Writing on Wool
Whenever my parents fondly pull my five-year old self’s wardrobe from our loft, and hold up a floral dress cooing, ‘oh, don’t you remember how you loved this?’ I draw a blank. What I do, remember, however, is the comfort that certain fabrics gave me. My father had this incredible collection of woollen jumpers, absolutely heinous in retrospect, but which I now associate with the kind of comfort and warmth that makes you want to curl up like a baby squirrel and forget the world. The scent of his eau de homme and the feel of the soft fibres against my cheek as he wrapped me in his coat and carried me from the car, sheltering me from the cold or the twice-daily screening of The Lion King, is imprinted like a tattoo on my senses. The material, at times firm and smooth, at others fluffed and breathable, perhaps even with an edge of itch, became an inseparable part of him. I would watch how it wore, how the sterile smell of the shop would dissipate, the fibres develop and the strands loosen, and feel an intense familial attachment to it. I would scuttle up his legs and, like a baby pigeon, pick and peck with ferocious fingers at his jumper; collecting little woollen balls to scrunch between my thumb and forefinger, holding it to the spot between my nose and upper lip. It is a feeling that is at once security, and you suddenly feel naked and vulnerable without it. Yet it is also a part of someone else. It became a kind of silent communication.
When he spoke to other adults or was on the phone – in a world vastly above my head and comprehension – it was an understanding that transcended words; he knew I was there, and would give me anything I needed, even if that meant reducing his clothes to moth-eaten rags. My grandmother said he used to do the same to her, but she wasn’t quite so liberal. With her huge retro sunglasses and monochrome mini-dresses, she was the epitome of 1960s chic. The degradation of her round-neck, large-buttoned woollen coat was heavily chastised.
One Christmas my father brought home a Harrods’ teddy-bear – fluffed to perfection with a bright red bow and glowing eyes. It was love at first sight. He was the side-kick to my every move; he travelled abroad (my father even jokingly brought him a passport); he ate, drank and slept beside me for my entire childhood. Inevitably his plush coat quickly wore away. His criss-cross internal structure became exposed, the fluff of his insides began to protrude out like some kind of toy-hernia. I was of course perfectly happy, but his appearance concerned my grandmother. She carefully extracted my zombie-bear whilst I slept, and set to work like a wacky fairy-godmother onto an art project, with some striking results. Thick strands of chestnut-coloured wool bulged through his mesh lining, like worms writhing, clashing offensively to tight chocolate brown stitching, haphazardly sewn over wool of a golden-brown shade. His left paw, which I had picked to rags, was sewn with aggressive black stiches into a club. If he had been a zombie before, he was now certainly a Frankenstein-bear wearing a techno-coloured dream coat.
This sheer sense of betrayal, of mutilation and horror, is surely something only felt in a child. Perhaps the adult equivalent would be to awake to find that someone had secretly tattooed the entire body of your spouse beyond recognition whilst they slept. Entire mental, emotional and bodily melt-down was inevitable. It was fortunate, however, that my artistically gifted grandmother used wool as her weapon of choice. The moment I threw myself onto the floor, lamenting the death of my friend and companion, I nuzzled my traumatised face into his uneven coat, and as the wool absorbed my tears, felt a stirring sensation of comfort. My father scooped me up and at once all three of us were encapsulated in the warm security of his jacket; the softness of his jumper holding my one cheek, and the coat of my teddy on the other. I learnt to accept the outward appearance of my friend, in favour of the warmth of his feel and presence.
Various calamities meant starting all over again. Beginning with foreign, unfamiliar objects and sensations and embarking on a process of softening them, beating out that hostile scent of washing powder and stretching the contours of the wool so that it comfortably cradled the side of my face again. I suppose the innate qualities of wool, to harbour such intense feelings and attachment, are its changeability and its absorption of the person who wears it. Whilst my father hides in shame of his gaudy-coloured woollen jumpers, the fabric itself seems to tell the story of his life and achievements. I lived within them; the hems were always ragged, picked apart by my ferocious fingers, a thinning on the breast where I would nuzzle my head time and time again. The wool absorbed the scents of his personality; the neckline retained the smell of his cologne, and in the sleeve remained the pungent tang of petrol, reminiscent of his race car days.
My Teddy similarly stands like a tangible palimpsest of my life; my grandmother’s slightly skewed demonstration of love in ‘fixing him’ with miss-matching woollen yarn. Such associations are made, crucially, at an infantile stage of life, when we are our most tactile and sensory, and in a large way helped me to understand the world around me and those who love me. Twenty years later, my grandmother now channels her artistic urges into oil-paintings. Whilst my father has swapped his golden-Chesnutt jumpers for black Ermenegildo Zenga knits, his flowing mullet for a salt-and-peppered crop, the feeling will always remain. The love and comfort that I was fortunate to have in my childhood is forever synonymous with that fabric that absorbed, reassured and reflected that love back to me.
This text on Wool was written and submitted by Emily Nearn for Round 2 of Modeconnect’s International Fashion Writing Competition. Check Emily’s entry for Round 1: Berlin’s enduring fashion scene