Until recently nothing about my experience of knitting or anything I had noticed about it suggested that it might become a cultural ‘thing’. Certainly no sign that I would ever find it a daily itch. The history of my failure in the handicrafts began early. I really looked forward, in my single-figured life, to mixing the paste to pour into the rubber moulds that made plaster of Paris models of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Noddy and Big Ears. But enthusiasm was my problem. I couldn’t wait the allotted time for the plaster of Paris to dry, so that when I peeled back the moulds they all came out in two parts: the body and the head. It always felt like the most miserable failure but it never persuaded me to hang on until they were ready. I painted them anyway, but didn’t display them proudly. Now I think I might have created a mini Chamber of Horrors in which all the favourite children’s characters had been beheaded. Who knows what creative track I might have taken if I’d run with that. I was in a hurry to finish things. The colours in my painting-by-numbers masterpieces always went over the lines. My fairy cakes were undercooked. My diaries (pink, padded and padlocked for all my darkest secrets) stopped after the first week, when I couldn’t see an end to it all. These things were understandable even if my resolute lack of self-control was not. ‘No stickability, my girl,’ my father would say, warning me of trouble to come.
More worrying, because mysterious, in my handiwork life was the way nothing I cut or measured, no matter how carefully, ever came out the right size. In woodwork the length of the strut for the bookshelf was always too short, and so had to be discarded, or too long, so I’d measure again and cut a bit off, still too long, and so on until finally it was too short and had to be thrown away. The front and back of a blouse never matched. Other people got it right first time and there was no explaining it. Left-handedness might have been part of the problem. I was always using the wrong tools. Saws were hopeless, as bread knives and scissors still are; bread, paper and timber end up cut on a slant, no matter how hard I try. Pen nibs were cut for right-handers, indeed left-to-right writing is designed for them, so that my wrist was always smudging the already blotty letters. Sewing machines had the knobs and bobbin things on the back if I used them. But no one mentioned that and so I couldn’t understand why it was impossible for me to sew a hem that was the same length all the way round. Today, I would probably be given left-handed this’s and that’s and tested for dyspraxia. Then, I was just awkward. But in those days there was another thing, in the place of dyspraxia, that stood as an explanation and excuse.
‘Well, she’ll never be a seamstress,’ the head told my mother. And they both smiled and looked satisfied, to my surprise. I was one of just eight out of the eighty children in the final year in my Camden Town primary school deemed likely to pass the eleven-plus. No need for sewing. Back then, the ones who passed exams did academic work, and the others concentrated on home economics, woodwork, PE and metalwork. Stuff that didn’t seem to count if you’d answered the questions the way they wanted.
But it counted to me. Or rather, intermittently I’d get it into my head that I needed to make things. I had passionate enthusiasms, which were always short-lived on account of my father’s correct diagnosis of unstickability (I’m hoping it will find its way into DSM-6). I did learn to knit, because, inexplicably, I can do it right-handed, which I couldn’t with a guitar (a phase that lasted a single lesson), but I rarely got beyond the front or back of anything I tried to make without dropped stitches or a messed-up pattern, and if I did on occasion, the old problem of measurement came into play. No matter how many stitches I cast on, there was always a different number by the time I was on the fourth or fifth row. I gave up until the 1980s, when after a brief, unhappy time known as my ‘knitting machine period’, I discovered giant wooden needles and fat wool.
Then stuff got knitted so quickly there wasn’t time to lose interest, and the size of the stitches made it possible to squash or stretch the uneven parts so that they sort of looked the same. I only recall finishing one jumper. It was mohair, with three thick stripes of pale blue, pale pink and beige. It was much longer than the dresses I wore in the 1960s, totally shapeless, with a V-neck that came down to my solar plexus and sleeves that reached my knees to meet the bottom edge of the sweater. In its hairy way, it was the cosiest thing ever. A comfort blanket pretending to be a punky sweater. It was the subject of scorn from lovers, ex-husbands and offspring alike. Eventually, I was bullied into sending it to Oxfam. I still think of it fondly.
There was a psychological aspect to all this. I never learned how to pick up stitches or rip back wrongly knitted rows because the second I did the slightest thing wrong, despair set in. The thing was no good, irreparable no matter how people said it could be salvaged. I threw it aside, lost interest in it, hated it and myself for never getting things right. Then, some time on, I would buy new wool and needles (because I’d thrown everything away) and try again. The same thing would happen. Why did I put myself to all that trouble when I could have just stopped trying to knit? If you replace ‘knitting’ with ‘writing’, you get a similar problem but one that eventually, in spite of the wrongness, I managed more or less to resolve. Some things are less important than others. Whether they are the things you manage to get on with, or the things you definitively give up on, I’m still not sure.
As a middle-aged then elderly woman-and-novelist, I have grudgingly suffered photographs to be taken of me as lady writer: with cat … in front of a rubber plant … sitting with cup of tea gazing at a typewriter. No one has suggested the lady-writer with knitting shot. It may be that they dared not. The knitting me wasn’t an image I thought sat well with what I wrote – or anything about me. I feared in the minds of others a Jenny version of ‘Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia knits!’ But not long ago, Julia Gillard, then prime minister of Australia, was photographed in a chair surrounded by balls of wool, with a dog at her feet, knitting a toy kangaroo for the new royal baby. And then a book arrived from the US called Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting. (I’m not writing a review of it, but there is a sentence in the introduction by Ann Hood that needs to be shared: ‘Knitting forced some writers to ask themselves tough questions: after a boy teaches her how to knit in Kathmandu, Jessi Hempel examines her lesbianism.’) Among the regular cardies and layettes at Ravelry.com, there are patterns for knitting vulvas, fallopian tubes and brains as well as S&M whips and handcuffs. Last year, 16 lampposts on Jesus Green in Cambridge appeared one morning swathed in brightly coloured knitting to keep them warm. The movement is called Yarn Bombing.
All this is pleasing but it didn’t get me knitting again. The pain of making mistakes was too vivid. What did it was the need, all of a sudden, to give a kowtowing nod to the atavistic. A grandson was on the way. As if in a dream I bought a pattern, needles and the advised wool for a striped baby blanket. Just the one thing in just the one stitch. The wool was amazing. It called itself extra fine merino, and it felt like silk, not that awful scratchy stuff that I used to do knitting with. I finished it, and it was OK, but not perfect. A hole here and there, a bit of a wiggle where stitches were mysteriously lost or added. But it didn’t have to be perfect. I could buy a perfect baby blanket: this was a granny blanket.
So a new enthusiasm started, but this time, it kept being fed. As everyone says who knits, there is a dreamy, calming pleasure to knitting. You want to do more. The edges of anxiety are rounded off, you can feel the drip of endorphins soothing the rat in the solar plexus. Needles clicking, mind half on the pattern, half drifting. People liken it to meditation and gym work. I’ve done both, and it’s true. Trancelike sometimes. That simple repetitive work with the hands has a tranquillising effect is not a new insight, but it does work. On the other hand, how many baby blankets does a baby need? And for how long? I investigated knitting.
The main thing that had changed since I used to knit was the existence of YouTube. There is no stitch or technique that you can’t find explained to you by a patient expert. Google s1k1psso and you find a dozen videos. Stop and start it, knit along, freeze frame. Even I can follow and practise until I can do it. There are courses online that show you how to knit whole garments, with a teacher leading you through it, talking about variations, giving tips on how to make wrong right again.
I discovered circular needles, and the cowls and möbius scarves you can knit on them of every weight, length and thickness, without the need for any sewing at all. I knitted cowls for weeks. Wrong places could be hidden in a fold, and I didn’t feel a failure at all. I just got on with the next one. I thought I ought to try an actual thing with sleeves in separate parts, but when I looked around there were very few patterns I liked, and few things that I couldn’t buy somewhere that weren’t better and cost less. Yarn costs a fortune if you get hooked on the nice stuff. And why would you knit with any other kind? Patterns, though, are still mostly as dull as they were when I was young. I did find a few retro patterns from the 1950s I liked but they were all too difficult for me to imagine making. Finally, I found a company called Wool and the Gang that sells patterns and wool designed to make things I thought I would like to wear, but when I knitted the pieces following the really simple pattern, the old monsters woke from their depths. The pieces looked awful, the stitches uneven, wonky, and when I tried to sew parts together I wept childhood tears of failure and hatred. I threw them in a paper bag and stuffed them in the attic. I hate sewing, even sewing bits I’ve knitted, and anyway everything was wrong.
But I was addicted to knitting, and by now, it seemed, a little older than my small tantrum-ridden inner child. Also I found online yarn shops selling what we carelessly used to call ‘wool’ so amazing in its constituents and colours that it pleased me just to read the descriptions. My favourite is Dyeforyarn.com, which produces some of the most startling mixes of hand-dyed colours and shades, in all combinations of silks, baby camel, baby alpaca, bamboo, extra fine wool, cottons and linen. The colours are so weird and delicious that the idea of having them in a basket in my room was enough to justify buying them. I got Violet Coming to Dust (100 per cent tussah silk), Memory of a Fearsome Tale (silk tape) and Chocolate Cosmos Ceasing to Be (mulberry silk and merino). A step beyond paint names, and all of them ‘lace-weight’ or the slightly heavier ‘fingering’.
The final answer to my knitting conundrum was to knit shawls. No sewing, just knitting with very fine, circular needles made of polished wood, and threadlike lace yarn. It turned out that even some of the most delicate and intricate patterns were really simple to follow. They use just a few repeated stitches in sequence and are shaped by the regular adding of stitches. After the first few rows it’s nearly automatic. As for adding and losing stitches, that can be taken care of at the end by weaving bits together, and the more complex the lace, the easier it is to hide mistakes. It’s a shawl, it drapes. Being able to do this (enjoy what you’re doing, not hurry, make mistakes, carry on, end up with beautiful things) is what growing up psychologically or mastering Zen must be like, though I grant on a rather more limited scale.
I am beginning to get anxious, however, as the cowls and shawls start to pile up. I’ve got several to wear myself and have given others away. But I’ve reached the point of a second round, and even the people who were delighted the first time seem less enchanted by the prospect of another shawl. It’s true I’m not forcing reindeer sweaters on anyone, but it seems that no one has a limitless requirement for bits of knitted fabric to wrap around their necks and shoulders. The pile is growing. It may have to be one of those problems people leave behind them, like button collections or a library of books on the history of lawnmowers. At least the shawls will keep someone warm.