Posted by: Linda Proud | August 8, 2011

Knitting for Grown Ups

I took up knitting about a year ago. It gives me something to do that’s useful while watching TV and I can make gifts for the ever-expanding brood of grandchildren. I get no feedback (thank you letters are so last century) so I’m free to think I’ve done well: the beret in red bamboo (yes, bamboo), the massive guernsey which I should never have attempted in double knitting – now David’s favourite jumper – the gillet I made for myself out of local fleece, the little cardigan in acrylic wool dyed so mysteriously that it comes out as patchwork. That one won the cup at the village show. But even though I was getting adventurous in sourcing patterns, it’s still all knitting-by-numbers and doing what you’re told if it’s not to end in tears. Knitting patterns create a dependency culture. I was starting to get restless.

Bamboo beret

Child's cardigan steals the cup at Wolvercote Village Show

At Art in Action a couple of weeks ago I found exactly what I was looking for, not in the main demonstration tents (Textiles disdains knitting, apparently – you can weave but mustn’t knit if you wish to be taken seriously) but in the Market. There, if you could find your way in through the throng, was a booth full of the gorgeous stuff of Alison Ellen. Great beanies and berets, drapey jumpers and waistcoats in zigzags, chevrons, diamonds and squares. It was a fantasia of subtle but striking colours and textures, and here was the best bit, it was hand knitting, not machine. (I found later that the colours come from hand dyeing).

I was drawn to the hats but couldn’t afford one, although it was worth every penny. ‘But I could do that,’ I thought, ‘I could make one, if only I knew how.’

I went back the next day as stealthy as an industrial spy, collar turned up, sunglasses on, intending to hang around until I got the trick of her shapes and textures, but there were so many of us doing the same thing that it became impossible to maintain my cover. ‘Aren’t they just beautiful?’ asked a Jamaican lady in her 60s. This was bee conversation over a patch of borage. She dived in to touch the drapey cardigan in indigo I was eyeing.

‘If only I knew how to do it.’

‘That? That’s domino squares. You look it up on YouTube.’

You mean I’m not the only one to knit in front of the computer, learning things from YouTube?

Having discovered to my joy that Alison does courses and writes books about her art, I finally managed to leave and went to the Materials tent, hoping to find some wool. I did! Another buzz of women over a patch of borage called ‘Oliver Twists’ attracted me, and there was exactly what I wanted, hanks of yarn in linen and silk of variegated colours.

‘What do you do with them?’ I asked one woman. ‘How do you know what 225 grams will make?’

‘I just buy them,’ she snapped, brushing me aside. You don’t interrupt a bee when it’s got its bottom full of pollen.

‘Experiment!’ said another. ‘Just try something. You can always unpick.’ That was inspiring, but still I asked the question of the owner of the stall. He shrugged. ‘This is our first year doing knitting yarns,’ he said. ‘We haven’t a clue.’

It’s a big thing, knitting, it really is. The Textiles tent should take note. We may admire embroidered landscapes but what we want is a hat, a hat like no one else’s in the world. I went back to the swarm, dived in and came out with two gorgeous hanks. I’ve stroked them once or twice since but otherwise they remain in their bag. No, I didn’t just buy them. I will use them. But first I had to learn domino squares.

This week I’ve made a pedestal mat for the bathroom. So, it’s not glamorous, but it has used up the last of the hanks of cotton I bought thirty years ago (only remnants – the bulk of it went on a crocheted bedspread I made at the time and still use). By the time I’d got to the penultimate square yesterday, I’d mastered the technique. It’s not complicated but it does need your attention, and there’s been a deal of unpicking. So with the last square, I experimented.

This summer has been blighted by sciatica and yesterday I decided to rest and give the allotment a miss. So I knitted a lot and I studied Alison Ellen’s first book which I’d bought on Amazon, especially the section on basic techniques. Now I thought I knew how to knit. When I was a child, I used to pick up the thread laboriously with my right hand, move the whole hand round the left needle and pull the thread through the loop, breathing hard with the effort, my tongue between my teeth. As I got older I got wiser and developed a pretty nifty snake’s tongue technique where a yarn-laden middle-finger shoots out to load the left needle. Well, that makes me an English knitter, apparently, and I’d get along faster and better if I adopted the Continental method.

‘Don’t hold the right needle like a pen,’ Alison says. ‘Hold the needles on top.’

I spent a whole day, more or less, on one square and have never felt so cack-handed. I was five again, confounded by my fingers and breathing hard, but finally the rhythm came and now I’m Continental, holding the yarn in the left hand, as I do in crochet. All day on one square, the last square, and the best I’ve done. What evenness! What tension!

And to finish off my self-designed masterpiece of a toilet mat, I made two corner-filling triangles, because that is what Alison does, teaches you to think for yourself on how to do things and not faint away, crying for a pattern.

I like to spend the last half hour of the day on YouTube, following up early music tracks or listening to a compilation of Penguin Cafe Orchestra (although that is guaranteed to prevent sleep). Last night I watched a dozen videos on Continental knitting because Alison didn’t say how to do purl. Obviously Continental purl is a big issue because there are so many videos showing different methods, all of them Continental, none of them the same. I watched German, Norwegian and Russian versions and liked Russian the best, not only for the novelty of being taught how to knit by a man, and a Russian man at that. His English is excellent, you can see clearly what he’s doing and the picture doesn’t go dead when the cat knocks the camera over (most knitters live alone with cats and video cameras on tripods, it would seem).

Knitting is first recorded in the 15th century. It obviously grew up independently, each community having its own dialect of techniques and stitches. Peruvians, apparently, knit with their thumbs. I wonder if I can find that on YouTube? – a Peruvian video of thumb knitting one of those Andean ear-flap hats to the music of panpipes with llamas and snow-capped mountains in the background. It’s there somewhere, I’ll bet. I did find Estonian wool-carding, but that’s for another post another time.

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