My mother was a knitter. I remember her spending hours sitting in a recliner, knitting. I remember I watched, trying to make sense what she was doing with the needles. I couldn’t understand it from the other side… it was a mystery. I remember she carried big quilted knitting bags with whatever project she was working on tucked inside, with needles and yarn and stitch markers, and often a bottle of booze tucked in among the notions. When we needed something, she would tell us, “just let me finish this row.” I remember sitting with my arms out until they ached, holding a skein of yarn while she wound it, acting as an impromptu swift. She knitted things for herself, and things for my older siblings, but she never knitted anything for me or my younger brother… not so much as a pair of socks.
My mother never taught me to knit. I borrowed a copy of Vogue Knitting from her, and between that and the internet, I taught myself. The first thing I knitted was a scarf and some mittens for my friend Teri. Since then, I’ve knitted scarves, gloves, socks, bags, afghans, and shawls.
But I’ve never completed a sweater.
Oh, I’ve started sweaters. Well, I’ve started a sweater. It was about twelve years ago. It’s still in my closet, half-finished. But I decided a few days ago to start knitting another sweater.
You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just finish the first sweater. Well, knitting a piece of clothing isn’t just about having the piece of clothing. Buying the piece of clothing, even from a fairly nice store, costs less than just the yarn for a sweater (it takes a lot… in between a thousand yards and two thousand yards for most adult-size sweaters), and if you add in the hours and hours and hours of work that goes into making a sweater and each hand-knit one costs hundreds of dollars.
You knit a sweater for the experience of knitting it. Going back to a twelve year old sweater would take too much math and research to figure out where I was when I stopped. I’m not saying that I will never go back to it… I’m just saying that it’s not something I’m doing right now. Because right now, I want to knit a sweater.
Knitting a sweater isn’t for everyone. It’s a commitment. You are deciding to create a garment out of string; to build the fabric to order, stitch by painstaking stitch, and it’s a lot of stitches. At a hundred and ten stitches per row, and at around twenty-five rows, I have knitted thousands of stitches and have only worked up around four inches of one piece of the sweater. Even the simplest sweater pattern must be paid attention; the shaping is done as you go, so increasing and decreasing must be done as written in order to avoid a strangely-shaped end product. You will work until your joints ache, until your forearms are sore. You will work until your elbows hurt, and you will find that for hours of work, you have only powered through a few inches, or less. Your fingers will burn and might swell. And you will bind off only to realize that you have two or three more pieces of the sweater to make.
Depending on the fiber that you use, prolonged contact with it, the sustained friction might make your hands feel hot and dry, or it might make your hands feel strange and greasy.
You will make mistakes, and you will have to correct them. You’ll have to, because it will be beyond imagining that you could put in that much work on one thing and have it come out as anything less than the best you can do.
The knitting that you will be doing will, for the bulk of sweaters, be a lot of stockinette stitch. This is the most boring of all of the knitting… a row of knit, turn, a row of purl. If you’re lucky you might get to knit a cable or two, but most of the sweater will just be stockinette. The amount of very dull knitting that has to be done in order to complete a sweater is soul-crushing; unlike socks and gloves which require quite a lot of shaping and sometimes even lace, most of your sweater will be large, plain panels.
You will become demoralized. You will stop enjoying knitting. You will wish that you could do something, anything else… anything that isn’t knitting. You will work on it anyway, because you will feel guilty for not making progress on the sweater. You will start to carry it with you everywhere, just in case a bit of a wait for an appointment, or a bus ride, might give you the opportunity to knock out a few rows.
When you finish pieces of the sweater, you will be suspicious of them. You might fail completely to imagine them coming together to make something wearable; they may seem twisted and rolled and unidentifiable when you’re done with them. But you’ll keep going, because what else are you going to do? You just trust that the whole thing will block out correctly and that the strange pieces can reasonably be assembled into a sweater.
You will come to hate your sweater. You might consider throwing it away. Then you will realize that you’re handling well over a hundred dollars worth of wool, and you will bend your head back to your work, sitting in silence, the ends of your needles making that constant click-click noise.
But once you’re done, you’ll block out the pieces, and you’ll sew them together, and you’ll do whatever finishing work needs to be done. And you’ll put it on, and you’ll wear it out, and someone will say, because your hand-knit sweater will look somehow different from manufactured sweaters, and you’ll look at them and you’ll say, “I made it.”
And those people will look at you like you’re a goddamn wizard.
Because you just used two sticks to turn a piece of string into a sweater.