Beyond Stitch And Bitch: Reflections On Knitting And Life

Beyond Stitch And Bitch: Reflections On Knitting And Life

by Afi-Odelia Scruggs

With every knit, the author tells a story; with every purl, readers weave a little of themselves into the tale. Beyond Stitch & Bitch explores through essays the emotional and spiritual aspects of knitting.

Although the book is targeted to knitters, any craft person will appreciate the passion and affection that these essays communicate. Readers laugh at


With every knit, the author tells a story; with every purl, readers weave a little of themselves into the tale. Beyond Stitch & Bitch explores through essays the emotional and spiritual aspects of knitting.

Although the book is targeted to knitters, any craft person will appreciate the passion and affection that these essays communicate. Readers laugh at the author's inability to reduce her yarn stash in "The One Who Dies with the Most Yarn Wins." Every hobbyist will recognize herself or himself in "A Knitter's Life," as the author confronts her mortality while knitting hats for her young nephew.

Afi-Odelia Scruggs, a knitter for over forty years, has written a book that is engaging, appealing reading for anyone who has fallen in love with a craft.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Knitting teaches us to be producers, not consumers... A peaceful, useful book."
—R. Kimm, Small Press Review (May-June 2005)

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Atria Books/Beyond Words
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0.38(w) x 5.00(h) x 8.00(d)

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Beyond Stitch & Bitch

Reflections on Knitting and Life
By Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs


Copyright © 2004 Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58270-103-2

Chapter One

Elizabeth Zimmermann Mother of the Craft

At times, small events remind us that creativity not only endures but expands to touch and inspire others. That's why the death of renowned knitter Elizabeth Zimmermann in 1999 was worthy of an obituary in the New York Times. Non-knitters must have been confused when they picked up the paper that day. The nation's paper of record devoted almost a thousand words to commemorate the accomplishments of a professional knitter-yes, that's what she was; no, the designation wasn't a contradiction in terms.

Zimmermann wasn't strictly a fashion designer, even though thousands of women and men still follow patterns she created almost half a century ago. She didn't have the celebrity of the Missonis, the Italian family whose knitwear sells for thousands of dollars, nor the cachet of Kaffe Fasset, the British designer whose beautiful colors turned knitted sweaters into artistic canvasses. Zimmermann had a single-minded passion for the craft that allowed her to "see knitting in everything" and a gift to help others see as she did. By overturning the traditional approach to knitting with her revolutionary techniques, knitters were given the freedom to create patterns to suit themselves.

Her most famous "unvention" which was what she called the techniques she devised, was her method for making a sweater. First, she abandoned straight needles for circular ones. By knitting cylinders instead of flat pieces, she eliminated the need to sew a sweater together. "The human being is so constructed that it [sic] can be completely covered by a series of shaped tubes," she explained in her book Knitting Without Tears. "We knitters can fabricate natural-born tubes by the very nature of our craft of circular knitting.... It is only a matter of uniting the tubes by knitting together and we could, if desired, make long johns for an octopus."

Then she used mathematics, a subject long deemed too weighty for women of her era, to devise formulas that guaranteed a perfectly fitting garment. The knitter determines the number of stitches for the body by knitting a four-inch swatch and measuring the number of stitches that equal one inch. Then she multiples that figure by the desired width of the sweater.

The next step involves following percentages that Zimmermann had carefully worked out. If the knitter wants long sleeves, she casts on 20 percent of the body stitches per sleeve. She increases regularly until she has 33 percent of the body stitches.

After knitting the sleeves and the body, the knitter can relax.

"Now the long haul is over, and the fun begins," Zimmermann wrote. The knitter follows the rest of Zimmermann's directions for joining the sleeves and body by knitting all three pieces together on a circular needle. She guides the knitter step by step from the yoke to the neck, giving percentages as signposts so the knitter won't get lost.

This "unvention" allows a knitter to modify a basic design to her taste by adding small patterns, switching yarns, or changing stitches, without worrying that the finished garment would hang from her shoulders like a sack or squeeze her chest like a vise.

Zimmermann's initiation to knitting was hardly exceptional. She'd been drawn to the craft as a child in England. Her memories of childhood governesses and private schools evoke scenes from a nineteenth-century children's novel-with a daringly modern heroine. "I had a wonderful hidey-hole in a gone-to-seed cabbage patch," she recalled in her book Knitting Around, "and one day had the excitement ... of falling through the roof of an abandoned chicken house, garnering the first permanent scar on my leg."

Surrounded by knitters, one day little Elizabeth asked to learn. Her mother promised to teach her-if she behaved for a full day. The little girl did, and her mother was true to her word. Thus, the course of Zimmermann's life was set. She spent the rest of her life with needles in her hands and yarn looped through her fingers.

She attended art schools in Switzerland and Munich. In Munich she met Arnold Zimmermann-whom she dubbed her "Old Man"-who could "carpenter, plumb, read ... brew beer, and fish...." They fled Germany after he was heard ridiculing Hitler, married in England, and, in 1937, immigrated to the United States. Eventually they settled down in an old schoolhouse in Wisconsin. Through it all Zimmermann knitted.

As her passion for her self-described obsession deepened, so did her exasperation with the patterns of the day. They were rigid, as if pattern designers were drill sergeants and knitters were new recruits going through boot camp. There was no room for creativity. No room for a woman-because virtually all knitters then were women-to express herself. The message was clear: the knitter-the woman-was supposed to follow, not lead, because the designer-the authority-knew best. But Zimmermann had an artist's eye and the assurance to strike out on her own. Instead of following directions, she modified them and ended up creating her own patterns. She broke ranks and showed others how to do the same.

Am I veering into a feminist interpretation of Zimmermann's life? Yes I am, even though Zimmermann's books suggest she didn't have much to do with feminism. When explaining her Pi shawl design, for example, Zimmermann said, "If you are a man, you probably realize that this is simply the formula for Pi, but if you are a woman, you put such concerns out of your mind when you left high school."

Perhaps she misunderstood the movement. She was a wife and mother, occupations that, at the time, laywomen believed feminism looked down upon. True feminism values a woman's work, as well as a woman's ability to think for and to assert herself. Feminism champions empowerment, a word that didn't even exist in the mid-1950s, when Zimmermann published her first knitting pattern.

When her first pattern appeared in Woman's Day magazine, Zimmermann didn't receive a dime. Instead, the magazine published her name and address as the source for the yarn and patterns. The arrangement was a fair bargain for the time, when a woman's work was undervalued at best and trivialized at worst. Still, it illustrated a law of capital that gave rise to the women's movement in the 1970s: payment indicates value. In the 1950s, society considered women capable of managing a house but not a business. They were to be satisfied with recognition and emotional currency perhaps, but not anything Zimmermann could exchange for yarn or needles.

Zimmermann didn't get paid, but she got an opportunity. And she used it. The readers responded to her invitation to create patterns to please themselves, not a distant designer. Torrents of letters arrived. Four years later, she launched her own publication.

So yes, this is a feminist interpretation of a woman who, in all probability, wouldn't have defined herself that way; however, it doesn't matter whether Zimmermann embraced women's lib or scorned it. She opened the door for other women simply by using her strengths and speaking her mind. Most importantly, Zimmermann made the craft of knitting respectable, while keeping it firmly in the hands of its creators. Quilting, embroidery, and weaving have been elevated from craft to art-the result of the women's movement insisting that traditional women's crafts be taken seriously. Society responded, but, ironically, by taking them out of the home, these crafts lost their purpose. Art school quilts hang on the walls of museums rather than lying on the beds of their makers.

But shawls and sweaters don't hang on the walls of galleries and museums. Art schools don't offer majors in knitting. Knitting remains the Cinderella of the crafts movement. A beautifully knitted hat warms its owner's head and brings joy to all who admire it. And the best part is that anyone can learn to create such loveliness-all one needs is a ball of yarn, a pair of needles, a teacher, and some time. Anyone can knit and more and more people continue to do so.

We have Zimmermann to thank for this. She had a passionate desire to teach others the joy of knitting, not its limitations. Her influence expanded the niche for everyone. Without Zimmermann, we might not have the current range of publishers who specialize in various crafts. Kaffe Fassett might have stayed with oils and canvas instead of turning to yarn and knitting needles. Zimmermann "brought intelligence and validity to a craft that had been trivialized as women's work," Linda Ligon, then president of Interweave Press, told the Times for the obituary.

At a time when women had far less control over their lives, Zimmermann gave them confidence. She opened a way for an ordinary woman to enrich her own life and the lives of others. She paved the way for hundreds of thousands of knitters, men and women, to express themselves without relying on an outside authority's approval or oversight.

As the editors of the Times rightfully recognized, hers was more than an accomplishment. It is a legacy.

The Busy Woman's Möbius Scarf

Most knitting references give two ways to knit a Möbius scarf: a method that knits in the round and another that knits back and forth. The first method is so complicated my head hurt when I tried to visualize the process. I didn't dare knit it; I was afraid I'd end up with a tangled mess.

The simpler way involves knitting a scarf, putting a half-twist in it, and then sewing the ends together. The half-twist lies flat when you wear the scarf and it fits wonderfully under a coat or jacket.

My way is even simpler. I use size-17 needles and two strands of yarn and cast on enough stitches for the length. Then I knit a few rows-no more than 20-for the desired width. Don't be alarmed by the number of stitches. You can make this scarf while watching your favorite television show, and it will be finished before you know it.

I use seed stitch instead of garter stitch to make this scarf. I think seed stitch is a beautiful way to add texture. The pattern is simple: cast on an odd number of stitches, then Ki, Pi for every row. Like garter stitch, seed stitch is reversible and the edges of the scarf will not curl.

Materials: 2 balls (190-200 yards each) of worsted weight yarn (3 1/2 to 4 oz.) 1 size 17 circular needle 1 yarn needle

Gauge: 2 stitches = 1 inch over pattern

Length: 60 inches

Width: 5 inches

Directions: Holding two strands together, cast on 121 stitches.

Knit 1, purl 1 back and forth on circular needles until the scarf is about 5 inches wide. Bind off.

Finishing: Put a half-twist in the scarf. Sew the ends together to join the ends of the scarf in a circle.

Chapter Two

The One Who Dies with the Most Yarn Wins

I love yarn entirely too much to part with it. I have closets and rooms full of skeins and balls. Sometimes, I even fall asleep while working on my latest project, so I can touch it as I doze. There are times, though, when my ardor cools and common sense reigns. Then I look at my tables and shelves overflowing with yarn. That's when I walk through my house and realize I have to make some difficult decisions.

That is why I sat in the middle of my storage nook, yarn to the back and front of me, yarn to the left (keep) and right (give). I shifted skeins from one pile to another, pausing when I came to the stack of beige cotton.

Should they go to the right or to the left?

I ran my fingers over the tightly plied strands and held a hank up to the light, admiring the way the thread shone underneath the bulb. I'd bought the yarn when I lived in Dayton, back in ... what? 1991 or 1992? Now it was already well into the twenty-first century, and I lived in Cleveland. The yarn company probably didn't even make that brand anymore; if it did, surely the color had been discontinued.

I'd never started the sweater that had inspired this purchase. For ten years these skeins had waited patiently, expecting that one day I'd actually put my good intentions into practice. I looked at the yarn, humming to myself as I struggled to decide: should they stay or should they go?

I tightened my mouth, turned my head, and tossed them onto the pile to my right, ignoring the twinge of regret and suppressing the tiny thought that still suggested I might want this yarn ... someday.


Excerpted from Beyond Stitch & Bitch by Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs Copyright © 2004 by Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Afi-Odelia Scruggs has been knitting for over forty years. Over the years, Scruggs has knitted sweaters, shawls, even skirts. She also quilts and studies tie-dye with a master artist from Nigeria.

Scruggs has been a full-time journalist since 1987, when she began working for semi-weekly papers in the Washington D.C. area. She has worked at papers in Jackson, Miss., Cincinnati, Dayton, and Cleveland, Ohio, where she was a metro columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer from 1996 to 2000. Presently, Scruggs is a visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, OH.

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