Before there were such things as left and right shoes, buttons, pencils and other everyday items that had yet to be invented, men started knitting. It started with fishermen who one day decided that nets would catch more fish than a single hook, so they figured out a way to join together a lot of knots, knots that weren’t much different from those they used to tie a bow in their ill-fitting sandals, and they started to make large, holey blankets. These were the first knitted nets.
After a long day of fishing, one of the fishermen was a little chilly, so he wrapped a dry net over his shoulders. Another fisherman saw this and thought it was very practical but much too big, so he made a smaller, narrower version, invented the reverse-drape cross and wrapped it around his neck. He then invented leg warmers, headbands, and step aerobics. The rest is history.
Now if you move forward through time to December 2014, this is when my wife started knitting. This desire to turn yarn into clothing came completely out of the blue. She had done crocheting, which I believe is how they make fine French pastries called Crochets, but never knitting. Mrs. G. started out with a hat for our daughter, and when she was finished, it looked as good or better than any hat I’ve ever seen in a store that sold such things. It was certainly a terrific first effort. It took her a few tries, and there was at least as much cursing as one would expect to hear from an ancient sailing vessel full of fishermen, but in the end, she produced a fine woolen hat, one that anyone would be proud to wear on their noggin.
There was a part of me that thought this would be the end of it, but I could not have been more wrong. Mrs. G. had caught the knitting bug, and since I’m an acute observer of all things social, she isn’t the only one. Now that I’m aware of knitting, I see women all over the place clicking and clacking and counting as they make all kinds of knitted items. This is no longer grandma’s rocking chair pastime. There has been a resurgence of knitting that is more than simply something to do in coffee shops besides playing around on a laptop. This involves a yearning to create something unique, but more importantly, to see who can knit something that is made out of yarn collected from the most obscure animal. I actually heard this conversation between knitters in a coffee shop just last week:
Knitter #1: What are you making?
Knitter #2: I’m making a twenty-six-foot long scarf out of yarn made from the underbelly hair of a Nepalese pygmy yak. I should be able to loop it around my neck at least a dozen times. When it’s done, I won’t be able to fit through the barn doors of my downtown loft.
Knitter #1: I made one of those last week. Now I’m working on a cowl made from yarn that has been organically harvested from a southern bog lemming. It takes fifteen years to get one skein of yarn, and I had to sell a kidney to afford it, but that’s OK. I’m knitting myself a new one out of recycled ocean debris.
Knitter #3: Y-a-a-a-r-r-r-r. I’m making me a fishing net. Which way be the river?
I haven’t actually seen men knitting yet, but I did poke around on the Internet, and this is indeed a thing for men. They often defend their craft as “something to do with my hands because every other thing one can do with one’s hands doesn’t interest me as much as knitting needles and yarn.”
Don’t misunderstand me. I think men can and should be able to feel comfortable with a large floral print bag full of yarn and knitting needles. There’s no reason at all why a contemporary man can’t knit sweaters. A few hundred years ago, knitting was almost entirely a male domain, and during World War II, there was a serious effort at home for boys and girls to knit socks for the soldiers. It was only after the advent of modern knitting machinery that everyone, men and women alike, stopped knitting altogether. I mean, why make socks when one could go to the store and buy a pair for less money that actually stayed up without rubber bands? There was a sweeping lull in knitting that is only now beginning to ebb away.
Knitting is currently undergoing a renaissance as an appreciation for artisan crafts is making a comeback. I witnessed this firsthand when my wife and I went out for coffee, and stopped at a store that sells nothing but knitting supplies. Honestly, I never realized knitting was this complicated. I assumed that one just made knots with yarn and needles until something that resembled a hat or a sweater came out the other end. I never dreamed there were patterns and different needles and something called a moebius, which I’m pretty sure is the name of a Hobbit. I also never realized such a place as a knitting store existed, but given the phenomenon of niche retail stores popping up everywhere, I should have known that a yarn boutique was possible. I found it fascinating.
A lone, sweater-wearing woman staffed the store, and there were couches and chairs and a long table that held plenty of women sitting around knitting and talking. All of the women were wearing scarves of some variety, and as I walked around killing time, I watched my wife talk needles and patterns with the owner. It’s always intriguing for me to see people who are really into something, especially if this something is completely alien to me.
I walked around the store, a big, scarfless goober, trying to make sense out of it all when it hit me—this reminded me of golfing or fishing. These are activities that are ten percent activity and ninety percent something else—usually an excuse to hang out with friends. When these activities are done solo, they require just enough concentration to do it right, but not so much that the mind can’t wander, and when done with others, they are simply a lot of fun.
Mrs. G. picked out some yarn for a cowl she wanted to make for herself, she asked me which color I liked, and off we went. On the drive to the coffee shop, I didn’t understand the art of knitting any better but I appreciated it a lot more. Knitting isn’t any different than anything else that is worth being passionate about, where the activity is often much more than the sum of its parts.
My wife calls her friend (who also knits) frequently and they talk about casting off and casting on, and each Saturday, they get together with other knitters to do whatever it is they do. There isn’t a day that goes by when Mrs. G. doesn’t talk to me about needle sizes and row counts and other things I don’t care about, but I listen. I listen because it’s important to my wife and over the years, I’m absolutely certain I’ve prattled on about some thing or another that has bored her to tears, but she’s always listened to me. I figure I owe her this much, and in the end, I may get a sweater out of it that actually fits, which would hold a lot more meaning than one I picked up at Sam’s Club.
Back in the early 1970s, my mother had a friend of hers knit me a sweater. If you can think back to 1970s fashion for teenagers, there weren’t a lot of teenage boys clamoring to look like Ernest Hemingway, but Mom had it set in her head that I needed a sweater.
I remember the afternoon very clearly because my mother seldom, if ever, had work friends come over to the house. I had no idea who this woman was, but she took out a tape measure and started measuring me. She wrapped the tape around my chest and up my arms and from my neck to my waist, jotting down notes as she went.
“I’m having her knit you a sweater,” Mom said. I had no idea why. I can’t remember ever asking for a homemade sweater, and the only kids in school that wore sweaters—especially sweaters that looked homemade— were foreign exchange students from Düsseldorf. About a month later, Mom presented me with a burgundy cable knit sweater. Why burgundy, I wondered. My favorite color was blue.
“Try it on,” she said, so I did. I could barely get it on since the woman who knitted it made it to fit my neck, but she never accounted for my head. I was afraid if I got it on that I’d never get it off, and I’d have to wear this thing until it disintegrated. Judging from the yarn she used, that would never happen from anything short of a nuclear blast.
When I finally got it on, it fit like a second skin—a scratchy, burgundy, cable knit second skin. I was a little over six feet tall, and barely one hundred and thirty five pounds, so I stood there looking like an unlit matchstick. I didn’t want to leave the kitchen let alone wear this thing to high school.
“I can’t breathe,” I said. It was awful, but I had to wear it at least a few times before it mysteriously disappeared. I felt a little bad about that because it was well intended, and I’m sure it took a lot of work, but I couldn’t take it. My internal organs couldn’t take it. Whatever minimal amount of teenage credibility I had in high school couldn’t take it.
These days I like sweaters, and I wear them a lot in the winter. None of them are burgundy.