I went into a knitting shop yesterday to get some yarn. I love these shops, the colours ranged along the walls, yarn wound into balls, yarn twisted into skeins. There was no scent in this shop, which struck me at once. In the old knitting shops, there was always a faint aroma of greasy wool, possibly from the “natural” yarns that would be knitted up into winter jumpers for camping trips. The lanolin kept the garment more or less waterproof. On the counter was a puzzling object – a square with a peg in each corner. Just inside the door was a table where several women and a man sat knitting while they chatted about getting avocado trees to fruit in Melbourne. The German knitter (winding wool around needle with her left hand, in the Continental style) said it was possible and described how she did it.
As I walked around the shop, vaguely listening in to the conversation, I thought about my mother, who used to sit down on the sofa every night and knit. At her feet stood her fat knitting bag, from which a length of yarn twitched its way up to her swiftly stabbing needle and into the cloth that folded on her lap as it grew. She rested her working needle in the crook of her right thumb and finger. That was how she taught me to knit. Letting it rest there keeps the needle from dropping out of the stitches when you start a new row. I noticed, when watching the opening scenes of “Truth”, that Cate Blanchett knits this way, her working needle stable and happy in the crook of her thumb. Lots of new knitters let the working needle fall while they wind the wool to form a new stitch. I have to control an inward wince whenever I see it. I remember vividly the impatience I felt as a child of eight when my mother taught me to knit and made me hold the needle the way she did. I remember struggling to stretch my finger to wind the wool around the needle, how I used to pull a face of effort. I remember figuring out that my finger had to be close enough to the tip of the needle to wind with ease while not being so close that my needle would fall out of its resting place.
Sitting on the sofa night after night, my mother created jumpers, cardigans, baby shawls, booties and layettes. I used to help her when she did cable patterns. I loved using the cable needle, loved watching the symmetrical twists emerge, the little sleight of hand when you scoop up two or three or four stitches with a cable needle and park them on the front of the work or the back while you knit the next few, then pick them up and knit them off the cable needle. I usually did the front and back of the garment while my mother knitted the sleeves, which required more shaping.
One of the things I lost when I got my eye condition was the ability to knit. I tried two winters ago, giving way to a horrible itch to work with yarn again, and kept dropping stitches. It drove me mad. Hardly a row went by when I didn’t drop a stitch.
So there I was, back in a knitting shop, with that horrible itch to work with yarn again, only this time, I will crochet and make a simple scarf. I haven’t made a scarf since I was eight. But a scarf is about all I can do now, and it has to be crochet, which I think will be easier. I can hold the hook close to my eyes and watch it dip in and out of the loops of yarn.
I bought a skein of pink – a lamb’s wool and cotton mix. The shop-owner, a needle-thin woman with fluffy hair, untwisted the skein and placed it on the square with the pegs. She attached the end to a nearby gadget. At once the square stated spinning and the gadget started whirring as it wound the yarn into a ball. How miraculous it was!
Then I got home and went hunting for my crochet hook, the one I used to pick up dropped stitches. I was sure I had it. I’d had it since I was a young woman, using it always for that one purpose. As I searched my sewing box and every place I could think of, a horrible suspicion gripped me. When I got the last itch to work with yarn, I bought up hundreds of dollars of yarn and needles of every size I was likely to use. I went absolutely crazy. But I couldn’t use any of it, so I gave it all to a friend and her mother. When I couldn’t find my crochet hook, I realised I must have given it to Liz along with all the other knitting things. I’ll have to buy another.
By the way, when my mother started my glory box, back when I was sixteen, the first thing she put in it was a full set of knitting needles.