Book review: "Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting"Edited by Ann Hood
A review copy of this book, which officially came out Nov. 11, arrived at the offices of The Block Island Times about a month before its official debut. The editor asked me if I would be interested in reviewing it. A book about knitting? Why me? My knitting basket got tossed into the stairwell over four years ago when the latest rambunctious, five-month old pound puppy came bounding into our home. And I am quite sure that the Times staff had all discussed amongst themselves whether or not any of them would take on reviewing it, before offering it to me. It’s a free book, after all. Had I just been handed a bowl of strange cereal as if my name were Mikey?
However, the introduction says: “These essays will break your heart. They will have you laughing out loud.” Okay. I’m game.
In this book, author Ann Hood, who hails from Providence and wrote the best-selling novel “The Knitting Circle,” has put together a compendium of reflections on knitting by 27 writers. Yes, stories about knitting, what it means to each writer: stories about frustration, obstacles and grief. Included are pieces by some quite famous writers such as Barbara Kingsolver, Joyce Maynard, Ann Patchett and Jane Smiley. I’m not familiar with many of the other names, but fortunately there is a list of contributors in the back, with a brief description of each one’s work.
Therapy is what initially led Hood to begin knitting. In 2002 her 5-year old daughter died suddenly from a virulent strain of strep. In her grief, she found herself unable to focus on either reading or writing. One day while walking with friends, someone suggested she do something with her hands. And so she learned to knit. And slowly she healed.
Does knitting vanquish all? My impression from these stories is that sometimes knitting brings out feelings of despair, sometimes it dissipates them. There are plenty of memories here that would suggest the latter. And yet we still hear those stories of the despair that led those people to knitting in the first place.
Andre Dubus III, in writing about a relationship that would not last with a live-in girlfriend whom he asks to teach him to knit, writes: “this had become the conversation between us, the clicking of our needles, this soft woolen truce.”
Other stories involve the despair of simply learning to knit. The authors of these works, usually in a self deprecating tone, offer a myriad of excuses as to why they can’t. “I’m left-handed,” quips Marianne Leone, who is sure that if her family had lived 150 years ago in a “sod hut on the Kansas Plains” would all be freezing to death. She can picture herself churning butter and skinning rabbits, but knitting? No. It is a story that starts out funny, but like many becomes a tale of frustration with the knitting process and she gives up, although her tale ends in thankfulness for its presence and impact on her life.
In a piece titled “Teaching a child to knit,” Sue Grafton writes “Learning to knit stimulates long-suppressed notions of weakness and stupidity, not pleasant under any circumstances.” Indeed, how many people, when asked if they knit answer: “I tried. It came out all tight and tangled.” This was my own experience as a young child. My mother was teaching my older sister to knit and I, at age four or five wanted to try, too. Not for very long...
But then again, some take to it right away, and for some knitting is not done to alleviate depression at all, but for the sheer joy of it. Here are two stanzas from a crafty poem by Elinor Lipman with a faintly Dr. Seuss rhythm:
“At five years old, my mom instructing,
But not a thing was I constructing.
A strip was all, just stitch by stitch
And still it scratched some untold itch.
And oh the projects I have started,
But then I find myself fainthearted.
I loved this cotton at the store,
But I don’t like it anymore.”
I tried knitting again at age 13 in a home-economics class. This was more successful. Almost 40 years later, I still have that cabled, ugly light-brown, slightly large sweater made out of 100 percent K-Mart acrylic yarn. I have had to re-knit the unraveling under the arms a couple of times; otherwise the yarn itself seemingly, cannot be destroyed. I console myself on my at-the-time poor color choice (it must have been on sale) by trying to think of it as “butterscotch.”
We all make mistakes, and one of the common elements in many of these stories is of ripping out one’s shoddy work and trying again.
“Froggin’ we called it,” said a young woman at a social event I attended on Columbus Day Weekend. “What’s that?” I asked. She pretended to hold a pair of needles in front of her. “It’s when you (extending one arm up and away in a wide arc) ribbit!” It happens a lot evidently, in knitting.
Interspersed throughout this book are also four knitting patterns contributed by Helen Bingham, knitting designer and former proprietor of the (recently closed) store Fresh Purls in Providence. The first of these comes along right after Hood’s introduction. The pattern is for fingerless mittens and in the description it says: “There are over 250 beads knit into the fabric for each mitten…” If this was the “yarn” that was supposed to make me laugh... it did. Two hundred and fifty beads per mitten? That’s 500 in total: little teeny tiny seed beads. Yeah, sure. If knitting promises to be as therapeutic for me as, say, weeding in the garden, this pattern is certainly not going to do it.
Whatever. This book will still make you want to pick up those long forgotten balls of yarn, once so eagerly snatched up at the store with dreams of the sweaters ahead. Perhaps for ones’ self, perhaps for a special person: one who you might think of the entire time of knitting it. Torture or therapy? Call it as you will.