for the women of the Tyne
Ellen Wilkinson* must have had fabric hands,
thread finger tips,
pin cushion palms
and wrists releasing silk banners scrawled with demands.
With each word
she wove workmen's minds,
embroidered closed down shipyards,
blanketed the workhouse without walls,
wrapped the malnourished in patchworked cotton.
Women and war kept the yards open.
Shipbuilders' uniforms split,
frayed edges of thick Melton wool
screeched when caught on scraps of steel.
So it was lucky that my Grandma, too
had fabric hands.
Felted tough fabrics to withstand north sea spray,
repaired donkey jackets with nimble loops,
used pianist’s fingers to knit hats and scarves,
purled patterns from magazines
to adorn children in 1960s lace trims.
When I fell and broke my skin
my mother buttoned it back up.
Her hand cream softness silked over exposed tissue,
caressed my baby cheeks,
as I reached for the cared for cuticles
on her fabric hands.
My tiny digits grasped at hers;
she unthimbled me, showed me
the supple potential of loose strands.
Fingers like cords clutching spoons and pens
fluttered at home and work,
decorating and designing templates
to help my hands become more elastic.
She handed me a thread that
I followed down to the river.
I found women there
holding each other up with their fabric hands.
Mending broken bones and brains
with pinpoint accuracy,
meshing together stories and problems by
fusing scraps of linen into bigger and bigger pieces.
Binding with zig-zag lines their love and anger,
knotting chunks of nylon fear and mohair hope
to entwine tightly a net of women's work.
I'll plait myself inside it.
Anchor myself in with a piece of string.
Let my ribboned hair merge with the wind.
And when I walk I'll be pulled by crocheted waves
made by women before me.
I'll fold into them
because I wear a dress
made of fabric hands.
* Ellen Wilkinson was a socialist MP and organizer of the “Jarrow Crusaders” who marched from the town of Jarrow to London in 1936 following the closure of Palmer's shipyard in 1932, which caused mass poverty and malnutrition in the area.
Directed by Matthew Thompson.
Poem commissioned by Poet in the City in partnership with the British Library & Newcastle Libraries as part of Collections in Verse.