At some point in February, I will have been knitting for half my life. How long it’s been! , and what a different person 18-year-old me was from 36-year-old me! It’s got me thinking of how it all started. Imagine your screen going wavy into a dissolve as a harpist plucks out the flashback tune. The year was 1992…
I learned to knit in my first year of college. I was at Oberlin, which has a student-run experimental college (ExCo) as part of its curriculum – you could round out your regular coursework with a class on just about whatever you want. Seriously – they’ve got everything from Tai Chi to Steel Drum to Adult Cinema of th 1970s. I remember being in awe of one of the ExCo instructors who was teaching knitting. She was making yarn with a drop spindle, and when I asked her about it she said something like “It’s therapeutic – I have a lot of rage and this way I don’t kill people.” If you’ve known me long enough to remember my Somber Period*, you’ll guess that I was also instantly crushed out, but (in classic younger-me style) in a Now I Must Flee! kind of way.
I didn’t wind up taking the class, probably because of the fleeing thing, but when I found myself lonely and bored on a mostly-empty campus when my friends had cleared out for fall break, I decided to give myself a project – I would teach myself to knit. I went to the Ben Franklin and bought some big aluminum needles and some nice black acrylic yarn – black Red Heart, perfect for a beginner, right?
And I went to the library and checked out the best book I could find. The book had these beautiful line drawings in it, giving instructions for everything from the very basics to sweater construction. Even all these years later, I can probably trace my preference for human, hand-drawn schematics to that book. Illustrator and CorelDraw are “professional” and all, but the perfectly smooth shapes and straight lines look like they were drawn by a robot – and why, when the whole point of knitting is to do stuff by hand? But I digress.
It took me hours of fumbling, but I figured out casting on and the knit stitch, lining my yarn and needles up like those in the drawing. Another thing about my knitting life that I can trace to learning out of a book (the pictures showed the yarn and needles, but not the hands!) is that I still knit right-handed (English), and I still tension by simply grabbing the yarn between my thumb and forefinger. I’ve had Russian ladies on the subway chide me for doing it “wrong,” but it works just fine for me!
As you can probably guess, my first black scarf was kind of a disaster. I kept adding stitches at the ends, and it got wider and wider as I went. And I couldn’t see what was going wrong in the dark yarn I was using. After some practice (when it was a couple feet long and – oh, sixty or seventy extra stitches wide) I got the hang of it. I chalked the black monster up to practice, chucked it and started over with some lighter colors. Army green and rusty orange that I knit up in two-inch-thick stripes about ten feet long – the perfect accompaniment to the fuzzy blue bathrobe and pink Muu Muu I was wearing around campus that fall. (Want pictures? too bad!)
I hadn’t even learned to purl yet, but even with that first orange and green scarf, I started to get the bug. I could see the rows of garter stitch stretched out like a million square knots all in a row. And when I switched colors I got a little transitional line, (what TechKnitter calls “icky bumps“), but only on one side, and why was that?
After I learned more, and as my bag of tricks expanded from ribbing to cables to lace, I’d find myself staring transfixedly at any knitted object in my vicinity, my fingers feeling kind of twitchy as I imagined myself knitting along on the surface of it. For me my designer-mind has always had that element to it – the concrete, tactile feeling and structure of the stitches starts to feel like a place. A real place and a conceptual place mixed together. Like Tron. I’ve heard other obsessed knitters and designers say they knew they were in for a ride when they realized they couldn’t turn it off. Knitting is a way of making a thing, and a really darned low-tech way at that, with just yarn to work with, some pointy sticks, two basic stitches and a couple fancy moves, but it’s also so much more.
I don’t know what happened to that first scarf, or to most of the first couple dozen things I made, mostly given as gifts for family, friends, and sweethearts. I do remember wrapping my new scarf around my head in the brutal Northeast Ohio winter and sadly discovering that acrylic is not warm. Oberlin had an awesome thrift store where you could get a paper shopping bag full of anything for three dollars. I got a bunch of sweaters and started unraveling myself some wool. And the rest, as they say, is history…
In the years since, I’ve checked the bookstore shelves wondering if I’d find my knitting book again. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember the title – I just remembered the size and the drawings. I’d almost convinced myself it must have been an older edition of the Reader’s Digest Knitters Handbook when I found America’s Knitting Book on the shelves at Powell’s in Portland. It’s seriously chock full of several decades’ worth of knitting information, all presented in a very accessible, easy-to-understand, “of course you can do this” style. I’m excited to delve into it again, now 18 years further down my path.
So, gentle readers, that’s my story. What got you started, and what keeps you at it?
*think hippie mixed with goth, reading Angry Women and Yukio Mishima, listening to Diamanda Galas and the Legendary Pink Dots, and taking things Very, Very Seriously…