Knitting Traditions

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A man approached me at Farmer’s Market today wearing a worn-looking shirt with the sleeves cut off, work jeans and no shoes.  He was middle-aged, his face was handsome, tanned and deeply lined and he was rather muscular.

I stood behind my tables covered with brightly-colored knitted *things* and smiled, hoping he was going to buy something for the wife that had wandered past to the vegetable stand.

He fingered several of the hats, then a cowl before saying, “I started teaching myself to knit this past winter. Can’t say’s I’m gonna remember any of it but I ‘tend to pick it up again come cold weather.”

I tried to swallow my surprise as suddenly as it appeared – he did not look like the ‘knitter type’.

“Oh!” was about all I could manage at first, then I got ahold of myself and added, “That’s great!”

Because I am a brilliant conversationalist.

“Yeah…” he continued, looking first at the delicately stitched wool and silk scarf I had resting on the farthest edge of my stand, then turning his head towards the bright sky with a squint, “I like it well enough, just decided to try it. Supposed to be relaxing but my tension is so tight still. Gotta work on that…”

“That will get better. Just relax your shoulders. Breathe. It takes practice. My husband was the same way when he started. You’ll get it.” I smiled again.

“I really liked to sew when I was a kid, then I worked as a mariner and you know a mariner ain’t worth his salt ‘less he knows his way around with a needle and thread…” He waited, leaning his head forward as if to remind me that it was my turn to say something.

“Ah yes. I think that’s wonderful. I think all men should know a little something of the fiber arts…” I could feel my ‘men should knit too’ speech coming on. “You know, knitting used to belong to men for the most part. It’s only relatively recently become a ‘womanly art’. It’s like spinning and weaving – some cultures considered them too sacred to be given over to the ladies. I certainly don’t agree with *that*, but I don’t believe that men have lost any right to it by sharing with the rest of us. It’s your birthright – keep at it, you’ll get.”

I offered him a couple of simple patterns to work on and then he left.

He was the first of several men who stood and talked to me knowledgeably about knitting. I am so impressed by the rich tradition of knitting that’s to be found here in Midcoast Maine. I am fascinated and inspired to hear the stories of these gentlemen who are either drawn to knitting personally or have stories to tell of their grandmothers and grandfathers or parents knitting thick woolen mittens, socks and sweaters for the lobstermen to wear to keep their hands from freezing off. They hold this history very dearly, I can tell by the light that comes into their eyes when they talk about it.

One man told me today, “You don’t know how important those mittens were! The fishermen used to say, ‘if you lost your mitten, you’d lose your hand’. I remember my mother knitting thick mittens using wool spun in the grease**  and then boiling them to get ‘em good and thick. Then my wife and I raised sheep and would shear them and then she’d spin the wool and make mittens to sell… The fishermen needed them. Acted just like wetsuits, get their mittens soaking wet at first then put them on and they’d keep a layer of warmer water by their skin. Pull their gloves off at the end of the day and their hands would be steaming warm.”

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Another, older man mourned the fact that, “…nobody knows about wool anymore. Wool is perfect. Wears like iron. I hate to say it, I hate to say it but that polar fleece stuff is good. I admit it – that polar fleece stuff is warm and light, but it still ain’t wool. What happened to the wool? I remember having wool sweaters my mom made me being so warm and thick they were waterproof. Polar fleece is something – but it sure ain’t wool. We’ve lost that.”

Hopefully, we haven’t lost it completely. I’ve never knitted a pair of mittens in my life, but this man’s sparkling  eyes convinced me that it’s time to learn. And not just any mittens. I’m going to make traditional, boiled wool fishermen’s mittens.

“You think you could make me mittens? Wool mittens?” He asked.

“You want them fulled? Good and thick?”

“Oh yeah – I didn’t want to ask. No one knows about that anymore. I’d love a pair of thick mittens like they used to have.”

“I think I can do that.”

I took some measurements and hope to start them some time next week.

I wasn’t born here, I don’t consider this my heritage by blood, but I am a knitter to the core and feel a deep kinship with anyone who has worked with fiber to create something that has a legacy of its own. We knitters are often remembered by the mittens we make – I don’t know much about that man’s grandma, not even a name, but I know she used her skills and her birthright as a creator to make something that helped to keep a vital industry thriving and alive. She probably didn’t romanticize it that much, she probably said, like her grandson,

“The fishermen need them.”

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** ‘In the grease’ means all of the natural lanolin has not been removed from the yarn. “My wife would wash the yarn in something like Ivory soap, enough to get it clean but not enough to strip the grease from it. Made it waterproof, sure did.”

knitting in public

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      Ok – maybe it’s not *that* bad, but almost.

 I’m usually a lot more hunched over… with coffee… and my ‘concentration scowl’.

 

Swan’s Island Trunk Show

Have we got a show for you!!

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We’re having a trunk show at The Shop this Wednesday (August 20th) starting at 10:00am and running right on through the day until 7. Come try on some gorgeous goodies and don’t worry – we’ll all be drooling and cooing like babes…

Swan’s Island Yarn Company is based right here on the coast of Maine, they say of themselves;

“The Swans Island process is a labor of love and a meditation on the beauty and value of a handmade life..”

We like this.

They are a certified organic mill and produce their luscious array of colors using only natural dyes;

Each one is subtle, sophisticated and has a richness not found in other solid, chemically dyed yarns. The history of natural dyeing is a long and rich one and we are proud to be carrying on this time-honored textile tradition.” 

This event is definitely something you don’t want to miss – so come on down! We’ll be looking for you…

 

*quotes taken from the Swan’s Island website: www.swansislandcompany.com

woolen weather

The thermometer says that it’s a lowly 61 degrees out. The wind is tearing out to sea and threatening to take the house, the trees and several well-meaning telephone poles with it. Everything is trembling and huddling close to land. There is thick fog hugging the ground and the raindrops are splitting mid-air, shattering in the force of the gale mid-air. The gulls have taken shelter in the backyard, roosting in the grass and looking like a well-tended field of puffy, white marshmallows.

I think I’ll knit something. Something woolen – something for the winter.

I usually start the bulk of my winter projects in the blistering heat of August, with sweaty hands and ambitious heart, plotting and planning and casting on in order to get everything ready for the arrival of Cold and then, before I’ve had time to catch my breath, Christmas.  It’s a treat to be knitting in August and not have my yarn stick in between my fingers like tacky spaghetti.

Truth is, I’d be knitting even if it were 100 degrees out. I’d be knitting something distressingly cozy and warm, my fingers would hate me and everyone who saw me would say, “I can’t believe you’re Knitting in the Summer!”

I can’t believe it, either – but here I am. Knitting in the Summer.

This season I have several projects to get onto needles before time gets spread too thin by the autumn; a bright red hat knit in a bold cable pattern for my son as well as a new sweater – the one I knit last summer when I was pregnant for him has been outgrown – a sweater for me in a gorgeous plumb color, and then a sweater for my husband’s cousin’s dog, Eva.  Eva’s sweater is also going to be plumb-colored, but that wasn’t done on purpose. There are sundry other little things I’d like to knit for Christmas presents, and sometime next March I’ll give up on meeting the deadline and give them as inappropriate summer birthday presents. Because who doesn’t want a pair of hand-knit, wool boot socks for their birthday… in July?

Perhaps an August will come when I won’t eagerly get out my patterns and try to remember just how frigidly cold it will someday be as I slip woolen yarns into my project bag. But that is not *this* August. *This* August I will get started on my winter projects with my customary fervor and knit on.

Happy stitching,

Ann

Getting Ready For The Big Event

I am not athletic. At all. The End. I was that ‘slightly-taller and bigger boned than everyone else in class’ girl who stood in silent agony, waiting to be picked last for any and all sports during gym class. Truthfully, I was never picked last. I was never picked at all. Cross-eyed Tim was picked. The annoying girl no one could stand any other time of the day was picked. Even Chelsea, the gorgeous blond who never did anything but stand there and look disdainful got snatched up. Our PE teacher, a benevolent and incredibly handsome grad student named David, had to *place* me on a team.

When I realized that I would never be one of the greats – or even one of the slow-but-steady support players – I gave up on sports, all competitions really from dodgeball to Monopoly. I threw myself into other activities like writing, reading and knitting. Things people could do while sitting down, preferably with tea and muffins.

I am a good knitter. I would never say so in public, but it’s like a secret super power I carry with me everywhere I go. If all the jocks and I were on a desert island with nothing but bamboo and wild goats and coconut fiber, when they had all exhausted themselves kicking around the coconuts and worn out their gym shorts – I could knit them new ones. Sometimes I daydream about this scenario.

When Mim told me about the Maine’s Fastest Knitter Competition that is being held during Rockland’s World-Famous Lobster Festival, I felt a little betrayed. Someone had taken my beloved refuge and turned it into… a sport. Vulgar. It was the same creeping feeling I get when I watch the movie adaptation of a well-beloved book and they’ve absolutely butchered it. I don’t care if they say it’s all in good fun – something sacred has been mingled with the sweaty earth. My super power has been blithely diluted by its kryptonite.

When I got over myself (which means I knitted for a while, rehashed all of my childhood mortifications, breathed deeply and then let it go) I realized that this actually might be a lot of fun. Though I rejected sports, I maintained a healthy competitive spirit. I’ve never been able to turn down a dare and there is a certain part of me that would love to go up there and win that race. It has become my new daydream, complete with an applauding crowd and the sudden reappearance of my elementary gym teacher who presents me with the trophy – a golden ball of yarn with bejeweled needles thrust through it. I’ve begun my training.

Exactly how does one train to compete in a knitting race? I have no idea. I’m making it up as I go along, but I supposed that the first thing to do was to collect information. I assumed my most nonchalant, ‘I can’t believe people take this seriously’ attitude and grilled Mim for details. I needed to know the rules, who won last year and what their ‘score’ was, how much we would be required to knit and with what materials (because if this is a lace-weight on size 2 needles affair I’m out already) and how the race is to be conducted. 50 stitches with worsted weight yarn and reasonably sized needles – four rows of garter stitch. That’s it. My pulse quickened and my palms got a little sweaty. I can do that. I can do this. I can try, at least.

That night after my husband went to work and the baby was in bed I sat down and cast on 50 stitches. I knit a few rows and let myself relax. Each stitch is like a little breath for me, rhythmic and subtle, building one on another, looping, snatching, flicking, pushing. I told myself that this must be how real athletes feel as they stretch out their limbs for a big race. It’s all muscle memory, letting your body remember how to do what it does best, whatever that may be. I pictured myself sprinting across the finish line – finishing that fourth row and throwing my hands in the air – needles grasped tightly – Victory. Golden yarn, adoring fans, being recruited by a professional Knitting Team, a knitted jersey with my own number on it. I got completely lost in my fantasies and when I ‘came to’, I had several inches knitted in tidy little garter stitch bumps.

I keep my 50 stitches cast on at all times and when I get a moment or two between meals, diapers and laundry I set the stopwatch on my phone and knit furiously for a minute. It’s added a whole new and delicious dimension to my knitting life. I am a knitter in training. I knit competitively. I love saying it to the cashiers who look at me with questioning eyes as I quickly knit four rows while waiting in line. I feel as though I am letting them in on a secret, flashing them the brightly-colored, spandex Super Hero costume I have hidden under my civilian clothes.

The best part? No one has to pick me – I can do it all on my own steam. There’s no agonized waiting, I’m not too tall or too slow, I’m doing what I love with a bunch of other people who love what they do, too. I think it’s going to be a real hoot and whether I win or not it’s going to be a race I can finish and be proud of participating in.

See you at the race,

Ann