Irene Johnsen

“This is what it is all about, we all help each other.”

Irene joined U3APP just four years ago and is now running the group” Natter Knit and Sew”. Members may have wandered down the corridor and sighted colourful quilts in Room 2, perhaps wondering what goes on in there.

Irene was born in Norway, where her extended family continues to live. She was just seven years old when her parents made the decision to migrate to Australia. Irene has fond memories of her early years in Norway. “As soon as you could walk, you had your own skis, toboggan, ice skates.” They lived in Skien, (the birth town of playwright Henry Ibsen) and had a holiday place up in the mountains. Irene did not attend school prior to coming to Australia.In the Post-World War 2 years, migration from European countries to Australia was encouraged, by way of boosting the Australian workforce. On arrival they were taken to live at the Bonegilla Migrant Centre, where they lived in huts along with other migrants. They were then moved to Tongala near Echuca, where her father worked at the Tongala Dairy Farm.

Irene attended her first school in Tongala. She “didn’t speak a word of English,” so this was a challenging experience, “a lot of kids didn’t play with you, but I was OK with that.” After a few years the family moved to live in Bentleigh, Victoria, where Irene attended Brighton Technical School (now demolished). Irene has four siblings. They developed different creative interests. Irene recalls painting Mickey Mouse cartoons on her younger sister’s cubby house, she would make things for her out of lace and decorate the walls. Irene was always “top of the class” in needle work. She taught herself to knit and crochet from a book and “kept going and going.”

Irene has an avid interest in ‘Junk Journaling.’ She is doing a Junk Journal for her 12-year-old granddaughter. It is titled, “Just Us”. Irene might write a scribble, include a picture of her granddaughter, then add a memorable theme, like “funny eyes or just anything we have done together”. She has helped look after her granddaughter since her infancy, “so, I will give this big pile of books to her when she turns 21.” Junk Journaling can consist of anything, it seems, “you can do anything your heart desires with a Junk Journal.” It’s more personal and meaningful than a regular photo album. This same granddaughter recently won First Prize for her exhibit of a jewelry tree, at the Royal Melbourne Show, competing against adults.

Irene records fond memories in a personal and intimate way. For instance, she may select an image and then print this onto calico. She then prints onto this, a picture of herself and the person. Irene makes up a poem about “what I have done with that person” and attaches it to the back of the piece. She then puts a little crystal near the person’s name, “like my signature.” Irene enjoys writing poetry, “I see things in my head, and I create it.”

Irene has only recently been entering competitions, winning major awards at various shows, including the Royal Melbourne Show and The Dandy Show. Irene does not sell her work, preferring to give knitted or crocheted garments, blankets, rugs to family and friends.

Irene has had many jobs, including as a paid worker at the Salvos Store South Melbourne, where her skills in sewing and garment alteration were much appreciated. All staff at Salvos Stores are on a salary with the requisite obligations of a paid member of staff. Currently Irene works at the South Melbourne Community Chest Op Shop. Irene has owned two shops at various times, one on the Gold Coast and the other in Geelong. She sold fashion, jewelry, crafts, not her own work.

Irene believes that interest in handmade items, knitting, sewing, weaving is growing rather than declining. She does not purchase her yarns or materials in local stores but rather online, in order to obtain the best quality. Even if the cost is much higher, “it is no good doing a nice piece, if you are going to use cheap wool”. She has bought wool from Spain for instance.


Currently Irene is working on a Christmas wall hanging. But not so traditional, Irene laughs as she describes this. The quilt features the green Grinch, who hated Christmas. She is making it entirely by hand, it will have lights shining behind it. Despite Irene not being good at math at school, she acknowledges that she has a good eye for spatial relationships. “I just fluke it. I don’t sit there and measure everything, I already know if the design will fit the shape or not.” There are times of course when it is necessary to use a ruler.

Do these handcrafted works require much patience, Irene responds emphatically, “Yes!” There are times when quilting, you need to use a very fine needle. “I’ve been known to sit there for 20 minutes trying to thread that needle.” Some items may take many months to complete. Irene is also a collector and maker of masks. She has acquired masks worldwide. Perhaps her favourite being an antique mask that has eyes that “follow you.”

The U3APP Natter, Knit and Sew group meets weekly. Current members are also skilled, so they are able to work and talk. “This is what it is all about, we all help each other,” sharing tips and advice. At times members will simply bring in items that need mending. Irene welcomes beginners as long as they are willing to learn how to read a pattern for instance, and perhaps start on a simple item like a granny square. “We would advise and help them.”

Irene’s son and daughter live in Melbourne. Irene also has three great grandchildren and her “mum is still alive, and she is well.” Irene stays with her daughter once a fortnight for several days at a time, helping to care for the children.

Irene has needed to deal with some serious health issues and currently attends a gym several times a week. She is contemplating moving to live on the Gold Coast, perhaps at the end of the year. Whilst Irene says she will miss her involvement with her many grand and great-grandchildren, she feels it is time, and the internet makes face-to-face contact very easy. Irene likes the lifestyle on the Gold Coast.

She plans to visit Norway, she has not been back since leaving as a young child. She intends to visit the Greek Islands, the UK and also Morocco. Irene refers to herself as optimistic, rarely complaining, even about the weather. Over the past years, Irene has supported herself, she is independent and has no concerns about travelling alone. “I don’t worry about this, I enjoy it.”

Irene has been sewing, knitting, crocheting, rugs, quilts, and garments throughout her life. It has been fascinating to learn how she records memories of her family and friends, in such an intriguing way. By adding a poem, inserting a picture or item, Irene highlights something unique about that relationship.

Felicity May interviewed Irene Johnsen.

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