Archive for January 20th, 2012

I think I’ve always had knitting in my bones.  It’s the only reason I can think of for the fact that essentially, I taught myself how to knit.

Living in Germany was a great help in that regard.  When I was living there, I think every woman in the entire country knitted.  You’d see them everywhere:  in the train station, on the train, in the park, sitting at picnic benches in the forest, at the laundromat, knitting, knitting, knitting.  I knew how to crochet; crocheted granny-afghan squares became very popular when I was a young teenager, and even my mother, who hated needlework of any kind, learned to knit those.  I made my first afghan when I was twenty.  But nobody in Germany crocheted, that I could tell; everyone knitted, and as I had always considered crochet a poor substitute for knitting, I wanted to knit, too.

On one of my rare forays to the Base Exchange (the Air Force equivalent of a department store), I spotted a magazine, Somebody-Or-Other’s Fall Knits.  (I don’t think it was Vogue.)  The front-cover pattern was exactly what I was looking for, a matching cape and skirt in a rich autumnal brown color.  And it looked like a fairly easy pattern…if only I knew how.  I picked up the magazine and browsed through it, and there in the front were…instructions.  Oh, heaven.  I bought that magazine on the spot, and the next day, went to the yarn shop in town and bought several hanks of rich brown yarn and a pair of suitable knitting needles.  And when I got home, I taught myself to cast on.

Now – knitting takes patience.  Lots of patience.  Casting on, the means by which you get the foundation row of knitting on needles, is especially tough to learn.  I didn’t even know how to make a slip knot.  And of course, what I cast on was so tight that there was no way to get another needle into the loops to form a second row of knitting.  I must have ripped that thing out a dozen times before I got a selvedge I could work with.

Then there was purling.  Knitting was pretty easy, once you got that first row onto the needles; you stuck the working needle into the stitch from front to back, wrapped the yarn around it, and pulled through.  It was just a question of getting the yarn to stay on the needle until it pulled through.  Did I mention that knitting takes patience?  But eventually, there was a fairly tidy second row of knitting on my needle.  And then came real hell, because I had to stick the working needle into the stitch from back to front, wrap the yarn around it, and pull it through again, and this time, that yarn would not stay on that needle!  This is where an experienced knitter would be jumping up and down, saying, “Garter stitch!  Garter stitch!” meaning, you knit every row.  I thought about it.  I think I actually did it.  But need I point out that garter stitch looks nothing like stockinette stitch?  I wanted stockinette stitch.

So I persevered, and after probably about two weeks, I finally had a row of purl stitches on my needle.  Turn it around, knit another row, yay, I get to knit.  Turn it around, phooey, I have to purl another row.

Believe it or not, I actually did finish my skirt and cape in time for winter, and wore them with great pride.  I’m sure they looked as if they had been knit by an amateur; after all, they were.  But I did it.

That taken care of, I returned to my first and favorite needlework, cross stitch, and didn’t pick up knitting needles until five years later, when my daughter turned two.  Just the thought of little fingers and eyes around sharp scissors and needles was unbearable, and there was this cute jacket pattern I had seen in yet another magazine, so I packed away the cross-stitch stuff, bought gorgeous pink yarn, and cast on again – much more smoothly this time.  And this time, I didn’t stop knitting for 25 years.  Sweaters, dresses, socks, I made ’em all.

It was in 1982 that my knitting life really took off.  That was the year when, living in Massachusetts, I walked into a yarn shop in Lexington and found Knitter’s Almanac, by the doyenne of the knitting world, Elizabeth Zimmermann.  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to buy this book; it looked so Advanced, with no real patterns in it, not like anything I could do.  And we really couldn’t afford it.  But there was a chapter on Nether Garments (September), for knitted leggings.  “I first saw this practical garment in Germany,” wrote the Master (Mistress?), and I was hooked; that’s where I first saw it, too.

I never did make the Nether Garments, but – well, have you ever read anything by Elizabeth Zimmermann?  The woman is impossible to resist.  She charms you into thinking you can actually do this stuff, design your own patterns and make things without magazine patterns, knit in the round instead of flat pieces that you have to sew up, actually do math.  The scary part is – you can.  I did.  Fair Isle vests, Aran pullovers – argyle socks! – Icelandic pullovers, you name it, I did it.  Despite what people have been led to believe, federal civil-service workers actually don’t make megabucks, as I know from personal experience, and one of the ways I stretched a buck was to purchase one skein of sock yarn, cut the worn-out feet off my husband’s socks, and knit new feet onto them.  I still have some of those socks.  The yarn was pretty horrible – it pilled like crazy – but they are still wearable.  I wear them now.

My crowning achievement was my daughter’s wedding veil.  This was not without struggle.  I knew what I wanted to make; I had the pattern for it; I was able to purchase lace-weight wool; but never, repeat never, try to tell a non-knitter that you are knitting a wedding veil.  They can’t conceive of such a thing.  Both my mother (the needlework-hater) and my daughter’s future mother-in-law thought I was knitting a granny afghan!!  And it took me a year to knit the Shetland shawl I had envisioned; but she looked lovely in it, and it made a wonderful christening blanket for her two sons.

After that, I put my needles away and got back into cross stitch.  Until my son, who had only ever seen me knit, suggested to his then-girlfriend that something knitting related might make a good Christmas gift.  The girl bought me the Never Not Knitting calendar by Stephanie Pearl McPhee, who should seriously consider changing her middle name to “Purl” – it was like the rebirth of Elizabeth Zimmermann.  The woman literally laughed me into picking up the ol’ needles again.

I still cross stitch, in the daytime, when the light is good.  At night, with nothing but artificial light at my disposal, I take out my knitting.  In the past two years, I have knitted two Aran sweaters and a hat (and I swear I will never make another Aran again), and am currently engaged in a pair of socks for my husband.   The next pair of socks is for me.


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