Sunday, September 27, 2009

Knitting Memories

As I regain my passion for knitting and other fiber goodness, I begin to recollect where that passion really started and who in my past was responsible for sowing the seeds (or should I say sheering the fiber).

It's strange that most of my earliest childhood memories are mostly transparent; almost ghost-like. Fragments come and go but are not very clear. But the most opaque and vivid, quite technocolor in fact, are those of my Great Grandma Ida. Ida Goldstein (maiden name Aaronson) immigrated from Russia to the US in 1901 at that age of 16. She did not have a easy time when she arrived, as was the case for most immigrants. But Grandma was a hard worker. If I remember correctly she worked at many different jobs: as a maid, sewing sleeves on dresses in a clothing factory (I'm assuming a sweat shop), and in a cigarette factory putting filters in cigarettes. Eventually she met and married my Great Grandfather David and together they ran a Deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Grandma was a fabulous cook and a master at making a lot of the traditional Jewish foods like chicken soup with matzoh balls, chopped liver, gefilte fish, stuffed derma, and the rendered chicken fat that she used to cook matzoh brie and other culinary treats. I'm almost drooling just writing about it. I'm pretty sure there aren't any good Jewish restaurants in the Seattle area. If the do exist PLEASE let me know!

But the most vivid memory I have of Grandma Ida is of her in Florida sitting on the couch in my Grandma Ethel's and Grandpa Charlie's apartment, knitting afghans. In front of her was a small marble-top table, a tin of blackberry hard candies (I can't remember the name), her prune juice (which in the afternoon changed to some kind of liquor), a pack of Tareytons, and an ashtray filled with spent butts. The TV was on in the background playing game shows and the soaps. I don't think she paid much attention to the TV. It was probably mostly there for company or distraction.

On our yearly Florida visits, I would sit for hours watching her knit, listening to the needles clicking and her counting just loud enough to know that she wasn't talking to herself. I watched so intently and marveled at how the yarn could be worked in such a way to create the beautiful wave afghans that everyone in our immediate family wanted. It's probably not inaccurate to state that later in her life the afghans were all she knitted. I'm not even sure if she knit anything else. The "orders" were that numerous that's all she was able to make. Figure it out though, she was a Great Grandmother with lots of Grand- and Great Grandchildren to knit blankets for.

But Grandma didn't explicitly teach me to knit. I would sit right next to her and watch closely what she was doing. And I believe that I figured out how to do the basic knit stitch on my own just from watching her technique. Now I say believe because that memory is a bit vague. Grandma may have showed me the basics but I really can't remember.

What is clear is that I would sit alone and try to knit using toothpicks and fine string. Yes, I was a closet knitter. Keep in mind that back in the 70s boys did not knit; it just wasn't acceptable. Frankly boys didn't do any "crafty" stuff. Maybe when we were in pre-school and elementary school. But the really only acceptable "craft" when I was a kid were the objects we made in wood and metal shop, with the exception of the apron we had to make on a sewing machine in Home Economics class. Those jocks really hated the fact that they HAD to take sewing and cooking classes. Of course I thought differently!! Not only did I love the classes but I embraced the projects. My smile face patterned apron had 2 pockets rather than 1 that was mandatory.

At some point I gave up trying to knit with toothpicks and string. But I never lost the yearning. It just laid dormant. Over the years I tried different crafts including needlepoint, cross-stitch, and crochet. All still done pretty much in secret. There were 3 other women from my family who also helped to inadvertently instill a passion for fiber arts: my Great Aunt Annette, my mother, and my cousin Susie. All three are decedents of Great Grandma; daughter and grand daughters respectively).

So back to the other vivid knitting and craft memories...

Mom: Sitting in the kitchen hair wrapped around her head and two large Tropicana plastic orange juice cans and under the portable hair dryer, knitting argyle socks. I truly remember the numerous bobbins hanging and her cursing under her breath. I think knitting didn't last very long for her or I don't remember much more that she knit.

Cousin Susie: House in Southern CA decorated with completed and framed crewel projects. Me wishing I could try it out. But instead I made a skateboard from scratch with my cousin and Susie's husband Ken. It was fun to make, paint and ride and at the time a lot more socially acceptable for boys to do. But I really wanted to learn and try the crewel.

Aunt Annette: I never knew that Aunt Annette knitted. But several years ago at one of her birthday celebrations I saw her knitting a beautiful sweater. I asked her if she would make me one. I secretly wished that I could make it instead.

As I wrote earlier, I tried different needle crafts when I was younger. But none really stuck. The biggest problem was that instead of trying beginner projects, I would dive right into the intermediate or advanced. For instance, with needlepoint I tried petit point and a very complex pattern. Way too challenging for a first project. The back of the canvas was a mess and after wrestling with all the different threads, I gave up.

With knitting the first real project that I tried was a sweater. What do you expect from an over achiever? That was back when I was a freshman in college. I definitely was a lot more comfortable with myself and didn't really care about what people thought. But I never wound up with a completed sweater. The sleeves were too long and I didn't know how to put it together. I didn't know a thing about gauge and construction. Discourage again, I gave up.

Fast forward to 2001. I'm not quite sure if the recent knitting craze started then or if I was just ready to become part of the movement. But one day I saw three women at work sitting in the lobby at work knitting. They were having a blast, knitting and chatting (maybe an early stitch-n-bitch since that job was pretty horrible). Well that's all she wrote. I decided that I would try knitting again. Coincidentally, it was about that time that my Mother was also getting the knitting bug.

Thankfully there were a lot of resources at my disposal which were not available back in the 70s. The internet was filled with how-to videos. And bookstores with tons of knitting books. Article Pract, in Oakland, CA, my LYS at the time, became my second home. The store was so inviting and the people there didn't care that I was a guy who wanted to learn to knit. And my partner David was a big supporter of my passion.

So here I am 9 years later and a proud man who knits (and now spins). I want to say to all boys and men out there -- straight or gay -- knitting is not a girly thing. Men have been knitting for a long time. In fact, men were knitting way before women. Don't be afraid to pick up a set of needles and some yarn and knit... and do it in public!

Thank you Grandma Ida, Susie, Mom, Christina and Tammy (aka PuNk rAwK pUrl) for being my mentors.


Mel said...

I picked knitting up again in 2002. My paternal grandmother taught me basics when I was 9. From the maternal side, I learned crochet & cross stitch. Sewing was encouraged from both sides. Fortunately, my family was always supportive of my fibery pursuits. Still are.

Janis said...

You are making up for it now! Keep knitting and really great post.

Miss your face.