Stitching Together Lessons on Life

It’s important to surprise yourself. Say yes where you would have thought to say no. Take a different route home. Sprinkle some cinnamon where you would have added sugar. The smallest of adjustments might change your life.

One day, a couple of months ago, I took my lunch in the cafeteria at my office building much later in the afternoon than normal. The place was nearly empty. I saw my friend Simi sitting by herself, or at least I thought she was alone. As I approached and asked to join her I noticed that the table of women near her were friends of hers. As Simi welcomed me to sit, I noticed something else about these women – none of them had food on the table. Where their lunches should have been were cloth bags; in their hands were needles and yarn.

I had just stumbled into the office knitters.

Today there were three of them at the table but there are a dozen or more in their group, and they meet over lunch most days to work with yarn. Their projects vary from shawls to blankets to baby hats. Each mentioned their leader and inspiration, the woman who organized the group and in some cases taught them their craft. In a few minutes, Coukkii (she asked me to use her knitter-world name) came to the table and sat next to me.

Coukkii has an gentle way about her and an easy smile. She’s old enough to have grandchildren but young enough to collect new friends daily. I asked her about her own knitting and she said that for most of her life, she crocheted. Only as an adult did she find herself wanting to knit and now that is her preferred yarn work. She said that thirty years ago she didn’t have the patience for knitting. Come to think of it, I didn’t either.

I had managed to avoid working with yarn when I was a girl. I appreciated people who could create this way, but didn’t imagine that I could learn. Or would want to.

What a surprise it was when the words came out of me, asking Coukkii, “Would you teach me to knit?”

Coukkii didn’t hesitate. “Sure,” she said. “But it will cost you.”

“What’s the charge?” I asked.

“A square for the chemo blanket,” she said with a smile, as she pointed to a red swatch on the table about the size of a washcloth. Coukkii explained that she organizes charity yarn projects and right now she is working on a patchwork blanket for a hospital. Each knitter in the group contributes at least one square.

I had been thinking lately about my sister Edy, who died in 2007 when she was 45 from breast cancer. As I approached my own 45th birthday, I didn’t want to just cruise past that milestone without stopping to honor Edy’s memory. But I hadn’t decided how.

“That’s perfect!” I thought. I will knit a square in honor of Edy that will be stitched into a blanket, and that blanket may offer some small comfort to a stranger, maybe someone else’s sister, fighting a similar cancer battle.

And so I decided to take up Coukkii on her offer. I guessed that I would be all thumbs, that it would take me all winter to successfully knit a 9×9 swatch, and that would be the end of yarn for me.

Boy, did I guess wrong.

First I needed some needles, and some yarn. It turned out that my former biking buddy also knits. She loaned me some needles and a project bag. And on our next visit, Coukkii took me to the yarn bin that one of the knitting ladies keeps in her office cube. Various acrylic yarn, donated by the knitters, fills a plastic tub for use in the group’s charity projects. I looked into the bin and pulled out a ball of pale sky. “This would have gone great with Edy’s eyes,” I said, “Blue was her color.”

I told Coukkii that I would probably have to knit a practice square or two before I had one good enough for the blanket. “No,” she said, “Your square will go into the blanket, mistakes and all.”

I loved hearing that. And, my first knitting lesson was not about the yarn. You have something to offer. Every square, every row, every stitch, every whatever-you-do-in-life, is a contribution. Mistakes and all.

At our next lunch hour meeting, it was time to teach me how to ‘cast on’ the yarn to the needle and to do a knit stitch. Coukkii explained that almost all fabric, from panty hose to coats, is either woven or knit. And all knit fabric is really just a combination of two stitches — knit and purl. Her approach to teaching is sort of organic. She shows the basic idea – what the yarn is supposed to do in the stitch, without telling the knitter how to hold the yarn and the needles. For the actual hand movements, each knitter has to find her, or his, own way.

I discovered that the way I naturally knit is called “continental”. Coukkii is what is known as a ‘thrower’. I can’t begin to explain the difference, but these are the two basic approaches to knitting.  When I tried to hold the yarn the way she did, I felt awkward and couldn’t make it go. When I did what came naturally, with the working yarn consistently looped around my left index finger behind the needles, I felt that I was onto something.

My homework assignment that first day was to cast on 42 stitches and knit a bunch of rows. At home, I stared at my ball of yarn and had trouble at first remembering what Coukkii had shown me. But after just a few attempts, I found my way to making those several rows. I knit this:

When I showed them my sample, Coukkii and Simi were impressed with how quickly I was learning. Coukkii said I must have muscle memory from somewhere. I found out through a sibling that my mother was a champion knitter in her day. She knit sweaters and lace doilies, using complicated patterns with multiple needles. I called my mom to ask how she holds the yarn. You guessed it; she knits continental. Like me.

So this was another surprise. I had just discovered a new connection to my mom. I believe there is a lot that we don’t really know about habits and tendencies that pass from one generation to the next. I’ve been learning about how much of our memory is not conscious. Who knows why my instinct is to knit like my mother, even though I don’t remember ever watching her work with yarn. How does a weaver bird know how to weave? I am sure I don’t know.

But, I do know it’s very fun to knit a perfect row of stitches, and then another, until you have a piece of fabric, the beginning of a thing.

After a few days, I brought my knitting to the table at lunch. “What’s it going to be?” someone asked, expecting me to have big plans.

“A square,” I answered proudly. “An Edy Ambrose Memorial Square.”

Later, I noticed that the rows I knit while making small talk had different tension. The stitches were sightly looser. Coukkii says that your emotions go into your project. If you are tense or upset, or relaxed and having fun, it will show in the work. Like the rings inside a tree trunk that reveal the year there was a drought, your knitting fabric becomes imprinted with whatever is going on in your life at the time. 

This brings me to The Gas Incident. I was about three quarters of the way done with my first Edy square, when my husband came in from being out and announced that he smelled gas in the house! I immediately dropped my knitting and ran to help find the problem downstairs. Our teenage son, who is normally very careful, had left a burner open in the kitchen. Fortunately, no one was injured by the leaking gas in the our house! But when I picked up the knitting to keep going, I had switched my left and right needles into the wrong hands. Several rows later I saw my mistake and it was driving me crazy. Half a row was doubled.

I brought it to Coukii. We talked about whether to fix it. And she showed me how to keep going in the right direction if I ever have to stop suddenly again. She said that for this project, this little slip-up wouldn’t matter. But in the end, I decided to have her show me a maneuver called ‘tinking’ or knitting backwards, to undo a mistake. For future projects tinking might be important, so I wanted to learn this skill, too.

I decided to fix it on the way to Wisconsin, during our Christmas drive across country. Here I learned my next lesson in life from knitting: Over-working a small problem sometimes makes a bigger one.

Firstly, I should not have tried to tink while riding in a car, but I wanted to knit to pass the time, and I wanted to get back to the last good row before proceeding. I had my knitting on my lap as we flew down the highway, and I kept dropping stitches. I wound up ripping row after row until I could get a clean row of “live” stitches and coax them back onto the needle, only realizing then that I had coaxed them on in the wrong direction. By that point I had ripped up half of my work and when I finally got it going again, my stitches were not so even. My self-assured square was now a wobbly, misshapen rhombus. Fortunately, I later learned, you can make up for a little bit of stretching by blocking the completed piece – pinning the fabric while damp until it dries. What a world this would be if we all forgave as easily as yarn does.

 This is how it turned out:
In the coming weeks, I knit another square just like the first, but more steady. And then Coukkii taught me to purl, which is when I really fell in love. By this point, I needed a new ball of yarn, and from the donation bin, I chose pink that had a bit of a halo. Coukkii gave me a simple pattern to make a square with a frame. At home, I found a YouTube video to help me get the rhythm on how to purl continental. Once I had completed about two-thirds of the square, I sat there staring at it.

I couldn’t get over it. I thought these knit rows were the prettiest thing I had ever seen. My stitches were tight and even. I studied the way the yarn held together. In a world that has gone completely mad, here were several inches of total, logical, beautiful order.

In just a few days, I had knit this:

After I finished that pink square I had just enough remaining yarn in blue and pink to make one more square if I put the two yarns together. That’s when I learned to change colors.

So altogether I made four Edy Memorial Squares for Coukkii’s chemo blanket, and which I have now posted on my Ravelry account. Coukkii had introduced me to this website, which is social media for knitters, crocheters, weavers and yarn makers. Among other features on the site, you can search for  patterns, post pictures of your projects, and keep a database of your yarn inventory. When the blanket is compete, Coukkii will connect her finished project online to my online squares.

From her profile on Ravelry, I found Coukkii’s blog, where she wrote about a health ordeal that one of her sisters went through. Coukkii’s knitting circle came together to pray for her sister and to knit her an “afghan of hearts.” Coukkii developed a pattern so that each knitter, no matter what level, could contribute to the afghan. The next time I saw Coukkii, I told her I enjoyed her story, and that I was glad to hear that her sister made it through okay.

“Thank you,” Coukkii said, “Only, she’s not a biological sister. She’s a knitting sister. That’s what we call each other.”

During our next lunch hour visit, I watched the way the women complimented each other’s work, and pitched in to help one of the ladies unwind a skein of precious, hand-dyed yarn by looping it around two chairs. I had found my way into a new sisterhood. Coukkii’s online network of knitters and crocheters and weavers and yarn dyers spans the globe.

With a birthday gift from my mom of a skein of yarn and some needles, I continued to practice, this time by making a simple scarf with the pattern that was inside the skein wrapper. And in the meantime, Coukkii organized a field trip to a yarn store in DC called Looped Yarn Works. It was time for me to graduate to the next level and to learn how to shop. Four of us took the train from our office to a boutique yarn supply store in Dupont circe, where the colors were bright, the textures varied and the fibers natural.

My mission was to get the stuff to make a hat. At the store, Coukkii and I logged into my Ravelry account and she helped me find a free pattern for a slouchy beret. She pointed me in the direction of the yarn that was the right weight for my pattern — either a worsted or aran yarn would do, she said. Then, she left me alone to explore.

Oh, she is wise. She knew how important it was for me to choose my own.

Forest green, sunset orange, lush purple, pastel pink, and moody charcoal grey — so many hues filled the shelves and woven baskets in this tiny well-lit room. Some threads were soft and fine and others fat and wooly. The yarn was spectacular. And I was learning one more lesson.

There is a time for acrylics and washable fabrics. There is a time for making gifts, and donations, and give-always. And then there is a time for buying the “good yarn,” for making a project that’s all you.

I selected a vibrant, deep sea blue with teal accents, made of merino wool. “This,” I said, as I brought it to Coukkii, confident that this was the one. “This color goes with my eyes.”

The store clerks used a wooden crank to unwind the first skein into a spool called a‘cake’ and helped me find the right needles and a project bag. I happily carried home everything I needed to make my first hat, including a promise from my knitting sister to teach me how to knit in the round.