Knitting the Threads of Time: Casting Back to the Heart of Our Craft

Knitting the Threads of Time: Casting Back to the Heart of Our Craft

by Nora Murphy

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In an era of global warming, war, escalating expenses, declining income, and drugs and violence in schools, many mothers feel they have little control over their families or their worlds. Nora Murphy eloquently demonstrates that many women do control one tiny thing: their next stitch.

While tracing the frustrations and joys of knitting a sweater for her son…  See more details below


In an era of global warming, war, escalating expenses, declining income, and drugs and violence in schools, many mothers feel they have little control over their families or their worlds. Nora Murphy eloquently demonstrates that many women do control one tiny thing: their next stitch.

While tracing the frustrations and joys of knitting a sweater for her son through the course of one cold, dark Minnesota winter, Murphy eloquently brings to life the traditions and cultures of women from many backgrounds, including Hmong, American Indian, Mexican, African, and Irish. Murphy's personal stories - about her struggles to understand esoteric knitting patterns, her help from the shaman of the knit shop, and her challenges sticking with an often vexing project - will appeal to knitters as well as everyone else who has labored to create something from scratch.

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Knitting the Threads of Time

Casting Back to the Heart of Our Craft

By Nora Murphy

New World Library

Copyright © 2009 Nora Murphy
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-844-6


The Back



October is a bit like the last dance in Minnesota. We know it's the first month of darkness, but we don't want to acknowledge it. We'd prefer to keep our attention on the sunlight dancing off the red and orange and yellow and gold and brown mosaic in the trees overhead. But we know better — a long winter awaits us.

Minnesotans begin preparing for the dark season at the end of October. First, we turn our clocks back to add an hour of light to our mornings. Then we take out our winter gear, like the socks I knit the boys last winter. We put our gardens and our summer flowerpots to bed. Then we rake the leaves, now crinkled and brown, that litter the lawn.

Raking leaves is more than just an annual autumnal activity. It is a ritual in the fullest sense possible. Yes, you have to get the leaves up off the ground, bagged, and deposited at the county compost site; yet a spiritual significance accompanies the action. When you're done, you know with certainty that summer is over. You know it because you have participated in the funeral of all the leaves. You know it because the smell, the sounds, and the texture of both earth and air tell you that death has arrived.

It's a bittersweet ending. No one wants the light to disappear. But in this ending, this death of summer, we create space for something new.

This fall, Diego is recovering from hand surgery, so I convince the boys to join me in the annual leaf-raking ritual. Andrew rakes in the side yard while Evan and I concentrate on the leaves in the front. As I work, I listen to the sound and rhythm of the rake. Scritch, scratch, scritch, scratch. I take big gulps of air, inhaling the last trace of damp earth I may smell for six months. I make patterns in the yellowy grass I find smothered underneath the thick layer of leaves. I offer these leaves silent thanks: the chokecherry leaves that once tempted hordes of blackbirds, the crinkled crabapple leaves whose green once complemented bright pink blossoms, the diamond-shaped leaves of the mountain ash that shaded us through the hot summer months.

"William's grandma knits him sweaters," says Evan while sprinkling a handful of leaves on our leaf pile, like parmesan over a bowl of noodles. "He wears them to school."

"Oh really," I respond, only half listening. "Hey, kiddo, why don't you get the wheelbarrow and fill it with the leaves from Andrew's pile?"

"Okay, Mom," says Evan. Before I know it, Evan and a very full wheelbarrow weave under the rose trellis. He's headed straight for our car, parked out front with the back hatch open. We take armfuls of leaves and throw them into the back of the car. When the wheelbarrow is empty, I inquire, "So, your friend's grandma handknits him sweaters?"

"Yeah," says Evan, smiling at me with his toothless first grader's grin, "just like my socks."

Twenty minutes later, the Honda is stuffed, and both boys need a break. I leave them with super-sized Twix bars and make a first run to the compost site. The drive takes me over the freeway, through a residential neighborhood, past a small university, and finally to an industrial part of the city. I idle in line behind thirty other cars waiting to dump their leaves into a city-wide mountain that will disintegrate into compost for residents and their gardens next spring. I don't mind waiting. My palms are burning from raking, and I love the smell of the dying October leaves in the backseat. Death acknowledged doesn't cause as much pain as death denied.

On the way home, I notice that the clouds are growing thicker in the sky. Rain is on the way. I pass a small knitting store. Borealis Yarns sits on a corner halfway between the compost site and the freeway. It's in a small, brown-trimmed brick building so understated that only the most dedicated knitter could pick it out from the nearby shoe repair shop, coffee shop, and pizzeria. I would never have noticed it had I not been directed there. And I had — by a book on knitting that Diego bought me last winter. Soon after that, we paid a visit to Borealis Yarns to buy a copper stitch holder for that season's sock project.

Today I watch the yarn store disappear out of the rearview mirror. A sweater? I wonder if I could knit Evan a sweater. It wouldn't be his first. My friend Elizabeth knit him a striped sweater when he was a baby. When the second load of leaves is ready for delivery, I load up Evan, too.

"You're coming with me, kiddo," I say. "We can stop at the knitting shop on the way home and you can pick out yarn for a sweater."

"Really, Mom?"

"You bet," I say, happy that the leaf raking is done before the rain hits, happy that during this October ritual of dying, the idea of something new is born — a sweater for Evan.



Beginnings are bliss. Think up a new project. Step into a creative world of possibility. This is not the world of rules and structure, like dinner on the table every night by six and, "No, you may not be excused until you finish your peas, Evan." In this world of possibility, you make up your own rules and create a new structure.

Lots of people feel energized, even high, when they're starting a new project. Diego feels this way about painting. Every Sunday morning he hunts down the ad for a nearby crafts store in the newspaper. By ten am, I can tell by the look on his face that there is a sale on watercolor paper. It is the look of freedom — a freedom that the imagination offers us all.

In knitting, starting a new project means you get to think about what you're going to make, which pattern you'll use, and the colors you'll pick to give the knitted project your own touch. You also decide if you need any extras, like a new pair of knitting needles to get the right gauge for your project. I love all the possibilities. Will it be a sweater or a vest? A cable knit or the traditional stockinette pattern of knit one row, purl the next? Do I need a new tool for my collection, like a circular needle or a longer stitch holder?

The drive to drop off the second load of leaves is extended bliss. I think of Evan's sweater-to-be. I don't yet know the shape, the pattern, or the colors, but I feel the promise of its beauty. In my mind's eye, this unformed sweater holds the possibility of perfection. I am flying so high that I don't even notice that it has started to rain.

While I empty the second batch of October leaves, Evan is reviewing patterns in last winter's yarn book. Twenty minutes later, I park the Honda outside the yarn shop. Before we get out of the car, I turn around to face Evan in the backseat. He shows me the sweater he wants. It's a man's sweater with red-hot flames running up the sleeves.

"Okay, kiddo," I say, without wondering if I can knit such a complicated design. We get out, wait for the light to change, and duck out of the rain into the store.

The inside of Borealis Yarns is a wonderful contrast to its plain exterior. Women and teenagers sit around a large wooden table in the front window, laughing and knitting. Behind them, the walls are covered top to bottom in yarn of every color imaginable. The yarn in this store is not the kind I remember from my childhood — plain worsted wool or acrylic tucked in the back corner of the local drugstore. The yarn here comes in every texture possible. Yarn with fringes, yarn with popcorn balls, yarn with twists, yarn that looks like multicolored dreadlocks.

Evan tightens his grip on my hand and we beeline it for a clerk standing behind an old wooden glass counter. The young woman, who wears a gray cable-knit sweater, takes us to the back of the store to look at some of the yarns we could use. But for details on how to downsize the adult pattern to fit a six-year-old boy, she tells us, we will have to talk to Abby. "She'll be back in a minute," says the young clerk reverentially.

Evan and I enjoy the time we spend waiting for Abby. He loosens his hold on me and observes the people moving around the shop. He is especially interested in a teenager who is hand-cranking a weblike contraption that converts hanks of yarn into more manageable balls. This adolescent helper is wearing fuzzy pink slippers, sweatpants, and a purple pajama top.

Evan pulls me down and whispers, "Is that a girl or a boy?" I can't tell, but I assume that a young person in a yarn shop must be a girl. Between the gender question and the whizzing yarn winder, Evan can't decide where to turn his attention. He wants to float with the wool circling around and around on the metal web, but he also wants to investigate this teenager.

The store is a paradise of color and possibility. The yarns are grouped in mini-cubes stacked high all around the shop. I squint to form patterns with the colors in a section bisecting the middle of the store. I'm drawn to a diagonal stripe of oranges, browns, and golds that remind me of the leaves we've just dropped off at the compost site. Then I spot a new pattern across the aisle. Dozens of red, white, and blue skeins of mohair hint at the American flag. This gets me thinking about other beginnings; beginnings that didn't go well for all parties involved and need to be reworked. Like the beginning of our nation.

For the past two decades I've worked as a writer for community-based nonprofit organizations in the Twin Cities. I started as a grant writer for Hmong and Vietnamese organizations that served the region's growing population of refugees from Southeast Asia. Later I was asked to do some writing for the Minneapolis American Indian Center. Since then I've mainly written for nonprofits in the Native American community. I have learned more than I have given. My colleagues there have helped me unravel the version of our nation's beginnings that I was taught at school.

As a kid, I learned that our country began with the Mayflower and George Washington, with the first Thanksgiving and the Declaration of Independence. An American Indian version of our history reminds us that the continent was not empty when the Europeans arrived. Estimates now put the indigenous population at more than fifteen million in 1492, with over five hundred tribes living all across the continent — from sea to shining sea. The birthplace of the oldest inhabitants of Minnesota, the Dakota, is just down the hill from our house in Highland on the Mississippi River. This is a fact that I did not learn in school.

Diego and I can bike to the Dakota birthplace in ten minutes. If we drive, it takes less than five. The Mississippi River is not a mighty, roaring torrent here, or a gushing deluge of water. It's a quiet stretch of water, not more than a half mile wide. The surface is calm. A small wooded island halfway across this tender channel blocks the view of a second river that runs on the other side — the Minnesota River. The Dakota birthplace is at the southern tip of the wooded island where the Mississippi and the Minnesota meet.

These two rivers flow together all year long — in spring, saturated with mud; in summer, covered in swarms of mosquitoes; in fall, showered in golden leaves; and in winter, dressed in ice and snow. There are always two coming into one, like two knitting needles working together to birth a new piece of clothing.

In 1805, a U.S. army lieutenant from New Jersey named Zebulon Pike came up the Mississippi River to the Dakota birthplace. In less than a year, or so the official Minnesota history goes, the Dakota ceded 100,000 acres of land on either side of the wooded island for $200,000. The truth is that just two of the seven Dakota leaders present signed this treaty and that the Dakota received just $2,000 and 60 bottles of whiskey. Yet our maps name the island Pike Island, not Dakota Island.

Two rivers. Two beginnings.

I know another story with two beginnings, even closer to home. After fifteen years of marriage, I realized that I had adopted a version of myself that was no longer true to my origins. To survive, I needed to leave my children's father and begin again. It requires courage to admit mistakes and start anew. But if we hold stubbornly to illusion, we won't ever find peace.

Starting over is a little like pulling out row after row of a knitting project gone wrong. You have to set down the yarn, pull out the needles, and then watch the piece unravel, stitch by stitch, row by row, thanks to your own merciless tugs at the yarn. At first it hurts to watch one's project, one's story, disappear. You know how much work went into getting this far. Yet, when we acknowledge our mistakes with compassion and alertness, we have the chance to do a better job the second time around. Once the curly wool is free of its former mistaken hold, lightness arises. It's the high that comes with the return of possibility, of beginning. Again.



A woman with short-cropped gray hair and glasses enters Borealis Yarns. This must be Abby, the owner of the shop. I can tell by the raspy hello she gives me and Evan that she's a smoker.

"So, you need a little help with a pattern, eh?" she asks in a straightforward manner. Abby points us to two chairs at the front wooden table and continues, "Let me see what you've got."

I show her the flame sweater pattern that Evan has picked out and explain that I want to downsize it to fit him. Evan gives her a half smile. Abby takes the book, holds it up just a few inches from her face, and scours the details of the sweater pattern like a cat getting ready to come in for the kill. Then she leans into her wooden high-backed chair and closes her eyes. The ferocious look disappears. Her middle-aged face is smooth, calm now. I swear she's about to enter a trance. Evan and I stare at her, neither one of us daring to say a thing. Within moments, she leans forward over the table and starts talking — real fast.

"You're going to need to get five stitches to the inch for the arms, so you'll have to use a different kind of wool than this pattern calls for. If you don't switch your gauge you'll end up with a flame going all the way up to his shoulder." Then she turns to Evan and says, "You want your flame to come up to right about here, don't you?" She gently touches his elbow. Evan doesn't answer, but that doesn't stop Abby. She continues, "And when you go to knit the sleeves, here's what you're going to do. You'll cast on forty-eight, but begin the flame pattern on the fourteenth stitch."

I just nod, as if I understand. I don't. Yes, I managed to make it through the sock pattern seven times over last winter, but I am only a novice knitter. The prospect of knitting a sweater that will require alterations terrifies me. I try not to let on, not to Abby. "Can you write that down? Please?" is all I dare to say.

Abby roots around the yarn and books stacked in the center of the table and pulls out a mini–yellow legal tablet and a blue felt pen. She writes as fast as she talks. I try to look over her shoulder to see if I can make out the written directions better than the verbal ones, but she's got her shoulder angled just so, and I can't quite read her transformational recipe.

Next Abby goes to the front window to a big wicker basket filled with hundreds of knitting patterns. She pulls out a boy's sweater pattern and hands it to me. "You'll use this for everything except the arms. Now, let's go pick out the wool."

By now, this knitting goddess has put me in a trance. I am willing to follow her anywhere. And Evan is willing to follow me, so we both trail her to the back of the store. Abby first shows us wools that have to be washed by hand. I ask if she has any that can go in the washing machine. She says sure and brings us to another tall bin of yarns.

"So, how much does each skein cost?" I venture, not wanting to upset the master.

"The machine-washable wool skeins are nine dollars each," answers Abby.

"And how many skeins will I need?"

"With this wool you'll need..." She pauses to do the calculation with her held tilted back again. When she straightens up again, she answers, "About ten skeins."

I wince. "Yikes — almost a hundred dollars for just the yarn?" I say.

"If you don't mind washing the sweater by hand it'll be a lot less," says Abby with a smile.

"I don't mind washing it by hand."

We go back to the first bin. She says, "This yarn will only cost you about forty dollars total, and you can return whatever you don't use if you keep the receipt."

I am falling in love with Abby. Not only is she a whiz at reformulating gauges and yarn weights, but she hasn't even tried to gouge me with the more expensive wool. She is a modern-day knitting shaman, helping knitters navigate between their ordinary worlds and their dreams.


Excerpted from Knitting the Threads of Time by Nora Murphy. Copyright © 2009 Nora Murphy. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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.

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