Sunday, February 28, 2010

Zen Knitting-Master Grandma

My grandmother taught me to knit. And a way of thinking about doing things. But it's a round-about story.

Grandma lived in Bay City, where my mother had grown up, a long 9 miles from our house. Every week we went to the little Methodist church in Bay City, brought Grandma back to our house, and Dad drove her home in the evening after dinner. Grandma sat in her big comfy chair at our house and knitted.

In fifth grade in Tillamook, all the kids in grade school automatically belonged to 4-H. Each 4-H member chooses a project for the year. The project consists of something that you will produce, a budget, a work plan, a review after you have completed it, and finally submitting the project for judging at the County Fair. I forget what my project was for the fifth grade. For some kids the project was obvious because they lived on farms, and their project was raising a calf to be shown at the Fair - and such a project was a tradition that they all knew from siblings and cousins. My family was rural but not farmers, so raising an animal wasn't as easy an option for me. (We did raise and have butchered three beef cattle during the time I grew up - but that was a once every few years event.)

So ignore my fifth grade project. The crucial part for me was at the end of the year. We all went to a week-long 4-H camp - my first time away from home. We lived in cabins amongst dunes at the beach, ate in a mess hall, went to classes in the morning about trees, plants, and crafts, and in the afternoon signed up for activities of our choice. The activities were the high point for me.

Rowing boats on a lake - my first time in a rowboat, and none of us were very efficient at it. But we charged around the lake, and discovered that the coffee cans intended for bailing out water were also very efficient water cannons for flinging water at other boaters.
And the swing ride around the tall tree. On the side of a ridge, the camp had cut all the branches from a large spruce for the first seventy feet, and attached a cable to a high limb. At the end of the cable was a rope loop, which a camp counselor carefully attached as a sling around our torso and under our arms. Then we ran up a path along the ridge until the cable went tight, lifted us into the air, and we circled around the tree and landed again. Because the tree was on the side of a fairly steep ridge, during the middle of the ride we had a lot of empty air beneath our feet. It was especially a long way down to a to a fifth grader. Of course, once this maneuver had been completed, the cable was wrapped once around the tree. The counselors or selected big kids had the job of unwinding the cable by going in reverse. This was tougher because they landed on the path running downhill and had to stop by themselves. But they got lots of rides as result.

I was hooked. 4-H camp was the coolest thing ever - I wanted to row boats and ride the big swing, even if it meant putting up with crafts and classes about identifying trees, ferns, and mosses. But after fifth grade, you were on your own. 4-H wasn't offered via the school. You had to find your own 4-H leader and group, choose your own project, and carry it through yourself. What was I to do?

Well, my grandmother was a 4-H leader for knitting. I think she actually had three knitting groups at once - two of all girls, and a small group of boys. So she allowed me to join the boy's 4-H knitting group, with some special arrangements. Grandma's boys' knitting group was in Bay City, which was too far away to attend after school. (This was before the days of parents taxiing their children to all their many events.) So I couldn't attend the regular meetings of the group. Instead, we had our 4-H meetings each Sunday when she came to our house after church. She took this seriously. For one hour each Sunday afternoon (after I had already endured the boredom of Sunday School and the church service) I had to show her my progress for the week and knit while she knitted, observed me, and talked to my mother. For that hour, to me, she was not my grandmother; she was the 4-H leader. I sat beside her chair, and if my attention wandered, she would rap me on the top of the head with her thumb, which was armored with a heavy metal thimble.

Each stitch had to be correct. There are many ways to make an incorrect knitting stitch. Every stitch has to be picked up and transferred from the left needle to right needle. If you don't, the fabric will have a run all the way down the to start. Every stitch has to slide from the left needle to the right with the correct twist. This is difference between a knit and a purl, and one lies flat and the other poufs out. Do it wrong and you have the wrong pattern on the fabric. Every stitch has to be picked up without splitting the yarn in the needle. If you do this wrong, it's a split stitch and causes a weak spot in the fabric, because the yarn isn't completely interwoven. Every stitch has to pick up the same stitch in the same row, not from the row below, or you will have a pulled spot in the fabric. Every stitch has to have exactly the same tension as you pull it tight - otherwise the fabric will have tight and loose spots.
My grandmother did not allow incorrect stitches. None. Zero. Zip. She reviewed my work, and if there was a mistake, I had to rip out the rows back to the mistake and reknit it. Some errors can be fixed without ripping out the rows, if you have the knowledge and skill, so sometimes she would relent and fix those for me. Later I had to learn to fix even these myself, or rip out the rows back to the mistake.

You start by knitting potholders. Even badly done, a potholder has a certain sense of accomplishment. It is functional - it will insulate the hand from when picking up a hot pan, it can sit under the pot as a hot pad, and even if it is truly misshapen, it can function as a dishrag. Of course, as with children's pottery coffee mugs, there is a limit to how many potholders a home really needs.

Fortunately, knitting clicked with me. (Pun not intended, but I'll take it.) I have an inclination for this attention to detail. (Other people have had other names for it.) I soon had perfectly square, tight, thick pot holders. We advanced to slippers. Some of these were submitted to the County Fair, and I got blue ribbons for them.

But more importantly, I got to go to 4-H camp again! This time, there were fewer kids, because it was not the entire sixth grade, but just those who had continued on in 4-H. So it also drew kids from other school districts - I met the other boys in my phantom Sunday knitting group. And there were more chances for rowing boats, and shorter lines on the big swing.

This 4-H camp was also different for me because the kids from other schools didn't have preconceived stereotypes of me. At my home school, I was the slowest runner, last picked for baseball (really), and first picked for spelling bees. But at 4-H camp, we were all unknowns to each other. It was great. At sixth grade 4-H camp, I even met a girl from another part of the county and had a huge grade school crush on her. I think her name was Martha. I don't think I ever saw her again.

I was hooked (on 4-H camp!) But there was a catch. Each year, the 4-H project had to be more complex. I could not just keep knitting potholders and slippers. I had to advance to sweaters. So for seventh grade, I had to make a sweater. And for each year of 4-H, the complexity of the sweater had to increase.

A sweater is a big step up from a slipper. There are only a few designs for a knitted slipper, and your teacher just gives you one and you make it. For a sweater, you have to first go through pattern books and find a pattern you like. Your teacher has to approve the pattern as being a step up but still within your potential for that year. If you're lucky, you find a pattern you like, and within your abilities, in one of the pattern books that your mother or grandmother already has. If that fails, you have to take the traumatic step (for a boy) of visiting a fabric store to browse the pattern books. Many of the patterns in my mother's and grandmother's books were beyond me, so I had to visit the fabric stores.

Once you choose a pattern, there is the question of what color and how much yarn to buy. You have to buy all the yarn for a sweater at the same time, because it all has to be from the same dye lot (color batch from the factory.) You cannot go back to the store later and get another skein or ball of yarn, because the colors don't match exactly between different dye lots. So you have to choose from the available colors that have enough skeins available for your pattern. Or you have to go to another store to see what they have.

In addition to all the knitting mistakes I listed above, a sweater also presents the problem of "gauge." Gauge is the number of stitches per inch and rows per inch. A knitting pattern is written to create a garment of a certain size, assuming that the knitter knits at a specific gauge. Potholder gauge doesn't matter much, because potholders can come in any approximate size. Slippers will stretch, or if too large, a fifth grader will grow into them in six months. But sweaters must have the right gauge.

To knit at a specific gauge, you have to knit at the same tension as the designer of the pattern. You have to maintain this tension consistently for the whole time you work on the garment. If you don't do this, your sweater will be the wrong size or be misshapen. Or you may run out of yarn - leading back to the dye lot problem; but the foresight solution to this is to always buy one extra skein. (You can always use the leftovers for slippers.)
So first you create a test swatch - using the size of needles specified in the pattern, about three inches by three inches. You measure this against the pattern gauge. If you are lucky, you match the gauge, rip out the test swatch, and start the sweater. If not, you change the size of needles you are using and try again to match the gauge. If you are very clever, you can knit at more than one tension, and you retry the test swatch at the same needle size and different tension. But this requires you use the same unnatural tension for the entire garment. I think my grandmother could do this - I can't. But I was lucky - I had natural "standard gauge" - my test swatches almost always matched the pattern. My mother was a little jealous - sometimes she had to change needle sizes.

Sweaters also have a pattern. Potholders are made by always doing knit stitches. Slippers can be done the same way, or by a combination of all knit and all purl. But the intricate patterns on sweaters require combinations of knit, purl, slip, twist, and so forth that vary with each row. So your mind and hands have to pay attention to each stitch in a more complicated fashion.

My seventh-grade sweater was solid sage green with three cables up the front. I finished it to my grandmother's satisfaction. Early that summer, there was again the pay-off of another week at 4-H camp.

At the end of summer came the Fair and a surprise. County Fair judging for knitting and sewing has two separate competitions. One is called "construction" - how well is the garment made. For potholders and slippers, this is the only category, and the one that that I had been competing in. But for more complicated garments, there is also the "style" competition. This has two phases. First you wear your garment in front of a panel of judges to see how well it fits. At the County Fair, these are usually a bunch of other knitting teachers also my grandmother's age who have you stand in front of them, turn, raise your arms, and examine you like a prize heifer. They also ask you some questions about how hard it was to make, how you like knitting, and so forth. This phase happens a day or so before the fair opens for the public. The second phase is truly terrifying: the style show. It happens during the Fair itself, and is attended by all the parents, dragged-along siblings, knitting teachers, and all the old knitting and sewing ladies of the town. You have to walk out a runway, do a 45 degree turn to one side of the audience, walk across the base of the runway, do another turn, and walk back, with perfect posture and smiling all the while.

My grandmother and mother had not told me until the Fair that I was also entered in the style competition. Seventh-grade boy me, and about 200 girls from seventh grade through seniors in high school. All in front of an audience of several hundred strangers.

So I spent an afternoon learning to walk, turn, and smile. And keeping my hair straight, and trying not to sweat. And smile. There was a practice session with all the contestants, so we could make sure we knew who we followed, and could keep the show on schedule. I was helped by the fact that my year-older cousin Sharon was also in the competition. She didn't count as a girl - she was just my cousin. So at least there was somebody there I could talk to.

Well, the sweater fit, and I smiled and turned, and won Reserve Champion in the junior high category. Which meant the next night I went out with the five other (girl) champions and reserve champions and be presented a large ribbon in front of the entire grandstand at the closing ceremonies of the Fair. It also meant that I went to the State Fair as a contestant from my county. So in late summer, Mom and Dad took me down to the State Fair and dropped me off to stay overnight for the competition. I didn't get any special prizes, but at least there was one other boy in the knitting competition. After we did the practice the first day, he and I spent all evening on carnival rides that the fair - which were a whole step up in excitement from the rides at the County Fair.

For eighth grade, I made the big step up to a ski sweater. A ski sweater has a multi-colored pattern. To do this, you knit each stitch with one of the colors, and carry the other color woven in the back of the garment. The extra thickness makes the sweater thicker, so that it would only be worn in very cold weather - hence a ski sweater. So now there is a colored pattern, that changes with each row, and two sets of yarn to keep track of and make sure they are interwoven so it the inside of the fabric is smooth. The pattern I chose was emerald green and white with a striking horizontal and diamond pattern over the entire sweater.
Everything went as usual, knitting on the sweater each evening during fall and winter. Come spring, I was all done. One afternoon, I was in the final stretch. I had sewed the seams on the sleeves, and was sewing up the side seams between the front and the back. Halfway up the back I found something horrifying. The front and the back patterns did not match up.  At first, I thought that maybe I had just mis-sewn farther down and just mismatched the pieces. But I checked and the seam so far was correct. The reason for the mismatch was that I had skipped two rows in the pattern on the back of the sweater. The knitting above the missing two rows was about thirty or forty hours of work.

I looked at it for a couple of minutes, and then I called in my mother to confirm the mistake. There was really no discussion. We looked at the sweater lying on the floor for a few minutes, and then I tore out the half-finished side seams. We sat down and each of us took a color and started carefully ripping out the interwoven knitting on the back piece down to the point of the missing rows, carefully rewinding the yarn onto balls. My father came home during this process and saw the piece on the floor and asked what were doing. I explained about the missing two rows and how we had to tear it out. He said something like "I'm sure glad I don't knit."

So after we had torn it out, I reknitted the back correctly and sewed it together.
That summer, I didn't go to 4-H camp. As a pre-high schooler, I went to 4-H Summer School. 4-H Summer School was held on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. We had to apply and be accepted with an allotment per county. We stayed in the dormitories with a roommate, and ate in the cafeteria or the student union. In the mornings we selected classes to attend, a lot of them about college and career choices. In the afternoons we selected activities like swimming. We also had discussion groups to talk about a range of topics.

Girls weren't quite as scary as they were last summer at camp. I met one girl and we hung around with during the time, and on the next to the last night at summer school, I kissed a girl for the first time. It was about as awkward as you might expect. I think she had kissed a boy before.

The county fair came, with both the construction and style review competition. This year there were a couple more boys from my grandmother's knitting group in the style review, including my one-year-younger brother. I won Champion in my age class. At the completion ceremonies at the end of the fair, I once again went out to the review stand in front of the grandstand. They announced the winners in each category. There was one final award in the fashion competition - the Grand Champion across all age classes, both knitting and sewing, for both construction and style show. This award was a secret until the final ceremony, and usually went to one of the junior or senior high school girls for something like an evening gown. But that year I won the Grand Champion trophy. It came with a two-foot high trophy that had the each year's winner engraved on it, and stayed at our house until the next year. I don't think I have ever been more surprised by anything in my life. (Maybe equal, but not more.) I think the crowd was a little surprised also, with an eighth grade boy winning over the high school girls.

So I went to State Fair again. I remember the review judges from that year. At the State Fair, they were fashion professionals, not just the other knitting teachers. Oregon at that time had an active knitting-based industry - Jantzen, White Stag, and Pendleton were all Oregon-based. One of the three judges was a man, and he asked if I had ever considered a career in fashion. I didn't even know that there were such things as "careers in fashion", but I told him that I planned to become an astronomer or physicist. I think I won a blue ribbon at State Fair that year. And I think I met another girl at the style review - one boy to two hundred girls is pretty good odds, after all - and we went on a bunch of rides at the Fair.

I made more sweaters in freshman and sophomore years, which progressed to additional levels of complexity. One of them was a calf-length car-coat for which I had to cut, sew, and stitch in a cloth lining. But I also gained other interests in high school, especially speech and debate, which also offered frequent chances to go to other places and meet people. My other sweaters went to State Fair in construction and got blue ribbons, but I never placed as highly again in the style review. My sophomore year was my last year in 4-H and 4-H Summer School.

My grandmother was not well during her last few years. As a child and young adolescent, I wasn't aware of all the details, but I know she had breast cancer, diabetes, and heart problems probably related to being very overweight. In September of my senior year in high school, she was in the hospital in Tillamook. One evening my mother received a call from the hospital and she and I drove the three miles to Tillamook General - Dad was away from home that night. Another member of our church congregation had already arrived at the hospital. Mom went into grandmother's room, and came out a short while later. I don't know if grandma had died before we arrived or after but it doesn't really matter to my telling of the story. My mother came over to me and hugged me and cried on my shoulder. I drove home.

Grandmother's memorial service was one of the largest ever held at that church. I was just one of her many knitting students. Today I am a software architect. Programming is a lot like knitting, but that's a different story. I think I owe a lot of my success in software, and in life, to my grandmother.

And I still have the ski sweater.

-- Tom Wilson, San Francisco, July 12, 2005

1 comment:

  1. It was a beautiful sweater. I remember the year you won. (I think we were at 4-H camp together one year--probably your 5th grade year.) And does the sweater still fit?