Friday, 3 October 2008

K = Knitting

Bridgett’s alpha entry on knitting brought back memories. When I grew up, every woman I knew knitted. When I think of my grandmother, I mainly picture her sitting at her dining table where she spent her days knitting, cigarette in mouth and ashtray precariously close to whatever cabled masterpiece she was making this time. Her gin in the evening didn’t seem to affect her accuracy either.

Likewise, at dancing lessons every week, the mothers (except mine who saw knitting as a chore) would sit there knitting at phenomenal speed, and at family gatherings, my aunts would sit together knitting and chatting, completing fiendishly difficult patterns without even looking at what they were doing. Or so it seemed.

Before artificial fibres arrived and the New Zealand import markets freed up in the 1980s, the most cost effective warm winter clothing were layers of home-knitted jerseys (sweaters in US lingo). In a nation of sheep farmers, it made sense to use the plentiful, high quality wool. As I said, my mother was not a keen knitter, so she bought a knitting machine. My father liked gadgets, and knitted quite a few of our winter jerseys on the machine in the lounge on wintry days when the weather was too bad to be out in the elements.

Girls tended to learn to knit (whether we wanted to or not) at primary school, and we knitted scarves and mittens and jerseys for ourselves. My mother still wears a jersey (with a lovely lacy yoke done on a circular needle) I knitted at university in the 80s. And it still looks good. The most fashionable girl I knew at university, a model and honours student, knitted a beautiful blue, slash neck jersey which she wore with jeans tucked into cute ankle boots. I thought she was the height of fashion, and as soon as it was seemly knitted a similar shaped jersey of my own. I knitted a delicate lace white outfit for Sharon’s first child, and posted it to Delaware. I remember sitting in my apartment in Bangkok, air-conditioning on full, knitting a fairisle jersey to wear on our mid-tour leave in Europe, as I had neglected to bring any cold climate clothes with me to Bangkok. I have a favourite photo of me wearing it on the Isle de la Cite in Paris.

Bridgett spoke of the debate between left-handed and right-handed knitters, the advantages and disadvantages of both, the labels these styles are given. This debate is all new to me. I didn't know knitters were so conformist! I think of those women at my dancing lessons and my aunt and grandmother, who were so very fast, fingers almost blurring with speed as they flicked the yarn around the needles and clicked them in and out to create beautiful patterns. In my recollection they all had very different styles, needles under different arms, hands holding the needles underneath or from above, winding the yarn with different flicks of their fingers, etc. I can’t quite figure out how Bridgett knits, but that’s because I can’t see her. I wish I could.

There's something comforting about knitting though, getting into a quick easy rhythm and seeing a garment grow. I haven't knitted for a long time. Fashions changed, imports became cheaper, and suddenly knitting became a more expensive option, especially as work pressures grew. The convenience of throwing something in the washing machine and then drier smashed that old protestant work ethic of making our own clothes. Plus I remember knitting my last jersey, when Cleo and Gershwin were just kittens and thought that the ball of wool on the floor was there for their entertainment. It irritated me enormously. Cleo is now 15 and still loves to chase things. I don’t knit anymore.

But I do smile, thinking of Bridgett knitting for herself and her family. I’m glad that the tradition still lives.


  1. And I'm smiling too, at that image of your grandmother.

  2. So much yumminess here. And I have to ask: If one cat is Gershwin, and the other Cleo, is she named for Cleo Laine?

  3. I'm sorry to hear you don't knit anymore. I've often envied knitters. My cousin Barbara says knitting socks is practically a meditation. Back in the 1960s, a friend who was a Radio City Music Hall Rockette said many of the dancers knitted between numbers. I could attempt to learn, but then I'd have to give up rug hooking.

    Yes, please answer IB's question!

  4. Your grandmother sounds like quite an interesting woman. My grandmother knit, too, always with the same cheap, rough acrylic yarn.

    Now, knitting is coming back into fashion, at least among my peer group. I taught myself to knit while I was pregnant with my son. The first finished product I have is a log cabin style baby blanket in the brightest colors I could find-- no sissy pastels for my kid, thank you.

  5. I'm with Helen, your grandmother with the cigarette or gin is a great image. I knit mostly with coffee or as a passenger in the car. Sometimes I watch law and order reruns.

    It must be an American conformity friend Ann who taught me socks told me that when she teaches someone to knit, she shows them what a stitch should look like, and then lets them sort of figure out how you might get to that point. That way they don't watch her and panic that they can't imitate her hands exactly. The product is the goal, at least, it should be.

  6. IB: No, Cleo is not after Cleo Laine. But she could be, because it sounds like a good story.

    Susan: I suspect I will knit again. But not in the short term.

    Joya: I like your style - no pastels! And you've confirmed a discussion we had with Bridgett, about language changing, by using "knit" as a past tense.

    B: You have to keep knitting now.


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