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Knitting is creating something where before there was nothing. ("[I]t is on account of emptiness that all things are at all possible, and without emptiness all things will come to naught," said the late-second-century Mahayana dialectician Nagarjuna in his "Discourse on the Middle Path.") Likewise, I would say that my own path toward knitting started with a void rather than any actual stepping stone. This void, creatively speaking, was my grandmother. She didn't knit, but she also didn't crochet or sew; she cooked, but not anything remotely related to nourishment. In my earliest memory of her, she is standing in her fluorescent kitchen, wearing cat's-eye sunglasses, polyester leisure pants, and a pair of blue-and-red Keds; she drags on a Philip Morris unfiltered, picks up a BB gun, shoulders open the screen door, and takes aim at a neighbor's orange-striped tabby, which is innocently, if naïvely, sunbathing in her backyard. Add to this memory vodka, jigsaw puzzles, and coral-colored lipstick, and that basically sums up my grandmother-not exactly what one knitter I met would call a "maker of things" so much as a destroyer of the sanity of house cats.
From this void emerges, rather miraculously, my mother. Where-how, exactly-did my mother learn to paint, draw, sculpt, collage, play the piano, cut out clothing patterns, make buttonholes, cook, embroider, and crochet? As for my mother's knitting, this I can vaguely answer: She learned in a garage-top apartment inhabited by a plump, stern German lady, the hazy image of whom I still hold in an obscure recess of my brain. My path picks up here, only for a moment, but the moment lasts long enough for a short trail to be blazed from one old lady to my mother and finally to me. Because somewhere within this moment someone-I'm not sure who-handed me yarn and needles and showed me how to knit and how to purl. And this moment, through all the years in which I diligently ignored my mother as she cast off mittens and gloves and brightly striped baby sweaters (her trademark), was sustaining enough to allow me to cling to the overblown idea that one day I would learn to knit again.
"Again" occurred in October 2001, when my path not only picked up but significantly widened. Why hadn't this happened last April? Or October three years ago? If you'd asked me this question at the time, I might have said that my decision to reclaim knitting was random, haphazard. Now, looking back, I realize there was nothing especially random about it. For starters, here in Brooklyn, New York, at least, knitting was certainly in the air even before the mainstream media found the dangle of its thread and tugged, and tugged, and tugged. In coffee shops in my neighborhood, on the train, in the park: Suddenly knitters were everywhere, where before there had been few-few who were visible, anyway. Watching these (always) women-young, old, and in-between-I felt an overwhelming desire to join them, to pick up needles and yarn and move my fingers and feel as beneath them fabric emerged. As often as I encountered a single knitter click-clacking away in rapt solitude, I came across two knitters together, or three, knitting and talking, engrossed in their own private universe. And seeing them, I found myself wishing I could whip a wooly swatch from my bag by way of introduction, induction.
I need also to say here, only modestly digressing, that the fact of the month of October 2001 is not insignificant to the equation that leads me back to the path of knitting, or along one of the paths that meanders through this book. All during the months I interviewed knitters, I avoided mentioning September 11. And still it surfaced over and over. Did large numbers of people turn to knitting after this day? Would they never have otherwise? It would be disingenuous of me to speculate. I will say, though, that several people who appear in these pages did decide to learn to knit on the heels of that day. Others admit they returned more rigorously to it, for solace, at a time when we, here in New York especially, were wandering around in a quiet, desperate stupor. In Park Slope, a neighborhood not too far from the two bridges that connect southerly Brooklyn to lower Manhattan, a yarn shop owner and knitting teacher told me that on that day, shell-shocked, soot-covered survivors stumbled off the bridges and into her store, sat down wordlessly on her floor, and began to knit. It seems to me that almost in defiance of the media's insistence that here was a hot new trend, a deeper need for knitting and the comfort it can offer was already, then, very much alive.
So my return to knitting happened in that not-altogether-coincidental month of October 2001, and here, practically speaking, is how: A few blocks from where I live lives a friend of mine from college named Elanor. Elanor is a remarkable knitter-she's a devoted maker of things, generally, but particularly knitted things: beets and other vegetables, handbags, beer bottles reconsidered as penguins, lace scarves, and improvised Irish sweaters. As I'm writing this, Elanor is at work on a life-size human. I visited a few weeks ago to find a nine-pound cone of thick, cream-colored wool hunkering in the middle of her living room, attached by its strand to a full-fledged leg, the pattern for which-toes, knees, ankles, and all-Elanor had conceived by gazing back and forth between her needles and her own leg. One day in October, another mutual friend asked Elanor if she'd teach her how to knit. Stricken with a strange fear of finding myself somehow left behind, I said, "Teach me, too." Of course, she did. For all matters related to knitting, she's been my touchstone ever since.
As I embarked upon the adventure of learning (or relearning) how to knit, one question kept surfacing in my mind: Why? Why do I find myself so inexplicably drawn to knitting? Why do so many others? In writing this book, I hoped to at least begin to answer that question.
Why knit? Some of the reasons I discovered as I interviewed knitters across the country weren't all that surprising, given the underlying nature of knitters: They had to do with highly personal, though often articulated, ideas regarding generosity, and spirituality, and consumerism, and feminism, and the interconnectedness of life and art. Some of the answers were greatly surprising, and those answers are tucked in among these pages, waiting to be given new life in the reading.
Most of all, though, this book marks a path. Like Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth-century Japanese haiku master and student of Zen who recorded his experiences as a traveler-the people he met, the landscapes he cherished-in such books as The Narrow Road to the Deep North and The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, I set out to travel through the varied landscape of knitting. As I've mentioned, my path had been narrowly forged before, linking me to an admittedly shallow knitting heritage that began only with my mother. Not knowing where the path would lead, this past spring I began to follow it from individual knitters to yarn shops, to Internet sites, to crafting groups, to magazines, to old knitting books-evidence of a heritage vast enough to sustain any knitter-in New York and the Midwest and California and back east to Maine. Herein is recorded that path, which now links my past to my present, my life as a knitter to the lives of other knitters, and a divergent group of knitters each to the other, on a small scale creating what I discovered along the way to be perhaps the greatest of knitting's achievements: creating community.
It can happen to you. In a flashing moment something opens. You are new all through. You see the unsame world with fresh eyes.
-Ekai, The Gateless Gate
I want to make socks." This I announced to my friend Elanor on the evening of our first knitting lesson. A sweater seemed too great a commitment, an afghan hopelessly humdrum. Scarves, dishcloths, hats: everyone's first project. I wanted something with a little more pizzazz. I'm sure I had a notion that socks were, and would be for a while, beyond my ken. I'm sure I realized that the kind of socks I was picturing-conjured not from any grounding in practicality on my part, or with even a vague nod to reason, but rather encouraged to blossom to near-mythic intricacy in the overfertile recesses of my imagination-were more complicated than I would admit. And I'm sure that somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that I would never have the patience to puzzle out knee-highs patterned with markings like the ones you find on old silk stockings-a narrow black line running up the calf; a trapezoid, a half-moon cradling the heel and the toe-knitted tightly, on tiny needles, with something silky and thin.
Elanor, determined to be supportive: "Hmm, yes, socks," she said, blinking away from my ridiculously stubborn expression to contemplate the gloss of red paint coating her living room wall. "Socks are a great project. But maybe not a first project." I grimaced, probably, pretending to smile in deference to Elanor's vast knitting experience, but really I was thinking, Socks...I will make socks.
I didn't make socks. Sipping tea from an old English teacup as I sat with my feet planted flat on Elanor's couch, I made a bizarrely satisfying ball from a skein of rainbow-colored yarn I'd chosen several days before at a local knitting shop, unwinding it from its orbit around my knees. I let Elanor cast on for me and show me how to make a knit stitch. And then I made a cramped, lopsided row of purple and red, and another. Then, for a row of red and pink, the yarn I had wrapped around my left forefinger for tension suddenly began to glide instead of catch as I knit. Each stitch, then each row, picked up its own rhythm-a silent one; looping wool around bamboo needles is not a noisy undertaking-that matched my breathing. My tea grew cold in its cup as row after row fell away, a narrow strip of cloth gathering bulk between my palms. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Elanor exclaimed, "Hey, look, you knit continental!" a revelation that for the moment meant nothing to me. But several days later, I happened upon two young women in a local café who were knitting American-style, grasping their yarn in a manner that looked backward to me, and I understood that for better or worse, without even trying, I knit like my mother. And in an instant, knitting seemed oddly right, fraught as it was with history and heredity.
I think I had an inkling of the connection that very first night, too, when I went home from Elanor's to work the skein in my own living room. I pushed myself ever so slightly back and forth in my rocking chair while my needles worked feverishly through the yarn. My face felt tight; I'd unconsciously pulled it into a half-smile, half-contortion of concentration. My husband looked up from his book and asked me a question, which I answered with a mindless "Mmmmmm," meant to indicate that I had heard his question and was processing it; really, though, I hadn't heard a word he'd said. This was familiar behavior-motherlike behavior-but not behavior that had ever been my own...until now.
I finished the skein that night-determined to finish it, like a person possessed. I left it still fastened to its needle when I went to bed-a narrow, foreshortened strip of alternating color only slightly less useless than a three-fingered glove. Still, I was delighted with it; it was soft and pleasingly textured, and free of holes or knots or any other unbargained-for anomalies. The next morning, sheepish about calling Elanor-she'd retaught me how to knit; could I really expect her to teach me everything else?-I found a knitting how-to site online and taught myself how to cast off. Then I taught myself how to cast on, in an inexplicable panic to start-or, I'll be honest, finish-another skein, this time of soft blue-green yarn. I knit a few rows, managed to create a pattern of bizarre, ladder-backed holes by misconstruing some directions for increasing that my friend Lydia read to me over the phone from a "learn to knit and crochet" pamphlet she'd once bought at a thrift store, then cast off a small rectangle that was...unique. Elanor phoned, wondering why I hadn't called her to ask about casting off, and the next morning I was back at her house, practicing purling at her kitchen table.
Then Elanor said, "I think you're ready to see something." She got up from the table and came back to it carrying an innocuous, lavender-colored paperback. She handed it over. "It" was Mary Thomas's Book of Knitting Patterns. I flipped through pages peppered with line-drawn motifs of stockinette, and seed stitch, and checks, and basket-weave. That's all very nice, I thought, as I contemplated the images and their accompanying instructions. Then: a split second of revelation, and my brain froze. I looked up at Elanor and spluttered, "Do you mean to tell me that there are only two stitches?" She silently beamed back at me, like a kindergarten teacher who means to show you how delighted she is that you have managed, for the first time, to color inside the lines. At that moment, nubs and ribbings, loops and stripes, a whole universe of knitting once-mysteries resounded in my mind as a giant answer.
Back at home again, I made another rectangle, alternating knits and purls and holes, and then another, and another, until the blue-green yarn was all finished up. Then, like an imbecile, inordinately and ridiculously proud of myself, I stitched the patches of yarn together to fashion a cover for an ugly pillow that had been taking up space in my closet for years.
Somewhere along the line I had forgotten all about socks.
from Knitting Lessons: Tales From the Knitting Path by Lela Nargi, Copyright © 2003 Lela Nargi, published by J. P. Tarcher, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.