Essay

Casting On

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Believe it or not, there was a moment in recent popular culture in which knitting was considered cool, even subversive. It was equal parts punk, DIY, and feminist for a new generation of women to reacquaint themselves with a skill handed down by their foremothers and turn it into a “fuck you” to corporate retailers.

Punk and DIY (and proto-feminism) formed a large part of my adolescence. I was really into making something out of almost nothing. The result wasn’t always beautiful, but it was a creative exercise in non-conformity—during a time in the early aughts when non-conformity was for sale in Hot Topic stores across the country. Armed with dollar-store fabrics, X-acto knives, double-sided tape, and acrylic paint, there was nothing I couldn’t recreate. Vans slip-ons and band tees were too expensive, so I stenciled my own knock-offs. I assembled massive collages from magazines and packing tape. I learned to sew with my mother’s machine. I picked up my father’s guitar. I was deep into this maker phase when I found knitting.

It helped that my parents were also makers. Having lived in America for little more than a decade and already putting my two sisters through college, my parents were disciplined savers and thrifters. Every piece of furniture in our house as I grew up was secondhand. My father would routinely lug home other people’s junk from the side of the road to polish, paint, or strip for parts. One of my favorite places growing up was the Englishtown Auction, a flea market that spanned over forty glorious acres. I would tag along with my father and watch him haggle for rusty tools or old guitars or dated kitchen appliances. One day early on, he bought my mother a sewing machine, with which she made drapes, sewed pillowcases, and mended all our hand-me-down clothes.

My parents’ gifts to me are plentiful, but one of the most important was a healthy skepticism of material things. If I didn’t need it, or if I could make a suitable facsimile, why shell out the money? It helped that we had, somewhere in the house, the tools and materials (or credible substitutes) to work with. And it also helped that they never involved themselves in any of my projects. The best part about what I made was the complete ownership I had over them.

Another favorite place of mine (nerd alert!) was the public library, specifically the non-fiction hobbies section on the second floor. There, I stumbled upon a book called Stitch ’N’ Bitch by Debbie Stoller, the co-founder, co-owner, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine, BUST. Here was a book that positioned knitting as cool, creative, and contemporary. Scarves with intarsia skulls and woolen hats with little kitten ears. Previously, I had imagined knitting as an ancient mystery made obsolete by the industrial revolution, like breadmaking and movable type. After all, the only other person I knew who knit was my aunt, who is as old-school as they come. She had polio as a child which paralyzed her right leg and made mobility difficult, but her disability is outmatched by the well of creativity inside her. Though she spends almost all her time indoors, she is the most prolific maker I have ever known. She gardens, she cooks, she sews, she quilts, she crochets, and she knits. She knits beautifully and fast. She lived with us for a few years when I was a teenager, and when I brought home Debbie Stoller one day, she gave me my first needles and a leftover skein of blue yarn.

Knitting was a revelation. Did you know there are only two stitches that account for all the knitted garments in the world? All the sweaters, all the hats and scarves, all the t-shirts in existence—they are all fundamentally comprised of two stitches. In fact, it’s really just one stitch and its inverse. It’s a lot like the binary system undergirding all computer data, or the four nucleotides making up the entire human genome. After I knit my first swatch, something inside me clicked. I was a like a von Trapp child learning do, a deer, a female deer—and Debbie Stoller was my Fraulein Maria.

Recently, another knitter asked me what I’m most proud to have made. I was surprised to discover that I don’t have much to show for my knowledge of the craft: a scarf I made in high school for my mother, a simple little hat for myself. But it’s the journey that absorbs me—trying out lace patterns, pleasantly watching the rows accumulate—not the destination. Knitting is a delicate undertaking; you have to pay attention not to drop any tiny stitches from a thin needle, while keeping a close eye on a pattern that can be as confusing as computer code. But I’m not precious about what I make. Nothing is quite as humbling, and strangely empowering, as meticulously following a complicated pattern, then getting bored with it and ripping it apart, back to one long strand of yarn.

Since that day at the library over ten years ago, I’ve graduated from punk nerd to hipster yuppie. Creativity lives on the internet now, can be Googled and liked and friended. But knitting is still a welcome retreat from the noise. When my hands are tied up working a cable pattern—or in the round, or increasing and decreasing, slipping on as if to purl, knitting two together—I’m not refreshing Twitter. I’m not checking my inbox. I’m back on the floor of my childhood bedroom, quietly putting together the pieces of who I am.

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