Sunday, 21 April 2013

#351: Grandmothers Knit

Thanks to!
While I disagree with many of the "granny" stereotypes, the one about knitting holds true.  A lot of retired women knit.  Some have been knitters their entire lives, others take up knitting as a late-life hobby and some (like me) rediscover this relaxing, creative activity after a long non-knitting hiatus.   

OK.  I made up the "relaxing, creative" part.

When I knit I am somewhat creative, but never relaxed, because something always goes wrong.  I am forever fixing mistakes, and I am not the only one.  My friend Sandra recently admitted that she was not very far along with the baby blanket intended for her new grandchild, when a major pattern error was detected. It took her three hours to work back to the offending row and re-knit it.  She had to un-knit (reverse) over 800 complicated stitches, one by one by one by one by get the idea.

But if knitting is so much work, why do older women do it?   They knit for people they love, of course, but it is clear to me that they also knit because they have the time. They have the time to un-knit, unravel, and start all over again. They have the time to learn,   And this is especially true for older, novice knitters,  We know that knitting even a simple washcloth or a scarf presents wooly challenges with every stitch.  The struggle to "get it right" is nothing if not time-consuming.

So last summer, when I went shopping at All Strung Out, why did I think I could quickly whip up a pullover sweater for my first grandchild, expected in November?  A patterned pullover, no less.  A giraffe pattern. I must have been pumped up by grandmotherly endorphins, the same rush of affection that no doubt prompted Sandra to say yes to that baby blanket in spite of her severely arthritic fingers. We both must have been thrilled at the prospect of the new babies. That is the only way I can explain my confidence.  "Of course I can knit a patterned sweater with four little legs, a tail, spots and ears.  No problem!"  I told myself as I chose cheerful giraffe colours. That I had no experience knitting even the simplest picture-pattern did not feature in my decision at all.   

Soon I was watching YouTube as a skilled knitter demonstrated how to knit a red heart into the middle of white square.  I learned the word "intarsia".  And I began to suspect that my giraffe project would be the knitting equivalent of hiking up Kilimanjaro.  

When considered the possible difficulties, I began asking my knitting friends about this technique of creating an inlaid pattern in woolDo this: ask the knitters you know.  They will be impressed by your vocabulary, and you will discover, as I did, that workbaskets the world over hold unfinished intarsia projects.  Ducks.  Boats.  A Merry Go Round! (Now there was a confident knitter.  She told me that the pattern drove her crazy. She ripped it out twice, gave up, and made a striped sweater instead.)

But how hard could it be?  Really?  Once upon a time, patterned sweaters were all the rage, and plenty of them were hand-knitted.  Remember Bill Cosby and his TV wardrobe of colourful sweaters created by New Zealanders?  Or Mary Maxim sweaters, with their iconic masculine designs?  County-cute sweaters featuring apple trees, barns and farm animals?  If we were lucky, a grandmother knit up one of these beauties for us or our children.  Back in 1988, it never crossed my mind that my mother-in-law Dorothy might have found it difficult to knit a "country house" sweater for me, or a "frolicking sheep" sweater for one of my daughters.  Oh, Dorothy, please forgive me.  I had no idea. 

My struggle to learn intarsia has, indeed, been so monumental that I missed the November deadline and finally put the giraffe out to pasture.  Just for a bit. The sweater is for a year-old baby, after all, so in theory I still have time to finish it.  If I choose to accept the challenge once more, I will have 7 months to figure it out, pattern and all.

Sigh. Let the knitting begin. Again.

Now that I am committed once more to the patterned pullover, I am filled with admiration for my mother-in-law and the sheep sweater.  I recently examined it, and marveled at its complicated design.  It is a beautiful sweater with an intricate, bobbled, sheep-surface.  That pattern could have come with a warning: Experienced Knitters Only.  But the sweater is not perfect.  When I look at the sleeves, I can see that they are not identical: there is a missing row of decorative triangles. *Gasp*  Did Dorothy know? I don't think so. Had she noticed that little mistake, she would have felt compelled to rip out the entire arm and begin again--a knitter's nightmare.
Dorothy's beautiful, imperfect sweater

As I prepare to wrestle with my giraffe, I am glad to consider Dorothy's sleeve.  It is a reminder of how much time, and work and love is expended on a small thing like a child's sweater.  It makes me feel connected to her, and a whole host of optimistic, knitting grandmothers. 

I picture my sweet grand baby.  I mentally dress him in the cosy green, yellow and brown pullover. I can knit this. I have the time.  I'll just channel Dorothy, and start all over again with the four little legs.



  1. I once heard that in some Native American culture, people made mistakes on purpose to show that they know they are not God. Me, I don't have to purposely make them, but I do occasionally purposely leave in mistakes like this with that philosophy to back me up. Maybe Dorothy did know, and managed to leave it like this, still beautiful, anyway.

  2. Mennonite quilters apparently also make deliberate mistakes so that they will not appear prideful. No danger of that in my house, either!
    As for Dorothy, I just wish I had properly appreciated her handiwork all those years ago. "What a lovely sweater!" didn't really do it justice.

    1. A friend told me she's heard it about the Navajo and the Amish but, for the Amish at least, it's an urban legend that the mistakes are deliberate--that would be a bit arrogant.

      Hopefully Dorothy enjoyed the challenge whether anyone noticed or not. And it's pretty cool that she was able to impress you anew even when she was not around to do new things.