The Love of Knitting Part One

In my other life, my non-writing, non-working, independently-wealthy-with-no-responsibilities-and-plenty-of-free-time-on-my-hands life, I knit. I have a knitting blog, albeit one that has seen better days, and more consistent updates. While I was doing all that blogging about knitting, I was also a professional knitter. I could devote six hours a day, or more, to my craft, every day of the week. You can use a lot of yarn and make a lot of pretty things in thirty hours a week, and I did. I enjoyed all that knitting time enormously.

I developed the pattern for “Holy Sheep! Baby Bottoms,” which included soakers, shorts and pants, myself. A soaker is a knitted woolen garment used over cloth diapers in the place of rubber or plastic pants. I could turn out a soaker in one day or a pair of long pants for a two-year-old in two days. I’ve made them plain, ruffled, striped, and with cute embroidered designs. Most of these were custom pieces, with the customer choosing the colors, motifs, and measurements, which I then knit to order. I enjoyed it because it allowed me to practice different skills, the palettes and textures were never the same, and each piece was an original.
My favorite was a pair of green pants with a bear applique on the bum. First, I dyed the yarn and knit the pants. Then I followed a cross-stitch pattern, using it to make a knitted bear. I sewed the bear to the pants, and drew in the facial features with brown yarn. The whole process took about ten days from the time I put the yarn on until the washed and water-proofed pants were in the mail.

Plunging white wool into a vat of colored vinegar-water is as close as mortals can come to making magic. The smell of wool soaking in hot vinegar takes some getting used to, but eventually it becomes tolerable. It comes to signify creative alchemy— I forget that it is so acrid my nose burns and my eyes water! As it “cooks,” the water becomes clear and the yarn takes on a brilliant hue. The whole process takes several hours. As I soak in the acrid smell and watch the color move from the water into the wool, I am thinking about what I am going to make with that yarn.

But there are seasons for everything and that season of professional knitting ended for me after the birth of my seventh child. I miss it: not so much the knitting, which I still do, but the designing and the dyeing of the yarn, and the creativity that went with it.

I have been playing with yarn for decades. When I was nine a family friend taught me to crochet, but my love for knitting was partially inspired by my first husband. He knew how to knit, and he considered his craft quite remarkable. He thought crocheting was a “waste of good yarn.” He tried to teach me several times over the course of our six year marriage, but as with so many facets of his personality and our marriage, it never quite worked out. He had some good qualities and many skills, but teaching was not among them. He held the yarn like a left handed knitter, even though he was right handed. “You do it like this,” he said, hiding what he was doing with his hands.

“I can’t see what you are doing,” I said.

“Then move! Watch my hands!” he said. When I moved, so did he, shifting the position of his hands so that my view was blocked yet again. And when I didn’t understand his wordless demonstration, he said, “This is too complicated for you. Go back to that simple stuff.”

“No, show me again,” I said. We must have repeated that conversation a dozen times over the years. I finally just shelved the desire and watched him knit while I crocheted. I made several blankets and a couple of vests while we were married, and I watched him work on the back of a sweater in plain gray wool—always just the back, and it never seemed to get any bigger. But the lust to knit and knit well was born in those moments, so it was a temporary shelving. I had the tools, I had the books, and I had the desire. Eventually I taught myself.

Late one night shortly after my sixth child was born, I sat in my rocker with my needles and yarn. I opened the instruction book yet again, and I did what it said yet again, and I began to knit. I had actually been knitting correctly—and ripping it out—for several hours that night before I realized I was doing it right and the sample pictures in the book were labeled incorrectly. I was so excited that it was all I could do not to run through the house screaming with joy. After all, I’d been trying to knit off and on for most of 15 years at that point. Of course, the fact that my shout of joy would have awakened my whole family and ended my knitting time helped keep me in my chair.

Even though it took me 15 years to learn to knit, I still say nothing could be simpler than knitting, unless it is breathing. I’ve taught several people to knit, sharing my love and passion for the craft. One begins with two sticks and a string and after a varying investment of time, ends with a useful finished piece. It is a skill that takes just minutes to learn but can bring a lifetime of satisfaction. The left hand holds one stick and the yarn, and remains mostly stationary. The right hand executes small, precise twists, flitting the other stick into and out of the existing stitches to make new ones. There are only two maneuvers, the knit and the purl. To make a knit stitch, one enters from the front, and to make a purl stitch, one enters from the back. From these two stitches every knitted thing you have ever seen is composed. It is soothing and repetitious work, and the pseudo-monotony of it is strangely liberating. The mind is free to wander and dream while the hands are busy creating. The body is kept fully in this world, while the imagination dashes here and there— thinking, planning, composing. It’s how man is supposed to live— staying busy with our everyday lives while dreaming of something better. Someone will probably solve the problem of world hunger one day while doing just such a thing as knitting.

I made my first knit stitch in 2002, and in the years since, I have made hundreds of pieces. I have covered heads. I have covered feet. I have covered everything in between with wooly warmth. I have knit for money, I have knit for the joy of it, and I have knit because I had nothing else to do at the time. I have knit while laughing, while crying, while mourning, and while praying. When I don’t know what else to do, I knit.
Like most “yarnies,” I have yarn everywhere. “You have a lot of balls,” said my best friend, the first time he saw my room. I looked around with fresh eyes. Fiber spilled out of my cubbies, there was a basket full of it by my chair, and my current project was resting on the nightstand. He couldn’t see the boxes of fluffy mohair and silk and baby alpaca under the bed.

“Yeah, I guess I do,” I answered. I gave him mental credit for a double entendre that gave both my personality and my knitting skills full credit.

Along with the yarn, there are unfinished projects tucked here and there about the house waiting for my time and attention. Many of those unfinished things are for me. I tend to drop what I am knitting for myself to knit for others: a prayer shawl here, a special request there. But like I said, I am patient. The stuff I’m making for me will wait a bit and it will get finished eventually. Someday.
In the meantime, if you receive a gift from my needles, you can be sure that I loved you more than I loved myself for the time it took me to make it. That’s all knitting really is. It’s love solidified. Wearable love. Love that hugs and warms your body. When I am knitting for you, I am thinking about you, praying for you, loving you. The finished item that you get is just a reminder that I spent that time with you on my mind. It’s an affirmation of your worth to me.

Prayer shawls are usually given anonymously. You can’t just walk up to someone you don’t know and give them a hand-knitted shawl. Especially when a person is grieving, you want to give her space. It embarrasses those who aren’t grieving to find out someone holds them in such high esteem that they would go to that much effort. Because of this, I like to put them in a pretty gift bag and leave it labeled in a conspicuous place, watched over by a trusted co-conspirator.

I did this once for a woman I had admired for more than thirty years. She was a substitute teacher in my elementary, middle, and high schools. I was always pleased to walk into a classroom and see that Miss Bee was the teacher that day. She went to her grave never knowing who loved her so much. That is exactly as it should have been. She touched so many lives with her graciousness that the entire community loved her. People stood in line for hours to pay condolences when she passed. I was one of them, and I never heard a murmur of complaint while we waited. Instead the line was full of stories celebrating close to 80 years of faithful service to her husband, her children, her church, and her community.

Also her Savior. We never spoke about her faith until I was grown. “It is only because of Jesus’ love for me that I am what I am. There is nothing good in me by myself,” she said. While I designed and made her shawl, I was thanking God for such a remarkable influence in my life.

The Clapotis, pronounced clap-oh-tee, is a fairly simple thing to make. You knit across, increasing on the ends, and purl back. Every few stitches, you twist a stitch. Every few rows, you drop a stitch. After about 20 hours, you have a parallelogram that you can wear around your head or around your shoulders, depending on size. I have made three of them in the past three years. Two I have given away, and one I kept for myself. This is the piece I make now when I am loving someone who is sick or grieving, or just having a rough time. I knit while I mourn with them and pray for them. Thinking about what someone else is facing for such a long time makes me realize how insignificant my own troubles are. It becomes a healing piece for both of us. I’m fairly certain it is the hours of prayer and not the yarn that makes that healing happen.

This is the first of a three part series. Go get a quote for liability insurance while you wait. I’ll have the others up shortly.

Part Two
Part Three