In 1568, Mary Stewart arrived at the doorstep of her cousin Elizabeth Tudor looking for some help. Mary was fresh from a controversial straight-from-the-soap-operas marriage to a man who may have murdered her previous husband, had kidnapped and imprisoned her, and was just the right kind of divorcé who could make a group of angry Catholic Scottish lords demand an abdication and force their queen into exile.
The Protestant Elizabeth I was not particularly happy to see the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who might have, from a certain point of view, had a legitimate claim to the English throne, so instead of being strictly helpful, Elizabeth decided to imprison Mary.
It wasn’t exactly a harsh prison we’re talking about here. Basically, she just had to spend her time in comfort at the various estates of George Talbot, Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. She didn’t have the freedom to go outside unsupervised, but she did have nice furniture, a full domestic staff, and a lot of time on her hands.
She also made a friend. Talbot’s wife, Bess of Hardwick, seemed to get along with Mary pretty well and the two spent many, many, many hours embroidering together. I have no idea if Mary was particularly good at embroidery before her imprisonment, though she was surely familiar with it, as it was a common pastime of the 16th century woman of a certain class. I do know that she got pretty good at it during these long years of her life. I also know that if you find yourself suddenly stuck at home for a long time, it’s good to develop a hobby.
As we come upon nearly a year since life in my corner of the world went completely sideways due to the pandemic, I can look back and see some good things that came from spending a little more time at home and a little less time rushing about. One of those is a new hobby, begun more or less because I had too many plastic grocery bags on my hands.
First, let me explain that I have long been dedicated to the reusable shopping bag, not only because it uses a lot less plastic, but because you can weigh one of those suckers down with a gallon of milk, three bottles of wine, and a giant cheese wheel big enough for Thomas Jefferson. Then you can just sling it over your shoulder with as little effort as the world’s strongest man pushing a locomotive, and saunter to your car. Also, you don’t end up with bags and bags full of bags and bags waiting months for someone to remember to take them to be recycled.
But when the pandemic hit, two things happened around these parts. First, the grocery stores stopped allowing reusable bags because, obviously, such bags are notorious for virus transmission. It’s probably safest if you don’t even see a reusable bag.
Second, the recycling center that processed plastic shopping bags shut down operations for a while. I’m not sure why this happened, but it led to the buildup of a large number these bags in my house. I had an easy solution, though, because I have a couple friends who use the bags to make these really cool plastic sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness. I even knew how to cut the bags and make the plarn (plastic + yarn) they used to do the crocheting.
I dutifully made plarn, setting aside just the scraps to one day be recycled, and reached out to say I had it for anyone who wanted it. And that’s when a very kind friend instead said, “I’ll teach you how to crochet.” It took some time, but I had plenty of that. It also took some dedicated YouTubing and a Zoom tutoring session, but I finally got it.
So now, in my year of forced social distancing that has contained a couple stretches of actual quarantine and has at time felt a little like imprisonment, I have crocheted sleeping mats out of plastic grocery bags. I’ve even started asking friends for their bags so I can do more. Because developing a new hobby really does help.
It certainly helped Mary, Queen of Scots. When asked by an envoy from Elizabeth I how she was passing the time, Mary said that “all the day she wrought with her needle, and that the diversity of the colours made the work seem less tedious.” I get that, too, because after crocheting rows and rows of brown, gray, and white, I get ridiculously excited to get to use a bright blue or orange or yellow.
And Mary used her needlework well. Between 1569 and 1586 when Elizabeth finally went ahead and had her beheaded, Mary and friends produced a vast number of embroidered panels, many of which contained secret messages and emblems. Collectively they came to be known as the Oxburgh Hangings because they made their way to Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, England, where some of them can still be seen today. The panels contain birds, elephants, plants, and all kinds of natural and symbolic scenes.
My work mainly contains wobbly stripes. It probably also won’t be on display for the public more than four hundred years after my death. But that’s okay, because I’m hoping that someone will get some good used out of my efforts. And I know it has helped me pass the time this year. It’s good to have a hobby.