Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Knitting, Crochet, and Human Memory

….so what can be said about history and knitting……hmmmmm.   What’s the best way to think about something so amorphous? 

One way, and probably the most conventional way, would be to talk about published stuff – the books that scholars and artisans have published in recent years.  I’d be the last person to say that books aren’t valuable.  I write books, for god's sake!  So:  You could go to any library (or to the bookcases in our studio!) and find Bishop Rudd’s History of Knitting, which (not surprisingly – he’s Anglican!) emphasizes English traditions.  Or you could make a bee-line to the wonderful social history of knitting called No Idle hands.   A number of wonderful books are available now – one of the fruits of the phenomenon we call the Knitting Renaissance – which I think should be renamed to include crochet.  

Another way might be to think about our own relationships to the fiber arts.  One day last week, as I sat in the big chair in my living room with my crochet hook, I closed my eyes for a second and could almost feel the slick, old (and uncomfortable) mohair upholstery of my mother’s mother’s sofa (she called it a davenport—a term that I do not entirely understand in relation to sofas!  Couch maybe.  But davenport?).  For a split second, I was 7 years old, maybe 8, with an old, much used steel crochet hook in my hand and a ball of white crochet thread, probably Coats and Clark, that she had purchased at the Kresge store in South Saint Paul.  Thread crochet is a tough art – you need a slightly different tension, and in my case a slightly different way to hold thread than with bigger hooks and wool yarn.  I can almost feel the fabric of one tablecloth in particular that we made together, motif by motif, carefully checking our gauge from time to time, then joining it all together; I've since learned that it was Irish crochet, and a clue to my grandmother's Scotch-Irish ancestry. 

 But the important points are these:  Grandma Beedle (Carrie to everyone else) never used patterns.  And when we did, it was simply an illustration in Workbasket Magazine, which she ‘read’ from the pictures (she didn’t know how to read standard crochet patterns, or simply didn’t bother to use them – the picture was enough).  She told me more than once about her own sessions with HER mother, and I gathered that the old, old tablecloths in her buffet had been inherited from two generations of women……on and on.  She would show me how it had always been done -- the rose, the picot, the filet -- and maybe, just maybe, she had in mind doing her duty by ME so that I could pass it all along to my own kids.  This certainly was part of women's work, women's responsibilities, this ongoing repetition of the work of bygone mothers and grandmothers.  It's interesting, in fact, that 18th and 19th century 'higher education' for women included needle arts -- In part because upper-class women were much less likely to learn USEFUL (as opposed to purely decorative) needle arts from THEIR mothers.

So as I sat there in my big chair with a vintage buckle, trying to cook up a belt strap from a ball of really beautiful yarn (Trendsetter "Zoe") and a size F Clover hook, it all came back – the childhood days spent with women who had  decorated otherwise plain, inexpensive domestic goods (cheap pillowcases, e.g.) with lace in order to create the illusion of prosperity and luxury, and a clear sense of connection with an endless progression of women doing exactly the same thing for time out of mind.  I only have two of those crochet pieces, a small doily and a medium-sized table cover, but the memory is what matters…..I am linked, even though I didn't much like that particular grandmother, across generations every time I pick up a crochet hook.  (She also taught me to tat, which I've forgotten).

For me, it’s less true of knitting.  I have memories of my godmother, Doris Kisch of West St Paul, Minnesota, who was a wonderful knitter, who made cabled sweaters from patterns drafted by the staff at Dayton’s department store in downtown St Paul and who worked with Mary Maxim kits, when they were still selling good quality wool (nowadays, they have only dreadful acrylic, and the jacket patterns are much less exciting).  She tried to teach me to knit when I was about 15, but I was a sewer and crocheter, much less interested in knitting than she would have liked, and besides, she was kind of unpleasant, controlling, bossy.  And, like cooks who leave out one key ingredient in a recipe so only they can make it, Doris refused to teach me how to sew up sweaters -- she wanted to do it herself, which was profoundly annoying.   So in the end, I learned to knit by myself – from a book, in my late 20s, and then only to satisfy curiosity about what knitting involved.  Nobody seriously knitted in my family; my mother had made knitted wool soakers (!) during World War II for use by the wives of soldiers who had babies (WOOL around a baby’s butt???).  But mostly she crocheted and sewed.  So I mostly crocheted and sewed.  I still have an antique box full of the motifs she was working on when she died -- someday I'll find a way to use them without feeling unbearably sad.  She was my best friend.  Nobody has ever been a better friend, in fact.  It was my mother who asked me to join her in creating a small fiber arts company to be called VanBee Originals -- we actually made up some kits to sell, and for awhile made money.  We spent many long, happy hours tracing shapes onto felt, packing up sequins, making labels.   But then she took a full-time job, and VanBee Originals faded into oblivion.  I hadn't thought about it for years until this very moment...talk about the way in which writing revives memory!

I think these associations are the most important of all.  Books can teach us about other people, but they don’t touch the heart, that sense of who WE are as individuals, our sense of connection with OUR people, the way memory does.  (That’s why I don’t discourage people from doing genealogy, even knowing as I do how much damage a lot of genealogy societies have done to local archives).  That sense of kinship with thousands and thousands of women and men for time out of mind is much more immediate, much more compelling, than a scholar’s hard work, except to help us put our personal memories into context.   I say “men” because, in the beginning, men were the knitters, at least in the British Isles…..especially sock knitters.  But, as with so many other things, the craft was feminized in the late 18th century, and with so many other examples of feminization, the monetary value of the thing was diminished almost at once. 

It may be that, because I’m a professional historian, I am more sensitive to continuity of practices over time.  But I wonder.   When crafts are practiced within families, the connections are apparent to almost everyone who gives thought to it – and I think, too, that awareness of continuity is more pronounced in working-class families, where the crafts have long been passed from woman to woman, often as a way to beautify and elevate what otherwise would be plain and ordinary.  I think again of those very, very cheap, not very smooth pillowcases….the edges encrusted with exquisite lace, the inner parts intricately embroidered.  I remember with particular fondness a really amazing set of kitchen curtains that my grandmother and I made -- I made one, she made the other.  I am sure there is some kind of wonderful symbolism in the fact that they matched perfectly. 

And I think, too….can’t possibly prove this…that much of what women sought was escape from a life that often was filled with pain or drudgery.  You could step out of it for a few minutes and imagine a world full of flowers, leaves, picots, sheer beauty, before turning again to the endless laundry, the floors that needed scrubbing, the cucumbers that needed to be brined and jarred.

More later.




  1. I loved this article. I have so many happy memories of my mother teaching me to knit (my first love), crochet, embroider, etc. in Mt. Clemens where I grew up (she also taught me to love books). A young nurses aide at the nursing home where I do volunteer work was telling me that growing up in Romania, they were very poor and did anything they could to bring in extra money. Her mother contracted to knit 50 pairs of socks per month. She said the entire family of nine, including brothers and dad, knitted socks. Now she's learning to knit using American patterns (what does "K" mean, what does "P" mean, what does "YO" mean?) I could go on and on...just, thank you for this thought-provokingm memory-stirring article.

  2. Yes, this is all about ways to find community, family, a warmer, softer kind of life for everyone. It's been that way for centuries. I'm SO glad you wrote this. svb

  3. I have no idea why, but reading this post reminded me of the saying "Don’t just sit there with your hands in your lap — knit something!" Not that I grew up with that one, our family sayings tended to be more the superstitious variety -- you lost a stone in a ring, that indicated someone close to you was about to die, that sort of thing. It is no wonder I was a neurotic mess as a teenager.

    Anyway, my introduction to the "knit something" command was via a post on MAKE magazine featuring adorable house slippers. (http://makezine.com/craft/easy_house_slippers/)

  4. What a wonderful, touching response! Thank you. svb