I have two crafts that I love: cross-stitch and knitting.
Years ago I visited one of my favorite places in the world, Wintherthur, and marveled at a corner nook filled with antique samplers. I was already producing samplers of my own and I loved the process. The counting, the way the design gradually appears on the linen, the threads, and the satisfaction. Of course, being CDO I am quite fanatical that the back of the design be perfect, either unstitching entire swaths or performing detailed surgery just to make sure that each thread is properly tucked under the stitches without knots or carried threads. Once, when I took some pieces to be framed, the gentleman helping me actually turned the design upside down; he thought that the reverse was the actual design!
As much as I love to stitch, I have essentially mastered the craft. I love it, the rhythm of the stitches, threading the needles (I can thread a needle on a bumpy bus ride), carefully laying the threads so that they’re flat and symmetrical. But it takes time and, unless you give away your work, your finished pieces start to accumulate, you run out of wall space, and I am one who can have too many pillows.
I needed a new craft that would present a skill challenge and keep me engaged. I just didn’t know what it would be. It wasn’t stamping or card making, it wasn’t embroidery, and it wasn’t painting or sewing. I wasn’t sure what it would be.
Then I took a weekend visit to the house of my friends Mike and Michael in West Virginia. Mike was hard at work on a scarf for his mother. As the weekend wore on I became more fascinated with what he was doing. He was moving fast, for one thing, and manipulating these two needles and creating a lovely product. It was a soft merino wool and felt soft and soothing to the touch. By the end of the weekend it must have grown another foot in length. And he picked it up any time he had a moment: in the car, watching television, sitting around chatting, between house chores.
Some months later, after Mike had produced sweaters, vests, socks, mittens, and gods know what else, I asked if he would be willing to make me a shawl—since my office, at the time, was a walk-in ‘fridge. He was more than willing, but as he started asking me what I wanted I thought, “Why don’t you learn to fish, Scorch? Learn how to knit!”
And learn I did. I got together with my friend Ruth who explained that she learned to knit when she was about four. “I’m from the English countryside,” she explained. “That’s what we do.” And so she brought out the wood needles on which she learned to knit and set about teaching me. Needless to say, I felt like I was working with my feet, and it looked as much. But the tea and cookies made the process bearable and when Ruth left I worried that I would forget everything that she taught me that afternoon. Now I would just have to practice.
Thank goodness for YouTube. For when I forgot how to cast on it saved my life—and it also introduced me to the continental method of knitting which was not only more intuitive to me, but was much faster. It wasn’t easy; the stitches were wonky and looked bad. But Mike insisted that I stay with it: “It will happen,” he said. So I worked on row after row of knitting and purling and, before you know it, it was happening! The stitches were even, I had developed a rhythm. I bought a book—perhaps it would help if I was actually making something.
And I made my first pot-holder—with two colors to boot! I went on to make scarves, and bags, and washcloths. I was learning new stitches, patterns, and making gifts for friends as the same time. It was fun and relaxing. And it was social! I discovered Ravelry, made knitting buds across the country, and learned more and more about the craft. And while I stayed with smaller projects, I was getting quite good at the mechanics.
As is my wont, I began to investigate the socioeconomic approaches to knitting—historically and in the present. There was also a feminist empowerment about it. And it crossed the gender lines. There are a lot of male knitters out there, and all of them push back against the unfair feminized stereotype that a lot of people adopt without so much a thought. Particularly since knitting had its start within the male trade guilds in the Middle Ages. And that was another thing: the largely American colonial history that attracted me to American cross stitch was matched by knitting’s rich historical timeline. There is something about being one person to carry on a time-worn art that means so much to me.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in July knitting became a valued sanity anchor. Waiting, testing, doctor’s appointments, travel to and from—they were all opportunities to carry along my project bag and pass the time. But it did more than just pass the time, it focused me and forced me to be pragmatic. The one time I neglected to bring an additional ball of yarn with me was the time that I found myself obsessing over my diagnosis; repeatedly welling up in the waiting room and in real danger of having been taken over by the sheer force of this disease and everything that came along with it. I was losing it. Although I was not cognizant of it in the weeks that proceeded that day, knitting, the craft I did for sheer enjoyment, had become an anchor in a troubled sea. It was the thing that kept me still and prevented me from drifting away from the rational reality of the moment to the unmitigated fear of the future.
And, as it turns out, I’m not the only one. I’ll talk more about that in the next installment of “The Anchor.”