Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Knitted in Your Mother’s Womb

What mortal hand can e're untie
The filial band that knits me to thy rugged strand.   
Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 – The Lay of the Last Minstrel

Little Owl cardigan for my grandniece
Is it the Book of Psalms or the Book of Wisdom in which we hear that our creator God knew us as we were being knit in our mother’s womb? Could it be that our God is a knitter? That may be more than a bit of a stretch. But knitting is an apt image of the work of creation – a slow and deliberate effort of the benign artist. Someone once said that “The act of creating is all we know of God.” When we create something with our own hands, out of our own imagination, from our own design – written, painted, sculpted, woven, knitted, embroidered, molded, carved, sewn, constructed, drawn, etc. – we experience the vital creative function of the divine.
Silk and wool vareigated lace weight
A few weeks ago I posted some pictures of knitted lace shawls, the making of which has become a passion of mine. That some of my life be dedicated to the creation of something beautiful, whatever the art form, is a necessity for me. Handwork of many kinds especially knitting, quilting, and spinning fit as hand to glove into contemplative life. This is true of any effort at artistic creation. Designing a garden, arranging flowers, as  well as any and all of the visual and creative arts fit the life of prayer and serve it well. Each is a creative, slow, repetitious, contemplative process that can remove us from the noise and distraction of 21st century life in the first world.

Handspun merino wool lace weight knit-on edge
Needlework is something practically bred in the bone of my history. I was urrounded by a family and a neighborhood dominated by talk of New York City’s garment industry. Sewing machine operators, sample and pattern makers, pressers were joined by my mother in her youthful pursuit of fashion design. My father would often survey his daughters gathered with their mother around the dinette table all absorbed in needle work of one kind or another and declare, “Another meeting the of the Idleness is Sin Club!” I do not remember being taught to crochet. I just seemed to have always been able to do it beginning with mini-items of clothing for Ginny Dolls of the 1950s. My mother started us in embroidery by handing us a scrap of white fabric, probably torn from an old sheet and stretched in a hoop, along with a sewing needle carrying colorful thread. She would say, “Draw a picture.” Thus we learned how to make a friend of that pesky needle.

Variegated wool sock weight with crochet edge
My mother introduced me to knitting when I was about ten years old but I was significantly helped along by a neighborhood friend a couple of years older who at least knew the knit and purl stitches. Mom’s help was limited. She could not follow written directions and made all of her gorgeous boucle tops via step-by step instructions at the local yarn store. I remember a white blouse with evenly spaced black jet hanging beads and another with a checkerboard motif highlighting the scoop neck. Every Brooklyn neighborhood had at least one yarn emporium in which a sorority of knitters filled chairs pushed up against walls bearing floor to ceiling shelves of  woolen fiber in a riot of color. In high school I decided to knit a real sweater for the first time. Mom was not encouraging and warned that she could not help me with directions. But the older sister of a friend promised I could do it under her guidance. The rest is history. Most of the people I have loved in my life received products of hasty needles performing in the rythym of the continental style of western European knitting.
I tell friends that if I sit in front of the TV without any needlework in my hands they can safely assume that I am dead tired. Years ago, when I began to find myself at many and various meetings, especially evening meetings following a long day of work, knitting came along to keep me attentive and awake. This seems counter intuitive but knitters universally report this phenomenon. We always have a simple project put aside as ‘meeting knitting”. This knitting also helps me to keep my mouth shut. There is also some truth in what Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, the author of At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Knit Too Much, declares: “...the number one reason knitters knit is because they are so smart that they need knitting to make boring things interesting. Knitters are so compellingly clever that they simply can't tolerate boredom. It takes more to engage and entertain this kind of human, and they need an outlet or they get into trouble… knitters just can't watch TV without doing something else. Knitters just can't wait in line, knitters just can't sit waiting at the doctor's office. Knitters need knitting to add a layer of interest in other, less constructive ways.”

Natural handspun lace weight
Having tired of sweaters, hats, socks, Afghans, plain shawls, and baby attire I tried lace knitting a few years ago. I failed abysmally when following written directions and was told, “You just must learn to read charts.” It is consoling that at my age I could, with discipline and attention, pick up a new skill. So now I am enchanted by knitted lace. The treasures of antique patterns from European countries are being published, particularly those of the British Isles and Estonia. Yes, lace is knitted. What we call Belgian lace is not knitted. It is woven with intertwining threads each one on its own bobbin. But while women of the Low Countries and France were producing this lace, women in Spain and Ireland were creating wedding ring shawls, lace knitted in such fine yarn that the entire thickness of a shawl could be gathered and run through a wedding ring. Interestingly the history of knitting reveals that it probably originated in the Middle East and that Muslims brought the craft to Europe around the 10th century.
Today knitting has enjoyed a great revival, especially in its appeal to the young, and not just women. Taught one of my own sons how to knit as we enjoyed a pre-concert picnic on the great lawn of Tanglewood, the Bershires summer home of the Boston Symphony, in Massachusetts. Later he said, “Mom, now I know why you love doing this.”

(everything knitters want to know about knitting and a zillion patterns)  (history)

Book:    No Idle Hands: The Social History of Knitting by Anne L. MacDonald



Garpu said...

Gorgeous! You're on Ravelry, too? I'm garpu there.

Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC said...

Thank you, Hildegard. What beautiful work is wrought at your hand! I finally gave in and bought a drop spindle. I love spinning while listening to podcasts. We are overdue for tea and yarnwork. Let's knit together before too long.
Br. Bernard Delcourt, OHC