Nonna’s Knitting and Crochet

I chose this pieces as a keepsake, a memory of Nonna, my Italian grandmother, after her death in 1981. I was shocked when she died. I felt robbed, then and ever since, of the opportunity to really know her and connect with her, after I had grown to adulthood. She was 77. I was 28.

These items and some other brightly coloured finer crochets were amongst pieces left for us grandchildren by Nonna’s only daughter, my aunt Josephine. When I hold them in my hands, I sense Nonna’s intention, resilience, effort and skill.

‘She did miles of crochet and knitting,’ Josephine tells me. “It kept the mind sane and she was always excited to find a new pattern. She believed in busy hands.’

The pretty blonde doll wears a knitted hood tied under her chin and the vertically ruffled skirt flows from a short-knitted bodice giving an effect like Red Riding Hood’s cloak, except this skirt is in sky blue with contrasting pink, lemon, orange and brown stripes. She’s like an old-fashioned Barbie Doll, blonde hair tied in two young-girl pigtails with pink bows, yet I can feel pert breasts through the knitted bodice. I lift the skirt to discover it is lined with another knitted piece and the doll’s torso has been cut, just below her belly button. She has no legs. Who cut them off?

For the longest time, I thought this doll was meant to be placed over a toilet roll. You know the kind that used to sit on the floor of the toilet in your grandmother’s house in the 1960’s. Sometimes the doll held a little message that read:

‘If you run out, please don’t shout. Just lift me up, I’ll help you out’.

But today as I am writing this and examining the doll carefully, I see there are two concealed slits on either side of the skirt for a teapot handle and spout. You could grasp the cosy by its bodice to put it on the teapot and pull it off. As a teapot cosy, it suddenly has more value. I have to keep it.  

Nonna and Grandpop often sat on the front porch of their tiny retirement house that was located on the main road south of Mackay. To the north, the road led to what we called the City Gates. Maybe there were gates there in the old days. Now it just marks a confluence of roads and a railway crossing.  As they watched the passing traffic, I wonder if Nonna ever thought about her youngest son, killed off his bicycle, when he was clipped by a truck, the driver not seeing the lone night rider on a bicycle without lights? Did she think about her other children? Did she dwell on the decades of her marriage to my often taciturn and patriarchal grandfather?

I’ll never know. But I do have this evidence of some of the time she sat there, fingers wrapped around coloured thread, a ball of wool in her lap, knitting needles clicking and flicking as the doll’s bodice and cloak emerged like woven magic. Nona’s hands were never idle. She told Mum that in Faedis, the village where she grew up in NE Italy in the early part of the 20th century, new wool was precious. As their children grew, the women unravelled the pullovers and jackets knitted in previous years and knitted the garments again, adding in more wool to enlarge them for growing bodies. Knitting was a necessary survival skill.

Photo from

In this photo of the Carniche Portatrici, the women and girls who carried ammunition and food to the Italian soldiers fighting trench warfare in the rocky, heights of the Italian Carnic Alps from 1915 to 1917, you can see the heavy gerle (baskets) still on their backs. The women appear to have stopped for a moment on their way to replenish the soldiers’ stocks of food and ammunition. Each woman is holding handwork with knitting needles and thread visible for some of them, probably stored in her apron pocket ready to retrieve at a moment’s notice. The needles, the wool and her intentions to make a warm winter garment go everywhere with her, even on that arduous, steep and difficult trek up the mountain. Several accounts remark on the women knitting and sewing on the route, and when they took a break. When they were not walking their hands were busy. I think Nona was like that. When she was not cooking, making the bed, or sweeping out their simple house, she knitted, she crocheted, she sewed.

There is also this crocheted round cushion cover. Beautifully even stitches in scalloped edge circles radiating out from a central motif. There’s satin cloth loosely attached to the back, as if that was meant to hold the crochet work in place. Potentially a cushion cover. Never completed. But so colourful and neatly done. I can’t part with this either.

I want Nona’s life to have meaning. She came out to Australia, no doubt full of courage; sheer grit and endurance required for the six awful weeks of seasickness on the passenger boat. She married the man her brother brought her here to work for; birthed him two sons, then after a break another son and a daughter.

For us grandkids, it was all strange. Grandpop’s and Nona’s accents were strange. Conversation was difficult. Dad did not teach us any Italian. Was she sad about that? She talked in Italian to her daughter and shared all she knew about sewing, knitting, crochet, and homemaking with her. Did she yearn to see the hills around Faedis again? Did she remember the soft mists rising in the hills above the vineyards after rain.

If she thought such things, she did not show them. She always smiled, her bright blue eyes and smooth face framed by straight white hair swept back in a bun. She was always happy to see us. She’d shuffle inside to the simple kitchen, pour lemonade or cherry cheer into small glasses with coloured patterns printed on the outside. She’d put out a plate of Arnotts Cream biscuits – Iced Vo Vo, Orange Slice and Monte Carlo.

‘Eat. Eat,’ she would say, pushing the plate towards us.

Call of the Blood

How often does travel lead to an authentic connection with the places we visit? Mostly, we sight see, we eat out, we visit museums and parks, we take tours along with every other tourist, rarely absorbing more than a superficial understanding of the place and its people. This is the story of a very different travel experience that led to a deep connection with an ancestral Italian village and its place in history.

My story begins in 1927 when Amelia Gandini, a tall, striking, young woman left her home in Faedis, Friuli, in north-eastern Italy and boarded a ship in Genoa bound for Australia. A few months later, she married by grandfather in Mackay, North Queensland (probably an arranged union – two of Amelia’s brothers were already in Queensland.) Twenty-six years later, I was born, her first grandchild, the daughter of her first-born child, Corrado.

Amelia Gandini on her wedding day to Giovanni Stroppiana, Mackay, Qld, Dec, 1927.

I remember Nonna’s ready smile; her smooth white hair pinned in a loose bun framing the bluest of blue eyes; her never-idle hands, serving us soft drink and biscuits or fingers flicking coloured threads into lacy crochet doilies and table runners. We didn’t know any Italian and Nonna and Grandpop spoke only a smattering of English, so in many ways they were like a foreign country to us kids. They smiled and nodded kindly. They were welcoming and gentle, so quaintly different from our Anglo-Saxon maternal grandparents. Yet love found a way to cross foreign borders and rest in my heart.  

I have dim memories of bath-time in Nonna’s huge cast iron bathtub that stood on a rough concrete floor; of butterfly shaped macaroni drying on racks and strings of pasta falling from a hand wound machine. When Nonna died, I was in my late 20’s. I grieved her death deeply. I felt cheated of the opportunity to know her in my adult body.

Decades later, I long to visit Nonna’s birthplace, Faedis. (She never returned). My younger sister made a stopover on a cross-Europe trip in 2017. Her photos of the streets and buildings move me deeply. I am so drawn to the place. Of all the amazing experiences I know I could have in Italy, there is only one place I want to go when a travel opportunity arises in November 2019. I journal about travelling there. I think about walking the streets. I imagine Nonna’s spirit smiling on me, welcoming me. I literally write myself into a story that proves to be rich and meaningful beyond my wildest dreams.

Close to border with Slovenia. Photograph by James Hills

I tell myself that most of the buildings and places that Nonna knew will have been erased by history. Secretly, I hope to find some traces but I think the odds are against me. Faedis is now only 12 kilometres over the mountains from Slovenia. Of course, this puts the village perilously close to what was the Eastern Front in both world wars.My sister told me that a devastating earthquake struck the area in 1976. Still a lovely sense of anticipation keeps me smiling as James and I take the train to Udine and then a taxi to Faedis. (We had been warned about the irregular bus services.)

In my head, I have a handful of Nonna’s stories, as recalled by my father and his sister, my aunt. In our records, we have some digitised photographs of Nonna and her brothers. I know a few Italian words (not enough for conversation) and I can read a little. I have no other tangible evidence of my connection to this place, just a deep desire to learn and to re-imagine Nonna’s life here.

Enter Andrea Tofolletti, a passionate local historian and our host in the beautifully restored Roman and mediaeval Affiticamere Valnascosta where we are staying.

Entry to breakfeast room, Valnascosta. Photograph by James Hills
Andrea Tofolletti, host extraordinare at Valnascosta and enthusiastic local historian. His help was invaluable to my understanding of the village and its history. Photo by James Hills

I tell him that I have seen photographs of Faedis bombed in WWII.

‘No,’ he corrects me. ‘Faedis was never bombed. It was burnt.’  

Andrea speaks good English. We follow the story he tells of the partigiani, the WWII resistance fighters who kept Friuli clear of Germans and operating pretty much as normal for much of the war. Eventually though, the Germans were irritated beyond restraint by the partigiani’s continued raids and incursions.

‘They threw fire into every house and building in Faedis. The commune (local council building) was burnt. All the commune records (births, deaths, marriages) were lost. But the priest had been warned. He hid the church records in a box in the bell tower and they survived.’

Andrea tells us that he saw the church records when researching the history of the Valnascosta buildings.

‘Some of them are written on sheepskin vellum,’ he said.

Silently, I thank that priest. It’s probably due to his actions in 1944, that I have a precious copy of Nonna’s birth certificate and consequently, I and my daughters now hold Italian citizenship.

Stone walls survive fire. Just one year after the war ended, Faedis celebrated their annual Strawberry and Wine Festival. Photographs show roofs re-built and life continuing in an amazing show of resilience, during those very difficult days.

What fire couldn’t destroy, the Terremoto del Fruili, (Fruilian Earthquake) almost did on   May 6, 1976. The first shaking began around 9 pm and lasted 30 seconds at 4.5 magnitude. After a short pause, the main quake hit with much longer shaking at 6.4 magnitude. The thick stone walls of many buildings were held together with weak mortar. They simply collapsed. The village cemetery was destroyed. Hundreds were left homeless. Despite timely and immediate response from the Italian Army then stationed at nearby Cividale, sustained recovery of the area took much longer and was shattered by an aftershock of 6.1 on 15 September, that resulted in more damage.

‘The weather was becoming cooler. People had begun moving back into their partially destroyed homes. Many of these buildings totally collapsed in the second quake,’ Andrea said.

Many dispirited residents left Fruili after the second quake. Those that remained eventually saw significant money flow from the Italian Government for village reconstruction with a mixture of contemporary new houses and restoration of historic buildings. Faedis actually experienced unprecedented economic development and was later awarded a Gold Medal for Civil Merit (an award given to people or organisations that show an exceptional level of self-denial in alleviating suffering and helping those in need.)

I am fascinated by the history. Yet it further convinces me that I am unlikely to find where Nonna lived or much physical evidence connected to her past. Her parents’ graves were probably destroyed by the earthquake. The old cemetery is now a bare gravel carpark. Families that could afford it moved their ancestors’ graves to the new cemetery out of town. I can find no trace of my great-grandparents in the beautiful new cemetery. I suspect their remains are under the carpark, next to the ancient Slavic church that was once the centre of the village.

But then….we show Andrea the photo/postcard sent more than 100 years ago in 1923 to the young Amelia Gandini from her older brother Antonio in France. It is simply addressed:

Alla Signorina, Gandini Amelia, Faedis N293, Italia (via Udine)

Photograph by James Hills

Amelia brought the postcard with her to Australia and her daughter (my aunt) still has the original. When Andrea sees the address, he is very excited.

‘I think I might know where is that address,’ he said. ‘Come outside, I will show you.’

On the stone shed wall that borders the car park outside Valnascosta, he points to a pressed metal house number plate N85. ‘This used to be the address for this place,’ he says.

‘They have changed the numbering systems so many times in Faedis. First, they had the Napoleon system (the French arrived in 1797). Many years ago, they had this metal plate house numbering system. Now they use something different again.

‘I have found another number like this in the field near Canal del Ferro. I think your N293 is also in Canal del Ferro. I have a friend who lives there. Let me check. I think that is where the number will be. Those old buildings up there. They don’t change. They’ve been there for hundreds of years.’

The old number found in a field near Canal del Ferro. Photograph by James Hills

Turns out, it takes more than two world wars and an earthquake to destroy my history. Turns out too, that Nonna did not actually live in Faedis proper. Canal del Ferro, is a collection of medieval two-story stone buildings a few hundred metres up the road towards the foothills of the pre-Julian Alps.  

A sense of the antiquity of this area seeps into my consciousness from the reading I’ve been doing. Before the French ruled, the Venetian Republic conquered the area in 1420. Before them the Cucagna family and their noble descendants ruled and built the castles on the hills on the other side of Canal di Grive. Roman coins turn in up vineyards. Excavations during renovations of the main church in the village piazza, revealed evidence of a small Roman temple. In fact, humans have probably lived in the area since around 2000 BC, according to archaeological digs in the nearby Cjondar des Paganis Cave located between Faedis and the neighbouring commune of Attimis.

I stand in Borgo Canal del Ferro on a clear, chilly November morning touching the rough stone walls of N295 (the house of Andrea’s friend) and those of the buildings next door. N300 was nearby. One of these buildings has to be N293!

Smiling through tears of belonging in borgo Canal del Ferro. Photo James Hills

The old numbering plates were mostly discarded, especially following the earthquake restorations, and location records were probably destroyed when the commune records were burnt.

Andrea says later that N293 may have actually been part of N295. Sometimes different families shared the same building.

N295 is a gracious, beautiful building with vines growing up the walls and traditional external wooden staircases giving access to different floor levels.

N295 in Canal del Ferro. My grandmother lived in N293. It has to be nearby! Photo James Hills
Part of the borgo Canal del Ferro. Photo James Hills

 This borgo has to be where Nonna lived, played, laughed and worked as she grew up.

This was where in 1917, her mother Erzegovina Gandini (nee Puppini), loaded all her children and their supplies including the pig and their chickens on to a cart, hitched the cow and attempted to lead them to safety at a friend’s house in then Austria when occupation by enemy soldiers seemed likely.

This was where Erzegovina returned a week later to find her home occupied by German soldiers. This was where she and the children then slept upstairs while the soldiers lived downstairs.

This was where the soldiers ate all the family’s food stores, including their pig and chickens;  broke up their furniture for firewood. (I read similar local family stories recorded in Faedis history collections). Nonna said the soldiers did not physically hurt them. Victors and vanquished, all were trying to survive a harsh wartime winter.

This was where the family would have starved that winter, except for the ingenuity of Amelia’s brothers who stole chickens and other food wherever possible.

This was where Amelia heard the bells from the Santa Maria Assunta church in Piazza 1 Maggio down in Faedis calling her, her mother and her siblings to mass; calling too many times during the Spanish Flu after World War 1, yet never once for their family.

Tears flow as a deep sense of connection to this beautiful place seeps into my being. Green and gold autumn trees on the foothills behind me wrap around the vineyards surrounding the borgo. Across the gurgling Canal di Grivo a few hundred metres away and up on the hills opposite, the two medieval castles, sharply white against the clear blue sky, watch over the valley as they had done for centuries.

Castello di Zucco and Chapel friese (photos from
Vineyards near Canal del Ferro

Exploring Canal di Grivo further convinces me that we are in the right place (or maybe I just want to believe this). From the bridge I watch the clear mountain stream rush down towards Faedis. Nonna often described her mother, my great-grandmother Erzegovina, washing clothes for rich people in icy river water. In this way, she earned a few lire to supplement the income that her husband drank on his return from seasonal work in Germany.

A few days earlier, I stood on another bridge in the main village of Faedis and watched the Torrent Grive, literally a raging torrent, especially after rain. I tried to imagine accessing the tumbling fury from the steep banks to wash clothes. It didn’t seem possible.

But here at Canal di Grivo, the river is much gentler – hurrying, clear water, broken on the edge with worn slabs of rock. I could almost see those women one hundred years ago, rubbing their clothes on the stones, maybe laughing and chatting.  

Canal di Grivo

As we drive out of Canal del Ferro, we pass a drinking fountain: worn mediaeval stones and running water, cracked by the earthquake and wrapped around with an iron strap. It simple beauty in form and function calls to my heart.

Fountain near Canal del Ferro

Like her mother, Amelia would have drunk from this fountain and collected water here. And almost 100 years after she left her birthplace, I, her oldest grandchild, pay homage to her at the fountain. I honour her courage and resilience in seeking a better life in a strange new country. I honour the grief, the cracks in human experience she knew. I honour the stories she told. I honour the power of her love that flowed through all the decades of my life and led me to this moment.

Renee Hills (Stroppiana) 2020. Amelia Gandini was my paternal grandmother.