I’ll admit it: learning to knit was a struggle for me, one that dragged on for decades. After my great-grandmother died when I was very young, I unearthed in her attic a musty flowered cylinder chock-full of navy blue yarn and a mishmash of needles. I carted it home, shoved it into my closet, and wondered how I could transform the chaos in the container into something beautiful. Although both of my grandmothers were quite creative—one baked up a storm of biscuits and the other churned out flannel nightgowns—neither had mastered knitting. And my mother downright detested anything to do with handwork.
My first opportunity to tackle knitting presented itself in the 1970s in the form of Mrs. Donnelley, my fourth-grade Girl Scout troop leader. Supervising three scouts working toward the crafts badge, Mrs. Donnelley proudly displayed what we too would be able to accomplish under her tutelage: a knitted pastel acrylic vest. Mrs. Donnelley’s daughter Kathy sat glued to her side, and with soft pink yarn the two of them whizzed through the waistline ribbing. Maggie Robertson proved to be a natural, and, before long, using a soothing baby-blue yarn, she had advanced to the front side. As I dropped one stitch after another, my bright lime-green mess grew tighter and uglier, until it looked as gawky as I felt. When I gave up in frustration, Mrs. Donnelley took pity on me and completed the vest’s front side. Then my dad, never one to balk at a creative challenge, decided that this was an opportunity for him to take a stab at knitting and took over my ribbing. Needless to say, the fiasco ended with an incomplete vest, and I dramatically threw the entire project away.
Knitting caught my eye again in the 1980s. My high school friend Abigail and I were in her coveted attic bedroom when she pulled a masterpiece from her knitting basket. It turned out that she was working on a Dr. Who scarf. Not knowing anything about the BBC science-fiction cult program, I tuned in to our local PBS station to watch Tom Baker star as a time and space traveler in a frock coat, waistcoat, and a wildly striped (and highly impractical) scarf created by a Madame Nostradamus. Weirdly colorful and bizarre, Abigail’s version of Dr. Who’s scarf already measured a few feet long. Marveling at her clicking needles, I longed to create something as unusual. But although she offered explanations, I could not follow hers any more than I’d been able to follow Mrs. Donnelley’s.
By the 1990s, I was in my 20s, enjoying my single yuppie lifestyle in Chicago. Although my museum job and my boyfriend occupied most of my time, knitting tempted me a third time. My friend Jen had invited me to join her at her parents’ farm for Thanksgiving, and I was eager to partake in something other than my annual dinner with relatives. I brought my work briefcase and a good book for the train ride north. Jen, meanwhile, unpacked a skein of thick deep-green yarn destined to become a Christmas sweater for her boyfriend, Hal. As she patiently tried to show me her pattern, I envied Jen’s ability but after a while busily returned to my papers.
As the years passed, I got married and, after having two beautiful children, had no time for learning to knit. But once I turned 40 and settled my kids in school, the prospect of knitting beckoned once again. This time, on my own, I pored over magazines, I paged through books, and I searched online. At my local yarn store, I purchased eyelash yarn and needles for a beginner’s scarf. And . . . I did it. I learned to knit, slowly and awkwardly at first, but improving with each row.
I have no idea where that ancient flowered knitting canister is buried today; it might still be in the corner of my childhood closet. The shelves of my current closet, however, are overflowing with my yarn stash and projects. Yes, it took this knitting seed an awfully long time to take root. But the resulting blossoms are amazing.
Beth Hemke Shapiro is a freelance writer who resides in Columbia, Missouri, where she is involved in arts administration.
This piece was originally published in Interweave Knits Spring 2009.