Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Great Knitting Project

It started with some simple thoughts. First, memories of my own childhood, and how my mother taught me to knit. And my own kids wanting to know, know, know how to do things. And the idea that it is worth knowing, with your own hands, what it means to make something, stitch by stitch. And to think about how things have been made, for centuries, until machines started doing it all. And to create something from nothing – to put knots in yarn and have it evolve into a something, and to think about the leaps of imagination it must have taken; wool from sheep, yarn from wool, warm scarves, hats, sweaters from yarn. To have an appreciation for what it takes to make a thing, is what I wanted to help develop.

And so, Christmas of 2005, I got the boys each some knitting needles and yarn. It was one of those last-minute decisions; I had thought about it, off and on, but the time never seemed just right. Would 12 and 13-year old boys be able to handle it? Finally, a few days before Christmas, I bought them each some yarn and needles, and yarn and needles for myself. My idea was, I’d knit a scarf for John as I showed them to knit, and they’d each knit a scarf for themselves. In my mind, we were sitting in front of a crackling fire, talking and knitting together.

They opened the boxes at the same time, and looked a little confused. “I’m going to teach you to knit as scarf for yourself!” I said. They were excited, but none of us knew what we were in for, of course. I could tell they had no idea of what it really meant, and I realized that, unless you actually do it, you don’t know what it means to knit something, stitch by stitch.

I couldn't’ have picked a better year to do it in; it started raining a few days before Christmas and didn't’ stop for over a month. Jesse’s new bike sat, gleaming, waiting, as the rain poured outside. A day or two after Christmas, when some of the excitement had turned to bickering at a board game, I picked up my needles. “Let’s knit!”

As we started in we talked about the knitting terms, and the history of it being related to making fish nets, and of course looked up the history of knitting. Since they knew John had knit things in the past; he had knit a vest for Jessed and a sweater for Brian about 8 years ago, and a shawl for me about 6 or 7 years ago, they had no resistance to it; it would be doing something that Dad could do. (Dad wanted to knit along, but was too swamped with work this year.) All the boys saw was a new scarf that they had made in their future. “Maybe we can finish in a week!” they said. Probably not.

First, there was the casting on. Oh, dear – I had forgotten how tricky that casting on maneuver is. The last time I knit something was over 10 years ago, and I was surprised at how my hands remembered how to cast on. I immediately saw the difficulty of doing that right away, and how discouraged they were getting as I tried to show them, so I cast on for them. That was the only thing I did – the rest they did on their own.

“Now. Here is how you knit. Bring the yarn around, slip if off to the other needle….” Little by little, we did a row. My original idea was that we would learn to both knit and purl, and they would do them every other row. But when we got to purling, I realized how difficult it was to see what you are doing. They started dropping stitches and not being able to see where they were. And their brotherly competitive instincts kicked in, as they tried to beat each other to the end of the row, sacrificing doing it right. After a few rows, we counted stitches. They each had a few more than they had started with. We stopped for the day.

I decided the main thing was to keep moving forward, or they would get too discouraged. That night I undid their first few rows and fixed their mistakes. The next day, we started in again. But the purl stitches were just so impossible! Each row, there were so many problems. So – we changed tactics. “We’ll do purling later. Let’s just knit.” I had told them, the great thing about knitting is, you can always start over; you aren’t stuck with a problem. So…we started over.

By now I had realized that whenever they sat together, they were distracted with the idea of beating each other to the end of the row, and lots of mistakes were being made because of that. And they each needed my attention. So I started sitting with them separately, watching them work as I knit along with them. They were much calmer then, and able to just knit. Finally, we had made it to an inch! They were started to catch on, and see when they had made a mistake. I then kept to our policy of moving forward – if they had too many stitches, instead of ripping out, I would knit a couple of stitches together and tell them to keep going. Onward, forward we went. Stitches dropped, and got picked up. Jesse tended to drop. Brian tended to add. And I got very good and being able to quickly analyze where the problems were and give them a quick fix, picking up stitches and making rows end up with the right amount. We kept going forward; two inches, then three! They talked of the needles as swords, with each stitch being captured and brought over to the other side. As boys, they loved to measure them. After they had caught on to what they were doing, we were able to sit together and knit, and the competitive spirit started being useful. Still….there was so far to go!

We had a few lulls. But the great thing about knitting is, even though there is still a lot to do, you can see some actual progress each time you work on it. The boys found this to be encouraging. “We need to finish these this winter, or it won’t get done,” I said…and then I had to make myself stick to it as well. So, I would find myself taking out my project and first one, then the next boy, would be sitting nearby, knitting. There never was a crackling fire, but there were some nice moments of sharing.

When I had almost reached the end of my own project, I slowed, waiting for them to catch up. Jesse had a burst of energy and got a lot done, encouraged by his own progress, while Brian was distracted with getting ready for a concert. This was amazing to all of us, Jesse included, because of anyone in the family he is the least likely to finish any sort of project. John kept him going with a few motivational talks….compelling him to knit 10 rows at a time (rather than one) before taking a break. We saw an article in the paper that talked about men in New York learning to knit and put it on the fridge. We felt so cutting edge!

Their stitches became more even. They saw how different the beginnings of their scarves looked, and we told them it was a bit of history, right there in their hands; their very first stitches. They became able to knit when I wasn’t there, and took to surprising me with what they had done while I was out. I finished up John’s scarf and he began wearing it, even in the house, to encourage them to finish theirs. And so it was…in just over a month’s time, Jesse finished his scarf. Proudly, he put it on…and it looked great! After an initial disappointment at not getting his done first, Brian got himself motivated and made his even longer. It looked great too! As we say in the Falconer household, “That was easy!”

Hmm. I wonder what our next project will be?

(Here they are, with their scarves!)

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Wonderful project for those rainy days. Next project? Why not needlepoint. Gigantic football player Rosey Greer used to needlepoint on long road trips. He was actually very good at it, and even wrote a book, Rosey Greer's Needlepoint for Men.
I remember seeing him on a late-night talk show. The host, who looked tiny in the presence of this 300-pound lineman, asked if anyone teased him about doing something that mostly women do. He replied: Funny - but nobody has mentioned that to me.
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