Before there was knitting, there was corking : four little nails hammered into a circular wooden tunnel, and a small pick that you used to place wool over wool over the nail heads until a long tail emerged from the hole in the tunnel. I was given this activity when I was little, a prelude to making crafts and eventually knitting. My mother and her sister were knitters. My mother told me that when they were little girls they would save Popsicle and sucker sticks to stand in the place of needles. I could imagine two tots, their heads solemnly touching, tongues tight: a Norman Rockwell illustration for the 1920’s.
My mother knitted for my sister and me. When I was in junior high and an unexpected invitation arrived for a classmate’s bar mitzvah, my mother went into high gear and began to fashion me an outfit, much like the elves who labored every night for the shoemaker in the Grimm’s tale. She produced a stunningly beautiful red Channel-like suit edged in two lines of fluffy white angora. I thought it the equal or better than whatever fabulous find the Forest Hill socialites at my school might wear to the celebration. That suit made me feel confident and I must have gleamed my happiness throughout the festivities. Perhaps my hair even looked nice on that occasion.
But there were other knitted goods as well. A Mary Maxim sweater with model tee-cars. My sister chose horses on hers. Strangely, she did not ride and I can’t remember her ever fantasizing about those four legged champs, or even reading Black Beauty. Maybe she imagined herself clearing the hurdles at some posh summer camp. But my sweater pattern choice was based on hoping to win my father’s praises which it did because he was a fan of all things car-like; as cars were his means of mobility, of traveling unimpeded without his wooden crutches, the props that slowed him down. So I selected a model-T car and he certainly approved.
My mother was talented and exacting in her work. In contrast, most of my early knitting projects were what I would call “creative”, featuring large holes when dropped stitches occurred, or bulging sections where too many stitches had grown. I did not care that the integrity of the pattern had been disrupted. Or so seriously altered that one would never know I had begun attempting to reproduce a particular image in a book. Later I would try and fix those mistakes by adding an applique or pulling the stitches this way or that into a new design- if I could find the miscreants that had evaded my knitting needle. I once described those early knitting endeavours in a Family Circle issue that chronicled how my knitting history changed once I had babies. Ironically at present, torn bits and holes, rather than mistakes by a sloppy knitter now flourish as fashion statements, not sloppy omissions or errors that mine once were.
If a lacey open so- invented creative pattern was acceptable for me alone, along with those funny nose cozies I concocted for keeping my nose toasty warm at high school, my children’s wearing garments would have to be pristine. Over and over again I would knit and rip, ensuring the perfection of tiny garments: from booties to blankets, with additions of baubles, cables or small rabbits, they followed the patterns exactly. There were thick scratchy hats with pompoms; there were vests with Paddington and Mickey; there were matching tops and bottoms in soft pastels and more. But now they had to be perfect for my own tiny perfect beings who deserved not attempts but garments realized as they had appeared in the pictures from which I had chosen them.
But my mother’s work was always seamlessly perfect. She was delighted that one Sunday while out rambling with the children on Markham Street, I had had to locate a phone booth to report that several people had stopped me on the street to compliment the sweaters the children were sporting : made of course by my mother. “Every stitch a stitch of love,” she would say: these of Humpty Dumpty both before and after his fall for my oldest girl; and a gorgeous stampeding train set against a background of navy, no doubt a forerunner of Thomas- for my son.
I passed the train sweater, at my son’s insistence onto my grandson and I look forward to seeing him wear it one day. But it seems parents today ( now you know I am really part of the passing generation with telltale phrases like that) prefer Gap disposable clothes. And I must admit that few moms have time to handwash a wool toper and lay it flat. I suppose that was the reason for the invention of acrylic blends that can be tossed into the washer and arrive out only slightly smaller and misshapen.
However, even children begin to demonstrate preferences in their clothes. My grandson demands “ handsome man” shirts which means shirts that button down the front in place of long-sleeved tees. And for some reason, he favors plaids. Maybe the result of a secret clan intermarriage years and years back in our ancestry. Or perhaps the precision of the pattern or the colours that cross and intertwine delight him.
In spite of my labours, my husband refuses to wear the Fair isle vests that took hours upon hours to produce as each strand of wool must be twisted and carefully carried along the wrong side of the pattern to satisfy the instructions. Recently I also made a sweater for my son-in-law. For some reason the annoying garment grew to such a size that a friend who wields a mean sewing machine and scissors first cut and then restitched the pieces into a better more fitted size. Suffice it to say, although warm, it did lack the proper look as the arms still hung long and the body continued in its shapeless pursuit to locate a shape.
I sigh to recall the miracle of Kaffee Fassett’s Twelve Virgins painstaking transformed into wool by my laboring mother who explained that only one painstaking row of knitting could be done a night because of the 32 different contrasting strands of wool in one single line of knitting. It took her an entire year to complete the project. I should hang it like a beautiful Japanese kimono on a wall; it is so incredibly beautiful. I remember her grumbling somewhat, saying a man, Fassett, had no idea how to translate a pattern as he had made it much more complicated than need be. Likely she was right –about the complexity of the layout.
Still I continued to knit, and although when I discovered that my husband had placed that Fair isle vest into the bag for Goodwill, I decided his intent was clear.
My girls are still delighted should I fashion a poncho or sweater for them. I see them wearing the sweaters and I am pleased, feeling a kind of invisible umbilical cord connection, intermittently pulsing with warmth and love. But these days, knitting is- as it was for my mother, a kind of therapy. Although once I was drawn by colours, textures or gorgeous models in knitting books from Italy or New York, chic women against sunsets or lingering over coffee with friends in prosaic alleys. A glamorous life in glamorously well- constructed knits.
I now knit to calm my mind. Life as we know is not always controllable and we are victims to the whims of chance and misfortune. Knitting banishes much of that. When a tired husband slumps asleep after a busy day, I knit to the background noise of some cooking show on television. My fingers remain nimble, my mind stopping here and there to figure out instructions –that I can no longer discuss with my mother who would have known the meaning of the words or the symbols presented. We used to ruefully laugh that even knitting books, besides their cost, had changed and whoever wrote out the instructions was never clear enough-at least for my understanding.
Recently I showed my grandson an old pattern of a dinosaur with protruding parts and he agreed to let me make it for him. He has worn it but I fear its end will be somewhere in a bottom drawer or giveaway box with the figure of the Canadian moose and the one merino wool one with the difficult fire engine buttons. Once when he was in daycare I commandeered four separate needles at once to concoct a hollow snake scarf pattern. He let me wrap it around his neck –only once, confiding, “ We’re not allowed scarfs in Daycare”, and solemnly added in a whisper, “ They kill children”.
My hall closet is full of a bevy of sweaters, many with cables, which I do actually wear. It is in the colours and textures that I find solace and maintain my links to the past and future.