Well, it’s happened. It snowed today. Real flakes. Fat slushy ones that stuck together in an act of “accumulating” more suited to early December than early November. It’s just the latest in a series of indications that winter is coming.
When the flakes start to fly, I always feel compelled to bust out my knitting. I rarely, if ever, knit in the warm months. It just feels wrong, and, in any case, I’m not inspired to make hats and scarves in July. But I recently got out my needles and bought a skein of soft baby alpaca yarn. I needed a project. My husband is a Red Sox fan, and so we are a Red Sox household. As you may be aware–but honestly, if you read my blog, of all the blogs on the world-wide-internets, baseball may not be your thing any more than it is mine–the Red Sox won the World Series recently. This means they played lots and lots of games right through the end of October. In my husband’s world, it’s like Christmas came early. In my world, it’s fun, but it’s a lot of baseball games. Too many, really. I needed a baseball playoffs project, and I needed one badly.
I made a lace headband. Being my first attempt at lace, I’m pretty pleased with the results. I even managed a button hole. Lace requires attention, and I typically choose less fussy patterns. I like the back-and-forth of a scarf, or the round-and-round of a hat. Knitting is meditative for me. Fussy knitting is not. It gives me anxiety. But as I really only partially attend to a baseball game, a fussy lace headband seemed just the thing to maintain my sanity.
When the Series ended and my headband was finished, I needed another project. I happened upon this unfinished scarf in my yarn stash.
Cascades of cables make a waterfall effect in a blue wool blend. It’s gorgeous. It’s spectacular. I hadn’t so much as looked at it in at least three years, and I had no idea how I made it.
I worked on this scarf while researching and writing my dissertation. I sat on a couch in a monastery guesthouse and carefully followed the pattern for a “Reversible Cable.” On my couch at home, when editing and revising turned into endless toil worthy of a hell circle in Dante’s Inferno, I picked up my scarf and knit a row or two. But there comes a time in dissertation writing when everything else must cease if the massive document will ever be finished. And so I put my scarf away. I stopped baking. I stopped cooking dinners. I did nothing but write. I have a PhD and permanent eye strain to show for it. But no scarf.
Last weekend, my mother and I sat on her couch with the scarf. My mother is a genius knitter–an artist-and-crafter-of-all-trades, really. She helped me decipher the pattern. She’s smart like that, and so I’m working on my Unfinished Dissertation Scarf again. Just thinking about the scarf brings to mind those long days and longer years of graduate school. That not-far-past moment in my life is contained somehow in the fibers. It is more powerful even than a simple reminder. The scarf seems to hold those days and keep them forever in the “now,” even if it sits unfinished.
I often talk about food as social history, but crafting is an equally strong vehicle of the personal and social integration that make us whole. The women in my family come from a long line of crafty ladies: quilters, knitters, spinners, sewers, artists. My cousin Jen’s quilting blog is a lovely case in point: jendalyquilts.blogspot.com. We cherish the comfort and love of something handmade, but we also cherish the skills involved in its creation. Even if those skills are only half-learned, and projects seem doomed to be left unfinished, they still allow us to participate in the act of handing down that is so important to developing a sense of self and identity as an individual, but also as a part of a family, a heritage, a tradition.
Crafting is an act of oral history and personal narrative. The projects tell our story, but so does the very act of creating them. And so does the yarn stash, that haphazard collection of projects past, in-progress, and planned for later.
As I pulled the Unfinished Dissertation Scarf from the midst of balled yarn and myriad other projects in various states of completion, I realized that my knitting stash tells a story. In fact, it’s a lot of stories, all balled up and piled on top of one another. The story begins when my sister and I were children–probably no older than 6 and 8 years old, respectively. My mother decided to teach us to knit. We sat on the deck of our little lake house looking out over the water, with our cocker spaniel, Lucky, at our feet, and our brother somewhere else doing something that was not knitting.
My mother is left-handed. Her children are not. Knitting is not easily reversed. Mom tried using a mirror, as her right-handed grandmother had done with her. She tried reversing her own process: flipping her hands around, crossing her wrists, or attempting to look at her work from the back side, all while holding her knitting mid-stitch. From her perch in her own living room overlooking our deck, my Memere–a French-Canadian name for Grandmother–watched my mother attempt all manner of knitting acrobatics.
My Memere can knit faster and with more precision than anyone I’ve ever seen. She can make hats, mittens, and slippers for our entire family in a matter of weeks. That’s a lot of knitting. She has six children, plus their spouses, eleven grandchildren and their spouses, and eleven great-grandchildren. Her skills are legend. As she tells the story of our ill-fated summer knitting lesson, she stood in her living room smiling, laughing, and wondering how long she should let her youngest daughter carry on before rescuing her grandbabies from a lifetime of backwards knitting. And rescue us she did. She came over and, right-handed as she is, showed us a proper knit-and-purl.
I have three balls of yarn in my knitting stash from my Memere. She used to sit with her mother-in-law — my Grandmemere — and turn four-ply yarn into thinner two-ply yarn for crocheting afghans. I have one of her afghans. I also have three little balls of yarn that I’ll never use for anything, but will always cherish.
As the years went by, my sister and I neglected our knitting skills. By the time we were teenagers, the story of our summer knitting lesson became just that, a story. It was something we recalled with a smile and laugh, but we no longer recalled how to knit. And so one Thanksgiving afternoon when I was in college and my sister was in high school, we (still right-handed) sat around the living room with our (still left-handed) mother and decided to re-learn how to knit. As teenagers, we were much better able to learn from a lefty. It was not easy nor without a lot of laughter, but we managed to reverse Mom’s instructions and assign her process to our own hands. Or so we thought.
We stuck to scarves for a while–the easiest project in the knitting domain. We went through various yarn obsessions. For a while, I knit everything in bulky chenille. Then bulky boucle. Bulky yarn equals speedy progress. I then became obsessed with furry, fuzzy novelty yarns. And ribbon yarns. It’s not the proudest corner of my yarn stash. I don’t know why I’ve saved this stuff. What am I ever going to do with half a skein of old purple chenille and a few yards of furry pink yarn?
Eventually, my sister and I tired of speedy scarves made with bulky, kitschy yarn–thank the Lord–and we wanted to try hats. My sister tried it first, and, seeing her success, I gave it a go. My hat looked totally homemade, and a bit like a mushroom. Strangely, all my stitches tilted to left, like a ladder, giving my hat a spiraling pattern that isn’t normal and certainly wasn’t what I was going for. I looked more closely at my sister’s hat. Hers had the same mysterious spiraling stitches. We were perplexed, but we carried on knitting.
The following year at Thanksgiving, we sat around in the living room. We had our worsted-weight yarn and circular needles in hand, trying again to make hats. Mom sat next to us knitting up a pair of socks with self-patterning yarn. She watched us for a while. And then, with a quizzical look on her face, she began laughing and said, “What are you two doing?”
My sister and I looked up. Mom walked over to us and told us to show her how we knit. We both did. We did exactly the same thing, just as she had taught us. We went in the loop, wrapped the yarn, and pulled through. Mom exclaimed, “You’re knitting backwards!” And so we were. We picked up loops and stitches in a crazy twisted fashion that mirrored Mom’s left-handed knitting and turned everything we made into a spiraling mess. We all laughed so hard we cried. More than a decade after Memere rescued us, we were still backwards knitters.
Even now, I have to think through my knitting stitches when I pick up my needles every fall. Sometimes I need to call my sister to consult: What was the wrong way, again?
So we learned how to knit for real, and our yarn obsessions matured. This is some rather pricey hand-dyed wool from a yarn shop. I bought it two years ago to make something for me and something for my sister. I never did either.
But in any case, my yarn is now grown up, and so is my knitting. It has a proper non-backwards technique, and my finished work–when I finish something–has increasingly taken on a handmade-not-homemade quality. The whole process, from yarn selection to finished project, has become increasingly sentimental.
I have a small pile of yarn that was hand-dyed and hand-spun by a friend, made from yarn she selected from local dealers, shorn from local animals. My friend weathered her dissertation research and writing at the spinning wheel. I made soft, warm cabled headbands for the women in my family with her yarn. I can’t bring myself to throw out the remnants.
Every Tuesday morning during my dissertation research, almost without fail, I worked with a Benedictine monk and his flock of sheep. We moved them from pasture to pasture. We gave them fresh hay and bedding. But mostly we mucked. “Mucked” being a euphemism for scooping poop. Lots of it. It was disgusting. But somehow, when I sat in the monastery guesthouse and knitted a warm hat from the sheep’s wool, scooping their messes didn’t seem so bad after all. This pale grey skein is my last one. And as the monks recently decided that they would no longer keep sheep, it is the last skein I’ll ever be able to get.
I have the most gorgeous purple Inca Alpaca yarn. It was a gift from a friend. I’ve been saving it for at least ten years, just waiting for the right project. I think of my friend each time I pull the yarn out of my stash and ponder what I might do with it.
I also have two wonderful skeins of mohair. My mother gave them to me a long time ago. Like the purple alpaca, I pull these out from time to time and wonder what to do with them. Thanks to Pinterest–addicting little devil that it is–I think I’ve finally found just the thing: a soft cowl. These little guys won’t be in the stash for long!
I’ll probably make the Mohair Cowl for myself. But for the most part, when I pick up my needles every autumn, my plans and projects are inclined toward gifting. It’s part of the love that knitting is all about. As the snowflakes fly I wonder: What will I make for the ladies in my life for Christmas this year? I won’t answer that, as most of my readers are those ladies, but thinking of gifting sometimes brings to mind gifts from seasons past. The above photo is an unfinished felted bag. I had something of a felting obsession a few years ago. I got only this far on my own bag. But I’m not so interested in felting anymore. And I have no idea what pattern I was using for this bag. This happens fairly regularly, apparently, so as I plan to make things for myself this year–the World Series Headband, the Unfinished Dissertation Scarf, the dreamed-of Mohair Cowl–I am newly inspired to actually finish them. Or, at the very least, pin a pattern and extremely clear instructions to my projects before stuffing them back in the knitting stash when the weather turns warm again and another crafting season becomes the stuff of memory.
Now, wrapped in a sweater made by my mother, I will go in pursuit of some Memere Mittens. It’s cold out there! And there’s nothing like the love of handmade knits to keep me warm. Not to mention the warmth of wrapping myself in my own family legacy, the long tradition of women’s knowledge and women’s work that is my birthright. Even if I’m not the world’s best knitter, half of my yarn stash is embarrassingly tacky, and the other half is likely the beginning of my own episode of “Hoarders.”