Read an Excerpt
What's Your Name?
Big Red was the first of the sweaters that flew from my friend Alex's needles in the year 2000. A prolific knitter, Alex frequently names her sweaters. Big Red was a sim- ple, rustic sweater, a wholesome wool sweater of hearty peasant stock. It was robust, warm, and practical. Later that year, Alex made The Road Kill from a variegated yarn purchased in an unguarded moment at the fabric store. The fleshy pinks and bilious greens created frightening patterns in the finished work. Looking at the sweater was like driving by the site of a terrible accident. Passersby paused despite themselves and shuddered, their eyes drawn to the violent acrylic splashes and swirls by some primal urge they did not understand. The Road Kill was one powerful sweater.
My projects, on the other hand, were unnamed, and often unfinished. Occasionally, if I stuck with a project long enough, I accepted a title offered by the pattern designer or the yarn maker. I finished the Artisan's Vest and the Putney Crofter without incident. I worked happily on the Mostly Merino sweater and the Great Adirondack scarf. Other projects, knit from less appealing yarns or more difficult patterns, languished, unnamed, on my needles. But sweater after sweater dropped from Alex's needles that year, as my pile of unfinished projects grew. I marveled at her productivity, at the number, variety, and complexity of her works. And I laughed at the creativity of their names. The naming was a natural part of the process. All of Alex's sweaters, it seemed, were named.
Then came the tunic known fondly as Brownie. The design and yarn were handpicked by a close friend, who delighted in the muted color, plain pattern, and enormous size of the garment. The friend loved the color; Alex found it drab. Still, Brownie was a birthday gift, and Alex cast on gamely. As the sweater progressed, her shoulders began to ache from flipping the full weight of the sweater on its huge circular needle. Alex was no longer fond of Brownie. The coarsely spun wool contained so much chaff that it wore holes in her hands. The project started as mindless, evolved to tedious, and fetched up as sheer drudgery. Before the last seam was sewn, Brownie had become The Beast, and I had glimpsed the real power of naming. This naming was more than just descriptive, I thought. It marked the transition that occurs in most knitting projects, when the knitter takes the precipitous step from the shining promise of the venture-all those lush colors, the intriguing pattern, the rich textures-and tumbles into the tedium, frustration, and reality of the undertaking. For the really tough projects, Alex's names were seldom affectionate.
"Name it, tame it," I mused. Perhaps to vanquish my own knitting furies I had to face them and name them. It was a grand thought, but my projects still remained unnamed and unfinished. A typical case was the baby sweater from That Certain Company. When I purchased the kit at the yarn store, it contained a cheerful designer yarn. The enclosed pattern showed an adorable sweater, just the thing for the upcoming baby shower. The package provided no inkling of the treachery within. I cast on innocently. At once, I was attacked by the eyelash yarn, which tangled fiercely. The colors clashed. The pattern refused to reveal its secrets. Throughout the ordeal, stitches vanished mysteriously from my needles and reappeared spontaneously days later at another location. Finally, I threw the sweater down in disgust: unnamed, unfinished. The date for the baby shower approached. I resumed my knitting, but without much hope of success. The yarn continued to put up a good fight. Snarls of eyelash peered up at me from the floor. I tugged and pulled, and the tangle grew, looking more and more like something regurgitated by the family pet. I gritted my teeth and gave a mighty yank. "Hair Ball," I hollered in frustration, and the tangle broke free. The rest of the knitting went without incident. The stitches marched in an orderly parade, in accordance with the printed instructions. The colors formed an alliance. Only days later at the shower, I proudly presented the expectant mother with the completed Hair Ball, wrapped carefully in pastel tissue paper. I'm confident the baby will look wonderful in it. (And no, I didn't let on what I'd named the thing.)
I've just cast on for another project. It's an intricately patterned pullover in a luxuriously soft, gray-green alpaca yarn. I have high hopes for its successful completion. Can anyone suggest a name?
Every story has a beginning and mine begins in my early teens. I was taught to knit by a left-handed friend. Since I am right-handed, my knitting ability and form are not the greatest. Nonetheless, over the years, I found knitting to be a great tool for relaxation purposes-until I became an alcoholic. Knitting then became a chore. There were too many dropped stitches and the patterns were too difficult to follow. After many years, I stopped fighting alcohol and started to attend meetings to learn how to live without drinking. I found it hard to focus on what the others said about learning to live in a sober reality. At this point, I started to knit again and I found it easier to concentrate when I was knitting. Thus knitting helped me to "learn to listen so I could listen to learn." Since people attending these meetings seldom if ever use last names, they often use adjectives to denote a particular person-Bald Harry or Mary with the Glasses, or the like. That's how I became known as Knitting Nancy. I'm happy to report that I still have the nickname over 31 years later.
One winter about thirty years ago, when I was at home with small children, I knitted two bulky cardigans for myself. In those years, I never re-knit anything. If it didn't fit right, I put it away or gave it away, but I never undid it and re-knit it to size. The first sweater (with matching hat) I knit with heathery gray bulky yarn. I made it big enough to wrap comfortably across my body. The cardigan ended up looking like a hip-length bathrobe, but I wore it for many years to work in the yard or to slip over my real bathrobe when running out to get the newspaper on chilly mornings. My second project that winter was a cardigan jacket. I still have the pattern for this item. The cover describes it as a wrapped cardigan, but the illustration shows several inches of space between the front panels, even on the model's skinny figure. Moreover, it was in early 1970s trendy orange. I knit it anyway. It was a disaster from the beginning. Even with my pattern adjustments, the sweater left a good twelve to fifteen inches of my ample bosom and belly exposed. Needless to say, I never wore it.
Some years later I went back to work. I loved my job and my co-workers, but I hated the thermostat wars. You know-this woman's always too warm and the other one's always too cold. I was the lucky one. Management kept the place cool and I loved it that way. My secretary, Robin, was always chilly. She kept saying that she would be more comfortable with a blanket or something over her legs. Then I thought of that disastrous orange sweater. It was big enough and warm enough to be a lap blanket. I brought it in. Everyone who saw the sweater laughed. Here was this monstrously long sweater, knit to fit a size 3X body, in bright orange yarn. It was immediately christened Big Ugly. At first Robin used it like an afghan. Then, one day, she actually put it on and wore it around the office. That happened more and more often. One day, when Robin was absent, a co-worker came by to see if she could borrow Big Ugly that day. This began to happen with some frequency. People actually wore the thing, instead of draping it across their laps.
Big Ugly was an equal opportunity cardigan. It looked equally awful on tall people, short people, thin people, fat people, white people and people of color. I suspect it would have been just as ugly on a man if one of them had ever borrowed it. It was an act of courage to actually walk around wearing that thing, but it had the great advantage of being very warm and cozy. Periodically I would take Big Ugly home and wash it. Whatever I did, the orange synthetic yarn never faded, stretched or shrunk. It just stayed ugly.
When I retired after sixteen years in that office, I bequeathed Big Ugly to my co-workers. That was more than five years ago, before we moved to New Mexico. A few months ago we came back to Maryland for a wedding and I paid a visit to my old office. Guess what! The staff told me that Big Ugly was still around, still being actively worn by a variety of people. I have the feeling that Big Ugly will outlast all the people I worked with-that it's now a permanent office fixture. I hope its story lasts as long as Big Ugly itself.