When I was nine years old, I was obsessed with an obscure corner in the Detroit Institute of Arts. In a tiny gallery on the basement level, far from the harsh glare of sunlight, I found a display of needlework made in seventeenth-century Spain. Pressing my nose to the glass, I loved to study the meticulous loops, the tiny knots, the satin-stitched petals and delicate chain-stitched stamens in white threads on fine white linen, the long stockings knitted in silk at a gauge of at least thirty stitches to the inch. Thousands of stitches, hundreds of hours.
Later, in college I discovered that these impossibly delicate, almost invisible stitches were made by privileged matrons, spinsters or widows of imperial Spain, women relieved of mundane duties like laundry, housecleaning, and cooking by a fleet of servants. When powerful men were getting educations and conducting wars, their sisters and mothers passed the long hours with meticulous, time-consuming needlework, delicate luxuries for bridal trousseaus and infant layettes. These privileged ladies had hours, weeks, years to fill, and only a few activities to fill them with—music, reading, writing letters, and needlework. One member of their group would read from poetry or a popular romance while the others quietly stitched away.
Today, we divide our lives into discreet units—the half-hour television show, the ten-minute coffee break. We expect answers at the click of a keyboard. We learn of events on the other side of the globe seconds after they occur. But once in a while, we get a chance to tap into that older experience of time as a kind of quiet pool that expands around us as we enter its depths. At the end of a workday, when the dishes are loaded in the dishwasher and the laundry is folded and put away, I sit down for a half-hour to knit, and time stills. I count rows and pattern repeats rather then minutes. My heart rate slows as my hands and eyes focus on the next stitch, the next crossed loop. As I get into the rhythm, time settles, like the surface of water after a pebble’s dive.
This week, during my Spring Break, I join a group of knitters who are designing and knitting jackets following Barbara Walker’s top-down method. As we gather around our hostess’s table decorated for St. Patrick’s Day, in the warm aroma of corned-beef wafting from the kitchen, our jokes and small talk gradually give way to periods of silence. We are finding our places, picking up the thread of our progress.
Bright early-spring sun pours into the room through lace curtains. We knit contently. The conversation slows, and then, in softened voices, slow-paced, the stories emerge, the ones that are deepest and most urgent, the stories we hold in our hearts, most important but most difficult to share. We are quiet in our sympathy. There’s no rush to comment or offer solutions. We knit one stitch after another, together but separately, and we listen and feel together another’s trouble.
After a couple of hours, one by one, we fold up our work and wish each other farewell, not because we’re watching a clock, but because we seem to arrive collectively at a moment of closure. I don’t check the time until I’m back at my car, back to the twenty-first century world of digital displays of minute and seconds.
Who knows what stories were shared on those sun-drenched afternoons in Barcelona or Seville, what tales of wars or shipwrecks, of dropsy or St. Vitus’ Dance, what recipes, what scandals? Did the Spanish ladies pause one afternoon to gaze at their completed masterpieces, the stockings and handkerchiefs, nightcaps and collars? Did they tuck each item into a trunk with lavender and their hopes for a young couple’s long and happy life? Little did they know that their work would travel far from their hands to unfurl across the centuries, the long, patient strands of nameless women who had all the time in the world on their hands, to inspire a little girl growing up in the Motor City searching for something old, something strange and beautiful as her dreams.