It’s been a long, drawn-out winter for Alabama. The trees in the woods behind my house are stripped down to their architecture—all gray verticals and lichen-spotted diagonals. It’s quiet. Anna’s at the beach with her friends, Kieran and David have driven to Oxford, Mississippi to visit Faulkner sites, and I’m home alone.
I’m reading a favorite book. My copy of Knitter’s Almanac must be at least twenty years old. There’s a whole archeology of signs in it. An address in Fort Collins penciled into the flyleaf tells me that I was living in Colorado, in graduate school, when I first owned it, but beneath the address is one of Anna’s two-year-old scrawls from when she systematically marked every book in our house in Alabama. Stuck to the back cover is a heart stamp that dates from a long-ago Valentine’s Day gone a bit wild.
The price on the back is $2.95. On the back pages, a “Catalog of Selected Dover Books in All Fields of Interest” lists Dover’s eclectic collection at $3.00 or less, including Enrico Fermi’s THERMODYNAMICS, TEN BOOKS ON ARCHITECTURE by Vetruvius, and CUT & FOLD EXTRATERRESTRIAL INVADERS THAT FLY by M. Grater.
I’ve opened my copy countless times in the past twenty years, most often to find the classic Practically Seamless Baby Sweater, the one that suits every baby, and gladdens the heart of every expectant mother. This time, I’ve decided to really read the Almanac and learn what I can from it.
I’ve been knitting since I was a teenager, designing my own sweaters since college when I had no time to shop for patterns. Knitting has accompanied me through graduate school, my first college teaching job in Wisconsin, through divorce, remarriage, the birth and growing up of my children, and nursing my mother through a long illness to her death. Knitting has introduced me to dear friends and to wonderful yarn stores all over the world. Knitting helps me to appreciate the work of human hands. Knitting is a meditative practice and a delight that never fails. I hold my knitting in my hands, but my knitting also holds me together, focusing me in the present moment, connecting me to the stitches I’ve made in the past, to the stitches I will make in the future, as I plan my next project, the one that will include none of the mistakes I’ve made before or the ones I’m making now.
My eye is always distracted by the hand-knit garment in a room. Every issue of a new knitting magazine contains a project I can’t wait to try in a new yarn that looks rich and lustrous. I’m always ready to believe the next scarf, the next sweater, will be the perfect one, and even though it never is quite perfect, each one gets a little bit better than the one before.
I’m starting in the beginning, with January, when Elizabeth Zimmermann’s project is an Aran Sweater. She writes, “most Aran patterns are forms of cable, and all Aran sweaters contain several different ones.” Cables—how appropriate for January, those monochrome arches and angles, the caves of a honeycomb stitch, the knotty roughage of moss stitch climbing slowly up the side of a heavy sweater fit for “keeping out the wind,” as EZ says.
Cables that snake and wind and twist across the landscape of a sweater create a fabric of deep texture, a texture deep enough to bury a fingertip in, deeper than any other fabric texture I can think of.
When I first learned to make a cable twist by holding stitches, knitting those behind them, then knitting the held stitches, I felt as if I’d seen through a magician’s trick. What seem to be coiled ropes on the surface of a sweater were really twists on the surface—the back was flat. It was like finding out that the actor hanging by his thumbs from the roof of a skyscraper was just crawling on his stomach along a painted flat making convincing grimacing expressions. But the magic returns when I step away from my cable stitches and see how they seem to climb and twist across the surface of the garment.
“I have heard that the Aran family-patterns helped to identify the man washed up drowned. A sobering thought,” writes EZ. Whether or not that legend is true, cable patterns seem connected to hard lives, working fishermen’s lives, from Ireland’s western islands to Brittany, wherever cable patterns are found, even in the Baltic and Mediterranean.
Covering one’s torso with twisted ropes seems almost shamanistic for a sailor, as if the knitted cables could hold one together in a storm.
Although cabling uses up almost twice as much yarn as flat knitting, the twists and floats create air pockets, an insulated, double-thick fabric. Even a fine yarn could be cabled and twisted into a thick, padded garment. And once she (or he, since fishermen are reknowned knitters) started introducing twists and cables, intricate patterns evolved. And the patterns become metaphors: blackberries, honeycombs, chains, fishtraps, waves, ropes, the garment a kind of poem whose language is the stitch taken out of its sequence and picked up later, in a different place.
Not all cables convey the “perturable toughness” of the cables in Shakespeare’a metaphor for friendship. In fact, a fat cable knitted in a soft merino or cashmere, like those in Patricia Robert’s sweaters of the 1980’s, creates a sensuous rhythm of compression and release, soft puffs and squeezes of lush fiber. So, it’s all in the nature of the fiber, the needle size, and of course, the way we interpret a technique.
I’ve been experimenting with cables and searching through my pattern books, swatching with my chosen yarn in 5-ply Rittenhouse Merino by Manos, hand-dyed in Uruguay. My yarn is a deep teal blue, because I remember a teal-blue Aran sweater one of my high-school students was wearing in 1985, and I’ve always wanted an Aran sweater that color. But my sweater won’t be a traditional Aran, I’ve decided. I’m going to cluster the cables at the top of the bodice like a yoke, and release their tension below the bustline for an A-line profile, better suited to my pear-shaped figure.
This afternoon I passed through Walmart’s garden section, looking for a larger pot for a root-bound ivy. Passing the seed display, I saw an elderly man in a fawn-colored cabled cardigan fanning through an array of seed envelopes, selecting carefully the summer’s tomatoes, melons and peppers. In this bare-bones month, he sees beyond appearances to the time when the tips of these grey branches will lighten and tightly wrapped buds will open.
Let me check—yes, that was a red-bud on that branch deep in the woods. Compression and release—the rhythm of the year.
What knitting project are you planning for 2011?
What knitting project are you planning for 2011?