A British Chinese Visitor to The Knitting & Stitching Show

By Claire Ling Chi Martin

There’s a touch of irony setting out from Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition, to traipse across London to Alexandra Palace, for an international exhibition. With a long abandoned, half knitted jumper lurking somewhere in my lounge, and a trail of disastrous sewing enterprises littering my creative heritage, I felt a fraud sharing the courtesy bus from Wood Green with an army of white, middle aged women making their way to their umpteenth visit to The Knitting & Stitching Show. 

I confess, my principal reason for sallying forth was to visit my sister-in-law, one of the exhibitors. They were a warm and welcoming bunch, chattering to me in the bus queue.  I almost forgot that I was in London. The vaulted glass roof and palm tree entrance area sparked memories of the old Crystal Palace once more. The exotic exhibits of the past were again echoed in contributors from around the world and I was particularly interested in the East Asian stands.

I sought out Janome first, the Japanese manufacturer of leading edge industrial and domestic sewing and embroidery machines. I learned to sew on my mother’s ancient Singer, a black and gold museum piece that required turning a wheel with one hand while guiding the material under the needle with the other. Upgrading to an electric version later allowed me to use both hands while I merely produced wonky seams fifty times faster with the foot pedal. I had thought I was spoilt with the ability to stitch forwards, backwards and zig zag. Such features pale into insignificance compared to top of the range Janome programmable machines that allow you to push a few buttons, go and have a cup of tea, and a complicated embroidered picture would appear miraculously upon your return.

Round the corner was an extremely popular stand called The Southampton Bead Shop. Run by a Chinese couple from Guangzhou, I could barely get a picture, they were so busy. I felt guilty keeping them from their customers but discovered in snatches that they had been coming to such shows for 5 years. It was amusing to witness excitable grannies like children in a sweetshop.

Further on was an intriguing Korean couple selling vest scarves.  Quite. They were flying off the shelf. Imagine a chiffon shawl with holes to put your arms through so it doesn’t fall in your soup like mine does.

These exhibitions are so enormous, how do you catch all the contributors? My husband goes round the edge then spirals in to the centre. I get lost like that so I did the old zigzag up and down the aisles thing. Passing the Festival of Japan stand, I had to wait so long before taking a shot, I gave up and snapped away with people obstructing (albeit unintentionally).  Just how many photographers are under five foot tall?  That’s 150cm in modern money.

Not far away was Happy Dragon Arts where I confess that I succumbed to temptation and blew £49 on a reversible silk jacket in mauve and lilac with my husband’s words “Don’t spend too much” circling accusingly in my head. “It was originally over £70” I kept telling myself.

This is the point where my stomach was beginning to think my throat’s been cut and I went in search of refreshment. The bar was dingy – I hate eating in the dark.  I circled the Great Hall but was put off by the kind of wraps and sandwiches that you can buy anywhere in London. For some reason I fancied something hot despite the fact that I was roasting in my shocking pink, woollen jacket that was admired by several of the attendees because they thought that I’d embroidered it myself. I wish. I was beckoned by the smell of sizzling meat and alighted upon the sort of roast hog place that pops up at the Norwood Feast once a month. I was handed a bap brimming with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, dripping with gravy and I was delighted also to receive change from a tenner. Artisan food and soft drinks don’t usually add up to less in centres where the clientele is captive, and memories of a cash consuming trip to Olympia had barely faded – particularly since that exhibition wasn’t one where you buy stuff – well, unless it’s services and your business client pays for that. I digress. I was tempted to join a haggle of East Asian women around a neighbouring table but there was no spare chair and I got cold feet. 

Not renowned for my shyness, I admit, but occasionally I just can’t face explaining yet again the extremely complicated reasons why I can’t speak Chinese very well.

Venturing out of the Grand Hall, I came across a pod inhabited by a mother and daughter partnership surrounded by exquisite embroidery. The daughter runs an embroidery school in Hong Kong by all accounts and this eclectic collection of cheong sam/chi pao and kimono, jackets, pictures, fabrics and accessories had been lovingly crafted by her and her students. The mother sounds like she’s South African and their Western approach to traditional East Asian workmanship has put a modern twist on the output.

Other than Janome, the only stand I had been on the look out for from the Show Guide was Chang’s. What I had not appreciated until I saw the stand was just how striking the fabrics were and how much they would remind me of Chinese porcelain with its blue and white hand crafted indigo batiks. Sally Chang is enjoying her second career after a “life in education” as she put it.

Chang was the only Chinese sounding name in the Guide so I was delighted to stumble across what for all the world looked like two Chinese school girls running a stand dedicated to cool, modern, easy to knit starter packs and chunky wool in “wouldn’t be embarrassed to post on Facebook if you’re under 30” colours. You see, even to me, Chinese people look young. Stitch & Story’s Beginner’s Knit Kits is about my standard and I’m seriously considering purchasing one for my 14 year old for Christmas.

Another gem was a fundraiser for Karenni refugees on the Thai/Burma border. No, I’d never heard of them either before now. The charity, Karenni Student Development Programme (KSDP) was founded by a 21 year old undergrad who was tragically run over by a motorbike. Her parents have devoted their lives to continuing her work and the vibrant, extraordinary crafts produced by the students and locals are irresistible.

See that diddy handbag in the middle there? It’s now mine.

About the Author

Claire Ling Chi Martin was left to be found on a doorstep in Hong Kong, was adopted and came to the UK at the age of two. She is a freelance Human Resources Director and occasional writer.

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