Saturday 28 January 2012

Knit One, Purl One

Both of my grandfathers learned to knit in school.  Back then, knitting, sewing a basic seam, sewing on a button, and making a buttonhole were all considered essential life skills, and were taught to schoolchildren as soon as they had developed the manual dexterity to manage the tasks. 

Things have changed.  There are many skills that we pass on to our kids now that didn’t even exist when my grandfathers were in the primary grades.  The number of hours in a school day haven’t changed much so, in order to accommodate new curricula, some things have to be let go.  Needs are constantly reassessed and, as a result, knitting and hand sewing now have little place in the elementary school classroom.  This is as it should be.  We want our children to be well prepared for the world they’ll face when they leave school, not the world as it was two generations ago.

By the time I reached elementary school, children were no longer taught to knit at school.  My grandfathers no longer knit on a regular basis (although both were well able to unknit the worn heels from their work socks and to turn a new heel in their place).  For both of my grandmothers, though, knitting was an almost daily activity.

When I was seven, my Grandma Routley taught me to knit.  She showed me how to get started, and how to make a knit stitch, a purl stitch, and stockingette stitch.  Under her supervision, I cast some stitches on my needle and began to knit my first scarf.

My goodness!  How that first scarf frustrated me!  As I worked, my scarf grew more and more narrow.  I dropped stitches, my tension changed, I put my knitting down in mid-row a couple of times and then resumed knitting in the wrong direction.  In exasperation, I threw it aside and didn’t attempt to knit again for years.  My grandma was disappointed but she told me that, one day when I was ready, I'd pick it up again.

My grandmother was right:  I did eventually return to knitting.  It took until I was in my thirties, but I did go back to it.

When I was in my thirties, I went to work at an answering service.  It was one of those jobs where you have brief periods of intense activity interspersed with long periods of boredom.  Fortunately, although we were expected to stay at our desks so that we could respond quickly to any calls that came in, we were allowed to occupy ourselves with other things during quiet times.  I became a letter writer, I read a great deal, and I re-discovered knitting.  

I taught myself knitting largely from books, but I also had the good fortune to have two coworkers who were lifelong knitters.  With their help, and hours and hours of practice, I became a proficient knitter.

When I quit smoking, I was especially grateful for my knitting skills. I quit during the bad old days when smoking was socially acceptable.  Workers had ashtrays on their desks and people smoked in almost every public space.  Smoking and nonsmoking sections in pubs and restaurants were coming into favour but were far from universal.  My husband is a smoker and so were many of my coworkers.  I had smoke all around me, all the time.  

I needed a substitution activity to keep my hands busy so that I wouldn’t light a cigarette, and knitting became that activity.  I knit at home, I knit at work, I knit in pubs and restaurants, and while I was visiting with friends.  My family was well outfitted with sweaters, scarves, mittens, and blankets by the time I finally kicked the habit.

Sadly, not long after I kicked tobacco, my knitting habit kicked me.  I developed tendonitis in both of my wrists.  Then I injured my right elbow and shoulder.  Knitting—such a pleasurable pastime in my life to that point—became a source of physical pain.  I stopped knitting, but I missed it.

Over time, I’ve resumed knitting.  I limit my knitting to short periods of time, interspersed with other activities, but it’s been a joy to pick up the needles again.  Knitting is now one of many “busy hands” activities I look to when I’m watching TV, waiting for appointments, or visiting with friends.  

Knitting allows me to feel I’m doing something productive even on low energy days.  It's a calming activity too:  What could be more soothing than the sound of knitting needles clicking together to a quiet count of knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one?

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