In my hands

In the evenings, when I’m tired of chopping and mixing and spooning hot food into jars, I’ve been knitting, instead. And so, in a week, this little cardigan has almost been completed. It’s Ilse’s, of course – the one she chose the wool for at the fair. The one she’s been asking me when I’m going to start. And now her eyes are as big as saucers as I let her try the top-down garment on for size, and she can see that it is almost there.

It is a simple little knit, with a clever pattern to form the rippling rows around the shoulders. The neck and hem and button bands are finished in childish garter stitch: the first stitch I ever learned, which lies flat and wiggly all at once. Only the sleeves remain, and the buttons to sew on, and ends to be woven in. I’ve knitted a lot this week, because it has been such a sad week, and I knit when I am sad. I’ve dropped a lot of tears on this little woolly number. And because of the way the things I make remind me of the times I made them in, this cardigan will always remind me of my grandad, and when he died.

If last year was all about pattern, this winter is all about texture. Ben’s cables were the start of it, and now the rise and fall of these sweet waves. I bought some sock yarn at the fair and want to try three different pairs, one homely, one botanical and one Parisian. That’ll take me up to Christmas, I should think. I’ll have something to bring to each of Mrs Thistlebear’s parties between now and then, and make new friends over. And between parties, with my hands busy, my mind can wander freely to wherever and whenever it wants to go.

When sad, some people walk. Some talk. Some sit and gaze out of the window. Myself, I like to knit. It’s a good thing to have in your hands, wool. It’s soft, and warm, and strong. And later, when you look down at what you’ve spent the evening making, you realise that all the things you couldn’t say are in your hands, instead.

Big softie

Ben’s jumper is finished, and I’m sure it’s the softest thing I’ve ever knitted. What with all the alpaca spun into the wool, and the thick lofty yarn, and the depth of the cables and ribbing down the front, it is the kind of squishy, silky, snuggly pullover everyone ought to have. I think I need to add five more to my list of things to make.

Beyond his admiration for the cleverness of cabling, Ben has never shown much  interest in knitting. I taught him to make a wobbly and very holy scarf for his favourite teddy when he was little, just as I have all the others, but that was his first and last attempt. Like me, he loves to make things; unlike me he does not like to make them out of wool. But it’s astonishing how the fact that a jumper is for you makes the process so much more interesting. I can’t think how many items I must have blocked over his lifetime, and yet when he came in from Mother’s on Saturday and saw his jumper drying on an old towel he really wanted to know about the process, and what it does to the stitches, and why it matters so.

Everybody else, on entering the dining room, made the same announcement: it’s huge! Well, so is he – in height at least. It fits. But he’s a very gentle giant. He gives good gangly hugs, bending from the knee to make up for the fact that he’s at least eight inches taller than me. He’ll happily spend a day helping his granny pick and wrap her apples, or carry chairs from the top of their house down four flights to the kitchen. A day spent helping Father file or type is a day well spent, in his eyes. I find it hard, sometimes, to equate this tall young man with the solemn chubby baby in the photos, until I remember that even as a toddler he was generous with his chocolate.

It’s been such a pleasure, knitting for my biggest child. He hasn’t wanted anything more than hats for several years but now, at eighteen, he has come to his senses once more. What could be nicer than a mum-made jumper to keep you warm while you study? Pardon, Ben? Spending the night with your granny and grandad? Walks in the woods with your father and Ada? Teaching the little ones to build the best dens? Sitting round a campfire with your pals? Oh, alright then. But you can wear your new jumper while you do all of those things.

Two steps back

Never mind two steps forward, one step back – I seem to be moving in the opposite direction. My autumn plans seemed entirely reasonable at September’s start, but here I am, faced with a list which keeps growing rather than shrinking as the weeks flip by. Two weeks before half term and I’ve made half a jumper, one dress with bunny pockets and some wobbly wool on my wheel. That leaves two school dresses and a long-legged romper for Ilse, a new skirt for myself and another which needs relining, two eiderdowns which need covering again to keep the stuffing in and a blouse for myself which may or may not happen. What I want to sew is Ilse’s quilt, the pieces for which are all cut out, a Liberty fabric soft case for my flute, and tiny crumb quilt covers for Christmas present notebooks. But I’ve forbidden myself all of that until the other sewing is done, which is why I’m spending so much time knitting instead.

I took Ben’s jumper with me to the ballet studio on Saturday while I was waiting for Ilse to finish her lesson, and was pleased with the progress I’d made until I got home and spread it out and realised that I’d held a cable needle to the front and not the back five inches ago. Oh well, at least it’s chunky wool. And at least I know myself well enough to rip it out at once, lest it become a reproach, sulking in my basket. By lunchtime my funny feeling head had given way to a sore throat and nose full of sneezes, so I spent the afternoon strategically resting by the fire in the hopes of heading it off at the pass. No such luck: I woke up on Sunday to a full head cold and a list as long as I had left it.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to grit one’s teeth and get stuck in. I retrieved the cut out pieces of Ilse’s grey school dresses from where I’d hidden them from myself and got to work, determined to complete the bodices at least. It only took me until the stay stitching to realise that I’d cut the back bodice wrongly: as a whole, instead of two half bits to button together. Thankfully there was just enough left over to cut it out again, and doctor the pieces I had. And thankfully Mrs P was here and chose that moment to appear with a pot of tea for two, emergency buttered scones and some well chosen words of advice. Thus bolstered I sewed on long beyond my goal of two neat bodices, making puffed sleeves with gathered cuffs, little button holes all down the back, understitched linings and pleated skirts until suddenly, nearly four hours later, I had two fully lined wool dresses, all finished bar the handsewn hems and buttons I have yet to buy in town. And when Ilse tried them on they even, miraculously, fitted.

Perhaps that counts as two steps forward – or one, at the very least? Yes, it rained off and on again all day yesterday so that the apples are still on the tree. Yes, there are still trays of winter seedlings waiting on the kitchen windowsill, hoping to be planted out. Yes, it’s getting colder and I don’t have a single decent skirt to wear. But those two dresses which were holding up my stitching are almost out of the way, and I feel a surge of productivity coming on as soon as I feel better. I finished the front of Ben’s jumper last night as I recovered in front of the fire and as I held it up to him this morning I noticed a tiny mistake in one of the ribs near the top. Time to start ripping again. What was that saying? Two steps forward and one step back? Oh well, at least that’s better than the other way around.

Goodness

 

It seems almost silly to be knitting with such a colour when October sunlight saturates the world. Outside are verdant lawns, wanton berries, roses which throb pinkly in the dawn and evening light. Inside, I am knitting with the colour of summer: the sea washed out by overhead sunlight, the faded greens of favourite cotton frocks. And oh, goodness, how I love it. The time for plums and teals and ruby reds is fast approaching, but not here yet. I’m happy knitting with the ocean, on sticks of driftwood beige.

While this jumper looks like summer, it feels like bed on a winter’s morning: plump and soft and comfortingly warm. I’m not sure I’ve ever knitted with anything quite this thick, or on needles wide as tree trunks. After months and months of 2 ply it felt a little wrong, but only until I looked down to realise that I’d knitted the whole of the back of Ben’s jumper in two short sessions. Then it felt just right: fast and compelling, keeping pace with this sudden onslaught of autumn. I’m cabling the front already, and watching the pattern emerge. He’ll have this jumper in a couple of weeks, all of a sudden, having waited all last year. Ah, well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Once done, it’ll be on with Ilse’s, in seasonal royal plum blue, paving the way to Christmas. Then, after the feasting, I’ll rip out my old white aran and make it over in a way that’ll feel just right for January. Frugal. Austere. Necessary and good. I’ve decided to join Mrs Thistlebear’s winter project parties, this year, and take along a new project at the start of every month, which leaves room for Ilse’s quilt as well as those two raw fleeces, bits of which are already twisting their way onto my wheel.

Truth be told, I’m not all that happy about the arrival of autumn, but little bits of goodness are cheering me along. Sitting by the fire and knitting. Holding onto the colours of August for a short while longer. Dashing through a jumper to warm my patient boy. Simple things, but kind. Thank goodness for wool, and knitting, and boys who ask for jumpers in subtle summer hues.

Wool in the house

Oh, how lovely it is to have wool in the house again. After the fair my basket is full, and another season’s knitting can begin. There’s not a moment’s hesitation over patterns or sizes or gauge: all that was worked out a while ago, and all that remains is to decide which project to begin with.

Last year’s fair was all about fairisle. I thought it was just me, but I’m sure there was less of it this time around. There were still pockets of it, including a stall with the sweetest little bunny jumper that I might just have to make for Ilse, even though she’s getting a cardigan too. There were lots of tiny baby knits, so small that I couldn’t quite remember my own children being that size, and adult ones in undyed shades of greys and browns and duns. In fact, it was the undyed yarns that Mother and I liked best, and we walked from stall to stall just looking and admiring. One sold nothing but natural white wool, and standing there there seemed no need for any other colour, until I turned around and saw the rainbow displays behind me.

However, it is Ben and Ilse’s turn to have new knits this year, and so I shopped with their choices in mind. Ilse, who had come with us, chose a royal blue-purple aran for her cardigan, and some painted wooden buttons to match, whereas I picked out a sea-green blue for my boy who suits pastels so well. John has no need for a new knit, and I’ve decided to rip out a cream aran sweater of mine and reknit it in a brand new pattern. Three jumpers is about right for a winter’s knitting, and I am eager to get started.

There was another colour that came home with me, despite all my expectations. Ada brought my spinning wheel over last week, all serviced and ready to work, and I needed to dive in. There are two Jacob’s fleeces waiting to be washed and carded and spun: enough to keep me spinning for a long while, I expect. But I wanted something simpler to get going with: something clean and combed and ready. I walked past stall after stall of roving in white and black and every shade that sheep are in between, meaning to come back and make my choice. And then, chatting to a spinner, I fell for her roving in the most glorious peacock blues. She gave me much encouragement and so as soon as we were home and the chicken was in the oven, I sat down at my wheel for the very first time and tried to spin. It’s very wonky, of course, this yarn that I’m producing, but such a gorgeous colour that I know I’ll overlook the thick bits and the bits with too much twist. I got a little better as I went on, and had another go today, trying to remember what I was taught in my lesson a month ago. Pull forward with the left hand, not back with the right. Move the yarn along the hooks to spread it along the bobbin. And, most importantly of all, stick to a pedal an inch.

I have no idea what I’m going to make from the yarn that this becomes. It might even lie in my basket until the spring, when the little knits begin again. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m spinning, and having fun, and have even put the first bit of raw fleece to soak. Soon it’ll be ready for carding, and by the time I finish with the peacock roving I’ll have little rolags of Jacob’s fleece to make into a yarn of sorts. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll have spun an even enough wool to knit my own fairisle jumper in the whites and caramels and chocolate browns of these lovely sheep. Right now, I’m just enjoying having a house full of wool again.

Banking it

Clearly two plus one does not always equal three. Take bank holidays, for instance: adding just one day to the weekend more than doubles the time off work. Everything that can closes down for the full three days, leaving Saturday curiously like Sunday, that lovely day of peace. And then the real Sunday comes, and then Monday which, with all the banks and shops and schools and factories shut down, is Sunday yet again. And three Sundays are worth much more than three of any other day, which makes the break far longer than just three turns upon the axis.

Add to that the fact that everything seems just that little bit easier in May and well – what are we to do but spend a lazy three days pottering around at home? Getting back into bed with the tea tray and a good book for just one extra hour. Helping Ilse with her latest project (involving tissue paper and a great deal of paste) before even thinking about the luncheon. Finding myself with an army of eager garden helpers, which dwindles to just one within five minutes, but which is still one more than I am used to. Getting round to some of the tasks I’ve been avoiding: repotting the tomatoes for the last time, lifting the netting off the peas to get at those marauding weeds – because it’s ten times more fun with two. Thanking John for doing the tasks I find heavy going, like cutting the hedges and mowing the lawn. Seeing a break from Ben’s revision become a carpentry session, at the end of which the hens have a new playground to get fit on.

Caught in this little time warp there is a chance to slow down, take stock, and get started on ventures new. Time to pair a pattern with some soft and variegated aran, and see a cabled bobble hat fly together in a swift row here, row there. Looking at my fast dwindling skeins of wool and choosing some to crochet into granny squares. Opening the cupboard with the fabric in and, with Fliss, choosing all the cottons for her quilt. Poring over design books together, and asking if she’s sure. Sitting and chatting while we snip away at old shirts and dresses, cutting squares two and a half inches wide for an Irish chain in washed out pinks and greens. And then, when we pause, finding that it’s only ten to three, and not quite time for tea.

There have been trips to the park, and to a friend’s to play. There’s been music practice, and preparation for exams, and learning lines for a school performance. There’s been a long letter from Meg, and one written in reply. A shop popping up in the shed, selling all manner of groceries at outrageous prices. A garden centre with a cafe and two keen delivery children scooting up and down the paths. Leisurely lunches which melt into leisurely teas. A bit of a tidy. A lot of sitting in the sun.

I’m half expecting to find that a whole month has gone by, while we were having our bank holiday weekend. We’ll go back to the real world and find that there’s a row of little absent Os in the school registers, that John’s desk at work is dusty. That Mrs P has been knocking at the door, and the children and I have missed our holiday by the sea. They go on forever, these bank holiday weekends, always giving more than seems quite possible. Soak it up, I say. Save it, store it, bank a bit of this for later. Because – believe it or not – it won’t go on forever.

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]

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]