Read an Excerpt
A Knitter's Home Companion
By Michelle Edwards, Jen Gotch, Melanie Falick
ABRAMSCopyright © 2014 Michelle Edwards
All rights reserved.
Rody and I were married on a cold November evening—too cold to wear just my wedding dress and the shawl I had made, but that's all I wore anyway. The new shawl was my stretch to meet the bridal tradition of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. The wool was pale rose, not blue, but the pattern was borrowed from a shawl belonging to my friend and mentor, Isabel Nirenberg. And the something old was the tradition of the handmade passed on to me from my mother, who taught me to knit. She had died less than a year before, a decade after my father's death. Rody's parents were also deceased. We were on our own.
We planned for our wedding to take place where we lived together, in Iowa City, a Big Ten university town. We made double sure that our chosen date wasn't during a home football game weekend. We reserved a block of hotel rooms for our out-of-town guests, and the Hillel House, the Jewish student center where I worked, for the wedding. We hired a band and a caterer for the reception. Mr. Rubinstein, the cantor who had prepared Rody and his brother, Myron, for their bar mitzvahs, flew in to help with the ceremony.
We exchanged our vows in front of a gathering of family and neighbors, old friends and new ones. Later, while the band played, the same group cheered and clapped as the crew of Iranian students I had invited seated us in chairs and lifted us up for a traditional marriage dance. My handmade shawl, tossed aside during the night's warmth and excitement, felt perfect back on my shoulders as Rody and I, husband and wife, stepped out into the cold again.
Our honeymoon was to be a few weeks later. We had found a great package deal to Denmark between Christmas and New Year's. The day we were to leave, the Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa, about an hour and a half south of our house, orchestrated a worldwide meditation to generate world peace. Sadly, instead of global harmony, Iowa was hit by a temperature freeze so spectacular that our plane was unable to fuel up. As we waited to check our luggage, all flights out were canceled. It was neither practical, nor possible, to catch up with our connection in Chicago by car.
At a restaurant near the airport, while sipping hot chocolate, we planned our honeymoon once again. Maybe a new destination would change our luck. Rody had lived and studied in Portugal and spoke the language. His stories of the country, the food, and the people won me over. We decided on Portugal in April, when travel would be safe from the vagaries of winter weather on the prairie and the interference of any international peace efforts.
It was a wonderful choice. Our plane left on time, and we arrived in Lisbon on a warm spring day. We drank coffee in charming cafés and walked cobblestone streets that looked like they came from a fairy tale. In the northern city of Oporto, we sipped port, and I found a small yarn store. Inside, glowing from their cubbies and baskets were the lightest, softest bundles of vibrant greens, blues, and pinks. Not knowing or even thinking about what I might make with it, I bought a palette of the fine-weight wool.
I didn't really have a stash back then. I had been a poor graduate student when Rody and I had met, and I bought yarn judiciously. But I wasn't a poor student anymore. I had earned my master of fine arts degree in printmaking, and my part-time job at Hillel paid what felt like a huge salary to me. Rody, as he has always been fond of saying, was also "gainfully employed." In a very modest way, I was a woman of means. I could buy yarn when I felt like it.
Other changes, ones I could not control, had hurled me into adulthood. My mother's death was still a very deep hurting hole. The house where I spent most of my growing-up years now belonged to another family. The part of my life as someone's daughter was over, and a new part, as someone's wife and partner, was just taking root. My Portuguese honeymoon, I decided, and my colorful new stash of yarn, marked this new chapter. When we returned home, I stored it in our front-hall closet, leaving the bag open so I could eye the yarn when I shrugged on a coat or reached for an umbrella. Someday, I would make something special with it.
Four years later, I was pregnant. That's when I took out my bag of yarn from Portugal. This was what I had been saving it for—to make something for a baby. Not a sweater she would outgrow in a month or two, or booties she would kick off and lose, but something more lasting, like a blanket that she might sleep with and treasure her whole life.
One at a time, I opened each skein, slipping the glory of a blue, a green, and two pinks over the back of our dining-room chairs. Rody kept me company. Hand-rolling about a million yards of the fine Portuguese wool into balls, with an occasional break to drink the tea he brewed us, was a task that took me almost an entire evening. But I was an expert; I used to do this all the time for my mother. With an assembly of beautiful yarn on my dining-room table and the skills my mother had passed on to me, I moved toward being a mother myself, and carrying a tradition of the handmade to the next generation.
I picked a very simple pattern, one my mother and I had once used to make an afghan together. The new blanket was a joyous ride of color, and I was about half done when, six weeks before my due date, Rody was offered a better job. On New Year's Day, we moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. Friends brought by baby things early, so we could take them with us: toys, car seats, a crib, baby clothes, and an assortment of blankets, all gently used by their children and now lovingly passed on to ours.
We stayed at a hotel in downtown St. Paul until our house was ready. By midafternoon each day, the Minnesota winter sky was already darkening. In our room, watching the city lights turn on one by one, I would work on the blanket. It was finished before we settled into our house. We were ready for this baby.
Meera Lil was born on February 28, 1987, named for Rody's father, Milton, and my mother, Lillian. Two days after her birth, we wrapped our Meera in the blanket I had made her and left the hospital as a family. In the round-the-clock nursing that followed, I used the blanket to cover her, its colors a vivid contrast against the tiny puff of her dark hair.
Meera's blanket is a sturdy one. Honestly, a tad stiff. A larger gauge would have given it a much better drape. As she grew bigger, I would often tuck her in with the much softer machine-made blankets my Iowa City pals had given us. And at some point, the white acrylic one with the silky trim became the one Meera always wanted. Rubbing the silky strip helped her fall asleep. Early on, it earned from her the coveted name "Blankie." Over the years, I have repaired Meera's Blankie, patching holes and replacing the silk edging. The blanket itself is now in shreds; clinging to it is a few less-than-pristine remains of its once smooth and shiny borders. Still, nothing could ever convince Meera to give up her Blankie. Even now, she guards the traces of it.
I keep watch over the blanket I created for her all those years ago. Meera's blanket, like the ones I later made for her younger sisters, Flory and Lelia, wasn't just a baby blanket, and it wasn't just for her. All three of them were for me, too. They were my expressions of hope for these new lives after the loss of my parents, my family anchors. These blankets never won a place in my children's hearts; they never were their "blankies," but they have served me well as artifacts of who I was in my early days of motherhood. Meera's blanket is folded and stored in the cedar hope chest that once belonged to Rody's mother. Lelia's and Flory's are there, too. Taken out again and again, to help me remember, they always do their job. And that seems like more than enough for a blanket to be able to do.
ZIGZAG BABY BLANKET
Making a baby blanket is as much a gift for the knitter as it is for the baby. Unlike the original blanket for Meera (my oldest daughter, now a college graduate), this one is worked at a large gauge so it can be finished easily before the baby arrives. If you are new to color knitting, follow the pattern chart carefully; within a few rows, you'll likely have it memorized.
29" wide x 32" long, lightly blocked
Lion Brand Homespun (98% acrylic / 2% polyester; 185 yards / 170 grams): 2 skeins #399 Apple Green (MC)
Lion Brand Yarn Jiffy (100% acrylic; 135 yards / 85 grams): 2 skeins #099 Fisherman (A)
One 29" (70 cm) long or longer circular (circ) needle size US 10½ (6.5 mm) Change needle size if necessary to obtain correct gauge.
Stitch markers (optional)
14 sts and 16 rows = 4" (10 cm) in Two-Color Zigzag, lightly blocked
Two-Color Zigzag (see Chart) (multiple of 32 sts; 8-row repeat)
Row 1 (RS): [K2 A, k2 MC] 3 times, k2 A, k4 MC, [k2 A, k2 MC] 3 times, k2 A.
Row 2: [P2 A, k2 MC] 3 times, p2 A, k4 MC, [p2 A, k2 MC] 3 times, p2 A.
Row 3: K1 MC, [k2 A, k2 MC] 7 times, k2 A, k1 MC.
Row 4: K1 MC, [p2 A, k2 MC] 7 times, p2 A, k1 MC.
Row 5: [K2 MC, k2 A] 3 times, k2 MC, k4 A, [k2 MC, k2 A] 3 times, k2 MC.
Row 6: [K2 MC, p2 A] 3 times, k2 MC, p4 A, [k2 MC, p2 A] 3 times, k2 MC.
Row 7: K1 MC, [k2 A, k2 MC] 7 times, k2 A, k1 MC.
Row 8: K1 MC, [p2 A, k2 MC] 7 times, p2 A, k1 MC.
Repeat Rows 1–8 for Two-Color Zigzag.
Take the time to knit a gauge swatch. Not only will it allow you to determine if your stitches are the correct size, it will also give you an opportunity to learn the stitch pattern and acquire the tension necessary for the color knitting. A gauge swatch of the Two-Color Zigzag makes a lovely square. You might even decide to make several of them and sew them together to make another baby blanket.
You may work the Two-Color Zigzag from the Chart or the written pattern.
There are two edge stitches in MC at either end of each row that are worked in Garter stitch (knit every row); you may wish to place markers between these stitches and the Two-Color Zigzag. You may also wish to place markers between the repeats of the stitch pattern. All stitches worked in MC are worked in Garter stitch; all stitches worked in A are worked in Stockinette stitch. When working WS rows, be sure to bring the MC to the front before working purl stitches, so that you do not carry floats across the RS.
Block the Blanket by holding a steam iron over the piece, without touching it.
For a larger Blanket, cast on an extra 32 stitches (one additional pattern repeat). For a wider border, you could add 4 Garter stitch rows to the Blanket's top and bottom and an extra 2 stitches of Garter stitch to both sides. Make sure to purchase additional yarn if you make the Blanket larger.
Using MC, CO 100 sts. Begin Garter st (knit every row); work even for 4 rows.
Next Row (RS): K2 MC [edge sts, keep in Garter st (knit every row)], work Two-Color Zigzag to last 2 sts, k2 MC (edge sts, keep in Garter st).
Work even until you have completed 15 vertical repeats of Two-Color Zigzag. Cut A.
Next Row (RS): Continuing in MC, change to Garter st; work even for 4 rows. BO all sts knitwise.
Block to measurements.
THE KNITTING LESSON
Learning to knit was an unceremonious event for me, lost in the jumble of the day-to-day. The yarn and the needles are all I remember. The rose-colored wool, rolled tightly into a ball, was donated by a neighbor. The long green needles, supplied by my mother, were aluminum and hollow, the kind that really do make a click-clack sound. Stamped on the circular metal ends of each one was the number 8.
I was a noisy, spacey kid—a nudnik. I was always talking, always interrupting, always wanting something. Knitting smoothed my rough edges and gave me pause. I wonder if that's why my mother taught me, hoping that my knitting might earn her some restful moments. Now, with children of my own, I can understand this hope.
My oldest daughters are a mere twenty-one months apart. They were the Meera and Flory team—their own private entertainment center. Birth order put my youngest daughter, Lelia, on the periphery of their world. Her sisters mastered pig latin when she was just learning to talk, and they spoke it together so fast only they were able to understand each other. Which, of course, was the point.
Without her sisters to pal around with her, Lelia turned to my husband, Rody, to fill the gap. He and Lelia chased balls, swam, and regularly visited the Minnesota Zoo and the Children's Museum in St. Paul. In the summer, she rooted for him at his Sunday morning tennis matches. Rody kept a portable checkers set in his car so that when the spirit moved them, they could play over hot chocolate at our local java joint.
When Rody was unavailable for fun and play, Lelia looked to me. I wasn't as active as Rody, so our time together was more like a never-ending tea party. Lelia loved good food and conversation. She had a million questions, a vast number of opinions, and an extensive repertoire of stories to tell and songs to sing.
Charming and lovable, Lelia too was a demanding, nudniky little kid. A minute alone for contemplation and reflection seemed to signal to Lelia that I needed company. A short break to read or knit was always intruded upon by her enthusiasm. When she turned seven, I decided it was time for her to learn to knit. I was sure it would settle her down a bit. It had worked for me.
I had visions of us knitting companionably in our orderly living room, strains of an Irish ballad in the background. Lelia might hum along contentedly while I concentrated on the lace pattern of a Shetland shawl. If she wasn't absorbed in counting her own stitches or rows, we might chat a bit. Time would pass peacefully, in a knitterly way.
Preparing for this life-changing lesson, I read articles on how to teach children knitting, underlining and taking notes. I found a lot of good advice, complemented by great stories and heartwarming anecdotes. I couldn't remember my own first knitting lesson, but I was determined that Lelia's would be unforgettable.
Inspiring materials were important, I believed. So I purchased child-sized wooden needles with ladybugs on the ends and a soft skein of rainbow-colored hand-dyed merino wool. No hand-me-down yarn and clumsy, click-clacking needles. The big event was planned for a Saturday afternoon when the rest of the flock would be out of the house.
When the afternoon of the knitting lesson came, we sat side by side on the living-room couch, our knitting baskets on the floor. Like religious Jews, who start their young scholar's first day with a taste of honey, our coffee table was set with treats to ensure Leila's knitting life a sweet beginning. After the tea and cupcakes, I planned to show her the knitting basics, in poetry and gesture. But I never got that far.
"Mom," Lelia said right after I began, "I think I already know how. I've been watching you."
She nodded toward the needles in my hands—her needles. Confidently, she took hold. Expertly, she knit stitch after stitch.
"See?" she said, lifting her work up high. She beamed at me. Her two front teeth were missing. Her skin was seven-year-old perfect—like her first stitches.
The early afternoon light shone through the living-room window as she knit. A wind scattered a sheaf of leaves, causing a shadow or two to cross the room. On the sidewalk outside, kids were jumping rope, chalking up the sidewalk, and scootering around. It was a glorious fall day, and eventually, knitting just couldn't compete.
Lelia stitched a few more rows while I sipped my tea and watched. Then she put the yarn and needles down on top of the plate of cupcakes and briefly examined the crumbs on her sweatshirt.
"Can I go now?" she asked me.
"Sure," I said. The lesson was over.
With a quick good-bye, she was out the front door, giving me time for contemplation and reflection. I poured myself another cup of tea.
Osmosis: the gradual, often unconscious, absorption of knowledge or ideas through continual exposure rather than deliberate learning. Lelia didn't need the ladybug needles or even the special afternoon to learn to knit. She had learned by osmosis. Is that why I don't remember my mother teaching me? Because I already knew?
Excerpted from A Knitter's Home Companion by Michelle Edwards, Jen Gotch, Melanie Falick. Copyright © 2014 Michelle Edwards. Excerpted by permission of ABRAMS.
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