Knitting Over-analyzed

I feel like I have just a bit more to say on food waste, but my mind has been off on other things lately, so it may be a while until that post comes together.

In the meantime…

I was sitting in the Honda garage last Monday morning, waiting on an oil change and a tire swap, and I was busily knitting away, pondering the weightiness of life and death as I thought about my father-in-law who was, at that very moment, on an operating table undergoing coronary bypass surgery —

(I was also, to be honest, thinking hard about whether or not sway bars were a real thing, and if so, if a weak sway bar link — which a repairman had just told me our vehicle had — was something warranting a $250 repair. I’m rather ashamed to admit I’m the stereotypical female who might one day be persuaded that the car needs a new mezmerglobber*… )

— when a female employee walking through the waiting room stopped, and said, “Oh! What are you knitting?”

“Socks,” I replied, although my mind automatically pedantically corrected, Sock, actually…

“Oh!” she said, surprised. “Do people still do that?”

“Yup!” I said, immediately thinking of the Yarn Harlot, and the mother-daughter team at my local yarn store, and Kate, and Glenna, and my favourite aunt, all of whom still determinedly do that. I kept my response to that one chipper word, though; I didn’t confess that I was a bit of a pretender, that I had last attempted to knit socks over a decade ago. I certainly didn’t tell her that the pairs I had knit for my older two kids when they were about 5 and 7 years old, while technically perfectly constructed, had been nearly un-put-on-able, a rather unfortunate quality for a pair of socks to possess.

My kids picked out the yarn and they thought it was pretty neat that their mother was knitting them socks. If only they could have gotten them on their feet without a struggle …

“Wow,” she said. “That must take a lot of time. You must love it though, to spend that much time making something you can just buy. I take my hat off to you!”

So I admit I sat there for a few moments after she left the waiting room, my hands still, pondering. Why indeed, I asked myself (not for the first time) would anyone spend loads of time making something, oftentimes at greater expense, when they could simply walk into a store and buy an equivalent pre-made thing?

Because I can?

Because it makes me happy to make things?

Because of what knitting represents to me?

I’ve been knitting, fairly steadily, ever since my first pregnancy, about 20 years ago. Although I had been taught to knit at a young age, stitchery was my *thing* and the Knitter wasn’t born until I learned I was bearing life, which I’m fairly certain isn’t a coincidence. But while I suspect knitting is, for me, mostly about an innate and instinctual desire to slather my kids in sweaters and mittens and hats in order to keep them cozy and warm and protected, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Why IS knitting so appealing to me?

On a purely philosophical level —

(I do believe I warned you, right in the title, about the over-analyzing part 😉 )

— it’s worth noting that knitting is a very positive endeavour. Unless you’ve had a gauge accident and things go horribly awry, there’s not a single destructive act in the process of knitting, except for the snip at the very end. There’s no leap-of-faith cutting-out at the beginning (as with sewing), and there’s also no noisy machine to sit in front of; knitting is all building, all quiet creating.

There’s also something staunchly basic and unapologetically practical about knitting which sits well with my minimalistic and down-to-earth soul. Not only does knitting create warm and useful things, but any beauty that may arise out of knitting feels incidental; it’s part-and-parcel to its creation, rather than being an added-on after-effect. A stitch is a stitch after all, and while cables or lace may take a bit more time, their beauty is integral to the item’s form and function.

Knitting has also always been held in my mind in a lofty, aspirational, one-day-I’ll-be-a-knitter kind of way. And that — the feeling that knitting is a worthy thing-to-do — is entirely due to this woman, sitting next to me: my favourite aunt.

I don’t know what it says about me, the fact that keeping this picture here and pressing publish is so nail-bitingly hard.

I won’t bore you with all the details as to why this woman is my favourite aunt. Suffice to say it involves books, and conversation, and a spirited adventurousness, and a gezellig home, all of which I’ve always aspired to, ever since I was a small child. My aunt has been knitting almost all her life, and her flying fingers, her constant knitting-whenever-sitting, have always fascinated me. She was likely taught to knit when she was four or five, because that’s how things were done back then. There were no made-in-China socks when she and my mother and their three siblings were growing up in The Netherlands, and because she was such a beautiful (and speedy) knitter, the job of producing the family’s knitwear (socks, sweaters, mittens, and hats) fell to her. (My mother, whose knitting was deemed uneven, was the seamstress in the family, and was called upon to do the family’s sewing).

I sometimes wonder: what was that like? Did the pressure-filled fact that people were counting on your creativity turn that creativity into drudgery? Was it even viewed as creativity, or was it simply work-that-needed-doing? And extending forward to today, does the fact that one can now buy ready-made sweaters mittens hats socks turn the individual making of sweaters mittens hats socks into something that isn’t work? Is knitting now a luxury? Or worse: is it a frivolous occupation?

I don’t have the answer to any of these philosophical questions, but I do know this: my aunt is still knitting, even now, when she doesn’t have to. And the fact is, part of the reason I love to knit is because this woman I love loves to knit, and whenever I knit, she drifts into my thoughts.

I thought of her when I bought yarn to knit that first sweater for our first unborn baby. I thought about her as I knit each subsequent sweater, sometimes using yarn she helped my mother select.

I thought about her when knitting mittens for my kids’ growing hands — the small hands that once so trustingly held onto mine — pair after pair after pair, year after year after year.

Pattern from “Projects for Community Knitting”, Cottage Creations, Carol A. Anderson

I thought of my aunt when knitting hats for my daughter, and when I made this one for myself.

Pattern: Greystone by Melissa Thomson

And now, finally mittened and hatted out —

(well, not really, but I can’t seem to convince my boys that I can produce a manly enough hat for them, and they’re both now waaaay too cool for hand-knit mittens)

— and needing to keep my hands occupied, I’m turning once again to socks. I suspect that for some knitters, sweaters are the holy grail of knitting. For me however, it’s socks. Socks (put-on-able ones, that is) are the thing I will one day achieve, and I know that this is entirely due to the fact that it was nearly always socks I saw on my aunt’s needles.

And somehow, now seems fitting. The last few months have been rather full of weighty issues, and I’ve been a bit of a sappy and sobby existentialistic mess. Who knows … perhaps knitting socks — that most basic of items — will help. And perhaps a good dose of thinking-of-my-aunt — and her emulatable life — will quiet some of those what-is-life-and-how-best-to-live-it questions I’m struggling with right now. Of course, the fact that my aunt was about to turn 85 when I last saw her, two years ago, is unfortunately another rather weighty thought to have to ponder.

Progress on the first sock. Before beginning, I asked the mother-daughter team at my local yarn shop for advice, because it hasn’t escaped my notice that, a decade ago, I somehow knit not just ONE un-put-on-able sock, not just a PAIR of un-put-on-able socks, but TWO pairs of un-put-on-able socks. That’s FOUR un-put-on-able socks. Doh!



*A mezmerglobber is an engine part on the Magic School Bus, which is the best children’s book series/TV series EVER. (IMHO). Ms. Frizzle (another (albeit fictional) emulatable woman) knows all about bus repairs and would never be at the mercy of a repairman.

Goldilocks Knitting

After a very hot and humid August and early September, our weather has finally turned. We’ve had days where it’s been fresh and cool and breezy; in fact, the other evening, when my husband and our 10 year-old son and I went out for our (nearly) ritual evening bike ride, my hands got so cold that I found myself wishing I had a pair of fingerless mittens.

I almost have a pair. I had been so pleased with the pair I made for my daughter:

Sorry the photo’s blurry; it’s all I’ve got as the mitts are now with my daughter in another city. This was my first attempt at cables, and they are surprisingly easy to do. The pattern is Queen Street mitts by Glenna C

… that I decided I needed a pair as well. So last spring, I began working on these:

Sprig, by Glenna C. (And who (whom?) am I kidding? All my photos are blurry).

While the ones I made for my daughter feel a bit too snug (she’s pleased, but in hindsight, I should have gone up another needle size), these ones are neither too snug, nor too loose, but are turning out juuust right.

I should have finished them by now, and would have, had I not put them down this summer in order to begin knitting a hat for my daughter. She had spent the latter half of last winter wearing the hat pictured below, an overstretched monstrosity whose only redeeming feature is that it’s not itchy (unlike the beautiful one I had bought her for Christmas two years ago):

It looks worse, sitting here on the kitchen table, than it does when actually on her head; still, it IS rather ratty looking …

When my daughter came home for the summer I promised her I would make her a new hat, and after some online searching, we found this pattern for Hermione’s cable and eyelet hat, a knock-off of the one Hermione wore in the sixth Harry Potter movie. The designer’s instructions are a little vague: this is a children’s size hat, she says, but for a woman’s size hat you could try adding another repeat — or two — and then lengthening the hat by one full repeat. Now, I don’t know about you, but all of this sounds very imprecise and a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants — not the kind of knitting instructions I usually like to go by.

Plunging in regardless (because, hello!, it’s Hermione’s hat!) I cast on as directed, using a new-to-me method: alternate cable (which was an absolute bear and required several attempts to get right), but once I got past that, the hat went swimmingly.

Or so I thought.

About halfway up, I started wondering if the hat was going to be too big. The alternate cable cast-on seemed way stretchier than anything I’d ever encountered before, and as soon as the circular needles allowed for it, the hat-in-progress began to go on and off both my daughter’s head and mine, many times over, both of us hemming and hawing, both of us wondering, Is it too big? Or just right? Too big? Or just right? while I kept on knittingknittingknitting, until suddenly, the thing was done and sitting there … and yes, it does fit … but the question lingered each and every time either my daughter or I donned it, as we did several times a day over the course of several days: Is this hat juuust right, or is it too big?

Because I’ve knit a stretched-out monstrosity once before (see the blue and green hat above), I’m more than a bit worried that after a wash and a few wearings, it too, will stretch out irretrievably. So I’ve not yet taken the final plunge and blocked it, because I’ve always assumed that that’s the point of no return. Once it hits that water, there’s no going back to unravel the sucker; you’re stuck. (Is that actually the case? I truly have no idea).

Just after finishing the hat, my daughter and I found ourselves in the yarn shop yet again, this time to choose some yarn for my daughter to take to university, so she’d have a crochet project to work on during her spare time when she comes home for Christmas. Completely forgetting that I had a pair of unfinished fingerless mitts I could be working on, I said to my daughter, How about I make you another hat? Maybe two hats would be nice. And maybe this one will be juuust right … 

Like most other 19 year-old females, when faced with the possibility of more fashion, she couldn’t resist, and said, SURE! That would be great!

(It makes me inordinately happy that, unlike my two sons (my 16 year-old, who hasn’t worn anything hand-knitted for years, and our youngest, who has just declared he doesn’t want my hand-knit mittens anymore, despite the fact that just last year he said they were THE BEST for making snowballs), my daughter is ever-appreciative of my knitting).

So we chose another yarn and another pattern:

Determined not to make this one too big, and casting aspersions on the über-stretchy alternate cable cast on, which I contend may be the root of the problem with Hermione’s hat, I cast on using my usual method, but this time with smaller needles (because by this time I had done some hat construction research), and at the same time, I also slightly modified the pattern, because although my daughter loves this hat, she doesn’t want a slouchy look; she wants more of a beanie-type hat. Oh, and I almost forgot: I was also using DK weight yarn — not worsted, as the pattern calls for — so I had to do some calculations to figure out how many stitches to cast on.

(So, yes, in case you’re thinking, Oh, I can tell already that this is not going to end well … sigh … you’d be right … )

Now, when knitting with circular needles, it’s hard to tell what the eventual size is going to be. Everything seemed to be going so well, until the day came where I was forced to say:

“So … um … I’m kinda wondering if this is coming out a bit small … ”

My daughter picked it up, tried — and failed — to get it on her head.

“I think it’s just the needles making it so you can’t get it over your head,” I reassured her, suddenly deciding to rally. “I’m just not far enough, I think.”

I decided to go further out onto the limb, despite the fact that I could hear it creaking: “Actually, I think it will be juuust right … if Hermione is too big, then the changes I’ve made here should be perfect.”

“Okaaay,” she said, doubt in her voice. “You’re the knitter!”

Of course, the farther you get in a knitting project, the more you have invested; despite thoughts of Too small? No, juuust right. Too small? No, juuust right. Too small? running through my brain, I kept right on knitting, and then, one day, I inspected it closely and saw this:

If you look closely at the centre-most line of cabling, you’ll see that I made a mistake. Can you see it? The cables don’t all lean left; I zigged where I should have zagged 😦

At this point, I may have muttered words that rhyme with truck it.

The funny thing is, I had been concentrating so hard down there, near the beginning! It was the early stages, and I’m relatively new to cabling, and I was being so damn careful to get them right. Further up, I was feeling rather cocky; I had thrown caution to the wind and was knitting while watching Netflix*.

And yet, after the swearing, I have to admit it was a relief: I knew then that I would have to unravel the compression bandage the hat. That cable that I sent up the wrong way would bother me every. single. time. I saw the hat. Never mind the fact that I wouldn’t see the hat very often; never mind the fact that I couldn’t possibly see the hat squeezed perched on my daughter’s head as she trudged through snow to make her way to her classes; I could still imagine her trudging through snow to make it to her classes, and when I did, I knew I’d immediately see the cable that zigged instead of zagged.

But although I knew the hat would have to be unravelled, I wasn’t sure exactly how to fix the problem. Should I add another repeat? Should I use bigger needles for the ribbing? Should I once again go with the alternate cable cast on?

Indecisive, but needing to do something (winter’s coming!) I went back to Hermione. Leaving Version One alone, I cast on Version Two with the leftover yarn, this time with my usual method, and with one less repeat.

Knitknitknit and this time my thoughts were running Okay, that’s better, this will be juuust right, juuust right, juuust right … as soon as I run out of yarn I’ll take Version One apart, and then … um … okay … wait a sec … is this juuust right or is this actually too small? Knitknitknit … Oh, dammit, do NOT tell me this is going to be too freaking small! Oh, bloody hell, I think this IS going to be too small … 

Does the new one look too small to you? Yeah, it did to me, too, but I couldn’t tell for sure because I was at the end of my rope yarn and I wasn’t yet able to get the hat over my head because the needles were in the way.

At this point, I needed to call in the cavalry. So I took all of the above to the yarn store. Their verdict? Version ONE of Hermione’s hat is perfect. The yarn store woman — who knows everything — assures me it should not stretch out like that other monstrosity: firstly, because 1X1 ribbing doesn’t tend to stretch out enormously like a 4X4 ribbing will; and secondly, because it’s merino wool and it has memory, unlike the acrylic/wool blend I used for the other hat. And even if it were to stretch out slightly, it’s superwash wool, meaning I could toss it in the washer, and then in the dryer, and that would bring it back down a notch. She told me to stop knitting the replacement Hermione hat and to go ahead and block the original Hermione hat.

As for the blue Brae hat: it’s definitely too small. I need to add another repeat to the pattern to get more width, but I should definitely use the smaller needles for the ribbing band, and then switch to larger needles for the main body. But this time I should probably take no chances; as Mad-Eye Moody would say: Constant Vigilance!, and that means no Netflix until it’s done …

* Last Tango in Halifax, just in case you’re wondering. A modern-day, almost soap opera-esque series about two families in Yorkshire, England, whose characters say “summat” just like Hagrid 🙂


Does Everyone Need a Hobby?

About a year and a half ago, my then-seventeen year-old daughter requested something that made me inordinately happy:

She asked me to (once again) teach her how to crochet.

Have I caused you to roll your eyes and say, Oh, puh-leaze!?

If so, you might want to stop reading.

For anyone who’s not rolling their eyes, here’s the backstory:

I’ve been crafting *forever*. My Dutch mother put a threaded tapestry needle into my hand at a very young age, and started me off with running stitches on scraps of linen. Rows of cross stitches soon followed, which were then translated into pictures on printed canvas, which quickly morphed into charted (counted) projects, all at a very young age. I can still remember — forty-some years on — the extreme embarrassment my mother caused when she brought my needlework to my pre-school (yes, to my PRE-school!) so she could show my teacher what an accomplished little stitcher I already was.

Although my mother schooled me in nearly every other imaginable fibre-craft as I was growing up — crochet, knitting, rug-hooking, macrame, weaving, sewing — it was cross-stitch that held sway with me. Growing up in a turbulent household, those Xs became what I now recognize as a bit of a lifeline: stitching away in my bedroom, concentration on the pattern perforce blocked out at least some of what was happening outside, and it became a bit of a compulsion, or — shoving questionable mental health under the rug — at the very least, a hobby relentlessly pursued, one project held just threads away from completion while I started the next, the rather whacky un-spoken feeling hanging over me that my universe might just implode if I didn’t have a project on the go at all times.

While all this stitching did absolutely nothing to forward the childhood feeling that I was destined to be a novelist (and in fact, can largely be blamed for a rather dismal resumé of books read), it did result in this:

(pardon the wonky light and wall colour – I’m a stitcher, not a photographer!)

Here’s a close-up:

And then there’s this, the first and second vignette in another bell pull, this one a montage of Dutch nursery rhymes and songs:

And a sampler, one of many:

(this one with a paraphrased quote from The Secret Garden)

How many samplers does one need? It’s a good thing my husband is comfortable with his masculinity and isn’t opposed to needlework adorning the walls.

So it should be pretty clear that while I didn’t have a clue how to write a novel, I did know how to produce home decor. I think I must have reasoned that until such time as I could figure out how to write that novel, I might as well keep stitching. This plan — I now know — will never produce a novel. But it did fit in well with my early life lessons: my mother’s admonitions that (female) hands must always be busy, and my German father’s strict work ethic (Be Productive!), the result being a copious output of completed needlework projects.

This past-time continued, unabated, until at the age of 29, pregnant with our first child, I was overcome with a sudden urge to knit a sweater for the small person kicking around inside me.

Out came my trusty Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Needlework (given to me by my mother upon my marriage, because what else does a woman with Dutch blood need when embarking upon married life?), and tucking long needles under my arms, I re-taught myself to knit, and very soon was clacking off a sweater.

Our baby arrived (a girl!), and while she grew and the boys came along, my spare hours were spent sewing and knitting (cross-stitching left off as suddenly and irrevocably as Forrest Gump stopping his running in the middle of the desert), my knitting expertise growing as the years went by. Pieced sweaters on the long, held-under-your-arms needles were left off when I discovered neck-down seamless patterns which could be fashioned on much more comfortable circular needles. I taught myself how to use double pointed needles and knit items I had always viewed as nearing rocket-science: socks and mittens. And because this level of obsession was something that was just begging to be shared, I had cozy visions of teaching my growing daughter to stitch or knit or crochet — anything, really, just so long as she had her *thing*.

And oh, how I tried!

Over the years, I taught her cross-stitch, latch-hooking, crochet, knitting, and sewing. My mother was in on the scheme as well, bringing back stitchery and spool knitting kits which she had gleaned from trips home to The Netherlands.

But nothing took. Truthfully, our next-in-line — our first son — showed more interest in stitching than she did! And although my daughter was creative in a myriad of other ways as she was growing up — painting, drawing, card-making, modelling with clay, and imaginative play galore — there was no fibre arts craft that I felt she could take into adulthood with her, something she could work on while watching tv, something tangible that could flow from her hands to mark that her quiet hours were well-spent.

And then, in my daughter’s grade twelve year, she came home from school one day and said, “Melissa crocheted herself this really cool infinity scarf!”

I waited for her to ask me to make her one, but instead, this was what she said:

“I was thinking I’d like to make one too. Can you show me how to crochet again?”


Three scarves later (the third finished while watching The Walking Dead on Netflix), she’s still at it.

Successfully shushing my minimalist self who kindasorta wanted to ask, How many scarves do you need? Should you perhaps branch out…?, we bought yarn for her fourth scarf when she was home for the Christmas holidays, and while we were looking around, the owner, an über-helpful woman (as all yarn shop owners seem to be), came up to us, and in her chatty way, informed us that knitting is good for warding off dementia.

“Crochet too, I’m sure!” I quickly put in, glancing at my daughter. (I needn’t have worried: at eighteen, she’s not worried one iota about dementia).

Although I will allow for the fact that the woman, as the owner of a shop, might have some self-interest in promulgating the notion that knitting is the miracle cure for dementia, this was welcome news to me. I’ve had some alarming slips over the past few years — gas burners left on low; names of people I know I know, dammit!, completely forgotten; my embarrassing problem with disappearing nouns (not safe for work or with children around, but a hilarious must-watch) — all causing me to wonder whether this was just “normal” aging, or if my neurons were beginning to fail me.

And this is where I finally (!) — Phew!, you’re saying — tie back in to the title of this post: in the interest of exercising our brains, do we all need a hobby? Some sort of occupation for the snatches of quiet in our evenings during which we could be doing something — anything! — beyond binging on Netflix? (Or — ahem — while binging on Netflix?)

There’s reading, of course. A resounding yes to reading! But unfortunately, reading isn’t so easy to do while binging on Netflix.

And writing. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a writer, of course you have to write! /whistles uncomfortably/

But it’s exceedingly hard to write while watching Netflix.

There’s crossword puzzles and sudoku, jigsaw puzzles and stamp collecting — all of which can be done fairly well while glued to Netflix.

And then there’s woodworking, but of course it’s not quite so easy to watch, let alone hear, Netflix with a table saw running (to say nothing of the danger involved in such an endeavour).

Gosh Marian, you might be saying at this point. What the hell is it with you and Netflix?

I think maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to talk about Netflix.

Here’s the thing: Why (she asks plaintively) does there have to be such good stuff on Netflix? Because if our brains have a better chance of thriving into our old age when we challenge them with novel and difficult tasks, AND if a little escapism is good (because there’s only so much sitting quietly and pondering Earth going to hell-in-a-handbasket one can do) then how in the world can I expect myself to knit something as complex as these Queen Street mitts for my daughter:

Pattern: Queen Street mitts by Glenna C

when I have to catch all the gorgeous nuance in Downton Abbey? It’s one thing to treat an episode of Friends or Mad About You or Star Trek like a radio program, but to attempt that while watching Call the Midwife?

Yes! Success! I’ve mentioned Call the Midwife, which was part of my diabolical plan all along 😉 . Now that the cat’s out of the bag, I can tell you that I can no longer hear or think the word Gosh (as in the Gosh, Marian, above) without it coming through in the deepish tone employed by Miranda Hart aka “Chummy” whose character drops a husky Gosh every chance she gets. And, best of all, now I can finally ask the question that’s been burning in the back of my brain for weeks: was anyone else out there in Netflix-land slightly disappointed about the slip-up in the third season afghan episode?

For those of you who haven’t watched Call the Midwife, I’ll explain:

Call the Midwife is a period piece set in London in the 50s, and in this particular episode the nuns and midwives are tasked with making an afghan for charity. They’re all shown busily knitting away, making squares for what eventually becomes a granny square afghan.

But wait a second … hello? … you can’t knit a granny square. It’s crocheted!

I know. I’m being totally nit-picky and pedantic. And I probably should do something about getting a life. But there you have it. As much as I loved loved loved watching this series, I have to express my disappointment that seemingly not one member of the cast or crew of Call the Midwife picked up that obvious slip.

Yes, well …

Rather than leaving this post hanging by a thread of what could perhaps be construed as a blatantly anti-feminist statement —

(Am I actually saying that I expect all females everywhere to simply know — as though the knowledge is encrypted within the nucleotides of our second X chromosome — the difference between knitting and crocheting?! — Well, no … /hums nervously while looking at shoes/)

— I think I’ll end by showing you this:

This is the bench my sixteen year-old son made for his sister two Christmases ago. You see, I have crafty dreams for my boys as well 🙂 .

(Hmmm … I’m not sure an item made from wood by a male child (wielding power tools) lets me off the hook. I think I’d better add that I recognize — and fully support — the fact that men knit too).

(Disclaimer: No Netflix was watched during the manufacture of the aforementioned bench).