Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mothers, Fathers, Daughters, and Knitting

This is my museum piece, which properly should be wearing a label stating: "My First Knitting Project." That's what it is, all right, the very real project I knit, a basic V-neck raglan sweater in burgundy sport-weight lambswool, because this was the very late 70s, well past the Age of Avocado, and burgundy was trés chic. Over the years it's been badly washed and has gotten a little felted and has shrunk in length, but with some aggressive re-blocking I may get it back into wearable status.

The very, very first thing I ever knit was a lopsided pale pink rectangle in garter stitch. I was in third grade and for some reason my brothers were curious about knitting, and I, being the youngest, wanted to do what they were doing because if my brothers liked it then it must be cool. We had knitting spools, plain wooden spools with four nails in the top, that we made lengths of i-cord on (though we called it spool knitting, not i-cord). Why we were suddenly on a yarny kick I have no recollection. I only recall that at one point both my middle brother and I were struggling with some scrap yarn and needles to make simple garter stitch that our mother showed us how to make. I eventually folded mine in half and made a doll's purse out of it. The yarn must have been left over from the days when Mom did some knitting (she knit argyle socks when that was all the rage, and took a knitting class when I was in Kindergarten -- I remember her three-ring binder with swatches of different stitches stapled to the pages and carefully labeled -- but I don't remember seeing her knit anything after that). I still have a homemade circle-shaped knitting loom that my father made out of plywood, and a store-bought plastic knitting loom kit, both of which I fiddled with for a while. I was more interested in felt, beads, and embroidery, and while my mother would supply me with felt squares from the dime stores and embroidery thread left over from when she embroidered, she never bought me any additional yarn. So knitting went by the wayside for a while.

In Junior High I took a sewing class at school and learned to sew things for myself. I made many trips to the fabric store with my mother after that to pick out fabric and patterns, and whipped up quite a number of nice things for myself. My mother would get frustrated with me when I took sewing shortcuts, because her own mother and sister had been very detail-oriented, and their criticisms of her work ended up coming out of her mouth. But though sometimes she would complain that she wished she "had time to just sit and sew," she did support the idea of me making my own clothes as an economical way to increase my wardrobe.

Then when I was in high school I had a hankering to knit. I don't recall why now, but I really wanted to try my hand at knitting a sweater. My father took me down to the beautiful yarn shop that we used to have in town and helped me pick out and buy several skeins of burgundy wool. I borrowed needles from my mother and set to with a will. No one told me that I should do a scarf or a dishcloth or a hat as an easy first project. I figured that it's all knit, purl, increase, and decrease, so how hard could it be? I was good at following written directions, so I followed them, took my time, and ended up with a pretty nice sweater.

Only recently it struck me: my father took me to the yarn store and helped me buy yarn. My father encouraged me to make a sweater. Where was my mother during this project? I don't recall her showing me how to cast on or take my first stitches; rather, I had instruction books with good pictures that she'd handed on to me at some time because she hadn't knitted in years. I remember my father praising my progress, but not my mother. Why?

Over the holidays I was at my mother's house for dinner (alas, my father passed away several years ago when he rolled the tractor over) and was working on a knitting project as we sat and talked. At one point my mother talked about trying knitting again and how she had knit some baby blankets for her new husband's grand-babies, but she'd given up on it. It was uncomfortable on her wrists, and besides, she didn't like making things just to make them, she only liked to make things that had a purpose. It was an odd comment, since I was busy knitting on a vest for myself. I thought about other comments she'd made when I was knitting in her presence. Sometimes she said she'd thought about knitting something nice but always feared that she'd "mess up" and the yarn and effort would be wasted. Sometimes she said that it didn't really interest her, but in a somewhat defensive way. Often she talked about how her mother and sister had been so highly critical of her work, pointing out errors and urging her to be painstaking.

There I think was the crux of it. She as a child and young woman had been so strongly criticized by her mother and elder sister (who was sixteen years her senior) that her dominating emotion regarding creative work was fear. What if I mess up? What if I don't do it right? What if someone notices and makes a comment? What if someone criticizes me? Consequently, though she made stabs at sewing, knitting, and embroidery, she gave each one up, never satisfied with her own work because there was that nagging, paralyzing script in her head: it's not perfect. Interesting that she supported sewing (for its practicality, perhaps?) but knitting in my hands seems to arouse something defensive in her -- especially if I'm making up the pattern as I go along.

Dad, on the other hand, was a Maker. But his projects weren't sweater-sized. They were house-sized! We worked as a family to build the house we moved into when I was ten, contracting out the big jobs (like concrete work and plumbing) and doing as much as we could ourselves. Dad built the pumphouse and later a two-story shop. He had a bad case of "startitis" (which I've inherited and always drove my mother nuts), but still finished a lot of things -- grape arbor, stone-and-railroad-tie outdoor stairs, fenced-in garden, and more. And he was fearless about it. If he wanted to do a project, then by golly, he dove right in. He made a lot of mistakes, swore a lot over them, then fixed them and went on.

Interesting that Mom's fear and Dad's fearlessness came together around knitting. Mom kept that nagging fear of imperfection -- plus she rarely bought us anything special outside of holiday presents and school clothes and supplies, lest we become spoiled. Dad had no fear of starting new projects -- and enjoyed indulging his kids now and then. Something about the sweater project spoke to him and he stepped in to make certain that I had the materials I needed for my project.

So thanks, Dad.

And Mom, if you don't want to knit -- it's okay.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow- wonderful insight. Hang on to this one, and pass it on.


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