On Knitting

The lovingly-blurred picture of a woman on the cusp of the fourth house of her life sitting and knitting patiently has given way to a new vision. A much more visceral one that involves a lot of cursing and throwing.

As everyone knows (well, I didn’t, but I looked it up) there are three Fates that control our lives: Clotho, who spins the fabric of our lives (and gave those cotton people a nifty slogan); Lachesis, who measures its length; and Atropos, who cuts it. Or maybe it was Klothos who weaves the fabric, Atropos who measures its length, and Lachesis who cuts it. Depends on the source.

These three wizened daughters of Nyx (or maybe Zeus, again depending on the source) have come to mind recently (albeit in a hazy way, as you can see). Not in an end-of-life way, though. You see, the fabric of my recent life has been knitting worsted, and the devil of the thing is, Atropos (or is it Lachesis?) has been snipping away with abandon.

I have spent the past two years trying to knit mittens for the people I love. They needed to be just like the mittens that my mother had knit for us when we were young — of tightly-stitched wool (it had to be wool, not Orlon or rayon whatever acrylic DuPontian mess that they invariably sell at Target) that lasted forever. Or would have, if I hadn’t lost all but one of them.

Now, some would say I have no talent for knitting. I sit with yarn balls tangled up in massive knots, purling and knitting, increasing and decreasing, and counting endlessly while cursing my fate. Or Fates. Ah, yes — those generous and wise old women must laugh heartily at me. The lovingly-blurred picture of a woman on the cusp of the fourth house of her life sitting and knitting patiently has given way to a new vision. A much more visceral one that involves a lot of cursing and throwing.

So far, I have completed three mittens and gave up on a fourth at the final stages. One mitten had a thumb that would be just perfect for an orangutan. Another was stitched too loosely, resembling lace instead of the New-England-winter-defying tightness I wanted too create. The third was way too freaky. Even though I made it according to the pattern (and didn’t make any huge mistakes), it just didn’t look like my mother’s mittens. Too wide, too loose, too much not like what I wanted it to be.

I gave up and decided it was time for an intervention with someone who really knew what she was doing.

I called my mother-in-law.

Now, you have to know this about my mother-in-law: she knits all the time (and has for years) and doesn’t have to look at what she’s doing. Her fingers fly effortlessly. She turns out about 18 sweaters a year for an assortment of grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. She knits caps by the dozen for new babies and shawls for old people she doesn’t even know. She even has a knitting loom to make things go faster.

It was a strange call. As far as I remember, it went something like this:

ME: Help!

HER: It’s very simple. Really, it is.

ME: I’m a moron. I’ll never get it.

HER: Just take it one step at a time. First of all, you put the framistan into the second needle, and draw the magilicutty into the fray. Then you take the yarn and twist it over the ramistafiddle and you’re done.

ME: ???????

I decided an in-person intervention might be more helpful.

I went to a local yarn store in a highfalutin neighborhood that sold only wool. Surely, these must be the experts. The shop was filled with women of a certain age in all kinds of snazzy Talbot outfits knitting away on huge needles with airy yarn. Perhaps they had never faced a New England winter.

Knowledgeable people abounded. Everyone looked like they knew what they were doing — except the clerk who waited on me. I showed her my mother’s last remaining mitten and I showed her my too-freaky mitten. “What is going on?” I wailed.

She said she would get someone.

Oh, Lord. Please don’t let the woman-who-really-knows-something laugh at me.

She didn’t. She even said I was close. But I needed to knit on smaller needles. German-sized needles #3.5. And a new pattern book, one that looked remarkably like the one my mother had around the house when I was a kid.

I was so grateful I even bought some obscenely-priced yarn and had it rewound in a neat ball. No more getting near the end of the project and having to stop for three days to untangle the remaining woolly morass at my feet.

At home, I sighed deeply and began. The pattern was virtually undecipherable at first: K2, P2 psso, K2 TOG. It all began to bleed together into one of those arcane equations that I never understood in physics.

But I started. After about three hours, I had an inch and a half of something that looked like the cuff my mother’s mitten. Buoyed, I went on. I knitted ten rows. And then, tore everything out — back to the part where you cast on the stitches. And began again. And tore it all out. And began again. If I had been the spinner fate Klotho (or Clotho, depending on the source), someone would be very, very angry. Coming into life just to be destroyed over and over again was just too Sisyphean (as in Sisyphus, if my source is to be trusted). Watching Whose Wedding is it, Anyway? and trying to get dinner on the table while knitting away just didn’t work.

We had a snow day. After my requisite two hours shoveling out us and half the neighborhood, I sat down to knit. My husband remarked that he thought knitting was supposed to be pleasurable and calming. I agreed — yelling back at him for breaking my train of thought and joylessly recounting the rows to find my place.

Slowly, it came together. My fourth mitten looked just like my mother’s, I marveled. I finished the thumb. No mistakes. I was capital-K Knitting. The body gradually emerged. Measuring carefully (these were supposed to be my daughter’s mittens), I determined it was time to decrease and get the hell out of Dodge. Success was mine.

Until I went to sew up the seam and found that I had dropped two stitches. Right at the very end.

I hope one day to knit a pair of mittens for someone I love. Perhaps a grandchild. Or a great-grandchild.

Article © 2005 by Ann Klimas