Knots

Ever since my aunt sent me my very first snood, I’ve been wanting to learn how to crochet. I borrowed a book from the library and pored over it for hours, hook in hand, but couldn’t work it out. Other people were encouraging: it’s easier than knitting, they told me. You only have to learn four stitches. I’m surprised you can’t do it already.

I was sure I could do it, if I could only get started. I crocheted the cut steek of Fliss’ foxgloves, pulling slip stitches through the edge of the knitted fabric, making it secure. With something there to connect to, it was simple. But starting from scratch, with a length of cotton before me, seemed impossible.

So Mrs Roberts and I hatched a plan some months ago: an afternoon in a cafe, for tea and cake and a skills swap. I would teach her to knit intarsia. She would teach me to crochet.

I think it is a mark of how lovely a time we were having that we suddenly noticed the diners coming in for their evening meals. Our lunch dishes had long since been cleared, afternoon tea had been taken. Waitresses had stopped by our little table to see what we were making, and add their own tips to the mix. Mrs Roberts had written out a pattern for me, unintelligible at first and entirely comprehensible by the end. With her encouragement I made a flower, and once we were onto double and triple crochet it all made sense. She showed me how to vary stitches on the scarf she was making, before pulling the yarn free again, rolling it up and stuffing it back into its little pouch. Her attitude was so can-do, so why-not that I caught it. I think I could make anything now, with crochet.

Of course she needed very little help to get started with her fairisle, knitting together a stunning medley of creams and purples. She has plans for a jumper for autumn, and I can’t wait to see it. Watching other people make things is very nearly as much fun as making them yourself. In fact, the next day, I showed Fliss how to crochet and she whipped up a set of matching bracelets to share with all her friends. It was fun to watch her pick it up so quickly. That was easy, she said. Because it is. And I’m so glad I’ve learned to do it at long last. It was a good afternoon, for Mrs Roberts and I: both productive and purposeful.

Better still, though, was what was happening while our hands and eyes were busy. A long talk, without thought of chores or deadlines. Sharing anecdotes and hopes, long stories and their meanings. Being able to focus on just the two of us, without interruption or complaint. We tied a lot of knots, that afternoon, but the best of all was the one which pulled us closer. Continue reading “Knots”

This is how

Some people show their love by cooking, or buying thoughtful gifts, or perhaps doing the washing up. I knit.

I cook and clean and sew as well, of course. I grow vegetables, and leave plants and flowers around the house. Some of these things bring me great pleasure. Others just need to be done. And there’s no denying that to sew for someone – or, better, with someone – or to bake a cake and watch your child lick the bowl, is a great joy. A shared joy, and a quick one. Over in an hour, or an afternoon, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

But to show my love, I knit. There is something about those stitches, one after another, sometimes counting, sometimes entirely elsewhere, which is, for me at least, a sign of something more. It isn’t always because knitting takes a long time: a baby hat can be whipped up in an evening. Nor is it about the beauty of the finished product: a knitted dishcloth expresses the same feeling.

Perhaps it has something to do with the solitary nature of it. Knitting is not a collaborative activity. Sociable, perhaps, but not collaborative. Which leaves a lot of time to think about the person you are knitting for, and the qualities of the wool, and how the finished product might look on them.

So many women start to knit in earnest when they have babies. Baby things are small, and quick, which is a blessing when you only have short nap times in which to seize the needles. We then move on to older children and perhaps ourselves. A few pullovers later, our stamina builds, and we are ready for the big one.

It took me many years before John got his cardigan. Hats, yes. Mitts, scarves, socks – absolutely. But that cardigan was a long time coming.

I started it in the spring, sitting in the sun under the tiny bright green leaves of the wisteria. I had a woollen rug around me and I was full of ambition. Two pattern repeats a day, I think I promised myself. It was to be done by June.

The following March found me on the beach at Sand’s End, still knitting. The same rug was spread beneath me, and I was ostensibly minding the picnic things while John and the children skimmed pebbles over the slate grey sea. They threw sticks for dogs, on walks, and ran about, and shouted. I huddled in my hat and scarf, back to the wind, knitting 408 stitches of collar one way, and then the other. After two long rows my fingers were numb and I went to warm them between John’s hands.

It was far and away my biggest project. I’d broken off twice: once for new school jumpers for Fliss and Seb, and again for a thick aran pullover for myself. I was nearly there, though, and that kept me going, until one day it was done.

Every so often I find it draped over the back of a wooden chair, or left in a heap on the floor. Sometimes I have to brush bits of grass or other signs of his day from it. Perhaps I ought to mind. It took a long time to make.

But I don’t. I don’t because I can see that he loves wearing it, and to nag would change that. I don’t because I know a snag or hole can be mended. Because I have no doubt that this knit will still be around forty years from now. All those children’s jumpers, the hats and socks and baby knits, will have been long since lost or worn out or passed on to younger cousins. I will have frogged my own knits to make something fit for a new phase of my life. But that cardigan will be a constant.

I’ll find it on the back of a chair one day. John, I’ll say, you really must let me throw this old thing out. He’ll shake his head at me. You see, this is how it works. I knit things, he wears them, and we both know what it means.

[whohit]thisishow[/whohit]

Begin again

The first rule of making lofty plans is not to flinch when things go wrong.

I had great plans for this winter’s knitting. A Foxgloves for Fliss, Seb’s Stars, and third yoked jumper for myself. These were all to be completed by Christmas, which would leave the long stretch from January to March free to knit something for Ben’s increasingly lanky frame. He’s a double knitting boy, not to be persuaded into aran. His jumpers take time.

It all started well enough, with the first two completed before advent. I picked up my pattern at the start of December, and, without a thought or concern, began to follow it.

The first doubts crept in halfway up the waist decreases, but I pressed on nonetheless. I wanted to wear it on Christmas Day; I would not be dissuaded.

By the time the bust increases began, even I couldn’t ignore the fact that the tube of knitted fabric bore no relation to my body. It would have fitted a lovely pair of hips, but not mine. I was forced to sternly remind myself of two facts. One: I always adapt patterns. Two: I never like curvy pullovers.

Frogged and rewound, we began again, this time with my own shaping added to to the original pattern. I worked furiously, churning out a whole three inches of 2-ply before I noticed that I was knitting a helix.

At this point I abandoned it, my plans and all my usual habits. I began knitting hats. And a dishclothLittle knits, in other words. In December.

Which is how, six weeks after casting off Seb’s Stars, I have precisely one inch of 1×1 twisted rib to show for myself. That, and an uncharacteristic amount of sewing. Just one afternoon’s worth of knitting, to be exact.

But goodness me, it feels good to begin again. Those little knits just weren’t quite the thing for this time of year. Long rows are what I need. A project to carry me through whole weeks, not an evening or two. Two hundred and thirty one stitches per round, round and round again.

It’s an odd number because seven of those stitches form a steek. You see, somehow it’s become a cardigan. And for now, that’s all I know about it. I may revert to the original pattern and knit a neat necklace of bluebells, echoed at the cuffs. Yet I’ve been thinking about sweet peas, lately, and dreaming up a design of my own. Or maybe even an allover, in Xs and stripes and little blooms, made up as I go. I’m tempted to write to the supplier and order two more skeins, in dusty rose. Tomorrow, maybe.

Because today is a busy day, with lots of errands and cleaning, music lessons after school, and Cubs this evening for Seb. I’ll only manage a few rows, once the day is done. Five or six rows which will take me one way or another, so that tomorrow I’ll know whether I need that extra colour. I’m looking forward to seeing what my hands will do, once my head stops getting in the way. This is going to be fun.

[whohit]beginagain[/whohit]

Stars for Seb

I like to think it all began with our first night walk, years ago now, when Seb had grown sturdy on his feet and Ilse was just beginning to be thought of. It was a mild October evening, yet the dark had us penned up, listless, indoors.

There were empty jars draining by the kitchen sink and Ben had abandoned some tissue paper project. He had already mixed a flour paste, so it was easy to put the two together and show the children how to cut bright pieces of colour and stick them to the outside of the jars. Ben’s had tiny diamonds in it; Fliss’ was a sea of overlapping curves. Seb’s was a medley of colour, stuck on any which way with great globs of paste.

We tied parcel string handles around the rims and dropped a tea light into each. The children giggled as they waited, ready in their hats and coats, for John’s key to turn in the lock.

There is something thrilling for children about being out after dark: something adult and almost forbidden. It is not quite the same world, seen only by light spilt yellow across the pavement.

We listened to the nocturnal creatures crashing about in the fallen leaves, and made our way to the river. Glimmers of white caught our eye along its contours as the moon picked out the sleeping swans. We made for our favourite bench on the bridge and it was here, protected by candlelight, that they ate their makeshift supper of cheese and pickle sandwiches, dipping shortbread into milk still warm from the thermos. Towards the end of the feast the candles guttered and went out, one by one.

Suspended over the river you are away from the light thrown out by the important buildings: the shops with their windows full of wares, the big gas lamp reminding everyone where the pub is. The sky above, with its splash of stars, is more clearly visible. We pointed out what we knew: the North Star. Ursa Major. Dippers, large and small. Orion’s diamante belt. Seb, in particular, was fascinated.

That Christmas we gave him a book on the stars. He has long since absorbed it. This is the boy who asks to stop on the way home from cubs to see which of his friends are shining tonight. This is the boy who threw handfuls of borax in the bonfire, to show me what it would do. The boy who can make a miniature radio set out of a bit of crystal. A magician, and a soothsayer. An alchemist.

Children change all the time. There is a danger of pigeonholing them, of telling them who they are and what they are good at, and determining their self-view. One year’s passion might be gone by the next. They try things on for size and discard most of them.

But some of them stick, which is why I am confident that this starry jumper will still suit Seb in a year or two. I think the stars have stuck, with him.

These past few months have seen new interests creeping in. An affinity for music. Outdoorsiness. A blossoming love of nature. Which is why I am glad that there are trees, too, in this traditional design. Stars and trees, but mostly stars, for Seb.

[whohit]starsforseb[/whohit]

Foxgloves for Fliss

Fliss’ cardigan has been cast off and crocheted, the steek cut and button bands knitted on. I left it on the chair in  her bedroom, having sewn on the last button as she slept. She held me in its woollen arms, next morning, and whispered thank-yous in my ear.

Fliss is my shy, thoughtful, imaginative girl. She lives half in this world and half in some other, make-believe realm. She’s my war baby, born in 1916, the child I wanted only to keep safe and close to my heart. When I was having her I was afraid of so many things: zeppelins and their bombs, food and fuel shortages, and, most of all, losing John. Other women, of my age and younger, were entering the factories and fields. The war opened their eyes and their worlds. They were fearless and pioneering. As a married mother, my own world closed in around me.

Once John had joined up, I went home to live with Mother and Father, accompanied by two year old Ben and the knowledge of Fliss. Looking back, it seems as though Mother and I sat across the fire from one another every evening for three years, knitting. We didn’t, of course. We visited friends, went to the odd concert, and laughed at the antics of the newly all-female amateur dramatics society. But what I remember most is the knitting. Bootees and balaclavas, layettes and extra layers for Fliss and for John, for my brother Pete and for other, nameless, soldiers. Cream and khaki, khaki and cream, keeping them safe the only way we could. I would have knitted charms into those garments, if I could.

Once she was born Fliss turned out to be a quiet baby, as long as I was nearby. Her brother Ben was always off, as soon as he could toddle, launching himself into the world. Not Fliss. She would lie on her blanket for hours, playing with her hands and following me with her dark eyes. As she grew I got used to suddenly finding her by me, slipping her paw into mine, sliding into my lap.

I took Fliss, Seb and Ilse into York yesterday, to buy their winter shoes. Seb and I strolled behind: he is spilling over with plans for our conker expedition. Ilse bounced ahead beside Fliss, hanging off her patient hand. It has been a mild autumn so far, not yet cold enough for coats. Instead the air is damp and grey and thick with muffled mists. Fliss’ foxgloves shone back at me through the murk, clear and bright, free of the shadows of hedgerows and old fears. She glanced over her shoulder, once or twice, to check that I was near, but found a place for she and Ilse to sit, alone, on the busy tram. She is pulling away, as she should. But however far she goes from me I will always be able to sense her, unexpected and quiet, surprising us with flashes of her fantastical beauty.

[whohit]foxglovesforfliss[/whohit]

Little knits

Autumn does not deepen in a steady flow, but hesitantly, advancing and retreating like an incoming tide.

This morning was the occasion of another little rush forwards. We woke up to clear skies and a heavy dew and, suddenly, out of drawers and cupboards, came the little knits. They have been squirrelled away, tucked in, all summer, behind the socks and vests, but their time has come. October is the month for little knits – on go hats and mittens, scarves and socks – enough to keep that nip in the air at bay without recourse to a heavy coat.

Like autumn itself, though, the day will grow warmer before it is colder, and those same hats will be shoved down the sides of satchels on the journey home from school. Because of this, October is also the month of lost little knits. Gloves, discarded, cannot be found when the frost strikes a week later. I sewed Ilse’s mittens to a ribbon and ran it through the arms of her cardigan. The others are disdainfully too old for such precautions, but Ilse, at least, will still have two mitts by November.

Outside, I wished I’d put my new wool socks on. By the time I’d pulled out the shrinking cucumber vines my toes were numb. I found no fewer than twenty-six cucumbers, hiding from the cold in the remains of the lush tangle. The hens were sunbathing, snuggled together in a corner of their run. And happily, the slugs had not ventured near the windfalls.

Inside the house, a ladybird had come to share our warmth. She ambled along the white windowsill, unconscious of how conspicuous she was in her red and black jacket. I took her out to the bush where hundreds of her kind sleep each winter. There is still time for her to bed in.

In the warmth of the afternoon I knitted. At the bottom of my basket, beneath the sleeves and half-knit body of Fliss’ Foxgloves, is a half-finished scarf for Ben. I worked on this, today.

Most of my little knits are made in the summer months. I like to use up the odds and ends of wool – balls left over from cardigans, half a skein remaining from my nordic pullover, or from another little knit. There’s a rhythm to my knitting: cardigans for John and I in the spring and then little knits right through until late September, when I know the children won’t grow out of their new pullovers before they’ve worn them. These smaller knits are easy to take on the train, to the beach, and on a picnic. They don’t lie hot and heavy in my lap. By October, my wool basket is empty and the corners of everyone’s drawers are full of cosiness.

I looked at John in his new hat, and remembered the three evenings I spent knitting it: mid-August, the windows open, a serialisation of the latest Agatha Christie on the Home Service. My own oak leaf hat: a rainy week in July when we couldn’t get out of doors. Ilse’s mittens: the meandering train ride to my brother’s family in Devon, one either way.

When all the others had left, I watched Ilse from our bedroom window as she set off for school, exclaiming over jewelled webs with muffled claps of joy. Those mittens will remind her of dewy mornings, frosty gates and, hopefully, pushing carrots into snowmen’s faces. But they remind me, already, of telegraph poles oscillating by train windows, of the first glimpse of sailboats in Devon harbours, and of the promise of the summer ahead.

[whohit]littleknits[/whohit]

Fair isle at the fair

My mother in law invited me to attend her local wool fair. As the train approached Skipton, the fields were full of sheep, busily growing their fleeces to keep them warm this winter.

It seems apt then, for a woollens fair to take place in the Yorkshire Dales, and in the auction mart to boot. Each of the stalls was set up in a pen, and none was the same as any other. There were looms, tweeds, felts, crochet hooks, knitting needles, baskets and needle cases. There were piles of patterns, too – not just the ordinary brands, but those written by the vendors themselves, proudly sporting their own designs.

I’m not sure whether it was because I was looking for it, but there was fair isle everywhere I turned. Patterns, subtle and bold; hues, natural and bright – there was almost too much choice. Pullovers, slipovers, gloves, hats, scarves, snoods, socks…all in fair isle.

It wasn’t really a surprise: fair isle is beginning to come off yachts and golf courses and into our homes and streets. In truth, I had gone looking for some patterns and wool to make another attempt at it, having knit my first nordic pullover last winter.

As a result, I came home with a basket bursting with wool: Shetland 2 ply in nature-inspired hues for John, Ben and myself, and brights for the children. We could each do with a gay new pullover, so my hands will be busy this autumn. I have decided on a Foxgloves for Fliss, to begin with. We need patterns to remind us of what is missing: foxgloves and bluebells, echoes of mountains and blue-grey waves, steady lines of trees in leaf. Like the cave painters of old, I like to imagine that what we create in the long winter encourages these things to return.

Opening the curtains this morning, the world was fuzzy and dull with mist. It still hadn’t cleared by the time Mrs P and I were hanging out the last of the wash. Peer as I might, the garden remained  grey and indistinct. The wash struggled to dry in the saturated air.

By this afternoon the autumn sun was breaking through once more, burning off the last of the haze. Yet the morning was a timely reminder of what is to come. We need pattern and colour to keep us cheerful through the grey months ahead. Perhaps the islanders know that better than us, living as far north as they do. I am more than happy to learn from them. With a rug over my legs, a cup of tea at my side and the sun on my back, I spent a happy half hour on the garden bench, casting on.

 

[whohit]Fair Isle at the Fair[/whohit]