Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Knitting the Raveled Sleeve......

...of care. What a wonderful line -- no wonder it survives, and not just in Shakespearean tragedy. I'm spending today trying not to contract some kind of mild intestinal and cranial malady (headache, upset, etc.), trying not to panic at the thought of losing my wondrous gray cat from either renal failure or cancer (more tests will clarify things) on the heels of having actually lost my beautiful (if dumb as a bedpost) white cat, and trying to finish four (FOUR) garments by the 9th of June for the Knitting Guild's annual design contest (all are semi-finalists). It's hard to knit when a certain gray cat is plunked smack in the middle of, say, the left sleeve...though not impossible, as I've been demonstrating just now.

...all of which reminded me, all over again, of how knitting and crochet, and probably tatting and quilting (I've never quilted, so I can't say), function not just as ways to create beautiful, useful objects, but also as remedies, palliatives, balms. When husband number one died without warning, I got through it partly by knitting myself to sleep, knitting my way across the country in my VW (the predecessor to the silver one sitting just below me in the carport), knitting my way through final exams. I once knitted my way through a trip to the American Virgin Islands. The guy piloting the pontoon plane was visibly flabergasted.

It was because of tragedy, in fact, that I found myself taking knitting more seriously than ever before -- taking classes, then more classes, joining groups, buying sketch pads. There really ARE silk purses to be made of sow's ears. When I thought I had breast cancer many years ago (because an idiot surgeon with all the tact of a sledge hammer told me that the lumps probably were cancer because, well, I embodied so many "risk factors" turned out to be absesses),I made an entire sweater back in one waiting room and the rest of the garment in two other visits. I still knit or crochet my way through particularly dull faculty meetings, conference papers that should never have been accepted in academic programs, and my students' end of term examination periods.

These life-saving projects aren't complex, by choice. Often, I choose very simple designs for such moments, albeit in really beautiful yarns -- the ever-gorgeous stockinette in an amazing handpaint; a sea of simple double seed stitch; three strands of yarns that aren't supposed to go together for a thick jacket fabric. Repetition and mindlessness can be part of healing, as the mind slides away into a zone somewhere to the west of Jupiter's biggest moon. There is another, similar place to which the mind goes near the end of one of Chopin's nocturnes. But, with music, the voyage to paradise can be tumultous. With knitting, that sense of existential harmony and peace can happen almost at once. It's linked, on the one hand, to the knowledge that, no matter what, wool looped over hooks or needles behaves in ways that are entirely within human control -- unlike death, disease, the Borg. On the other hand, knitting and crochet are also sensual (not just sensory) experiences. Good wool or silk or alpaca or angora or kid mohair reward labor with beauty, make us giddy when the yarn gives us what we had in mind, or surprise us by becoming something totally unexpected. Beautifully crafted yarn feels like butter or maybe French Brie as it passes through the fingers. I recently decided not to design garments for a firm that had been buying a couple of things from me partly because their yarns aren't welcoming, feel almost hostile to the human hand; that sense of almost-melted butter (as when a set-in suit sleeve is steamed over the tailor's ham and fairly melts into shape) is an essential component of 'knitting the raveled sleeve.' If the feel isn't there, I don't think that anything of real consequence can happen. There can be no rapport between the woman (or man) and the garment lurking in balls of wool.

Yesterday, I told a friend at the studio that the wool tells me what it wants to be while I'm knitting. If that's mysterious, and it seemed to be, I can't explain it entirely. But I know that, for such a conversation to happen, the feel has to be there...from which, the rapport follows and continues to the end.

My friend Elaine Clark (the second most generous person I've ever known -- first, of course, was my mother) and I once talked about gathering up stories from knitters and crocheters about their relationships with their avocations, and making a small book out of it. Maybe we will, if I can ever afford to retire! In the meantime, I need to finish four garments in four days. If anyone is reading this, please say some kind of prayer to your favorite deity! svb

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