Two Pointy Sticks and Some String

by | May 6, 2012

This post was imported from an old blog I used to have.

Creative Non-Fiction Class

The longest assignment we received was to write about a “cultural artifact.” I had a hard time figuring this out, but eventually settled on knitting (although since it’s technically a verb, I went with “knitting needles.”)

I‘m pretty happy with this piece. I got to write about one of my passions and to connect it and myself to other people. Explaining knitting to non-knitters has always been a challenge for me, and I like to think that this piece gets me closer to that place. My writing prof brought up a really interesting point that I had not (consciously) considered while writing, that the narrative is like a work of knitting itself. I also really hate the title. (February 2011)

Start with two sleek nickel-plated ends that fit perfectly in my hands.  They will be cool to the touch at first, but will become warm with use.  Connect them with a smooth join to a strong but flexible cable that won’t kink, no matter how much they’re twisted.  Taper the tips to a sharp point capable of slipping through the finest yarn.  Make the shaft so slick that the stitches slide with ease, even if they are a bit tight.  Contrast the shiny silver ends with a vibrant purple cable.  These are my knitting needles.

Knitting is my meditation.  It keeps my hands busy so my mind can find peace.  It’s simultaneously relaxing and invigorating.  Once you know the basics you can turn off your brain and settle into the repetition: insert needle into stitch, wrap yarn around needle, pull loop through stitch and remove it from needle.  Repeat.  The act of knitting is quite simple.  On the other hand, the art of knitting is a challenge.  There’s more to it than making stitches.  Consider the many variations to the basic knit stitch, the qualities of different fibers and how needle size and yarn weight affect gauge and drape.  Learning to read a knitting pattern is like learning a new language, and the act of creating something beautiful and practical from two sticks and a bit of string is wildly satisfying.

While I find pleasure in the process as well as the products, I also have a special connection to the knitting tools that I use.  Yarn comes in an endless variety of colors and fibers and weights.  I am drawn towards purples, blues and greens.  I prefer merino wool, alpaca and silk blends.  Knitting is a tactile experience, and fondling yarn is a sensual activity.  Some people have a secret stash of porn; we knitters have our yarn stash.  And not unlike an angler who has her lucky fishing rod, a baker her ideal spatula, or a writer her favorite pen, a knitter has her preferred set or style of needle.

The most familiar knitting utensils are a pair of foot-long straight needles, pointy on one end with a knob on the other.  I learned to knit with a set of these, but I no longer have any use for them.  They are large and awkward and make me feel like a child stumbling around in my mother’s high heels.  My knitting needles are just my size.  I don’t need to worry about jabbing the person who sits next to me on the airplane.  Long straights also limit the knitter to making flat pieces of fabric, which is perfectly acceptable when making a scarf, but three-dimensional objects will require seaming.  Knitting is fun.  Sewing up seams is not.

Double-pointed needles are just that: needles that are pointed at both ends.  They are shorter than straight needles and are usually used in sets of four or five to knit small tubular objects like socks, mittens and sleeves.  Trying to maneuver a handful of small pointy sticks jutting out of a small knitting project is unwieldy and frustrating.  These needles also have an annoying penchant for slipping out of the work, leaving the stitches in danger of unraveling.  Once they’ve escaped your mitten or sock they will burrow deep into the sofa, roll away under someone’s chair or hide in the dark corners of your purse.

My knitting needles are circular needles.  They combine the best of both worlds.  They can be used to knit back and forth like long straights to create a flat blanket, or you can knit in the round to make tubes of any size, from the body of a sweater to the fingers of a glove.  Not all next-gen knitters knit with circs, but I see them used more often by my peers.  I’ve even got my Aunt Marilyn, a traditional knitter who showed me the ropes, knitting socks using the Magic Loop technique on a circular needle.

Mary Lillian Guthro passed away on June 30, 2010 at the age of 83.  Cancer.  She was my dad’s mother, my last surviving grandparent and a knitter.  The last time I saw Mary was the summer of 2008.  I had been knitting for a few years by then, and I think she was pleased that we had something in common, but it was hard to tell.  To be honest, we didn’t know each other very well.  She lived in Nova Scotia, and we moved to Alberta when I was three years old.  When I showed her my handiwork that summer she sort of peered at it and nodded.  “That’s nice,” was about all I could get out of her on the topic of my knitting.  Mary was a woman of many words, but in my experience they were rarely complimentary or kind.  I suspect that she always thought I was a little bit spoiled, being an only child, and didn’t want to encourage me too much for fear I might think too highly of myself.

When I was in my twenties, my grandparents came out to spend a couple of months with my parents.  My mom had the idea that Mary could knit me a sweater to keep herself busy.  I remember when I was little she knit beautiful Fisherman’s sweaters for my parents and me.  They were incredibly warm, albeit a bit itchy.  I didn’t think I’d get much use out of a traditional pullover, but when I went to visit one weekend, Mom and Mary and I went shopping.  We found a pattern for a long-sleeved cardigan that I liked.  Mary took my measurements, purchased the yarn and got started right away.  I was excited.  I’d never had the opportunity to see anyone knit up close.  I watched her cast on and start knitting.  She was fast.  I was fascinated by how two pointy sticks could turn a big bag of yarn into an article of clothing right before my eyes.

The sweater turned out to be a disaster.  It didn’t come close to fitting me.  The sleeves were different lengths; the body was too wide and too short.  The stitches were uneven.  It didn’t look like my grandmother’s work, but she behaved as though there was nothing wrong with it.  I couldn’t help but wonder if she really didn’t care.  Maybe she felt rushed or pressured into doing something she didn’t want to do.  My mom thought Mary might have forgotten how to read a pattern since she had spent the last decade knitting mittens from memory.  I was disappointed.  I tried to be grateful for the time and energy she spent working on something for me, and I gave her a big hug and thanked her for the sweater.  After my grandparents went home to Nova Scotia my mom unraveled the whole thing, put the pattern and the balls of yarn into a big bag and put it away for me.  I forgot all about it.

It was a few years before I decided that I ought to do something with that bag of yarn.  I had always thought of knitting as old-fashioned, something that grandmothers did to keep themselves busy, but I was beginning to think that there was something kind of cool about handmade objects.  I remembered some of the awesome knitted items I had been given as a kid: checkerboard slippers with a pompom on top, the rainbow balaclava that kept my head and face warm when walking to school, and best of all – warm woolly mittens.  The attached idiot strings ensured that I wouldn’t accidentally lose one of those handmade treasures.  I began to imagine the practice of domestic arts to be edgy and retro. There was something appealing about having a unique hobby, something different than anything my friends were doing. I decided to learn to knit.

Mary was too far away to be my teacher.  Instead I asked my surrogate grandmother, my boyfriend’s Baba, to teach me to knit while she was in town.  She gave me my first pair of long straight size 7 knitting needles and a practice ball of icky acrylic yarn.  Unfortunately, she was a terrible teacher. Knitting was second nature to Baba, and when it came time to describe what she was doing, it was impossible for her to translate her movements into words.  Instead, she tried to move her needles, hands and fingers slowly while I watched closely and tried to mimic her actions.  It was hopeless.  Eventually I managed to cast on a row, but the stitches were so tight that I could barely squeeze the needle into the stitch to make a new one.  Baba’s visit ended and I became frustrated and gave up, defeated by a pair of pointy sticks and some fat string.

As I always do when I find myself at a loss, I turned to Google.  My preliminary “how to knit” queries got me some decent results.  There were helpful diagrams and a few YouTube videos describing the basics that Baba had failed to explain.  I picked up my size 7 pointy sticks and my squeaky acrylic yarn and tried again.  And again.  I continued to make tight stitches, but in time I loosened up enough to be able poke the needle through the loop without a fight.  I managed to knit a little square that didn’t look too terrible so I figured I could safely move on to a scarf.  I went to Michael’s and bought some cheap white acrylic yarn to go with the many balls of black I had left over from Mary’s sweater fiasco.  The next time Baba came to visit I had finished about a foot of my scarf.  She was impressed with how my skills had progressed, but not as impressed as I was.

I continued to knit boring, flat things and didn’t really improve on my skills until my Aunt Marilyn came out from New Brunswick for the summer.   She helped me figure out tension so I could knit even stitches that weren’t so tight.  She gave me a little booklet called “How to Knit” that plainly portrayed all the basics of knitting.  Suddenly it all made sense. I became insatiable and wanted to know everything there was to know about knitting.  Aunt Marilyn gave me a set of short double pointed needles and showed me how to knit in the round.  She taught me how to read knitting patterns.  I used my new skills to make my first pair of mittens.  I learned to knit the slippers that I loved so dearly.  I started to understand the differences between wool, acrylic and other fibers.

I wasn’t able to go to Mary’s funeral.  It was held two weeks before I was scheduled to arrive in Nova Scotia for my vacation.  I had set the dates and booked my flight months in advance.  Before I arrived, my parents had been helping to clean out Mary’s house, and my mom was keeping her eyes open for anything she thought my grandmother might have wanted me to have.  I’m the only serious knitter in the family so my mom called dibs on all of the knitting stuff.  On my second or third day back we went to Mary’s house.  I could not believe the yarn stash she had.  There was more yarn in her house than any one person could knit in a lifetime.

I spent awhile digging through everything, but it was mostly cheap acrylic yarn and it all had the slight scent of stale cigarette smoke, a stinky reminder of my grandpa Herb who died three years earlier.  I ended up salvaging a decent sized bag of yarn.  Moving on to explore the hardware I found a few treasures: needle gauges, tiny rulers and scissors, some vintage patterns and lots of cool old buttons.  The needles were another story.  I am still shaking my head at the number of knitting needles this woman had purchased over the years.  The majority of them had never even been taken out of the packaging.  And most of them were size 7.  How many sets of the same size needle could one knitter need?  I picked out a few for sentimental reasons.  The rest of Mary’s knitting stuff went to charity.

I think she would have preferred it that way.  Mary donated the dozens of pairs of mittens that she knit every year, in every color of the rainbow, to her church to distribute to the poor each Christmas.  While cleaning out Mary’s house, my mom found a Safeway bag with three different sets of mittens in varying stages of completion and asked me if I would finish them.  I admit I have always been a selfish knitter.  I knit for myself, and I’ve only started knitting gifts for loved ones in the last couple of years.  I can’t imagine spending countless hours knitting for strangers, but I did spend an afternoon on my summer vacation honoring my grandmother’s memory by working on the mittens with her size 7 double pointed needles.  I didn’t like the needles, and I didn’t like the yarn, but I did like feeling as though I was helping Mary with her unfinished business.