When I was 11 years old, my mom was knitting matching sweaters for my dad, my uncle and my two brothers for Christmas. They were beautiful Aran adventures and I was fascinated. Eventually they looked looked like this…
That’s my dad on the left in the traditional off white. My Uncle Mark is on the right in baby blue that brought out all the bluey-green oceanic highlights in his lovely Finn eyes. Those are my brothers, Michael on the right and Matthew on the left in bolder warmer orange and red. They were all thrilled to get their sweaters on Christmas morning. And no one noticed a thing.
See…I had a guilty secret. When Mum was working on Dad’s sweater, I had picked it up out of her basket and was looking at the rope cable on the side of the front panel that goes up to the shoulder. She had finished the armhole decreasing and was about 2 inches from finishing the front. When she saw me turning it around and poking at the yarn, she went wild. In a voice that will ring in the naughty girl corridors of my mind forever, she yelled, “PUT THAT DOWN! You’re going to drop my stitches! Do you have any idea how much work I’ve put into that…” and more in that same tone. Well. I put it down fast enough, and she thought no more about it. But I did.
About an hour later, Mum blithely went out shopping. As soon as I heard her car turn the corner, I was back in the knitting basket. I picked up that beautiful sweater and was poking at it again, trying to figure out how she had done it. When I heard the kitchen door open, I thought Mum must have forgotten something and come back to get it. Knowing she would be very cross indeed if she caught me with her sweater again after expressly telling me to leave it alone, I ditched the thing as quickly as I could and was innocently reading in the corner of the sofa when my brothers careened through the room on their was somewhere else. A narrow escape, and I went back to pick up the sweater.
That was when I saw the disaster. The exact disaster Mum had been afraid of. I had indeed dropped stitches. I had dropped eleven stitches, to be precise. They had run down several rows in the middle of that cable on the right shoulder.
At this point in my life I can acknowledge that we would all have gotten over it. Eventually. Probably. But at that moment my breath caught in my throat. My life flashed before my eyes. At that moment I was certain I was going to die. I was certain that my mother would end my life. Unless…
I’m not ashamed to admit that when my life was on the line, I thought briefly of framing one of my brothers. Trouble was, neither of them had ever shown the least interest in knitting. And I had already been caught messing with that sweater. There was no way Mum would believe the boys had had anything to do with it. My only option to save myself was to put those stitches back the way I had found them and vow to never touch yarn again.
There is a way, in moments of stress, when ones senses can be heightened and the ability to focus on the smallest details can become crystal clear. I had one of those moments. The world fell away and I saw only that off white wool and its serpentine path through the knitted work. Each stitch rose up as a cul de sac in the ongoing road from the cast on row, through the overpasses of the cables, the roundabouts of the honeycomb center panel, the cobbled surfaces of the purl stitch ground and the textured stitches rising like causeways. To this day, I visualize knitted fabric as a kind of intricate road map where everything goes in its proper direction to its destination. When I was able to see it that way, I was able to see how to reconstruct the parts of the path that I had destroyed. Using the tips of the needles, I picked up the stitches where they lay and pulled loops through loops, crossed stitch paths and lifted those columns back onto the needles in the proper order. The adrenaline burned the process into my memory more than any other knitting I have done since.
When all eleven stitches were reconstructed and back on the needles I was able to let my breath out and time seemed to flow around me again. I gave a few gentle tugs to even out the tension and carefully put the sweater back in the basket. I was again reading in the sofa corner when Mum arrived back home with a car load of groceries. In the next few hours, I was on tenter hooks waiting to see if she would be able to see the patch job. All through dinner and evening TV I was waiting for some repercussion. As I went to bed I was especially nervous; after we kids were in bed was prime knitting time for Mum. I went to sleep waiting for a shriek of discovery that never came.
On Christmas morning when Dad, Uncle Mark, Michael and Matthew tried on their new sweaters and posed for the picture above, I almost couldn’t watch for fear that some one would be able to tell what I had done. But, nope. As you can see, they are smilingly oblivious. And I bet you can’t see any mistake either.
About 30 years later, I was at Mum and Dad’s for Christmas again. I was knitting in the kitchen while Mum did something with the grandkids in the living room, and my sister asked my how I learned to pick up dropped stitches. As I finished telling her my story, I heard my mothers voice from the living room saying, “I TOLD YOU TO LEAVE THAT SWEATER ALONE!” This time, I was pretty sure she was not going to kill me. The statute of limitations has run out; that sweater is long gone. Besides, necessity is the mother of invention and that is how I learned to pick up dropped stitches…and cross cables, and much, much, more knitting arcana. So I laughed at her, and she admitted that she had never noticed, so I must have done a bang up job of it.
I’ve never again been afraid of knitting. I am the boss of my knitting thanks to my mother…sort of.
This is the Tulip Pattern from Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns.For those of you who are familiar with the collection, that’s the blue one or the first one. It’s on page 25 and is worked as follows:
Over a multiple of 3
Rows 1 and 3 (RS) – Knit
Rows 2 and 4 (WS) – Purl
Rows 5 and 7 – K1, * p1, k2; rep from *, end p1, k1.
Rows 6 and 8 – P1, *k1, ps; rep from *, end k1, p1.
Rows 9 and 11 – *P2, k1; rep from *.
Rows 10 and 12 – *P1, k2; rep from *.
And it looks like this:
It’s not super stretchy so it won’t nip in like straight up ribbing does, but has a combination of knit and purl stitches that makes it lie flat. It gives a bit of textural interest to an otherwise plain stockinette fabric, or is subtle enough not to draw too much attention on something more complex. It could also be used as an all over fabric. The example you’re looking at is still on the needles, but I’m thinking it will flatten out a bit with washing and blocking. All in all, a sweet edge treatment.
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.