A Return to Knitting
This is what I used to think: Life is like an arrow’s path–a clear trajectory, starting at birth and going forward, forward, forward, until at last the arrow comes to rest.
Now I see life is more like the rolling path of a bicycle’s tire–with ups and downs and the chance to meet again what you may have dropped, forgotten, or lost at an earlier time.
So the fact that I’ve returned to knitting after a long time away makes perfect sense.
I learned to knit at a pretty young age–probably when I was five. My mother taught herself to knit from books; she had effective but quirky methods, and her friends would say to her, “Who taught you to cast on like THAT? Here…let me just show you…”
I don’t think Mom cared; she let her friends mess with her work, and when they left, she went right back to the method that worked for her and produced tightly knit, warm mittens and gloves. But she decided that I should probably learn the more conventional methods, so she signed me up for knitting classes.
The classes met in a cinder block room behind a yarn shop, and there was a range of participants—from girls just a bit older than I was to women our grannies’ ages. They worked on afghans, baby clothes, sweaters. I remember one woman who churned out heavy sweater jackets with pictures on the backs–a horse’s head, an eagle with spread wings–knit in from complicated charts.
The other girls and I knit endless Barbie clothes–sweaters, skirts (knit sets influenced by Jackie Kennedy’s Paris style), dresses, even pants. The kind lady who oversaw the ‘knit nights’ took me in hand; my knitting was tight and tense and sweat-stained. She showed me how to loosen up, how to build a rhythm.
I looked forward to the nights in the yarn shop’s back room, to the sharing of women and the feeling of creating something useful from a skein of yarn.
In those days, skeins had to be wound into balls before knitting, or the yarn would tangle and clot. And, if you were making a big project, it was very important to buy enough of the same dye lot to complete the whole thing, or you might have half a sleeve that didn’t quite match the rest of the sweater.
I liked spending time in the company of women; I had four brothers and no sisters. At home, we played endless games of wiffle ball and kickball in the backyard–so often that base paths and a batter’s box were permanently present as hard, grassless spaces. We watched Combat and The Rifle Man on television, and the talk at the dinner table often revolved around sports, especially baseball. I didn’t mind all that, and I loved to swing a bat, but sitting in the midst of women was a rich experience. They talked about babies and baking and weddings and church. They shared household tips and recipes and laughter about the foibles of their men. They were kind and patient with the girls among them, and they watched to make sure we were doing all right.
Toward middle school, we moved to a little city nearby my small town birthplace. To my joy, I landed in a neighborhood with three girls my own age within whispering distance. We spent summers together on our porches, knitting and talking. When the weather grew colder, we took our knitting inside. Our Barbie clothes grew more ambitious, with patterns and colors; Sheila, our acknowledged knitting whiz, was working on a light blue cable knit sweater. I made tiny yellow booties for my Aunt Dott’s baby shower; I remember laboring over the eyelet rows through which I’d thread satiny yellow ribbons so those booties wouldn’t slide off my cousin David’s chubby little feet when he arrived a month or so later.
My mother taught me a simple slipper pattern, and I made slippers for Christmas gifts for all the family. Mittens were ‘in’–I found a pattern for simple two needle, double strand mittens, and made myself a supply. (I was notorious for losing one mitten, so a steady supply was a necessity; my friend Mary Ann, who could knit AND crochet, knit mittens for herself and crocheted long ‘idiot chains’ that went through her jacket sleeves and connected the mittens to her permanently.) And I developed a ribbed scarf technique that people liked; back there in the seventies, brothers and boyfriends wanted the scarves I made. I made striped scarves in school colors and wildly colored scarves just for fun.
Sheila and I would sit and knit together without talking, books open in our laps, reading and knitting companionably for hours.
And then–the cataclysm of the later years in high school, the transition to college, a changing world, and a shift in values and appreciation. Little by little, I stopped knitting much, and then, with kids and teaching and meetings and family, the knitting well dried up altogether. I had my arsenal of needles and knit accessories; they moved with me wherever I want, but they didn’t call to me loudly enough to motivate a new project. Life was busy; I was managing, but extras–even refreshing, relaxing extras–were just not on. Besides, many people I knew looked askance at handmade gifts, preferring the instant perfection of machine made.
But the wheels turn and kids grow. It’s funny how I developed the habit of planning for ‘after’–once Mark gets out of law school, I’ll have time…once Jim is settled into a program, I can think about… I spent a lot of middle life working through waiting. And then suddenly the waiting was done, the law school commencement a memory, the program in place, and we landed in a sturdy, substantial place—no more temporary housing for law students’ families–and established community ties, and joined a church…where knitters met in a little back room, sharing and talking.
Forty years later, I was still the novice learning from the experts; I special ordered little circular needles and learned to knit socks. I knit prayer shawls and baby blankets, and discovered people, once again, who treasure the hand-created labors of their family and friends. I found that watching TV at night was best with knitting in hand.
Knitting appeals to the creator in me; it also tickles my frugal bone. When visiting Wendy in western New York, I learned that, at a wonderful store called Savers, one can buy bags of yarn–seven or eight skeins of different colors and weights–for around two dollars. I found that people who had enthusiastically started projects requiring many skeins of yarn often give up early on and sell the yarn during summer yard sales at deep, deep discounts. I stockpiled bags of beauty–rich colors, bright colors, fibers soft and sturdy.
The library and the used book store yielded pattern books; I became uncomfortable without a project and began knitting baby hats and booties; slippers and Beard-o’s; pieces of polyfiber stuffed cake for birthday giving; knit bunnies and bears and all kinds of crazy ol’ critters. After a 25 year hiatus, knitting became an essential part of life again, satisfying and enriching.
This Fall, I saw a sock monkey slipper pattern on my FB page, and thought about my sock monkey loving niece, Margaret. I would, I decided, make slippers for Meg and her family for Christmas. I followed the pattern link and found, to my Scottish horror, that there was a charge for the pattern. A charge! No thanks, I thought, high in dudgeon, clicking out of that connection.
I had the yarn, in bags from Savers–shades of reddish brown and caramel; skeins of cream and white. And then I remembered Mom’s simple slipper method; I clicked back in and looked at the pattern, and realized I could EASILY adapt Mom’s method to make sock monkey slippers. And so, switching needles, amending stitch counts, I did, and enjoyed the full circle feeling, from the seven year old learning from the grannies, to the granny knitting from her mother’s pattern, knitting for a 40 year old niece whose oldest daughter is the same age as I was, back in the days of the knit nights.
The monkey slippers, I think, came out good. And, although baby Mia slips and keesters out when she wears her tiny slippers on smooth, shiny floors–wearing knit slippers is perhaps not an art for the newly walking–it tickles me that Meg and family are keeping their toes warm wearing slippers knit from Great Grandma Kirst’s special method. The grands will never know their great grandma, but the things she taught and the things she valued are part of their lives–from the importance of handmade creativity to the joy of a grand bargain.
The wheels turn. What goes around comes around. I am so glad.
Grandma Kirst’s Slipper Pattern
Size 10 (US) needles
Four ounces of worsted weight yarns, divided into two equal balls
Yarn needle for finishing
For standard adult size (standard, at least for large-footed families. Measure and adjust to suit!)
Using double strand of yarn, cast on 35 stitches. Work as follows:
Knit 11, purl 1, knit 11, purl 1, knit 11, until piece measures 5″, or to just below the ball of the foot when measuring from the heel.
Next row: K2, P2 across; end with P 1.
Alternative row: K 1, *P2, K2 across.
Repeat these rows for 3 inches.
Cut yarn, leaving long strand for sewing. Thread tail onto needles and run through stitches on needle, pulling tight to form toe. Sew to end of ribbing.
Cut yarn; sew up heel.
For sock monkey slippers, use caramel yarn for foot and cream colored yarn for toes. Embroider a red yard mouth; sew on button eyes.
I borrowed ear directions from a copyrighted teddy pattern, but I think the slippers look like monkeys with or without the added ears…
I play with needles sizes and measurements to make smaller slippers, adjusting as I go.