Knitting in Spite of Myself
22 Jan, 2010 - Natalie Race
Confession: I’ve recently found myself to be a knitter. Somewhat alarmingly, I might add. Knitting. I admit to enjoying it. I particularly enjoy observing reactions to my newfound hobby. Often, people try to guess what I’m doing (“Is that crochet?”) or share childhood memories of a mother or grandmother knitting. Sometimes, people gently (or not) mock my old-fashioned choice of hobby. In each of these encounters the question hangs in the air: “Why are you knitting?”
Why did I begin to knit?
It’s a question I almost can’t answer. I know why I didn’t knit. Last winter, my roommates knit. I did not. I was glad they enjoyed it, but I didn’t see the point. I was certain that once I had mastered the stitches, I would grow bored with the repetitive motion and leave my work unfinished. I lacked my roommates’ drive to accomplish tasks. That, and I wasn’t keeping vigil next to a sickbed. And I’m not a grandmother. And no female in the past three generations of my family has knit. Knitting was both too old-fashioned and too trendy.
A few months later, something changed. My life seemed a mess. I was frustrated by creative collaboration and I was desperate to make something. I wanted to see results and I didn’t, I admit, want to have to think too much. I don’t exactly know why, but one day, knitting was The Answer.
I started knitting insisting I didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. I wouldn’t be one of those women in “The Knitting Circle” or “The Friday Night Knitting Club,” finding friendship and healing in the company of other women bound by their love of knitting and sipping hot tea. Uh-uh. No sir. The most attractive thing about knitting to me was the guerilla knitting movement, the fiber equivalent of graffiti. Guerilla knitters create “sweaters” for chilly lampposts and affix scarves to street signs, drawing our attention to the utilitarian bits of our urban environment. These knitters strike under cover of darkness, armed only with zip-ties, whimsy, and an interest in domesticating the mundane infrastructure of our cities. They form groups with tongue in cheek names like “Knitta, Please!” Surely, that was the knitting niche for me. Eschewing a Rockwellian scene of my grandmother passing on the knowledge of a craft, I learned my first stitches from a video on YouTube.But the tradition drew me in. My first project was not a piece of woolen graffiti, but an honest-to-goodness traditional scarf for an honest-to-goodness traditional person. After a few days, my needles flew, clicking together rhythmically as I knit row after row of cornflower blue yarn. I couldn’t put it down. In the middle of summer in Atlanta, Georgia, I carried balls of wool around with me – knitting while standing in line, while riding in the car, while waiting for takeout at the bar. I was terrified to stop, fearing my fingers would forget the motions. What I discovered was oddly meditative. It demanded just enough attention that I stayed engaged, but not so much that I didn’t have the mental energy for a conversation. I was hooked.
My second scarf was a disaster. I knew my stitches were correct, but the more I knit, the more my scarf seemed to come apart. Frustration eventually led me to Knitch, a knitting shop in Atlanta. With trepidation, I set foot in what I imagined to be the mothership of all knitting circles. Having read The Knitting Circle, I knew it was only a matter of time until I would be pouring out my life story to a bunch of knitting strangers and wiping my tears in a mass of yarn.
At Knitch, I learned how to properly cast on (an area where YouTube had failed me), and I met the shop’s master knitter, Nell, who graciously corrected my mistakes and introduced me to the intimidating, yet rewarding, practice of knitting in the round. Nell actually did recently become a grandmother, but she also celebrated her 50th birthday by getting inked. It was strangely reassuring that though I was learning to knit, at least I was learning from someone with a tattoo. And yes, obviously Nell’s tattoo of yarn and needles was intended to make me feel edgy-by-association.
The funny thing about knitting is that once I learned, I couldn’t help but teach others. The little bit of knowledge I gathered from YouTube was enough to get my mother started, though I suspect Nell will be furthering Mom’s education for some time. The more I learned from Nell, the more I wanted to introduce others to the joys of knitting. I realized that while I may want to be a non-traditional knitter, and I may resist the kitschy feminine ideal of the knitting circle, I cannot deny the inherent relational and communal aspects of knitting. I wanted to pass on knitting to someone else. I wanted to educate the confused passerby who spied me knitting in public. Rarely do I knit for myself. Even knitting in complete solitude, I am creating something that will ultimately be enjoyed by another. The thousands and thousands of interconnected loops that I form with my needles will be someone else’s scarf or hat or mittens. And I cannot deny the pleasing congruence of bringing two people together whilst knitting together a bit of yarn or two.
Drawn in by the guerilla aspects of the subculture, I now participate in the least radical. I knit baby hats for my expecting friends. I spent the college football bowl game season in front of the TV, knitting a conservative charcoal scarf for my dad. The “granny factor” of my handiwork is through the roof.
Knitting – even guerilla knitting – isn’t going to change the world. I’m never going to knit enough to clothe myself or my loved ones completely with my own handiwork. But through knitting I am a part of a tradition that can be shared, that is useful, that is productive. It brings comfort in its tactile softness and connotations of gentleness. The very associations I resisted are actually the appeal of knitting. Perhaps someday I’ll domesticate my urban environment with a bit of well-placed (maybe even subversive) knitting, but for now, I am satisfied that knitting has domesticated a part of me—that I am more willing to embrace softness and gentleness; that I am more willing to ask for help; that I am willing to be considered overly feminine and old-fashioned; that I might even join a knitting circle.
I think that part of me is called pride.