Sunday, October 3, 2010

Notes from a Knitting Professor

(The Knitting Girl, 1869, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau)

It's been over 30 years since I began to knit really seriously. A bit of perspective is in order as I look back over the years.

I’m a professor who knits. Science may be my profession but knitting is my avocation. I was knitting long before the current craze and I most likely shall continue to knit long after the fad fades away (hopefully, it never shall). My mother knitted for all my life, and I recall that one of the highlights of our many trips from Baltimore, Maryland up to New York City- besides visiting family and friends- was the various yarn shops we visited. My mother didn’t drive, so she never ventured to find knitting stores or yarn shops near us in Maryland. I remember not only the beautiful brightly-colored wool of every hue, I also vividly recall that my mother mastered advanced technical details, which was difficult for her as English is not her first language; thus she found written knitting instructions hard to follow. When the fashion rage for evening clothes in the 1960’s called for iridescent sequined tops knitted out of gossamer thread, she made one in every color to wear with her long black crepe skirt. She added crystal pendalogues along the hem, a detail which I know was not in the pattern books. Soon she was knitting with gorgeous iridescent beads, so that sweaters were like glamorous jewelry of the 1950’s, when aurora borealis crystal sets of jewelry were commonly worn. Yet, although I watched my mother knit (and funnily enough, could read and interpret the patterns for her), I could not learn to knit from her.

I attribute this to being left-handed and to my mother’s cultural aversion to left-handedness. I did succeed in teaching myself to chain-stitch, as in crochet, using yarn and the index finger of my right hand. I also succeeded in knitting garter-stitch squares, which I would make into strapless evening gowns for my Barbie by sewing them up into a tube and embellishing with whatever I could find in the sewing basket. In school, knitting was not taught, but embroidery was. I became adept very quickly. I taught myself advanced crewel after mastering cross-stitch, then went on to needlepoint. Soon the walls of the house were covered in what I had made, and I hadn’t left for college yet.

No knitting in college was done by me, although plenty of embroidery and needlepoint was. You know the boyfriend sweater curse? For me it was the embroidered tablecloth curse; the tablecloth big enough to cover a table for 8, done in colors to match BF's mother's d├ęcor, with stitching so perfectly executed my roommate could not tell the right side from the wrong side. Yep, that curse. Thirty-odd years later I can laugh. Never made a tablecloth for DH's. Instead I made the atarah (neck ornamentation) for his tallis, with a matching bag to store it in. I also made the cover for challahs we use every Sabbath and holiday (Passover excepted). I did embroider and do needlepoint for my late MiL at her request; those have come back to us since her passing at age 93 2 and 1/2 years ago. Guess there's no curse if you make the things after you're married.

While in graduate school at the same university however, I was visiting with a college friend who was also continuing school there. Somehow the topic of knitting came up. My friend, a right-handed person mind you, told me she had had success teaching lefties to knit. Why she held out on me all the years I knew her, I will never know! But enough! We ran to a local 5 and dime to buy some acrylic yarn, some needles, and a knitting stitch bible (I have it still). I remember that yarn: it was in my favorite shade of bright coral pink, even though it was shiny and scratchy, but no matter, it was for learning. And learn I did. Now I already knew from watching my mother the long-tail cast-on, the common bind-off, the knit stitch, and the purl stitch. My trouble was keeping my tension even. My friend showed me to stick the right needle into my groin to anchor it (sounds gruesome, I know), and to use my right hand to throw the yarn over the needle. In other words, she taught me to knit the English way as if I were on the Shetland Islands wearing a knitting belt and using those 2-foot long needles! This was a bit of a shock to me; after all, my mother held her needles almost horizontal, wound the yarn around the fingers of her left hand, and picked it up with the right needles. In other words, my mother, like the European she is, knits the Continental way. Which then explained to me all the times that certain twisted stitches and cabled patterns did not work out for my mother—they were written for someone knitting the English way! (Needless to say, my mother, who always frowned upon anchoring the needles and/or throwing the yarn, was not pleased to hear that I had “solved” her knitting mysteries.) Within a week, I had knit enough little sample squares to make a small blanket. I was hooked (a better pun if I crocheted).

Soon I left the East Coast to complete graduate school at the Harvard of the West. Graduate school stipends being what they are, DH and I had very little to live on. DH did a lot of his work those years in the cold room (so the proteins would remain active). He needed freedom for his arms to move. Vests would be the practical garment for him to wear under lab coats. Could I make vests inexpensively? As it happened, there was a knitting and needlepoint store near Stanford. Sometimes I'd walk there on a lunch break. The ladies were very sweet and helpful. Needlepoint supplies were pretty inexpensive (I could buy 1 or 2 hanks at a time to fit my poor budget), and soon we'd talk about knitting. They showed me their basket of bargains (I'm sure I wasn't the only poor student to come into their shop). One day the basket held a vest's worth of lovely Shetland wool in antique gold, a color DH favors. I had the right sized needles from Baltimore (my bargain find at the old EJ Korvette's), and the nice ladies sold me a book of basic Bernat patterns that included a V-neck vest (I have it still). I was so naive making that vest, I didn't really know that "Pick up and knit" meant. I picked up all 130 stitches at once, then started knitting them, wondering all the time why they felt so tight. Well, that was how I learned, by error (I won't say trial and error because I don't recall taking out the neckline or armholes, just picking up all the stitches and knitting them). DH wore the vest until it fell apart and I could no longer repair it.

When graduate school ended we moved to Orange County, CA, to begin work. Now I could find great yarns at several yarn shops near work and home. I made another V-neck vest, this time in gorgeous (to me) salmon worsted wool. It came out perfectly. DH however refused to wear it on the grounds that the color was not "him." Never mind that several knitting magazine at the time featured salmon for men. Onward.

I was expecting DD#1, and so started baby knitting. Bought a couple of Bernat booklets, some turquoise cotton and some Bernat Berella in a lovely deep lilac called Mallow Heather. Made a seed stitch hat and cardi set, and a little hoodie. To show DH the baby was not replacing him in my knitting repertoire, I picked up a book of patterned vests and made him a mock-cable vest out of au courant Baruffa Maratona pure Merino wool, in dusty blue. That one is floating around the cedar closet. The rest of my knitting history is, well history; a lot of it can be viewed on Ravelry.

The lesson I learned is that anyone can learn to knit, although one may have to search a bit for the right teacher or the right time to learn. And I am still learning— there are dozens of techniques I haven’t tried yet!


fleegle said...

What a lovely knitting bio!

My mother was left-handed, but nevertheless, she taught me. Good thing!

I have a cross-stitched tablecloth that my mother made, too!

BerryandTwig said...

I love hearing about how people learned to knit! I wish I had a really interesting story but my sister was the one who taught me how to do the knit stitch. She has since quite knitting herself, but I have continued with a furious passion! I mastered the knit stitch, but then learned everything else (including reading patterns), on my own. One day when I have children I will teach them!

Donna Lee said...

My mom was a crocheter and I learned to use a hook long before I picked up the needles. Just a few years ago, a coworker was having a baby and I wanted to knit something. I bought yarn and needles and a Teach Yourself to Knit booklet/kit and I was off. Then I went to Stitches East and bought sock yarn and needles and I was thoroughly smitten.

It's a way to keep my hands busy as my mind wanders and thinks the most amazing thoughts. I also use it to help individuals with mental illness to find a place of calm.

Stitches In Time said...

A very cool personal knitting history! I learned to knit on huge needles with ivory acrylic when I was 5. My mum taught me, and her mum had taught her, and her hers. I love that when I knit I am practicing skills that have been in my family for generations.

Experimental Knitter said...

Thanks everyone for sharing your stories. Knitting becomes a life journey for so many of us- more than just a hobby, craft, or art form.