Thursday, January 13, 2011

Knitting is Small

For one thing, knitting rarely exceeds the dimensions of the human body, and we humans are pretty small.  Knitting usually covers even less space than that.  Half a body for a cardigan, a sixth of a body for a hat, a pair of socks or mittens.  So knitting is pretty small.

Large-scale knitting, like a sweater for an SUV, is automatically parodic, an ironic comment on the essential smallness of knitting.

The tools are small, light, and cheap.  Sticks made of wood or metal or plastic, sometimes connected by a plastic cable.  Yarn, no larger in diameter than a pencil and usually much smaller.  A few even tinier accessories like a tape measure, sewing-up needles, a small pair of scissors.  That’s it. 

And the motions are small, almost imperceptible tugs and twirls of a finger or wrist, repeated again and again.

There are only two of these motions called stitches:  knit and purl.  You can twist them around each other for cables, throw the yarn over your needle to make a lace eyelet, but once you know knit and purl, you know all there is to know about stitches.

Doesn’t take long to learn.  Twenty minutes to learn the knit stitch, twenty more to learn how to cast on, bind off, and purl.  Now you’re started.

Cast on, knit a row, purl a row, repeat.

But the number of repetitions—those are massive.  Hundreds of stitches repeated thousands of times.  Something prayerful about those tiny motions, over and over again, like turning a prayer wheel or saying a rosary.

Over a lifetime of knitting, millions of stitches, and more repetitions accumulate:  scores of sweaters, hundreds of socks, thousands of cast-ons and bind-offs, and you begin to understand how knitting works.

How it is small but elegant.  Like no other craft, knitting follows the contours of the body.  Its discipline is kinetic, following the arch of the foot, the clamp of the thumb against the palm, the raising and lowering of an arm, the narrowing of a waist, broadening at the shoulders. 

Knitting follows the soft contours around a baby’s chin as well as it traces the girth of a fisherman’s torso.  Unlike tailoring that fits a flat textile to human curves, knitting produces a three-dimensional, curved fabric that stretches and clings, expands and contracts.

It takes decades of practice, watching and learning from the skills of other knitters to become a good knitter, a real knitter.   

There’s nothing to it.   

But I'll never get to the end of it. 

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Art is Everywhere

Today at the Birmingham fiber guild meeting, we talked about keeping journals for fiber art work.  One very gifted weaver commented that she never thought about her weaving logs as a journal; others said they never thought of keeping a record of their knitting, even though they kept other kinds of journals. 

Some of us are meticulous, using a standard format to record every project, dating and measuring each finished product, while others (like me) reach for the nearest notebook when inspiration strikes, open to a random page, and sketch, paste, write, figure.  I have index cards, notes on the backs of envelopes and receipts, all kinds of little bits of paper tucked into my fiber journals.  That’s how I know that I’m a non-linear person to the max.

But we are all artists.  It took me a long time to realize that “art is made by ordinary people,” as Ted Ormond and David Bayles write in their invaluable book, Art and Fear.
I had grown up with a skewed idea about art and artists, an idea that prevented me from accessing my creativity for a long time.

Like many conservative, well-educated midwesterners in the fifties and sixties, my parents respected art and artists, especially old masters like Shakespeare, Rembrandt, and Michelangelo.  But they became very uncomfortable around twentieth-century art like the Socialist murals of Diego Rivera in the Detroit Art Institute, and they assumed that artists live chaotic lives filled with substance abuse, unstable relationships, and even insanity.  As a child, I was presented with a double-bind:  art is admirable and worthy of veneration, but only if it has been made by people a long time ago and safely housed in a museum for at least a hundred years.

Now I know that art is everywhere. 

The occasions for it and examples of it are everywhere.  Today at the guild meeting I saw beautiful hand-woven scarves, I saw women knitting beautiful socks, I looked at an artist’s journals containing scores of visually striking compositions.  And all of these women look just like me, and pass unremarked at the mall or the grocery store.  Except that we all have a kind of glow when we’re making beautiful things. 

One of my resolutions this year is to keep art alive in my life and introduce it in a place I’ve been afraid to let it out.  For me, that’s my office at the college where I teach.  This year, I resolve to make my work environment more colorful, more inspiring. 

How do you personalize your work space?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Monday, January 3, 2011

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?