday when they came to visit, I was tasked with sewing up her rips and tears. Even if he doesn’t remember, I still think of these times fondly.

  • i remember that spring will come.

  • Someone asked me recently when I learned to crochet. I can’t remember but I can recall crocheting and embroidering when i was in the first grade (not too skilled but I loved it). I am now approaching 60 and still love needlework. It calms me and keeps my hands busy. My only problem is what do I do with another 10 afghans!!!

    • For what it’s worth, a lot of Fire Departments will take new toys and afghans to give to people whose houses have burned down. Shelters will also take them… I like to think that the people who get them feel a little better because they know someone cares if they’re cold.

  • My childhood doll was an elephant, sewn from a pattern by my mom. It was about as big as I was when she made it, some time in my first year. His ‘skin’ had to be completely replaced every once in awhile. I have pictures of me and my Oddie in Florida with my grandpa when I was 2, he died when I was three.
    As I await my first little one, due in a couple of months, Oddie sits in the rocker in the nursery, wearing a crocheted cape. My mom redid her skin one last time as she sensed I was needing him less and less, but she knew I’d want him forever. He’s a bit on the fragile side, so I think he’ll need to go on a high shelf, as the pattern for him is long lost. I’ve crocheted several animals for my daughter. I can’t wait to see what she ends up liking and needing to take everywhere.

  • Thanks for these reflections. My mother taught me to knit, crochet and sew when I was very young. I’m so grateful to her for doing that. I have one hand so she could easily have decided to not bother. I no longer crochet and sew only when I have to but knitting has lately grown into a passion. What a gift she gave me!

  • Man, timely. Been thinking about the disappearance of childhood lately.

  • Loved the story of your little doll and your fond memories. I am 70 now but still love dolls of all kinds, especially soft baby dolls. My Mom told me I was given 24 dolls for my first birthday and took them all to bed with me! I had a lot over the years and were loved to pieces but still have a baby doll that said Momma when turned one way and Papa when turned the other that I was given for my 7th birthday. She has a new wig and the criers no longer work but she is still precious to me. I remember so many times, when I was sick, my Mom would sit with me and crochet a new outfit for one of my dolls she used no patterns. I was an only child and we lived out in the country so I caught everything in first grade and was sick a lot. Our two girls never loved dolls like I did but in later years they both took up needlework and my Mom would have been so-o proud!! Such great memories.

  • I still have an afghan my late great Aunt Tessie crocheted for me when I was 9. It’s the classic multi-colored granny square afghan sewn together and bordered in black, probably Red Heart. 40 years later, I’m a crochet instructor at my LYS. The circle remains unbroken.

  • I, too, received a similar Raggedy Ann doll from my grandmother in the 70s, and she was much loved. Being the silly, sentimental person that I am, I kept her and she always reminded me of my grandmother. In my 20s, someone who did not like me decided to throw her away for the sole purpose of hurting me, which worked. That Christmas, much to my surprise, my grandmother sent me another Raggedy Ann doll which she had made at the same time she made mine all those years ago. While mine was loved by me, this one had been loved by the many foster kids who passed through her house while I was growing up. She wasn’t taking in foster kids anymore, and she knew I needed the doll more than she did. She passed away about five months ago, and I will treasure the second Raggedy Ann doll perhaps more than I may have treasured the first.

  • My great grand mother sewing me a gihgham checked jumpsuit in florida which served a a bathing suit as well. She was one of those who are able to do and describe at the same time. I recall her telling me to always press the seams open, and you will get a professional result. She made her own hats and matching luggage and hatboxes that she used to travel by train to each of her five daiughters where she divided her time amongst them.
    I too shrink in the cold and forget even wanting to step outside. Having a job forces me but sometimes I stay home anyway.

  • My mother used to make my dresses when I was a little girl. My aunty Brya would take the leftover fabric and make matching dresses for my doll Elizabeth.

  • Just last Sunday I was telling my grandmother, now 85 and in a lovely retirement home, still mobile and sewing, how excited the photographer was when I came in for my fourth grade picture toting my doll that looked just like me, and we were wearing the matching dresses and headbands my grandmother had made for us. The photographer LOVED the whole shebang so much that I ended up with two sets of pictures, one with my doll and one without. I still smile when I remember how charmed he was, and I was glad I could tell my grandmother how much the photog enjoyed it. I think I will take her up on her offer to help me with my sewing soon, since I’m still nowhere near as good as she is.

  • You certainly struck a chord with this. Amazing how many of us still have our Raggedy Anns well into, ahem, middle age (if 70 is the new 50). I’ve got Andy and Beloved Belinda as well. All in shreds and partially nekked. We seem to be imprinted for life by the most ordinary pleasures of childhood—hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of Johnny Gruen’s amazing illustrations and color palette. Love those nasturtiums.

  • […] Franklin Habit’s piece about his first encounter with needlecraft brought me to tears. Really beautiful. Please send […]

  • This moved me to tears. Thank you for sharing this personal story. A lovely piece.

  • So, very late to the party, but I just read this. I, too, have a Raggedy Ann, made for me by my grandmother, originally out of fabric from when my grandmother was living in Columbia, South America. I slept with that doll until I was at least 18. She, too, has had many, many surgeries, although some parts of her are still original. She has at least 3 different colors of hair, her dress is a bit less than decent. I am over 50 now, my mother made me another Raggedy Ann when I was 21 as something of a joke gift. Not the same as the original, of course. Many fond memories there. Thank you.

  • I am the grandmother who created Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls-many of them. For grandbabies-my own & for others. When 3 babies joined our family from the Far East-they got dolls who looked like them. And their social worked asked for more for other families. She is a doll to love-as is her brother.

  • My mother made sets of Raggedy Ann and Andys for all future great grandchildren before she died. I have several remaining to pass on to MY great-grandchildren in the future.

    There’s comfort in familiar things.

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