When Vanessa Bell inherited the baby blanket her great-grandmother knitted many years ago, she realised there was nothing else like it on the market.
The heirloom had been used to keep her mother, uncle, brother, herself and now her and husband Philip’s son, Charlie, warm.
“It’s slightly felted from wear and it’s got a few rough marks, but it’s in fabulous condition,” says Vanessa. “It has a garter stitch border, stockinette centre and koala motif. It’s simple, beautiful and so Aussie.”
In 2017, a few years after the birth of the couple’s son, Vanessa started knitting blankets and garments.
They are sold under the name Sarah Jane Bond, after Vanessa’s great-grandmother who unknowingly set the wheels in motion.
“We started off making chunky knit blankets for this climate and it’s morphed into christening and ceremony blankets that are very intricate,” says Vanessa. “They take two to three months to make and you can’t buy them anywhere else.”
The business usually runs from Vanessa and Philip’s home in Breadalbane, near Gunning, in the NSW Southern Tablelands, but can operate wherever there is a free pair of hands, knitting needles and wool.
And if they’re not Vanessa’s hands, they’re one of her eight knitters based in, or from, the area. These women – one is almost aged in her 90s – are extremely talented knitters but also share Vanessa’s enthusiasm for merino wool.
“Merino wool is incredible because of its elasticity and UV protection,” says Vanessa. “I tell my girlfriends, if you put one of our blankets over a pram, you don’t need sunscreen because the lanolin in the fibre offers UV protection.”
The blankets and garments, intended to become family heirlooms, are only sold online – a conscious business decision to ensure authenticity.
“We’ve had a lot of offers to sell through other retailers, which I’m very grateful for, but I decided not to do that because I want everyone who receives a Sarah Jane Bond blanket to know it’s been lovingly knitted by us,” says Vanessa.
“Every blanket is issued a certificate of authenticity.”
At the moment, Sarah Jane Bond blankets are made from wool from Bendigo Woollen Mills, but Vanessa’s pipe dream is to use the non-mulesed wool from their farm.
Philip stopped producing wool years ago to focus on fat lambs, cattle and cereal crops. However, Vanessa has convinced him to restock their 930-hectare property at Breadalbane with 1000 merinos.
The only thing stifling her long-term goal is the inability to trace where their wool goes. Italy is currently the only place where woolgrowers can track their fibre, and Vanessa hasn’t been able to visit there since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Knitting is Vanessa’s happy place and she knits wherever she goes, from the side of a polo field to the beach.
“People always laugh at me because I’m knitting, and call me a grandma, but I am who I am,” she says with a laugh.
She learnt to knit from her grandmother, Ruby Bond, at around the age of five or six. The pair would make a cuppa and sit side-by-side with their knitting needles on the couch.
While living in Sydney and after a stressful divorce in 2007 that caused Vanessa to go blind in one eye, she came back to the art.
Picking up a pair of knitting needles again steadied her stress and anxiety and helped heal her broken heart stitch by stitch.
Like the rest of us, Vanessa began to feel anxious again at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns. That’s when she came up with the idea of Knitting for Mindfulness to share the craft as a tool for wellbeing.
“I’ve had a few tricky moments in life and knitting has definitely healed me on every level,” she says.
“All you need to take part is a pair of knitting needles and yarn, preferably wool. You don’t need any prior experience.”
The four-week course is all about learning to knit mindfully, starting with a scarf and working up to a simple baby blanket.
Members get a coaching call with Vanessa, a step-by-step stitch guide, and access to the private Knitting for Mindfulness Yarn Club Facebook page.
“It comes down to three things: gratitude, empathy and mindfulness,” says Vanessa. “It’s a meditative experience, and then you can choose to gift what you made.”