Off Piste: Stitches through time

Sara Schley first turned to knitting to fill time during a summer break from college, but it has since become an integral part of her life

August 27, 2009

It's the Friday night of my third week of a six-month sabbatical. Dinner is done, the kids are in bed and I'm putting off any household maintenance and organisational chores until tomorrow. I sit down to watch my favourite weekly crime drama on television and reach for one of my handful of current UFOs (unfinished objects), otherwise known as knitting works-in-progress.

I am an academic who manages to maintain several strong outside interests. I skate nearly every day (being an ageing figure skater is probably worth an essay in itself), I am raising two children, aged 9 and 11, and, yes, I play with yarn, too.

I have been knitting since my early twenties. I taught myself to knit at the end of a summer between college terms. I had spent the summer working for and living with my aunt and uncle, who were based on the opposite side of the US from both my home state of California and from Oregon, where I attended university. My aunt had a spinning wheel and she gave me a quick lesson, tossed some fibre at me and let me give it a go.

When I headed home at the end of that summer, I was the proud owner of one small skein of scratchy, lumpy, undyed wool. I took it to the yarn shop and asked if they had anything that would knit at a similar gauge so that I could cobble together a scarf. I went home, pulled the needles from the only project I ever remember seeing my mother knit (an afghan blanket she had abandoned years before), and sat down to play with sticks and string. I knew how to finger crochet (making a chain using only string and my fingers), and I figured it couldn't be too different from that. It wasn't. I carried that scarf with me for years - I wore it rarely (frankly, it was pretty scratchy), but it moved with me through many more years of school, many changes in location, and many connections between people.

For more than 25 years, knitting has been a constant in my life. While there have been dry spells, usually there has been at least one project on the needles; more often than not, I have many on the go. It is both a very simple and infinitely complex activity: there are different thicknesses of yarn, different sizes and types of needles - wood, metal, pointy tips, non-pointy tips - various types of fibres, colours and construction methods, and all of them combine to make each thing I tackle unique. At the core, there are only two basic stitches: the knit stitch and the purl stitch. Both are formed quite similarly: they are mirror images of each other, one formed by drawing the yarn through a loop from the back to the front, the other by drawing the yarn from the front to the back. Either of these stitches alone can be used to construct entire garments. When they are used in combination, patterns, textures and shaping emerge.

What I choose to knit at any particular moment is often a reflection of the emotional processes going on inside me. When things are particularly stressful or when I am multitasking by listening to a TV programme, live concert or podcast, I reach for simple stocking-stitch socks, where rounds and rounds of knit stitches stack on each other until you hit the point where some simple shaping makes a heel, and then more rounds of knit stitches are done until some simple shaping makes the toe. I can do these in the dark (and I often do when I am at the cinema) as they require very little thinking; I pick up the socks and my hands work on autopilot, leaving my mind free for other things. Often, I find the repetitive process calming and soothing. When I am feeling particularly frazzled, even a brief period of such knitting will help me get back on an even keel, making it easier to navigate my way through trying times.

On other occasions, I tackle complex projects with difficult shaping and/or pattern decisions that must be juggled throughout the project. I completed one such project last winter. It involved an "outside the box" creative construction method, such that triangles of fabric built off each other to form the rectangular peplum of a cardigan, and then other shaping and stitch patterns built off that to form the front sides, the back and the sleeves. Completing such a project is quite satisfying. Not only does it result (when it is done well) in a garment that is a pleasure to wear, but it is also a creative and mental accomplishment to do it well in the first place. These are projects I tend to tackle when I am sorting through complex parts of my life. In some way they are an effort to gain control over a complicated and difficult set of life decisions elsewhere. By controlling facets of a challenging project, it helps the pieces of my life fall together elsewhere (or it at least staves off spiralling into angst about those other pieces).

For years, I found it very difficult to tackle knitting for others. I would knit the occasional baby gift or garments for my own small children, but most of what I knitted was designed as a future part of my own wardrobe. This changed a few years ago when a close friend had just lost her beloved and quite elderly cat. Bandit (the cat) was 18-and-a-half, and until her last days she was the same sweet thing she had always been. My friend lived far away, but I had visited several times, and came to know and love her collection of kitties. Bandit was clearly cherished deeply. I was on a business trip when I got the news of her passing, and another friend and I made plans to visit a local yarn shop. I spent the visit finding Bandit-coloured lace-weight yarn, with ambitious plans to knit a cat paw-print lace pattern into a scarf for my friend. It was my first foray into lace knitting (a process where you don't just knit and purl, but also intentionally create patterned holes so that lace pictures emerge) and also my first project where I added a beaded border, in which a bead is threaded on to the yarn and placed such that there's a bead on specific stitches in the border. The beads functioned to add the third colour of Bandit's fur, accompanying two others duplicated in the yarn.

I found the process of knitting this gift intensely moving. As a cat-lover myself, I felt as though every stitch was transferring some of my own thoughts and emotions about cats - this cat and this friend in particular - into the scarf. Knitters often talk about the love they knit into every stitch of a project; it feels like the resulting gift is much more than the sum of its individual stitches. In a similar vein, many knitting groups advertise the need for, and organise, the knitting of "prayer shawls" for those managing medical crises, on the premise that the shawl brings comfort and warmth to the person who is healing because healing thoughts have been knitted into it at the core of every stitch.

Since then, a number of others have received knitted gifts from me. In all cases, they were for people who are meaningful to me, with some specific occurrence as the motivation for a particular gift. The process has helped me knit myself back together during a particularly challenging time in my life as I navigate the separation from my long-term partner of 17 years. During this emotionally gruelling process, I have found myself reaching out to friends, both old and new, and knitting for many of them. One person in particular has received a number of gifts, partly because she was so appreciative of hand-knitted items and partly because of the emotional connection I had formed with her.

Beyond the process of knitting, the yarn itself has taken on a greater significance in my life. When I first started knitting, I would buy enough yarn for a single project, knit on that alone until it was completed and then head to the yarn store for supplies for the next project. After finishing graduate school, and with a few more discretionary funds to my name, I started buying ahead for future projects. For years, I had a single basket of yarn that held several projects' worth of yarn, as well as whatever happened to be my current work in progress. My preferences tended towards wool and other animal fibres. I particularly liked alpaca yarns, as the softness and drape give them a very nice feel and every stitch is a tactile pleasure.

I discovered online "knit lists". Initially these were Listserv email lists of knitters with common interests - one in particular, the GLBT-Knit list, had the most thoughtful, congenial and entertaining chatter, and I formed a number of close internet friendships around the world. Many of these people also spun yarn, crocheted and/or wove, in addition to knitting. While I resisted the spinning impulse for a while (on the premise that it couldn't possibly achieve anything except reducing my knitting time), eventually I was too curious about the process of turning fibre into yarn to not try myself. I purchased my first wheel, constructed - not by myself - out of a wheelchair wheel and PVC pipe (which offered a less expensive way to see if I liked the pastime). As my youngest child has a moderate level of cerebral palsy, I liked the idea of using wheelchair parts in another functional context.

Spinning is similar to the process of knitting in that it involves doing the same thing repetitively. Hold the fibre, draft it (stretching it out so that a consistent amount is taken up by the wheel), let the twist run up, release it to wind on to the bobbin, then lather, rinse, repeat! I took to it fairly quickly. And, as with knitting, there are an infinite number of factors that can influence the end product. From the specific fibre (there are a wide range of wool types, not to mention fibres from other animals, including goats, buffalo, camels and alpaca), to the processing method ("woollen" or "worsted", ie, whether all fibres are jumbled before spinning or combed into a smooth unidirectional mass) to the construction method (how many plies form the final yarn, the amount of twist added to each ply): these factors and more make homespun yarn creative and mindful.

In short order, I progressed from having a single basket of wool to having a substantial stash of both homespun and store-bought yarns. While travelling, I frequently suss out local yarn stores before I arrive and plot out an itinerary that includes visits to these stores. Sock yarn is frequently "souvenir" yarn. The physical memory of my trip is then tied to the yarn. When I look at these skeins of souvenir yarn, I remember the trip and the people I was with at the time. Moreover, it's almost like the stash serves as a comforting presence in my home. Yarn is always there, waiting to be knitted; as well, it is aesthetically pleasing.

Knitting, and later learning to spin yarn myself, has served a number of purposes in my life. What has been most unexpected are the connections I have made with others. I attend fibre festivals anywhere from one to three times a year, weekend-long gatherings where vendors assemble to sell their fibre-related wares and where fibre artists congregate to reconnect and shop. For me, the most meaningful part of attending these events is connecting in person with people with whom I have largely internet-based relationships.

Social networking, too, has a huge impact on many knitters today. Countless knitters maintain blogs (including myself, http://saraskates.com). Knitting and fibre podcasts are numerous (www.cast-on.com is my personal favourite - Brenda Dayne knits and podcasts from Wales and each instalment makes for a lovely knit-and-listen). Ravelry.com is part searchable database, part Facebook for knitters. Individuals log their current and past projects (with pictures, details and notes) and their stash, find patterns (eg, take a particular yarn - what have others knit with it? Or take a particular pattern - what yarn have others used?), read blog posts and participate in chats on particular topics. Many of these friends I consider as my core group of friends. Many of them cross over to other important parts of my life: some are friends who also co-parent children in gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender-headed households; some parent children with disabilities; some are competitive adult figure skaters; some are academics. That knitting can connect us and give us a common ground is an unforeseen rich part of my life. What started as a solitary activity has evolved into an intensely connected one. In the end, I'm pretty sure these connections will be evolving for years to come.

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