Purls of Wisdom

When I first learned to knit, I only knew how to knit. No casting
on. No purl. No increase or decrease, and definitely no binding
off. I made scarves. What else could I make? As my obsession grew,
the scarves got longer. I’d knit and knit until I ran out of yarn
and could find someone–usually my mother–to finish them off. Each
was slightly more extravagant than the last. I like to think of it
as the Scarf Series: The first was a small, anemic multicolored
acrylic blend, and the last was more sweater than scarf, a lovely
cinnamon-colored wool angora, so wide and long that it looks like
the wearer is being strangled by a bloated, fuzzy boa constrictor.

In the beginning, people used to snort in mock horror, ‘You
knit?’ as if I had confessed to public masturbation or a closet
square-dancing habit. Now, a few years later, it seems that
practically everybody is knitting. Not just expectant mothers and
proud grandmothers, but women like me: busy, youngish women who’ve
never been to a craft show yet somehow find the age-old art
addictive.

‘Women lawyers tell stories about taking their knitting to
court; executives tell how they use knitting to relieve deadline
stress; others talk about how they learned to knit at their
grandmother’s knee,’ says Carol Wigginton, founder of the
Knoxville, Tennessee-based Knitting Guild of America. ‘Trends like
this always skip a generation.’

Why didn’t our mothers knit? Mine learned to knit as part of the
practical curriculum in her all-girl school, where students were
brought up to be house-proud gentlewomen: knitting, sewing,
cooking. She had different plans for me and my sisters. Why would
we knit when we could lead corporations or run for president? Years
ago, my mother set down her yarn and never picked it up again. So
she didn’t teach any of us to knit until one day when I asked her
to. Her instructions lay dormant in my brain until years later,
when, as a bored college student home on winter break, I found her
old knitting needles and some discarded yarn.

‘I think many women in our mothers’ generation avoided knitting
and sewing because they were looking for liberation, and
traditional women’s crafts had a negative taint to them,’ says
35-year-old Melanie Falick, author of Knitting in America(HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) and Kids Knitting(Artisan, 1998). ‘Their image of a knitter was an old woman
with a shawl and a rocking chair, and they didn’t want to be that.
Now, because we have a greater range of choices, younger women’s
perspectives have changed. Most knitters I know would love to be
like those old women, to have time to sit in a rocking chair and
knit.’

With knitting’s increased popularity comes thorny questions: Is
it kosher to bring my yarn on a date? (A movie, maybe, but you’ll
likely drop stitches at a disco.) Can I knit during a business
meeting? Hyperactive exercise guru Susan Powter, who exhorted the
world to Stop the Insanity, hauls her knitting projects to
meetings with Hollywood executives. ‘If they complain, I tell them,
‘I listen better when I’m knitting, and you’re lucky I brought it
with me or I’d probably be ignoring you right now,’ ‘ she says.

Knitting groups ? women who gather to trade patterns, talk, and
knit–have been popping up everywhere, according to Wigginton.
‘People tell me they have some of the best conversations while
they’re working on a project,’ she says. ‘It’s a great activity to
get your mind going.’ Her organization, founded in 1984, now boasts
180 chapters nationwide and more than 11,000 members. It sponsors
the popular three-level Master Knitting program, a correspondence
course that grades a knitter’s skill. Would-be masters produce
sample swatches of specific patterns, following carefully worded
instructions. Master Knitting Committee members return subpar work
or reward correctly completed samples with advancement to the next
level.

While I’d never submit my lumpy sweaters for committee
inspection, I can understand the passion that drives a person to
such lengths. Susan Gordon Lydon, author of The Knitting Sutra:
Craft as Spiritual Practice
(HarperSanFrancisco, 1997),
knows this obsession; her compulsive habit eventually caused
painful tendinitis and slowed-down hands. She still knits, but
rarely.

For Lydon, the obsession lies in the peace she feels. ‘Knitting
could be a balm for grief and pain. It seemed as though I drew the
blues out of my body and wove them into the texture of my sweater,
exorcising them like a singer easing sorrow with a song,’ she
writes.

My own devotion to–and skill with–yarn pales in comparison to
that of an old hand like Lydon, but she puts words to the feeling
that washes over me when the wool slips through my fingers. Scarves
are ancient history–lately it’s hats, mittens, and sweaters–but
whatever work my hands create, the calming, meditative effect is
the same. I’ll keep at it, soothed by the click of the needles,
happily stuck in an endless, looping cycle of rhythm and
motion.

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