Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerouslyby Adrienne Martini
"I knit so I don’t kill people" —bumper sticker spotted at Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival
For Adrienne Martini, and countless others, knitting is the linchpin of sanity. As a working mother of two, Martini wanted a challenge that would make her feel in charge. So she decided to make the Holy Grail of sweaters—her own Mary Tudor, whose mind… See more details below
"I knit so I don’t kill people" —bumper sticker spotted at Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival
For Adrienne Martini, and countless others, knitting is the linchpin of sanity. As a working mother of two, Martini wanted a challenge that would make her feel in charge. So she decided to make the Holy Grail of sweaters—her own Mary Tudor, whose mind-numbingly gorgeous pattern is so complicated to knit that its mere mention can hush a roomful of experienced knitters. Created by reclusive designer Alice Starmore, the Mary Tudor can be found only in a rare, out-of-print book of Fair Isle–style patterns, Tudor Roses, and requires a discontinued, irreplaceable yarn. The sweater, Martini explains, "is a knitter’s Mount Everest, our curse, and our compulsion. I want one more than I can begin to tell you."
And so she took on the challenge: one year, two needles, and countless knits and purls to conquer Mary Tudor while also taking care of her two kids, two cats, two jobs, and (thankfully) one husband—without unraveling in the process. Along the way, Adrienne investigates the tangled origins of the coveted pattern, inquires into the nature of artistic creation, and details her quest to buy supplies on the knitting black market. As she tries not to pull out her hair along with rows gone wrong, Martini gets guidance from some knitterati, who offer invaluable inspiration as she conquers her fear of Fair Isle. A wooly Julie and Julia, this epic yarn celebrates the profound joys of creating—and aspiring to—remarkable achievements.
—Clara Parkes, publisher of Knitter’s Review and author of The Knitter’s Book of Wool
"I could NOT put Sweater Quest down! I felt as though I was knitting the sweater along with Adrienne, felt her pain and her joy. Once I even thought, as I was packing the car, 'Now WHERE is that Alice Starmore sweater I was working on?' The book became that insinuated into my psyche. I love this book."
—Annie Modesitt, author of Confessions of a Knitting Heretic
“Adrienne Martini combines her passion for knitting with her astonishing ambition, bringing to her lovely new memoir an enthusiasm which is infectious. Sweater Quest will have you reaching for your needles to knit your own dream sweater, and it belongs on every knitter's bookshelf.”
—Rachael Herron, How to Knit a Love Song
- Atria Books
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Read an Excerpt
I knit so I don’t kill people. —bumper sticker spotted at Rhinebeck Sheep and Wool Festival
Had I not discovered knitting, I would not be the paragon of sanity that I am today.
When I had my first baby in 2002, I lost my mind. And by “lost my mind,” I don’t intend to imply minor weepiness or fleeting unhappiness. Two weeks into my maternity leave, I checked myself into my local psych ward because I’d become a danger to myself. At the time, it seemed that reclaiming even a shred of my former aplomb would be impossible. Now the whole event feels like it happened to someone else.
Time is a great balm, of course. So are high-grade pharmaceuticals. But what really helped turn the tide was knitting. Now most of the drugs are a distant memory. The yarn, however, is still with me. So are baskets of knitted hats, scarves, sweaters, and socks.
With some input from my husband, I also made a second kid. That, however, is a story that differs little from what we were all taught in health class. My body used the pattern it is encoded with and knitted up a boy baby this time.
After my son’s birth, nothing unexpected happened. My husband and I lost sleep. We wondered when we’d ever stop doing six loads of laundry every day. My older child did her best to adjust to the new blob who, she believed, supplanted her in her parents’ affections. We did our best to assure her that she was loved.
Occasionally I did burst into tears, but I was able to stop again relatively quickly, which was a big change from the first time around. I also spent some of the mothering downtime, those moments when the wee one only wants to sleep in your lap, knitting a sweater for my very tall husband. It wasn’t anything fancy, just miles and miles of garter stitch, which is an amazing tonic to frayed and exhausted nerves.
Had you asked me a decade ago what I’d see myself doing in the future, “obsessively knitting” would not have been in the Top Ten possible answers. Like so many women who were girls in the seventies, at some point I was taught to knit, which I promptly forgot in favor of swooning over Leif Garrett and perfecting my eye roll. I learned again shortly before getting pregnant the first time, when the most recent round of knitting mania swept through the United States. After all, if Julia Roberts can knit, so can I. That and a fondness for Lyle Lovett can be what we have in common.
I knitted a lot of hats during my first baby’s first year, simply because hats are criminally easy to knit. Once you get the basics down, even if you are sleep deprived and leaking bodily fluids, a hat requires minimal mental gymnastics.
I could finish a hat in about a week, working on it when the baby was on my lap, which seemed like every waking moment of every endless day. Each finished hat made me feel that I had at least accomplished something short-term and tangible. From sticks and some string, I’d crafted a useful item. Given that the other project, who was cooing in my lap, was definitely a long-term action item, these little hats made me feel as if I could still finish what I’d started as long as I kept my projects small.
Like a baby, knitting is a gift that keeps surprising you. Baby surprises tend to be immediate and bipolar—either “that’s cool!” or “that’s disgusting!”—but knitting surprises are subtle and enduring. Making stuff with my very own hands has enriched my life in innumerable ways. Both kids and craft have taught me how to deal with frustration so acute that I’d want to bite the head off a kitten. Both are great courses in expectation management. Both have given more than they’ve taken—and introduced me to a community that I otherwise never would have known.
Moms are different from nonmoms, which isn’t to say that we can’t understand women without children; it’s just that women with kids (no matter how they wound up with them) can identify with other moms in a stronger way. That’s not to say that we all endorse each other’s choices (and if you ever want to start a hair-pulling fight, state an opinion on breastfeeding to a room full of moms) but that we bond with each other in an innate way.
Knitters immediately bond with other knitters too. Amy R. Singer states it best in her 2002 manifesto for Knitty.com: “We are different, aren’t we? Knitters. We take strands of fiber and from them we create wonders. We share what we know. We’re anxious to do it. We want there to be more of us. People who look at the world a little differently. A little less gimme and a little more let me try that. We enjoy process as much as product. We knit.”
Which isn’t to say that the knitting community is a monolithic entity in which all the members hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” on a regular basis. You can easily start another hair-pulling fight by stating an opinion on buttonholes. And if you want a real melee—seriously, the authorities would have to be called—mention your feelings about buttonholes having to be on the left side of a woman’s garment while a knitter-mom is breastfeeding a six-year-old.
But these are superficial differences, no matter how heated the debate. Knitters bond together because we think about things that no one else cares about. We make stuff to show how much we love someone or how much we love the yarn or, like swimming the English Channel, just to see if we can.
For me, knitting wouldn’t be as satisfying without this community of like-minded people, most of whom I know only in electronic form by reading their blogs or their comments in online communities like Ravelry or Knitter’s Review. My life is richer because they have no qualms about copping to their needle habits. Their work frequently carries me through mine.
My husband and I joke that we are a “planning people.” We like goals and lists. Few things give me quite the same satisfaction as crossing something off a list or meeting a goal. If I meet a goal and then get to cross it off a list, the thrill is so great that I have to lie down until it passes. And I wonder why I’m not a big hit at parties.
To shorten this examination of my odd psyche, I am not a woman who enjoys process. I am a writer who does not enjoy writing. I can find innumerable ways to avoid it. But, to rip off Dorothy Parker, nothing else—nothing—gives me the same thrill as having written.
I’m the same way with knitting. The process is fine, mind you, and keeps my hands busy. But nothing else—nothing—gives me the rush that I get from finishing something.
The parallels between writing and knitting go even further. Like writing, knitting has a finite number of raw ingredients. There are twenty-six letters in the alphabet. Those letters can combine to give you David Foster Wallace or freshman composition papers. There are only two basic stitches: the knit and the purl. Those stitches can add up to a gorgeously complicated sweater or a pastel pink toilet paper cozy. The difference is in the mind that shapes them.
Which brings me to Alice Starmore, a knitwear designer whose garments are mind-numbingly gorgeous in both their beauty and complexity. To abuse my writing/knitting metaphor so much that it sulks off to the corner and begs for sweet mercy, Starmore is the Shakespeare of the knit and the purl.
To say that Starmore’s designs are difficult oversimplifies them. The tricky language in a sonnet or a soliloquy hides a simplicity of emotion and theme that, once you can unlock it, blows you away with its genius. The same is true of most of Starmore’s designs. Yes, the language is difficult to learn and speak, but the rewards are great, if you can manage to not set your entire project on fire because it drives you mad. Franklin Habit, author of It Itches, a book of knitting cartoons, and the Panopticon, a wildly popular knitting blog, says it best.
I sat down with [Starmore’s] The Book of Fair Isle Knitting and almost wet myself … So this is what makes people gaga over Fair Isle. The tension, the incredible chill-giving tension, of vibrant colors rippling in counterpoint to vigorous patterning, the two constantly pushing and pulling like opposing voices in a Baroque orchestral suite without ever tipping the balance.
I kept on poring through [Starmore’s] books, with their solid writing and their wildly creative variations on a theme, and I realized that for maybe the third time in my life I’d encountered an artist who was actually worthy of the hype. It’s tough to design one good sweater, let alone a book full of them. It’s damned near impossible to crank out a whole string of terrific books without going stale. And it’s rare to find a scholar, a writer, and a designer all sharing the same body.
Beyond her jaw-droppingly impressive designs, Starmore herself is a source of controversy. She is the Edward Albee of the knitting world and appears to get her knickers in a bunch when knitters suggest modifications to her designs. Despite living on a relatively isolated Scottish island, she so vigorously protects her brand that many knitters avoid referring to her, lest she swoop in and sue when her name is invoked.
Given the names of some of her patterns—like St. Brigid, Anne of Cleves, Elizabeth I, and Henry VIII—you might expect Starmore to be a blousy, Miss Marple-ish, chintz-covered Briton of a certain age, but her legal fights show her to be tough.
If Starmore’s feisty defense of her intellectual property weren’t enough reason to turn away from her work, the patterns themselves might be. Starmore’s Mary Tudor is a fiendishly difficult Fair Isle sweater whose mere mention can make a roomful of chatty women hush. Mary Tudor’s intricate colorwork alternates bands of dusky purple and cobalt blue woven around heraldic symbols. The Mary Tudor is my Mount Everest. It is my Grail, my curse, and my compulsion. The quest to complete Mary Tudor—given that the pattern is out of print, the yarn has been discontinued, and the knitting is vast—can be the work of a lifetime. For a knitter who has only been knitting for a thimbleful of years, one who has been known to lose focus and knit two left mittens or count to twenty by skipping seventeen, Mary Tudor would be a foolish, humbling choice to attempt.
I want one.
I am not without common sense. I know how to make good choices. I floss. Taking on Mary Tudor right now would be silly. I have two children under the age of seven. I have a husband and a house and cats. I have two jobs at two separate colleges, plus whatever writing I can squeeze in around the fringes. My life is very full. Yet I feel like my very full life isn’t progressing anywhere. I’m just running around in circles trying to keep all of life’s balls in the air. I derive a certain amount of contentment from successfully doing that, but fighting a holding action against the slings and arrows of entropy doesn’t bathe one in glory. Frankly, it leaves one only in need of a nap.
Crossing “kept wolves at bay” off a list gives me little joy. It’s not what I would want as my epitaph. Other phrases that I hope don’t appear in my obit include “kept a tidy house,” “made a lovely roast chicken,” “always returned student assignments in a timely fashion,” and “ensured everyone had clean underpants.” Those things are important—nothing harshes your day’s mellow faster than dirty underpants—but I don’t want them mentioned in a summary of my life.
Every New Year’s Eve, rather than make resolutions that I have no intention of keeping, I pick one word on which to focus in the coming year. I write it on slips of paper, which invariably end up buried in piles on my desk, though they float to the surface periodically as I churn those piles during the year. Reminders like “Listen” or “Create” or “Patience” serve up a moment of silent contemplation as I reflect on how I’m doing. Our rituals help make us who we are.
One recent year I completely forgot to choose my word. I spent all of 2007 in a directionless haze but didn’t notice its directionlessness until 2008 was hours away. I couldn’t find any hints about what my word had been for 2007. Surely I had picked a word to focus on. It is what I do.
I cleaned my desk and found no hints. I did find the passbooks for the kids’ savings accounts, however, so it wasn’t a total waste of time.
I flipped though my calendar in order to find out just what I’d been doing for the last 365 days. I had spent a lot of time taking small people to various appointments. I had sent birthday cards. I had gone to work. The whole year had been a holding action. Nothing very bad or very good happened, which is nice in its own way. But I didn’t accomplish anything that I could point to and say, “This is 2007.” I didn’t even have a word of the year written on my list.
Like I said, I am a planning person. Even though my life brings me contentment, I also need a challenge, one whose execution I can control. While my kids and my students and my spouse provide plenty of moments that test my patience and make me gird my loins, I am helpless before them. All I can control is my response. But with a sweater—say a fantastically complicated Fair Isle that will be stunning when it is done—I am in charge. The shots are mine to call as I climb the mountain with the wind blowing back my hair. My sherpas will be the knitters I know, whether in the virtual world or in real life.
Movement would be 2008’s word. It was time for progress.
© 2010 Adrienne Martini
Meet the Author
Adrienne Martini, a former editor for Knoxville, Tennessee's Metro Pulse, is an award-winning freelance writer and college teacher. Author of Hillbilly Gothic, she lives in Oneonta, New York, with her husband, Scott, and children, Maddy and Cory.
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