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  • CarolJeffers

The Zen of Knitting

My grandmother taught me to knit when I was nine or ten. We sat side by side on her couch one summer. Her patience and wisdom were on full display as she did the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, listened to the Yankees ball game, worked on her own knitting project and I fumbled with long, scary sharp needles. Her delicate pink baby sweater was wonderful, the holes in my little yellow practice “square” were not.

Eventually, I got control of my number eight needles, and graduated to knitting scarves. I soon learned to purl, too, and had some fun alternating colors and textures in my adolescent projects. Once, I knit a navy blue “P” for a friend in high school who did not letter in his sport. My way of soothing away his disappointment. Not so sure of the wisdom in that.

I had some other well-intended knitting projects in high school inspired by the tales I’d heard about girls knitting Argyle socks for their boyfriends back in the day. So romantic, I thought. Such a wonderful way to show your love by putting so much time and work into such a difficult project. Too much for me. I could never do socks. Besides, my boyfriend would never wear Argyles. It was black socks only in the late 1960s.

But a sweater. Now that was different. A nice warm ski sweater. I got out my graph paper and colored in squares. I pictured a white band four inches wide across the chest with a geometric pattern of blue and gray. Yes, I could see it. A black wool sweater with the ski pattern standing out, but in a muted, tasteful way. I was excited that I figured out how to knit the ski pattern and that it was my own design. Surely if I could do that, I should be able to follow the instructions to make the pieces of the sweater—sleeves, front, back, turtleneck collar—and figure out how to stitch them all together.

A perfect project. Gene, for whom the sweater was intended, was a freshman without a car living on campus thirty miles away. I was a senior in high school with nothing much to do during the week, other than to knit away the hours until he could figure a way over to my house on the weekend.

I marched up to the old W.T. Grant’s at our local shopping center, excited to buy the skeins of black Coats and Clark tangle-proof pull-out yarn I would need. I read the instructions in the little pattern book. Read them again. Took a breath. Read them a third time, breaking them down step by step.

There was something about the “gauge” I knew I should understand, pay attention to, but didn’t. Oh well, just use the needles you have. Can’t worry about the size the pattern calls for. Or the number of stitches per inch. Keep going.

I kept going, even though the ribbing that was to form the cuffs of the sleeves didn’t look ribbed. Knit two, purl two, that’s what I did, I shouted at the pattern book. I know now that what I did was the “seed” stitch. Oh well, there were no holes. No harm.

Finish the three inches of “ribbing,” change needles to bigger size. How about number elevens. My favorites. The wooden needles my grandmother had given me.

Easier now. Knit a row, purl a row. The old stockinette pattern. I’m getting somewhere. Really doing this, making a sleeve. My confidence up, I approached the armhole, and was surprised to manage all the increasing and decreasing stitch procedures. The shape of an armhole was emerging.

I moved on to the front panel only to run into the same problem with the ribbing. Still no holes. No harm. So it was on to the body of the piece. Soon enough, it was time for the ski pattern, which came off without a hitch. Looks complicated, but simple enough to me. Go figure.

All the pieces done, time to sew everything together. Sew up the seam in the sleeve, set it into the armhole of the body. But why do the sleeves look like this? Maybe Gene won’t notice, I tell myself. He will be so taken with the geometric ski pattern that stands out, muted, tasteful against the black background.

Now the finishing touch. A turtleneck collar. I am too excited, too close to finishing the sweater. So what if I can’t decipher the instructions. I’ll just knit a separate piece and sew it on. Can’t wait for Gene to try it on.

I’m not sure if it was the look on his face or the way he held out his arms that told me that “gauge” thing might have been important. The sleeves, they drooped, they flounced. The sleeves looked like the ones on Jerry Seinfeld’s poofy shirt. I can fix this, I told him, undaunted.

Warm water, maybe it got a little too hot. Lay the sweater out on towels. Pat it into shape. Is that what the pattern book meant by “blocking?” Oh, but this is taking too long to dry. The dryer will shrink it, just what the sweater needs.

I pull it out. Why were the sleeves still long and poofy? When the rest of it was now a ten inch square?

Determined and apparently indomitable, I tell Gene I will make it up to him. I will fix everything. Back to W. T. Grant’s for more Coats and Clark tangle-proof pull-out yarn. Forest green this time. A bit of gold. Still have enough white for the background of the new geometric ski pattern I would make.

I start again. New colors, but same needles. Same pattern book. Ribbing perfect on one sleeve. Not so much on the other. And what’s this? Same poofy sleeves. Same disastrous turtleneck collar. Same look on Gene’s face. No dryer this time. Still unwearable.

I can’t say my knitting skills have improved over the last fifty-odd years. What has changed is my ability and willingness to recognize my limits. I stick to rectangles. I knit lots of baby blankets for newborns and afghans for newlyweds, a few scarves. Wisdom at last.

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