The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting

by Alanna Okun


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The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is a memoir about life truths learned through crafting.

People who craft know things. They know how to transform piles of yarn into sweaters and scarves. They know that some items, like woolen bikini tops, are better left unknit. They know that making a hat for a newborn baby isn’t just about crafting something small but appreciating the beginnings of life, which sometimes helps make peace with the endings. They know that if you knit your boyfriend a sweater, your relationship will most likely be over before the last stitch.

Alanna Okun knows that crafting keeps her anxiety at bay. She knows that no one will ever be as good a knitting teacher as her beloved grandmother. And she knows that even when we can’t control anything else, we can at least control the sticks, string, and fabric right in front of us.

Okun lays herself bare and takes readers into the parts of themselves they often keep hidden. Yet at the same time she finds humor in the daily indignities all crafters must face (like when you catch the dreaded Second Sock Syndrome and can’t possibly finish the second in a pair). Okun has written a book that will speak to anyone who has said to themselves, or to everyone within earshot, “I made that.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250095619
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 03/20/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,191,677
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 3.00(d)

About the Author

ALANNA OKUN is a writer, editor, and crafter. She's currently a senior editor at Racked, and has written for publications such as BuzzFeed, Brooklyn Magazine, Apartment Therapy, and The Hairpin, and has appeared on Today, Good Morning America, NPR, and many other local and national television and radio programs. Alanna lives in Brooklyn with a lot of yarn.

Read an Excerpt


Casting On

You can't really know what a project is going to be until it's done. This is true of many things — books, recipes, relationships — and it is especially true of knitting.

Say you want to make a hat. You knit an inch, meant to be the brim, but it's still only the suggestion of a brim; a brim isn't a brim until it's attached to a hat. This brim could just as easily become the neck opening for a sweater, if you decide to keep going and have enough yarn. Or you could call it a day and end it right there, making one of those stretchy headbands women in cleanser commercials are always wearing as they splash water on their already-perfect faces. You could decide you still want a hat, but it's going to be ribbed all the way up, or cabled, or a completely different color from the one you started with.

You could plow through the whole project in a single afternoon, the vision of the end product firmly fixed in your mind, or you could set it aside for months at a time, only picking it up to knit a couple of rows when the spirit moves you. You could start it as a gift only to decide you want to keep it for yourself, or the reverse. You could realize it looks nothing like what you intended and either despair or delight. Or, as so often happens, you could reach a place of peaceful ambivalence and decide to just keep pushing through, even though you're not sure, even though you don't know what it will be after you've invested all those hours and all that yarn. You can trust the project to reveal itself to you, outside of your control.

* * *

I have always loved control. I like having it, and I also like giving it up in measured doses. This sounds like some sort of BDSM thing, but mostly it plays out for me in my crafting, that interplay of making something just how you want it to be but also allowing for mistakes and detours. I'm a knitter, a crocheter, an embroiderer, and a general dabbler in most fibery pursuits. I've been doing some combination of these things for about as long as I've been on the planet, and they've helped me get through and make sense of some of the hardest-to-control parts of being a person — anxiety, grief, heartbreak, ecstatic joy, total boredom. A craft project allows you to hold something concrete in your hands even when everything around you is swirling and illegible; it allows you to take tiny risks and solve tiny problems and achieve tiny victories. It reminds you that there are calm and good parts of your brain where you can retreat when the rest of it feels like a war zone, and that you can, in some small, brief way, save yourself. Also: you get a lifetime supply of hand-knit socks.

* * *

When I talk to people about crafting, nine times out of ten they have never held a needle or spent hours in a yarn store. They don't know about stitch count or care about gauge swatches, the same way I have never really understood what a "fourth down" means. But we usually manage to find some common language, some point of connection where one person or the other goes, "Oh, you too? I thought I was the only one!"

Because I think most people have their version of knitting, or spend their lives trying to find it — that small but constant motion that helps them metabolize the universe and comprises a corner of their identity. For my dad, it's fishing; for my brother, it's music. My mother makes homes and my sister makes art from forgotten objects. Some of my friends draw, some run marathons, some make Internet memes, and some have sat beside me on the couch as they struggle to insert the tip of a needle into a stitch for the first time.

Sometimes, weeks later, I'll get a text message. Usually it's a picture of a ragged but serviceable piece of fabric, inches longer than it had been that first day, the number of holes and mistakes reduced with each newly knitted row.

"Look!" these texts read, in some form or another. "I have no idea what it's going to be, but look!"

I tell them that nobody does, at least not right away. The important thing is to start, even if it's ugly, even if it's hard. Even (especially) if you are the sort of person who is used to having everything exactly the way you want it, who worries that the world will end if one stitch is out of place. The nice thing about the world is that it rarely ends, and even when it does, you can always rip your stitches back and start from the beginning.


First Rows

Anyone who makes things should make something for a baby. There are obvious objections: babies will throw up on the beautiful item you spent months laboring over. They won't appreciate how the slate gray looks next to the mustard yellow, no matter how carefully you selected the yarn. You can't include dainty buttons or tiny pom-poms because babies are super dumb and think everything is food, and, in any case, they'll outgrow whatever it is within weeks. Also: they smell.

But despite all this, there is no better way I can think of to remind yourself that life can come into this world just as it leaves it.

By the time I graduated college, I'd barely ever held a baby, let alone made anything for one of their ilk. They were so foreign and separate from me that I didn't think I'd know where to begin, like trying to make a mitten for a fire hydrant. At my great-grandmother's funeral, my second cousin handed me her infant daughter while she went to the bathroom. The baby's head flopped onto my shoulder and I stood rooted to the spot, petrified that if I moved, I would definitely break her. When her mother came back I was surprised that I missed the weight of that warm, sacklike little body, even if it was filled with spit.

In the following year I made a couple of tiny hats for the newborns of coworkers and choir friends; I started and then abandoned a baby blanket for the family that lived next door to us growing up. (That baby is a sophomore in high school and the blanket is still two rows wide.) But those projects were easy, mindless, no different in construction from scarves or the felted bowls I made to keep laundry quarters in. They didn't require me to narrow or widen my field of vision. And then I found myself knitting a moderately difficult cardigan for a baby who hadn't even been born yet.

* * *

I met my best friend, Aude (she introduces herself in one long breath: "Hi-I'm-Aude-like-'Ode-to-Joy'"), the summer after both of us left our respective colleges. I had been living in Poughkeepsie and had never known that thirty minutes away, in a small fairy tale–sounding town called Annandale-on-Hudson, was the girl who would soon make up a fairly large chunk of my everyday life.

We would meet in New York City, where I had moved for the first time and where she had moved back to. Once we met, we would IM throughout the workday and text throughout the night. We would sleep in each other's beds and keep toothbrushes next to each other's sinks. (Aude still refers to hers as "the guest toothbrush," which, ew.) We would meet each other's families: she'd join me at the beach in Rhode Island with my parents on Memorial and Independence and Labor Days, and I would have long, luxurious dinners with her French mother and native New Yorker father at their townhouse in Brooklyn.

During or after one of these dinners, Aude and her mother asked if I would consider a commission: a baby sweater for Aude's godmother's impending child. Despite my misgivings I said yes, of course, anything to help this family that had been so kind to me in my still-new city.

I'd (re)taught Aude to knit in the time we'd known each other, accompanied by a lot of swearing on her part, and the plan was that I would be in charge of the cardigan while she would make a matching hat. In return, her mother would pay for the yarn and Aude would buy me a lot of drinks. It was my first time crafting for anything close to money.

We visited a yarn store a few subway stops away from Aude's parents' house. I'd stayed there with her for a month my first summer in New York and felt as close as I could to familiar in the practically suburban neighborhood, with its detached houses and neat lawns that seemed totally at odds with the rigid, crowded lines of the rest of the city.

Choosing the yarn took time. The baby would be a girl, and we nixed any too-saccharine pastels in favor of a pile of soft gray, with a single ball of cream-colored yarn for the accents: a fluffy pom-pom (too big to fit in any curious mouth) for the hat and lacy edges for the cardigan.

It occurred to me as we left the store that I did not know how to make lacy edges for the cardigan, because I did not know how to make the cardigan. Even though I'd been knitting practically since before I could read, I was used to making things only for myself, or for bodies the size of mine. There were certain indelible rhythms woven into hats and socks, I thought, drummed in by dozens of repetitions. It was too late for me to unlearn them.

Ever the diligent student, I scoured the Internet for the perfect pattern, realizing after I'd bookmarked and saved and doubled back that the one I wanted did not actually exist in a digital format. And so I bought a real, live, physical book.

Rightly called Knitter's Almanac, it's something of a holy text for knitters; I was semi-ashamed I didn't already own a copy. It's by a woman named Elizabeth Zimmermann, who is widely considered to be the matriarch of modern, unfussy knitting, and even though she has been dead for almost two decades she seemed to understand my anxieties perfectly. Where other patterns specify dimensions and numbers that would have meant nothing to me, she simply wrote, "Don't worry too much about size — babies vary, and knitting stretches."

Still, I doubted at first that the sweater would ever take shape, feared that despite following the recipe I was creating nothing but a monstrous snarl. My sense of scale was entirely thrown off. How could your head be so large but your shoulders so narrow? I wondered, working a sleeve too tiny to fit my fist through. How could a person ever be this small? I kept thinking I'd have to start over, would have to tell Aude and her mother, Sorry, it won't be ready in time for the baby shower. How about a gift card from Babies "R" Us instead?

And yet, after a week or two of knitting on the subway and while waiting for friends at bars, the sweater began to look real. This is one of the benefits of crafting for a tiny human: relatively instant gratification. Before I could visualize what I held in my hands I started to picture the little arms that could fill those sleeves, the chubby belly, the grinning jack-o'-lantern cheeks. It felt like a very small act of hope, especially when the person I was knitting for wasn't even here yet. She was on her way — parties were being thrown and gifts picked out for her arrival — but just out of reach.

I hadn't known that feeling, that anticipation of life, from this direction. I knew its opposite, the feeling of life being ripped suddenly and unfeelingly away. In the year since I'd graduated, two friends had died, both at twenty-two: Marina in a car accident and Jamie of leukemia. The bigness and beginningness of their lives still don't square at all with the fact of their deaths.

* * *

I met Marina for the first time twice. Once, during our junior year of college, when we both won a writing contest. She had charged into the awards ceremony with her long hair streaming and her many bracelets clanking.

I thought she was too much. Too noisy, too brash, too everything I secretly wanted to be but instead wrote off with words like "noisy" and "brash." And then the following summer her too-muchness turned out to be exactly the right amount.

I was living in New York for the very first time, subletting a room in a basement apartment and interning at a magazine. On my first day, Marina was the one who happened to pass the glass doors of the office and let me in. I can't remember if she had a feather woven into her hair that day or if it came later, dangling precariously close to her gluten-free soy sauce as we ate roll after roll of sushi in the cafeteria, but I do remember that alert, open look of recognition when she first spotted me. She liked coincidences (there was another intern who, it turned out, had dated my high school boyfriend for years after I did, a topic Marina never got tired of revisiting) and I think she also liked having a buddy, someone to text when she was annoyed or excited by something at work, to talk about love with andwhat the hell we were going to do when we left school the next year.

I liked having a buddy too. I'd known in some shapeless way that I wanted to be a writer, to live in this world that she and I were visiting for a season, and even though she was my age and hardly had it figured out any more than I did, Marina was the one who made it seem possible. She believed wholeheartedly that we could, even should, lead creative lives and make the things we cared about, that there was great value in writing and performing and feeling out loud and not being afraid to screw it all up and start over. She was just so intensely, irrevocably, unapologetically herself that being in her orbit made me better at being me.

I texted her the autumn of our senior year, nine months before the car would hit the guardrail on the highway, about an article she'd just written for her school paper; I'd seen it shared all over Facebook. It was about settling on and settling for careers after graduation — what we'd spent all summer talking about — and I couldn't get it out of my head.

She replied, "We'll obviously be living the same lives forever so I'll see you at our next job."

* * *

I met Jamie in college, an hour and a half up the Hudson River from Manhattan. Meeting him at a dorm party our sophomore year was like hearing a new favorite song or casting on stitches for the very first time: Oh, there you are. I knew someone like you had to exist.

He didn't write plays or stomp around like Marina; he wrote thoughtful, funny philosophy papers sprinkled with his friends' names ("Suppose Alanna is a brain in a vat ...") and liked to go for long walks around the campus lake and break into classroom buildings at night. I learned to pick out his sticky-uppy black hair and signature blue hoodie in any crowd. His voice was so quiet and low that you sometimes had to lean in to hear him.

He lived two houses down from me our senior year and then across Prospect Park when we both moved to Brooklyn after graduation. We weren't really in each other's worlds but I loved to visit his and invite him into mine, where we would drink tea and beer, and play increasingly sloppy rounds of Bananagrams. He'd grill anything he could get his hands on (veggie burgers, portobello mushrooms, grapefruit) and douse it all in this sticky-sweet barbecue sauce called Sweet Baby Ray's. I keep a bottle in my fridge all the time now. In our last semester at school, when he was in remission, he'd ask in that half-joking way friends of knitters do when I was going to make him something. I would laugh and say that I'd make him a long stocking cap or a tent for the yard we shared, and never did.

Maybe my favorite kiss ever was my first (of only a handful, because that wasn't really what it was about) with Jamie. We were standing outside a party at the beginning of junior year, on one of those nights you know might be the last real warm one of summer, talking with other people but always keeping the other in arm's reach. Somewhere around midnight, we left together.

"Want to try to get into Rocky?" he asked me. Rockefeller Hall was the imposing classroom building plopped in the middle of campus. I was always afraid of getting in trouble but I would have gone anywhere with him just then, so I said yes.

We orbited the outside, looking for a window that had been left open, and found one just as we were about to give up and go home. I followed him up the stairs to the top floor and down the narrow hall lined with professors' offices. I can't remember now if the lights were on — maybe just the Exit sign? Maybe the glow of our phones? — but somehow Jamie found this tiny door, about half the size of a normal one, outside the women's bathroom. I must have passed it twenty times over my time at school and never noticed. He was like that: he made you notice.

He jiggled it open to reveal a crawl space, probably meant for storage, and crawled into the blackness. And I, scared of the dark and of small spaces and of anything I couldn't see, went with him. He shut the door behind me.

I've gone back to that memory so many times it's starting to fray. Those small, suspended moments when the person you've wanted looks at you, sees you, even in the dark wants you right back — I would grab them by the fistful and spin them into fiber if I could, knit them up into a blanket and burrow forever into its folds.


Excerpted from "The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Alanna Okun.
Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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.

Table of Contents

Casting On 1

First Rows 5

Not Just for Grandmas 17

Missed Connections 29

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater 33

Frogging, or How to Start Over 55

The Best Places to Knit, Ranked 61

Moving the Needle 65

Okay, So Here Is Why Summer Is the Best Time for Knitting 77

Learning Curves 81

Sixish 95

Things I Do Wrong, at Least as Far as Crafting Is Concerned 105

Knitting Myself Back Together 109

Things I Am Better at Because of Crafting 123

Body Talk 125

Words They Need to Invent for Crafters 137

Second Sock Syndrome 139

Things I've Used Knitting Needles for Besides Knitting 149

Bad Habits 151

An Open Letter to Crochet 163

Fiberspace 165

Tools of the Trade 179

Small, Surprising Things That Remind Me of the Feeling of Crafting 191

Homemaking 193

Pieces 205

The Weather Was Better Before You Woke Up 219

Casting Off 229

Acknowledgments 241

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