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.”
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.”
** ‘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.”