Knit as if Your Life Depends Upon it

It’s been decades since I took my first knitting class at a Redding craft store that no longer exists. I was clumsy, far from a natural, although I did manage to learn to knit hats from one simple pattern. It was all knitting. No purling, which is just another knitting stitch, only kind of backward and awkward, if you ask me. The truth is, I didn’t want to learn to purl. It looked too difficult. Besides, I was OK with just the knit stitch. Knit, knit, knit, knit. I knit up a storm and gave away lots of hats that year. I’m not a perfectionist knitter, but rather the kind of that’ll-do knitter who believes that buttons, patches and embroidery thread were made to cover knitting mistakes.

Once, I knit an entire hat in one sitting out of pure maternal worry while my daughter was in surgery for a broken foot that required screws to hold everything together. After that, I really didn’t see the point in knitting anymore, so I quit.

The truth is, despite what you might guess about me, I’m kind of a quitter at heart. I’ve quit two marriages. I quit that conversational Italian class at Shasta College more than 25 years ago because I just couldn’t keep up, and I quit the Shasta College welding course when it started getting too technical. I quit the swimming class at the YMCA that I hoped would turn me into a confident, graceful swimmer because I couldn’t handle what the chlorine was doing to my skin and hair.

Even so, I’ve always admired others’ knitted and crocheted handiwork, such as friend Judy’s adorable hat she knitted for my first grandchild, and then, I cannot believe this, but she knitted a second hat after he outgrew that first hat, because my daughter-in-law loved that hat so much.

I felt kind of guilty passing on that second-hat request to Judy, because what I know now is that while knitting one hat is a labor of love, knitting a second duplicate hat is just unbridled labor. But I also felt guilty that my friend knit my grandchild’s hat, and I – the grandmother – didn’t. Judy was like a surrogate-grandmother knitter, someone who’d hung in there with learning to knit all those years, while I was a knitting dropout who couldn’t remember enough to knit her first grandchild a basic hat. What can you expect from a knitting quitter?

But before my latest granddaughter’s birth, I asked Judy to coach me in making another one of those same multi-colored little hats for the latest baby, probably my last grandchild. It turned out just OK, but I felt proud to have knitted a hat for my new granddaughter. Then I put away the knitting needles and had no plans to get them out ever again.

I got into knitting again by accident a few months ago when my youngest son came home from Europe during the holidays and stayed for more than a month. He mentioned in passing an interest in knitting, which gave me the idea of giving Joe knitting lessons while he was here as his Christmas gift. He suggested I join him. It would be more fun, and besides, we could help each other.

What we do for our kids; even grown-up ones.

That’s how we found ourselves at the cleverly named Ewe Baa Street Yarn on, yes, Yuba Street in Redding. Here’s the other thing about me, I mean, other than being a quitter: I’m more of a loner than a joiner. Even so, there Joe and I were at Carol’s Monday-evening knitting class around a table with other knitters of all different abilities. Joe was relieved that there was another guy in the class, a mechanic, as a matter of fact, which made his presence that much cooler; not that mechanics can’t be knitters …

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the class was very un-class-like, that it was basically a bunch of people knitting, sometimes talking, and sometimes the conversation was actually about knitting. But the best part was if you had trouble, Carol was there to help if things went wrong, or to answer questions, or show how to correct an emerging bad habit, such as the one I have of not keeping my work up closer to my needles.

Carol started Joe and me out on a simple hat pattern that was all knit, no purl. Perfect! She showed us the yarn section that would work best for our simple hats. I chose a bright blue. Joe chose gray. That first night we learned to make a slip knot, cast on and knit. It was a bit like riding a bike. My rusty knitting muscle memory kicked in a little bit, and I felt quasi-comfortable about knitting again. Although Joe and I were the new students, I did have a little more experience than Joe. It would be good for me to lend him a hand when he got stuck as we knitted in the evening by the fireplace. That’s what a good mother would do.

As I looked around the classroom table, I marveled at the complexity of the other students’ show-and-tells where they displayed gorgeous ponchos and sweaters and cowls and felted hat projects and items made from cashmere. The word “cashmere” sent my thrifty brain whirling at the thought of how much it might cost to complete some of those high-end projects. Hundreds of dollars! I decided they all must be geniuses to master such a difficult skill and attain such a level of knitting know-how. Clearly, these people were not knitting quitters.

Yes, I admired them, but I knew I was not them. In my heart, I knew that I’d never get beyond that basic knit stitch. I just didn’t have it in me. Sure, I’d whip out a few hats in time for Christmas, and then as soon as Joe was on the plane back for Europe, I’d quit the class. My work was done there.

But while Joe was still here, I made hats for my sisters and my two oldest grandchildren, which took about a week each. I showed my grandchildren the stitches, told them I’d stitched every one, just for them, and every stitch meant “I love you” so when they outgrew those precious hats, I wanted them back, so I could save them in case they ever had kids of their own one day, you know, for little knitted inheritances. No pressure.

Many evenings Joe and I sat around and knit, sometimes well after midnight, because believe it or not, knitting is addicting, once you start. There wasn’t a lot of conversation. In fact, often the most frequent words were, “Don’t talk to me. I’m counting.”

Joe proved a knitting savant. Soon, he passed up all I knew about knitting, which was still just the slip knot, casting on and the knit stitch. Often, he’d stop his knitting to come over and help me figure out how I’d dropped a stitch or whatever.

The day Joe flew home to Europe, he boarded the plane with one skein of black yarn, a set of plastic needles (FAA approved) and one goal: to have an entire scarf finished by the time he landed in Europe.

Joe models his scarf that he made from his own design.

He did it. Of course. Since then I’ve lost count of how many projects he’s completed, but his list includes hats for friends and family, and his own design of a bright orange knitted bag to hold his needles, and his scarf design with a little flap under which to tuck the scarf end, so it won’t fly away. He even made a hat that featured a pink handmade pompom for a friend’s Italian ski trip.

Joe talked me into staying on at the Redding class, so I’d still be there when he returned for a visit in the spring, when he’d also resume class again for a few weeks. I agreed, of course, because that’s the kind of selfless mother I am.

So I’ve attended classes without him. Each week during show-and-tell I show what I’m working on, and then show my fellow knitters photos on my cell phone of Joe’s latest knitting undertakings. His latest: a 52-inch wide blanket.

Basically, I was running out the knitting-class clock until Joe joined me in the spring. For a long-term busy-work project, I started in on a long scarf for my 5-year-old granddaughter – all knit stitches – to match the hat I made her. My plan was that if I finished that before Joe arrived, I’d start on another scarf – all knit stitches – for her brother to match his Christmas skullcap. My plan was one long knitting stall until Joe’s return. After that, I would quit. Mission accomplished.

Carol the knitting teacher had other ideas about my choice of knitting projects. She told me it was time to put down the children’s knitted scarves and learn to – gasp – purl. I don’t recall her asking me. She pretty much told me.

At first, purling was as difficult as I imagined. It felt unnatural. I missed the ease of those basic little knit stitches so much. Carol recommended a book, “Building Blocks” with step-by-step instructions to create 12 different knitted blocks that use all kinds of stitches and patterns. She said that when I’m done – not if – she’d show me how to attach all the squares to make one blanket, like this.

A photo from the book, “Building Blocks” illustrates how all 12 blocks can be combined to make one blanket.

Last night at class I had a knitting breakthrough that came after I’d spent last week ripping out the same project seven times in frustration. Carol was with  me every stitch of the way until we figured out where I’d gone wrong. It turns out I just needed to slow down and actually read the directions. Imagine that! My goal for next week is to have that block done, so I can move on to the next block, and the next, until I’ve completed all 12.

That should take me through Joe’s arrival, visit and departure. And then I will quit knitting.

Here’s something else about me, I mean other than I’m a quitter: I’m restless by nature. It’s difficult for me to just sit in one place, unless I’m writing. Even reading is a challenge, because I feel guilty and antsy sitting in the middle of the day just to read a book, unless I’m sick and then it’s justified (except when I’m sick, I don’t want to read). It’s why audio books and I are friends. I can listen to books and do something else.

The thing is, knitting, especially for new knitters, requires total concentration. You have to count stitches. You have to read patterns. Sometimes you knit, and sometimes you purl, and sometimes you do all kinds of other stitches, which I’ve yet to learn.

For that reason, for me, I was surprised that knitting came with a surprise bonus. It was just what I needed to calm me down and stop my mental multitasking. Knitting forced me to focus on just one thing at a time: Knitting. That’s all. What was bizarre was I found that while I knitted, my brain sometimes worked out some things that had been bugging me, or random revelations would pop up out of the blue from God knows where. It was like a knitting REM state, while making a hat for my grandson, which did look more like a yarmulke, but oh well. He doesn’t seem to care.

The hat’s a little small, but Doni’s grandson says he loves it.

I discovered that I felt less agitated when I knit, so I did a little research and learned there are, indeed, physical and mental  benefits that come with knitting. In fact, in the book “The Relaxation Response”, the author, Dr. Herbert Benson, known for his ground-breaking work in body/mind medicine, said that the repetitive process of knitting can produce a relaxed state associated with yoga and meditation. Once past the initial learning stage, crocheting and knitting are reported to lower blood pressure, heart rate and even reduce the stress hormone cortisol. Wow.

Plus, some studies have shown knitting has been helpful for people trying to lose weight (go ahead, try to eat and knit simultaneously) and quit smoking (smoking and knitting don’t mix). Likewise, knitting has been beneficial for those dealing with depression, grief, and even pain management.

That changes everything. Gosh, I hope I have time to visit with Joe when he arrives. I’ll be too busy knitting, and taking classes, and learning how to make a cashmere poncho for me.

One thing’s for sure: I won’t be a knitting quitter. That’s the kind of selfish mother I am. My life depends upon it.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.

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