The BT Winter 14 lookbook featured our first knitting-inspired essay. Writer Sarah Pope of Portland, OR, penned this beautiful piece about the passage of knitting from one generation to the next. In case you missed it, I’m re-posting the essay below. I hope you enjoy! – Jared
Essay by Sarah Pope; Images by Jared Flood
Knitters’ history begins in the cold, with mornings of snapping frost, fire in the hearth, breath smoking in the chill air, fingers numbly fumbling through the first chores of the day. Animals tamed and tended meant warmth in our ancestral crofts—wool on the doorstep to spin and fashion into cloth that might mantle the thin flame of our human heat. Knitting meant and still means a measure of comfort against the musts of the winter outdoors: ice to break on the water trough, firewood to split, nets to haul from the winter waves, provisions to fetch home.
Personal knitting histories tend to spring from the cold months, too. Winter is the time to gather the clan, to snug loved ones closer, to wrap them in family lore and craft. We light the long dark with stories and music, with cider and soup and bread hot and fragrant from the oven, with candles on the windowsills, with color wherever we can find it—plucked from the hedges, forced from winter-blooming bulbs, wound into bright balls and heaped in a basket beside a favorite chair. Winter is the time to draw an eager child into the lap, to curl her fingers around the smooth wooden needles, to guide those first clumsy thrusts of tip through loop and catch and coax and whoops! try again.
This is how I began—the first of three beginnings before the craft caught my heart and clutched it for good—nestled against my grandmother in her blue chair in a house on a hill in the Connecticut woods, the winter I was nine. Granny was not the knitting grandmother of popular imagination, all ample lap and sugar cookies beyond the pointy sticks. She had no permanent wave, no gold-plated baubles, no lipstick or sweater sets or collection of porcelain angels. Granny was boldly original. She was devoted to modern design. She’d been to art school with the Eameses and Eero Saarinen and Harry Bertoia. Her house itself was a sculpture, a constellation of brightly painted pods cantilevered off a knoll and connected by sloping corrugated tunnels with carpet runners the orange of kabocha squash. She was fearless and opinionated about color—about everything, really. Her knitting bespoke her taste for clean shapes and simple but effective construction—garter-stitch Jaeger jackets for my grandfather, fine-gauge vests with Aran patterning, cross-front sweaters for her newborn grandchildren (orange for the girls, never pink), whole families of densely knit overmitts with vertical stripes. New England raised, Granny knew the worth of knitting as necessary protection against the elements. But her craft always served her family in taking to the frozen outdoors for pleasure, too.
The Connecticut winter was a revelation to a child born to the drizzly evergreen of the coastal Northwest. I saw snow on skiing trips and in rare flurries deemed menacing enough to close school and commerce on our little island, so the very fact of it on the ground kindled in me a holiday high-heartedness. The bare trees were sky-raking sculptures with names that delighted my tongue—pignut, butternut, shagbark, mockernut, hornbeam, chinkapin—and if I watched patiently from the great glass alcove I might spy wild turkeys, deer, a fox, even a bobcat going about the business of survival amongst them. Flashes of scarlet and sky blue lit the woods—a cardinal, a jay, outlandishly vivid birds we didn’t have at home. Such wonders demanded bundling into woolen layers and bounding out for a closer look. We tramped through the snow-covered garden, following the tracks of the turkeys and the dainty prints of the deer. Granny had appointed herself caretaker of every tree in the village, so we made the rounds to the venerable giants she watched for signs of disease and the tender saplings that might need insulation around the roots. Best of all, we followed the old railroad to the base of the slope where the ski jumpers came hurtling off Satre Hill, melding with the sky, soaring motionless as albatrosses and then touching gracefully down.
Back indoors, we hung mittens and hats sodden from snowballs to drip on the flagstones. We warmed ourselves with tea and a crackling fire. And Granny brought forth a ball of russet wool and a short pair of wooden straights and beckoned me near. Her hands were surprisingly sturdy for a small woman’s—hands that had raced sailboats and driven army trucks and turned numberless spadesful of double-dug garden earth—and now they deftly tensioned the yarn around my fingers and led my hands through the slow dance of finger tips and needle tips that dipped up loop after loop, each cunningly interlocked with its neighbor. Each day of our visit I worked a few more rows, finally producing a wobbly quadrangle of tipsy stitches, and then a second in cadet blue, this time with a purl side and fewer beginner’s singularities. Granny sewed up my little swatches, cinched the ends, and stuffed them with white fluff—a pair of soft toys for my kittens.
This winter day it is as if that first ball of wool has rolled out of my grandmother’s chair and across the floor, across the country, across twenty-five years. I take my small daughter into my lap. My mouth is full of her curls as I cast on twenty stitches of good rustic sheep’s wool. She cannot wait patiently for her try; her little fingers pull more working yarn from the cake we wound together, dart out to touch the needle as it ducks amongst the strands. Her questions tumble and frisk like spring lambs. I anchor the new row with a few stitches, and then with her native confidence she takes the needles. Her grip is natural, neither tight nor tentative. We take in turns the work of needle holder and wool thrower so she doesn’t have to coordinate all the motions. We begin a swatch. As my new knitter grows dexterous enough to manage the needles alone, this scrap of fabric will grow into a richly cabled pullover for her father. It will warm him when he takes her to school on his bicycle on frosty mornings. Perhaps I’ll knit a matching one in miniature. It will take all winter, but we know how to make the most of the season.
Sarah Pope is a writer, knitter, and wool lover based in Portland, Oregon. She logs her knitting adventures at whistlinggirlknits.com.