For someone with a profound dislike of needles (one might even say an abhorrence!) I seem to have a perverse love of them. Of course, there’s a big difference between sharp-needle-poking-into-my-vein-and-leaving-a-scar, and sharp-but-not-as-sharp-needle-that-produces-beautiful-things.
I began my foray into needlearts, and my obsession with pointy sticks and thread, when I was young – we shared a home with my paternal grandparents for a few years. My grandmother always had a quilt on in one of the rooms, a frame that could be raised to the ceiling when not in use (obscuring the lights, of course, but it was a pretty pieced-quilt obscurity!)
On very special occasions, she would let me place my haphazard, rambling, long-enough-to-snag stitches into the quilt. I remember struggling to push the needle through top, batting, and backing, and marveling at her rapid, multiple-stitch technique. She was an accomplished quilter, and while she never has branched out into other needle arts, she’s always appreciated and encouraged my attempts, starting with those first horrible stitches of mine that she left in her quilts.
I didn’t do much after that with needle and thread until my 11th birthday – one of my aunts purchased a small Leisure Arts embroidered cat kit for me. I got several cat-themed items that year, as that was the year my bedroom was re-done in purple wallpaper, and a lilac and brown cat comforter. (Incidentally, that was also about 1 month before I discovered that as much as I love cats, cat-themed anything makes me squirm. I may be the woman who always has at least one cat in my home, but I won’t have the home stuffed to the brim with cat-shaped tchotchke!)
The kit involved a small embroidery hoop, stamped fabric, and semi-literate instructions for such mysteries as a “satin stitch”. I believe I still have the half-completed attempt stored somewhere in my small box of “the things I want to keep from my childhood”. I never did figure out how to fill in the stamped area with stitches that mimicked cat fur, and if I couldn’t do it perfectly, it wasn’t going to be done at all!
After my failed attempt at stamped embroidery, I went a long time without touching a needle and thread, other than to sew on a button. In my late teens, I had a brief foray into sewing / modifying my own clothing, but I found myself stumped by such things as applying facings and bias cut fabric. My mother is an accomplished seamstress, but our relationship was such that I couldn’t learn from her, and she couldn’t teach me. So my sewing skills still remained rudimentary, although knowing how to run a machine kept me in skirts during a period of time when, due to church requirements, the mandatory dress code couldn’t be purchased in stores.
Given my rocky relationship with my mother, I always swore I’d never pick up a needle and thread and get into all the crafty things she did – when you’re a teen, being like your mom is the *last* thing you want to do, no matter what type of relationship you have. It took me a while to mature and come to grips with the fact that even though she and I never saw eye to eye on, well, just about anything…she is an extremely talented needlewoman.
The fact that I inherited a measure of that talent from her is something I now appreciate and embrace.
I got married at almost 21, and in a massive life-upheaval I quit my job, moved to another country, and found myself in a small, spider-infested basement apartment until the home we planned to move into was made ready. I think it took me about 2 weeks of marriage to trek an hour to the nearest Walmart and pick up a cross-stitch kit…I was going out of my mind without something to do while my husband worked shiftwork and I sat at home. That little kit was a bluebird, perched on a branch, on 14ct Aida. It was designed to be a magnet, and I sat up until 4 am one night finishing it. I was inordinately proud, and quickly made another crafting supply run (the second of far too many to count since that day!)
That’s when I began my true love affair with needle and thread – I was quickly initiated into the mysteries of specialty fibers and necessary gadgets and scroll frames and 32ct evenweave. I rapidly moved away from cross-stitch into slightly more obscure counted-thread embroideries, such as Hardanger, Bargello, and drawn / pulled-thread samplers. I’ll never forget the night I spent at the local computer center (yes, there was a time when I didn’t have my own computer, a sad, dark time in my life sans internet 😉 ). I watched the GIF animation of Hardanger over and over and over again, and paid my 25 cents a copy to print it out frame by frame and take it home and scrutinize it until I finally learned how to stitch this Norwegian embroidery.
During the long years between marriage and having our son, needlework was my salvation – mentally and physically, if not metaphysically. After the loss of our first child during pregnancy, I spent hour after hour after hour obsessively counting gridded squares and making something pretty out of my tangled emotions. I was part of a crafting group that met once weekly – it was bittersweet, as each woman who was a part of it had at least one child during the seasons we met. Except for me, of course – yes, my embroidering suffered a bit during the hormone-ravaged years of fertility treatments!
After a few years of doing counted-thread embroidery, I learned to needle tat. That began to take up a fair amount of my crafting time, as it was so much easier to just grab a needle, ball of thread, and scissors and toss them into a bag in my purse. It was far more portable than a scroll frame and a box of silk and beads, and gold-plated needles, and just the right expensive scissors reserved exclusively for silk threads.
Tatting saw me through the almost 17 weeks of bedrest and preterm labor I endured while carrying my son – my hands shook too badly from the medication to do any embroidery, but I could (and did!) tat. I’ll never forget the nurse that came running down the hallway that first scary night in hospital – she scooped up my tatting and threw it onto my stomach and said “do this! I don’t know what it is, but whenever you do it, the contractions ease up!” I actually did teach a couple of tatting classes throughout that long, long summer – as nurse after nurse would stop by and peek in the room at the lady with the lace-making needles.
Once I actually had The Boy, I realized that all needle arts had to go by the wayside for a while. After all, not only was there a marked lack of need for little frilly embroidered clothes with tatted edgings, but constantly nursing, wearing, and walking with a baby greatly limited my ability to wield a needle and thread.
About the only thing I did for a couple of years was to attempt to learn crochet (total fail! whose idea was it to name stitches “half-double” and tell you it isn’t a single?! Completely baffles me to this day…). I did a few minor tatted pieces, a couple of small samplers, but as much as I love needles and thread, I love the time with my son more. His needs trumped mine, and so my rather large crafting stash mostly just hunkered in a corner cabinet and sulked every time I walked by.
As he grew a little older, so my time to pick up my needles grew. I began slowly working on embroidered projects again, but I really wanted to learn to knit. I kept stumbling across photos and patterns that I just had to have…and let’s face it, with only limited time to craft, it was better that I make something semi-practical with that time! I’m no stranger to Mommy-guilt, that worry that you just aren’t doing everything you need to do and meeting each need you should and you are irrevocably screwing up your child’s life. Fortunately, some very wise women in my life reminded me that as in everything, parenting, too, is about balance. It really was ok to take the time I needed for myself, but if I wanted to use that “me-time” to bless my family, so much the better!
Some of my crafting projects during this time:
In 2007, I was in a waiting room in a hospital hours from my home, and spotted a lady knitting the most delightful thrummed mittens. I walked over, introduced myself, and asked her if she knew of a yarn store where I could learn to knit before I went home. In one of those serendipitous moments, it turned out that she lived near me…and she offered graciously to teach me to knit. She still laughs when she introduces me to people as “the woman who accosted me because I was knitting.”
The night I was to join her at embroidery guild (yes, it seemed almost too good to be true – other women, near me, who knew the difference between a french knot and a bullion knot!) I was so very nervous. I’d gone to the store up the road and purchased needles (a size 3, 14 inch, because I had no idea I needed to match yarn size to needle size!) and some skanky bright blue scratchy acrylic yarn. I hopped into our old rattletrap car, and started the 45 minute drive. About 5 minutes down the road, the muffler fell off the car. As I stood there by the road looking at it, a car full of teens pulled up beside me and offered help. The young man who got out looked a little bewildered when I said “Please, just throw the muffler in the trunk. I have to get to knitting class!” but he just shrugged his shoulders and complied.
So I sat through that first knitting lesson, quite upset at myself because the long-tail cast-on wasn’t perfectly even with every loop. My teacher’s reminders that “it will even out when you knit, I promise! No please, don’t pull it out AGAIN” didn’t do too much to reassure me, but I eventually worked my way through that first swatch. She taught me to knit and purl that night, and sent me home with a photocopy from a 1940’s knit-for-the-soldiers book. (At least she didn’t do like my shuttle-tatting-teacher, for whom English was a distant 4th language. She resorted to just slapping my hands and saying “No! No! Wrong!” when I’d pull too tightly. I managed to learn to knit with no slapping, anyway…)
Once a good friend suggested I learn Continental-style knitting, knitting began to really click for me (yes, pun intended). It took me about a year to build the confidence – and gain the time! – to move beyond scarves and washcloths, but I’ve branched out now into mittens and hats and socks and sweaters and bibs and headbands and cables and lace. Knitting has become my obsession since then. Yes, I’m still tatting, still doing bits and pieces of needlework, but knitting…ah, knitting brings together everything I love. I can create lace, fashion wearable garments, and connect with all the generations of people before me who have twined yarn around two sticks and made something beautiful and practical.
One of the things I’ve begun to notice about knitting – it truly has become spiritual for me. I heard people say that when I was a non-knitter, and I rolled my eyes and ignored it. But it’s true! In my church-of-origin, much is made of feelings and emotions. We were constantly exhorted to “feel God!” – I’ve been in service after service that dragged on until midnight or later, with screaming, jumping, dancing, and other contortions as people experienced the height of religious frenzy.
I will say I, too, have “felt God” – that moment where you connect with The Divine, the point where you feel that unfathomable peace. I’m not ashamed to say that I believe it’s possible to believe in Someone larger than myself, Someone wiser and more understanding. As much as I despise the phrase “personal Savior” (it always makes me think “now here, ladies and gentlemen, we have your basic Pocket-Jesus! Rub his head 3 times and your wish will be granted…”), I do believe that the God of the universe wants to be in relationship with creation.
For so much of my life, I’ve had to go deep inside myself and stifle the cacophony of “having church” around me in order to attain that place.
With knitting? I find it so easy to slip into contemplative mode. So very easy, stitch by stitch by stitch, to still myself, center myself, cease to think about myself. Instead, as I knit, I find myself praying. Even when engaged in conversation, or sitting in a room full of people, each stitch becomes that connection. Prayers for the recipient, prayers for those around me as I knit, prayers for what is going on in the world – the motion of yarn around needles is as soothing to me as a rosary or worry beads from other faiths, and I believe it accomplishes as much good for my spirit.
It’s a new approach to the spiritual walk for me – think of throwing a rock into a pond. The ripples that explode in all directions – I’ve been to so many churches that seek to throw a bigger and bigger boulder into the water. I’ve been told to delight in the splash.
But knitting? That soothing, humbling, quieting act of knitting? To me, that’s the stillness between the ripples. It’s the culmination of my lifelong fascination with pointy sticks and fiber. And right now, that’s where I find God.