Knitting

Knitting

3.8 9
by Anne Bartlett
     
 

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In Anne Bartlett's engaging novel, a chance meeting sparks a friendship between two very different women who share a fascination with knitting. Sandra, a rigid academic, struggles to navigate the world without her husband, whom she has recently lost to cancer. Martha—a self-taught textile artist with her own secret store of grief—spends her days… See more details below

Overview

In Anne Bartlett's engaging novel, a chance meeting sparks a friendship between two very different women who share a fascination with knitting. Sandra, a rigid academic, struggles to navigate the world without her husband, whom she has recently lost to cancer. Martha—a self-taught textile artist with her own secret store of grief—spends her days knitting elaborate projects charged with personal meaning. As the two women collaborate on a new project, surprising events will help heal them both.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
Knitting, the hot new trend, serves as an intriguing theme in Bartlett's first novel. Set in southern Australia, the story revolves around two very different women: the recently widowed Sandra, an academic interested in the history of les and women's work, and the much younger Martha, also a widow. Martha is a gifted knitter who tried knitting for a living, but the pressures to produce on demand turned her greatest joy into a mechanical duty. Now she knits as she pleases. The two women meet one day at the mall when they are the only ones to stop and help a man who has fallen. A friendship develops, and Sandra soon creates a project to showcase Martha's knitting skills and occupy her own grieving mind. The project, an exhibition of vintage and contemporary knitting, challenges both women in more ways than they could have imagined. Bartlett has created an enthralling story about the healing power of friendship, enriched by knitting details. Highly recommended for most public libraries.-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An Australian first-timer connects two women's lives through the ancient art of knitting, in a brief, sweetly winning tale. Since her husband's death a year earlier, textile historian Sandra Fildes feels as if she's wearing a layer of elastic glass "holding her in and keeping everybody else out." She needs a new project, and when the loopy knitter Martha McKenzie suddenly comes into her life-they're the only two who help a collapsed man in the street-she lights on Martha to fulfill her academic dreams. Martha has quit her drudgery as an exploited knitter for a famous sweater designer and instead finds work cleaning the church, all the while knitting patterns dear to her simply because she loves to knit. Martha is poor and cheerful and generous, while Sandra lives in a big stone house with a pool; Martha befriends the recovered collapsed man, Cliff, while Sandra thinks he's seedy and a thief. But Sandra is amazed by Martha's gift at knitting and sees her as a direct line to the ancient traditions of inventive women's work, and even plans to stage an exhibition called "Texturality," a social history of the century featuring historically patterned garments knitted by the one and only Martha. Martha, however, is a perfectionist and becomes psychologically unstable when pressured-like now, as Sandra becomes increasingly manipulative and controlling of her friend. Indeed, Sandra even recognizes that she treated her dead husband in much the same way she's treating poor Martha. The story of the friendship between these two very different personalities is affecting, the snob Sandra continually foiled in her attempts to categorize Martha, who "[keeps] turning into something else" and who is indeedthe more sympathetic character, with her otherness and "careless propensity for joy." At the same time, though, Bartlett's weaving in of women's inventive traditions is rather heavy and academic. Still, a spirited feminist take sure to find favor with women's book groups.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780141020655
Publisher:
Viking Penguin
Publication date:
06/28/2007

Read an Excerpt

August

Ever since Jack's funeral Sandra had
been covered in glass. Not glass from
an accident, shattered bits of
windshield or the hard razor-cut edges of a
plate glass window. Nothing like that.
Sandra was covered in a thick layer of
elastic glass that stretched over her
body like another skin, holding her in
and keeping everybody else out. It moved
with her wherever she went,
invisible under her clothes, into the
shower, into bed, into the sun, and kept
her cold as ice. Friends knocked on it.
She could hear them, but the glass
was over her eyes, too, so that
everything she saw was far away, even
though she knew she could reach out and
touch. She was covered in ice-cold
glass and would never be warm again.

So when Sandra saw the gaudy envelope
in the mailbox, her heart
sank. She knew what it was—her
invitation to the annual dinner she and a
group of school friends had maintained
for over thirty years. She would have
to go, of course; she couldn't not go,
but she dreaded it all the same.
Another item on the list called First
Meetings Post Jack. More hugging and
caring and how-are-you-getting-on to
negotiate. The first widow among them,
an object of compassion, confrontation,
and curiosity. How do you think
she's dealing with it? Not too badly.
Immersed herself in work. And what she
couldn't tell them, hadn't told anyone,
was that her days were as dry-eyed as
a desert. She didn't know how to weep.
She reluctantly tore open the envelope
and propped the invitation
on the mantelpiece. Over the yearsthey
had tried a vast range of restaurants.
This one would require a new dress.

That same afternoon Martha McKenzie
walked down Muggs Hill Road, her
strawberry hair glowing in the meek
offering of the South Australian winter
sun. She was rugged in her overcoat, and
as usual she carried her three big
bags: the expandable striped bag, the
tapestry carpetbag, and the old brown
suitcase. As she approached the corner
near the bus stop something
shimmering caught her attention. The
shimmering was in front of a small
bluestone church that Martha had passed
hundreds of times but never
entered.
Martha was not in the habit of going to
church. She was forty-
seven years old and hadn't needed church
yet, nor it her. Martha was
decidedly uninterested in churches; the
last time she had been to church she
was ten years old and had bitten an old
man on the hand, for good reason.
She was long-sighted, but she wore her
glasses now for knitting.
She squinted at the shimmering. Martha
liked things to be right side up and
comprehensible, though some things, she
knew, could not be explained. This
was like a heat haze or the flummery
flow of air above a gas pump on a hot
day.
Martha looked carefully left and right
down the narrow street, then
tramped across it to the church. Here
she was distracted by something else.
Above the steps leading up to the front
porch was a heavy wooden door,
cheerfully painted but firmly shut, and
on the door was a HELP WANTED
sign, with a phone number and a cartoon
of a woman with a vacuum cleaner.
Martha sat heavily on the church
steps—her knees gave her
trouble in winter—to think about it, but
she kept her fingers resting on the
handles of her bags in case something
untoward happened.
The high column of shimmering was to
her left, half over a cement
path and half over a rose bed abutting
the path. The silvery light didn't seem
to mind the prickly bare sticks of
wintering roses; it moved and flowed among
them without proper regard for itself.
Like a waterfall, thought Martha, only
nothing gets wet. She sat
there watching it, her mind busy with
other thoughts. Sometimes so many
thoughts buzzed in her brain she felt as
if she had a beehive on her shoulders
instead of a head. This morning the
buzzing was mild and had to do with the
rose bushes in front of her, cleaning a
church, and rectifying her current
knitting problem, a complex lace pattern
she had not been able to get right.
Martha loved roses and noted that these
needed pruning, but she couldn't
concentrate on anything properly. It was
hard to concentrate when everything
around seemed to sparkle. Then, in a
moment of clarity, like a knot that
untangles itself when tugged at both
ends, the knitting problem resolved.
Martha stood up, reread the notice on
the church door, then tore it
off and put it in the side pocket of one
of her commodious bags. She closed
her fingers around the handles—she had
barely let go of two of them—stood
stiffly, and went home.

Sandra was reading in the study she had
once shared with Jack. Outside it
was cold and getting dark. It was
already dark and cold inside, except for
this
room, the smallest room at the back of
the house. The study was easy to
keep warm; there was no point in warming
the whole house for one person.
To her left was a pile of books on
ancient textiles and a stack of
tagged journal articles waiting to be
read. To her right was a neat tray of work
completed: essays marked, forms filled
out, a letter supporting a student's
application for scholarship extension.
Even here Sandra was spare with the
heating. She wore thick
socks, a heavy sweater, and a jacket
over that, but her fingers were still cold.
Wear wool, said Sandra's mother across
fifty years of living, Wear that
woolen sweater I made you—it's much
warmer. But in spite of her fascination
with textiles, Sandra had dismissed the
comfort and warmth of wool long
ago. Wool was too slow, too impractical
for a modern world: it might be
machine washable but it still ruined in
the dryer. Wool was too romantic, too
pastoral—too innocent. The nursery
rhymes about sheep—Baa Baa Black
Sheep, Little Bo Peep—all had happy
endings. Wool was just one of the
many textiles she had studied over the
years. It was durable if you could
keep the moths out, but she had no
personal interest in it. Wool was
noteworthy as a phenomenon, but not
viable in Sandra's fast and busy world.
As for Australia riding on the sheep's
back, those days were over.
It was ten months since Jack's death.
After the chaos caused by
his illness and the many changes in
learning to be single again, Sandra was
pretending that she led an ordered life.
Her desk was clear except for the
papers in use, her books straight and
easy in their orderly rows, the bulletin
board uncluttered. She had covered the
flat, bleak surface of Jack's empty
desk with potted plants and piles of
books, but the plants failed to thrive and
the books were those she never read.
Her screen saver resolved into Jack's
face. He smiled at her from
under his cotton sun hat and above his
favorite woolen jacket, made by a
local weaver. His face was crinkled
against the wind blowing that day on the
top of Mt. Buffalo; the stubbly beard
showed new gray. It wasn't a particularly
well-composed photo, but it caught the
light in his dark eyes, the lurking
amusement that had stopped Sandra from
taking herself too seriously. On
difficult days she turned the screen
saver off so she could get on with her
work. Jack's photo was one of many
available on the program's random
choice, but sometimes the timing was
terrible.
On the wall opposite the computer was a
print of Frederic
Cotman's One of the Family, oil on
canvas, 1880. Jack, the impossible
romantic, had loved that painting, the
suffused golden light, the cozy family
sitting down to lunch, the interplay of
action and relationship, the ridiculous
horse at the door. But to Sandra it had
seemed a mockery, a kind of
pretense, something longed for but
unattainable. It looked warm and soft and
comfortable, like an old cotton dress,
but reality was different. Reality was a
cotton dress too small, buttons lost and
seams fraying into holes.
After Jack died, Sandra took the
painting down from the dining
room wall, but when she tried to carry
it out to the shed, somehow it wouldn't
go. So, although she hadn't liked it for
more than twenty years—ever since it
became clear that they would have no
children—she took it to her study and
hung it on the wall at her back. There,
she had said to Jack's reappearing
photo, with the grim amusement that got
her through the days: I don't like it,
but have it if you want.
Jack, like Sandra, had begun academic
life as a historian. Since
those early years their paths had
diverged: Sandra had begun with war
history and moved easily to feminism and
perceptions of women's work, then
concentrated on textiles. Jack had made
an even bigger shift: his interest in
the impact of white settlement on local
Aboriginal populations had evolved
into a committed amateur interest in the
threatened bird species of southern
Australia. Jack might have been
romantic, but when it came to disappearing
birds he was an utter pragmatist. Driven
by alarm at the rapid rate of species
extinction, he had been a keen volunteer
on revegetation programs, both
locally in the Adelaide Hills and
farther north, where the introduced
rabbits,
sheep, and goats had decimated the
natural habitat. Eventually his hobby
dominated his work; his research was
inventive, his record-keeping thorough,
his books and journal articles
internationally respected. In a climate of
environmental pessimism he worked hard
and hopefully for the future,
developing action plans for the
preservation and reintroduction of birds
like the
diamond firetail and the Mount Lofty
Ranges spotted quail-thrush.
Jack worked for the future but lived
thoroughly in the present.
Sandra had seen how every chance finding
of even common feathers gave
him a little rush of pleasure. She did
not share his fascination—another
magpie feather, another wattlebird
killed by a cat—but she envied his delight.
With more unusual feathers his wide
mouth wreathed into smiles, his brown
fingers pressed and smoothed. Such
simple access to joy. Her own life
seemed complicated, her pleasures always
one step removed.
After Jack died, Sandra opened the big
box of feathers he had
collected on their walks. For a week or
two she left them lying about on the
coffee table, though some broke free and
drifted around the room, reminding
her of past conversations with
Jack—elegance, strength, protection. Could
they be displayed somehow? She scooped
them back into the box and took
them to Martin, a picture framer who had
been a close friend of Jack's. When
she returned to pick up the one framing
she had ordered, he presented her
with a large package. A gift, he said,
in memory of Jack. Open it at home.
And waved away her purse.
When Sandra lined up the framed pieces
along the skirting board
in her living room, she saw that Martin
had reworked her meager idea into
something far greater. The six pieces,
individually simple, became something
more in juxtaposition, a mass of wings
beating upward, gathering into flight.
The following weekend Martin came to
hang them for her. Sandra
took him to the bedroom, hoping he would
not think her sentimental. Here,
she said, around the bed. Martin set to
work. As she passed him the first
piece, she suddenly noticed the neat
inscription in fine silver writing on the
back: Jack Fildes / Martin Shepherd:
Series 1/6, Wings.
But here she was, distracted again.
Sandra frowned and turned
back to the computer. The screen saver
flicked on, another rogue photo from
one of Jack's albums. A cemetery, of all
things, and through the middle,
focused and clear, a carpet of thousands
of red roses. Jack and his digital
camera. Almost a year now, and new
photos still appearing from nowhere.
She turned back to the journal article
she had been
reading: "Textile Artifacts of Ancient
Greece." Perhaps this would stop her
from thinking about Jack.

Martha had been out all day and was glad
to be nearly home. The wind
flapped at her buttoned coat and tugged
at her bags. She liked this last
stretch of the walk at this time of
evening, watching parents coming home
from work, children carrying sports
clothes, dining room tables lit before the
blinds came down. In summer, elderly
Greek and Italian couples sat on their
front verandas and nodded hello, but
now, in winter, they were tucked into
warm kitchens at the back. Martha
imagined them serving dinner, moussaka
and pasta.
Martha was carrying the usual three
bags plus a shopping bag
bulging with butternut squash and
potatoes and a nice meaty bone she had
found at the market. It had been a long
day, and she looked forward to
wrapping herself around some soup. After
the soup she would have that bit of
leftover apple pie made with apples from
the family farm, and then, when she
had done her dishes and made a nice pot
of tea, she would sit at the kitchen
table and read the knitting magazine she
had just bought at the newsagent. It
had a new technique that she had never
tried, a fancy kind of slipstitch, and
her fingers were itching for it.

Sandra leaned back from her desk and
sighed. For all her facility with words,
she was not able to articulate what she
found so fascinating in these ancient
objects. These fragments of women's work
had survived for thousands of
years: tiny bits of cloth and hand
tools—spindles, whorls, loom weights.
Things made from the earth: clay, bone,
stone, soapstone, gold, even,
trapped in dirt and dust no broom had
swept away. She could never imagine
her own work surviving so long.
But these women from the ancient past,
working in their own clear
present, would not have expected
permanence either. What spinner or
weaver would have believed such fragile
things could last as long as this?
Even now the warp and weft of the cloth
were clearly visible, fourteen threads
to the centimeter, evenly spaced.
Sturdy, everyday linen, wrapped around a
dagger to protect it from damp, put
aside for a week or a month, dug up after
millennia.
Beautiful tools. Slender lengths and
rounded weights, the beauty
and necessity of balance, allowing the
long thread from the distaff to be spun
evenly by thumb and forefinger. Some of
the smaller spindles for cotton and
linen weighed only a few grams. And
incised on the top of some was the
concentric circle, the god's eye, for
protection.
Sandra was not good with her hands. Her
mother's small, stubby
fingers had been surprisingly deft: they
held the finest thread with delicacy,
were precise with a needle. She had
wanted to share these skills with
Sandra, but Sandra was clumsy with
needlework, no better with knitting.
Besides, she wanted to be different from
her mother.
However, in recent years her research
had generated deep
longing. Women who shared domestic
necessities— food gathering, cloth
making, medicine preparation,
life-giving work compatible with child care—
seemed to lead more integrated lives
than she herself experienced. Alone
now, husbandless, motherless, childless,
she wanted to reconnect with
some kind of community, with the long
line of women and their work.
Impossibly romantic, of course —she must
have caught it from Jack. She
was living in the twenty-first century,
she had a laptop, she was connected to
the whole world via the Internet. More
"community" than the ancients could
ever have imagined.
But it would be fun to follow her heart
for once, to do something
different from the usual round of
lectures and articles. Mount an exhibition,
perhaps—women's work, clothing of some
kind. Nothing grand, a love job to
fill a simple space somewhere, a small
celebration of domestic work, the
meanings of domestic cloth. Nothing too
demanding or serious. She could
play curator.
Besides, it would occupy her, give her
a new project to fill some of
the gaping hole left by Jack. And she
could include her own craft, writing,
somehow. Clothing interspersed with
text. She felt fragments of idea cluster
toward possibility. That textiles
conference coming up in Wollongong—
perhaps she would go after all. Maybe
things would become clearer then.

Martha put the soup to boil, then
unfolded the paper she had taken from the
church door. She would rather clean a
house than a church, but a church had
happened along, so she might as well
apply and see what came of it. And
the location suited her, it was on her
bus route into town, just before the
South Parklands, which bordered the
square-mile grid of the city proper. In
fact she could walk into the city from
the church if she wanted.
The fact was, she needed a job; if you
wanted to keep knitting
with something as exotic as cashmere you
had to find the funds. Well, it
might be silk. Or lambswool. She still
hadn't decided, but whichever she
chose, it would be expensive. She dialed
the number on the paper.
A pleasant voice answered. "Kate Linkett."
"My name is Martha McKenzie. I've rung
about the job."
"Job?"
"The cleaning job. At the church."
"Oh, yes. Sorry, I'm not really with it
today. Are you free for an
interview next Thursday?"
Martha was. Half an hour later the
pleasant voice phoned back
and confirmed the appointment.
Five-thirty next Thursday at the back of
the
church, through the door marked OFFICE.

Sandra had had a good dream, though it
was receding quickly now.
Ambushed again in her sleep. Jack wasn't
here. Jack would never be here
again.
She and Jack always slept in on
Saturdays, had a slow breakfast
together over the paper, coffee and
something different from the daily muesli
and toast—croissants, bagels, bacon with
tomatoes from the garden. By the
time breakfast was over, the washing was
finished. They would hang it out
together, then do the housework in one
hour flat, Jack the upstairs and the
bathrooms, Sandra the kitchen, dining
room, living room, and both verandas.
Jack's illness had been totally
unexpected. A walker, climber,
swimmer, always the fitter of the two,
Jack had collapsed when they were on
vacation, dawdling pleasantly at
Sydney's Circular Quay. After it became
clear that he was seriously ill, Sandra
hired cleaning help for a while, but she
found it more intrusive than useful,
feeling she must tidy for the cleaner,
embarrassed by tissues in the
wastebasket and toothpaste on the vanity.
Jack, more relaxed, said, "That's her
job. We pay her to clean up our mess!"
Sandra could never shake the sense that
she was being spied on, that her
personal details were laughed over in
some cleaning women's union. As Jack
grew thinner and more and more fatigued,
Sandra resented any intrusion on
what she knew must be their last days
together. Three weeks before Jack
died, she terminated the cleaner's
services and moved their bedroom
downstairs to the dining room, with the
French doors open to the deck and
the sun.
The house needed cleaning now, but what
was the point? Who
would ever see? She should do some
shopping too, but there were a few
stalwarts in the cupboard: baked beans,
packaged soups, a can of corn.
She turned over and felt for Jack's
pajamas under his pillow. She
still hadn't washed them, though after
all these months they couldn't really
smell of him. It was simply the fabric,
the worn flannel, the sense of his
touch. Her sharp practical side told her
to get out of bed and throw everything
in the washing machine, Jack's pajamas
included. That self was loud and
necessary: it got her through work, it
prepared lectures, it kept people at bay.
But the real strength, Sandra knew, was
with her other self, the soft sad one,
the one that was allowed out only on
weekends, the self that would keep her
in bed until well after lunch.
She turned her face into the pillow. On
the walls around her bed
the feathers strained upward toward light.

Copyright © 2005 by Anne Bartlett.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

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