The Nordic child teaches the adult
the well heeled politely nod
and heed the warning
as the poor vote for more oppression
believing that old yarns and lies
will save them.
I knit and weave this ancient yarn, heath tinted and Celtic hued, with tired hands, deeply immersed in a timeless pastime. Now mindfully, now mindlessly, knit one purl one, the art of ancient knotting soothes my disquiet. As the pattern turns more complex, a row of hieroglyphics looms ahead, demanding more attention, a knitter’s code from an another era. The emerging fabric begins to twist and turn in an interlacing helix as new cables form and cross paths. How did those women of olde translate designs from painted page or stone to yarn, the Book of Kells to knitting?
‘Knit with your hearts an unslipping knot’. Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra. Act 11, Scene 11.
We sleep, curled around each other like a loosely formed hank of wool, weaving hands, legs and toes, fingers threading through hair and soft skin: then we unravel, in search of cooler planes of sheet, only to reform like lost souls soon after.
Fishing and Knitting
My grandparents come from wild sea
One knits fine wool to wear
The other knots hard rope to fish
My grandmother was a quiet soul, her stern appearance not helped by her refusal to wear her dentures. She looked ancient before her time. She retreated to the front room early in the evening, to knit or read, or to keep warm in a softer space under a colourful crocheted Afghan blanket. Outside the winds roared across the strait, black ocean and wild tides tempered by isolated islands rising on horizon, Sphinx like, at dusk. Living in the oldest port of Victoria, she made a paltry income from her knitting. Heavy cabled Aran pullovers were bartered or sold to fishermen for a few shillings. Pure woolen garments were water resistant and insulation against the wild winds and inclement weather of Bass Strait. The textured cable pattern, apart from being decorative and evocative of another era, provided more thickness than a plain knitted garment. Perhaps she knew those cousins who ‘met their watery graves’ out at sea as they fished the wild Strait. Maybe she retreated into the rhythm of knit one purl one for sanity, privacy, a safe haven for hands and mind.
My grandfather was a boat builder who knew that sea, its tides, anger and calm. He worked with the sea and on the sea. In his spare time he tied knots from ropes, strong yarns of another kind. In his old age, he taught me to twist fine wool into chord, to create little pom poms and other trims and tassels. His skills, like hers, were timeless.
The Little Black Doll
One year, my grandmother gave my younger sister a gift. This was odd, as she never really gave presents to her grandchildren- the wild sea and the fish, flounder fish as big as a plate, and wild prawns netted from the incoming tide in the channel, were gift enough. The gift was a small black baby doll made of hardened plastic. She had knitted a costume for the doll- a little outfit of yellow and green wool in the finest of ply. The shirt was in moss stitch and the long shorts were in basket stitch, each alternating square less than 50 mm, with tiny buttons sewn down the front. The tension was precise, the hand stitched joining invisible. I was jealous, not of the doll- I was well over dolls as an 8 year old child- but of the beautiful fine work that my sister received, and will most likely not remember. Today, when I knit in basket stitch or moss, I think of Grace, my grandmother, the finest of knitters, the quietest of souls.
Knitting in the 1950s
It would all begin with choosing the wool. Every suburban shopping strip had a little wool shop in the 1950s and 60s, stocking the latest wools and patterns. Now those shops have long gone. Making clothes for the family was not a pastime or a hobby- it was often a necessity. I’m not sure if wool was as expensive as it is today, I doubt it, but the cost for one garment was staggered through the handy system of Laybuy. The cellophane wrapped wool was put aside in the back of the shop, all in the same dye lot, with just enough balls for the project. Then a little money from the weekly budget was set aside to buy a few balls as needed.
We knitted as a family and could knock up a jumper in a weekend, especially if someone was off to a party. My mother would usually cast on, do the ribbing, the sleeves and the neck, while my sisters and I would knit the main body, perfecting our tension along the way. We produced plain garments in stocking stitch, usually with 8 ply wool from Australian companies such as Patons and Cleckheaton.
It was a cool weather occupation and the annual accompaniment to the onset of late Autumn or the first frost. Even today, as the weather begins to turn, I search for my wool stash and begin a project, even if only to make a cowl or fingerless gloves. My mother, now 96, with stiff, inward curling fingers, a Viking gene she tells me, is calling out for plain yarn to knit. Now it’s my turn to cast on for her and do the first row. I understand her need; it’s ingrained in our history, our DNA.
Knitting versus Kmart
I don’t have anything against Kmart, or other cheap stores such as Target or Big W. These stores have their place and provide basic and affordable goods. But somewhere along the way over the last 2 decades, these stores have made clothing so cheap that knitting has became an anachronism, a pastime of the well heeled. Industrial clothes are pumped out at such volume, exploiting cheap labour, that clothing is often bought on a whim and discarded without a thought.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicate about 500,000 tonnes of leather and textiles are discarded each year, amounting to 23 kilograms each, and only a fraction of this appears to be being recovered through recycling.¹
As pure wool or cotton yarn very rarely appears in most garments these days, this mountain of discarded clothing ends in landfill, a major plastic microfibre pollutant. The textile industry is the second largest global polluter after oil. Food for thought.
Information and quotes from Slow Clothing, Finding meaning in what we wear by Jane Milburn.
I hear my yarn calling, “to knit up that raveled sleave of (post election) care.” Do you enjoy Knitting and Crochet dear reader or have you taken up the Japanese art of darning? Does winter draw you to craft or barley soup? Is knitting meditation and when does it turn stressful?