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Friday, 22 March 2013

Zen and the Art of Knitting

My mum caught the knitting bug when she was twenty-four years old. It was a serious case. Once she started she didn’t stop, and my childhood was full of adorable knitted outfits, blankets and scarves.

Aged three I asked her about the birds and the bees. Having a policy of absolute honesty, she explained to me that boys have willies and girls have clitorises. A day or so later, a male friend of mum’s came round to the house and commented on my superb home-knitted jumper.
“That’s a lovely woolly you have there, Joanna.”
“I don’t have a woolly” I replied, quite matter-of-factly. “I’ve got a clitoris.”


Matching woollies.

Mum was, I believe, rather disappointed when I reached the stage where I flatly refused to wear anything woolly. She had to start knitting for herself, which left a lot less room for cute designs. I showed absolutely no interest in learning to embroider, sew, cross-stitch or knit, and I think we both believed I would simply never be one of those people. But just over a week ago, when discussing my last few Thirty@30 challenges, she asked again if I didn’t fancy knitting a jumper. I’m not going to lie, I’m starting to feel time’s winged chariot hurrying near (that’s a literary reference, don’t you know?) Time is running out on me, and I’m still a good few challenges off target. So, where I had said No to Knitting some months ago, I now said yes. A day later I was equipped with 13 balls of yarn, some needles, and a plan. 

Here is my design, which mum reckoned should be well within the realms of possibility:

On day one, mum taught me how to cast on (put the yarn on the needles ready for knitting), knit, and purl. We did a small row of ten to practice, and then some calculations about how many stitches wide the jumper would need to be. Having done this test, I had to cast on 55 stitches. Did it take me one attempt? Two attempts? Three? It took me four bloody attempts to get the tension right. I felt like I was trying to do everything wearing a huge pair of gardening gloves. I was clumsy and awkward, but eventually got it right. Several hours later we realised I’d cast on 54 stitches instead of 55, but I tell you now that there was no way I was going back.

Casting on.
After I had cast on, Mum had an important phone call to receive and disappeared for an hour (oh, l'amour, l'amour). I decided to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers whilst knitting. It seemed a good choice because I know it so well that I can watch the whole thing quite happily without once lifting my eyes to the TV. I am not ashamed to admit this. I love that film. Howard Keel can bless my beautiful hide any time.

I successfully knitted ten rows of ribbing. Ribbing is difficult because it requires knitting one then purling one, alternately, all the way along the row. My brain was barely capable of this level of concentration, but somehow I managed. Then I started knitting my regular stripes, where you knit one whole row, then purl one whole row. This is easier, but of course I got cocky and then made a mistake. I found myself with a choice to make: Wait for mum to get off the phone, or try and solve the mistake on my own. Guess which one I chose? Three minutes later I was in floods of tears with a broken knitting needle in my hand, and all my hard work unravelled. Mum found me with my head in my hands, snivelling pathetically along to ‘Sobbin' Women.’ Oh the irony.

Broken needle. Sad Jojo.

Here is the situation at the end of day one:

Day two was better. I got into my stride, and managed to knit the whole of the back of the jumper without too many tragedies. I also performed the entirety of Jesus Christ Superstar from the sofa, singing all the parts, extremely poorly, and making mum howl with laughter.

Argentine cartoonist Quino captures the lengths to which knitting can take you.

Here is the situation at the end of day two:

On day three, disaster struck. We began the sleeves. Oh sleeves, horrible, evil sleeves. Sleeves, in order to be comfortable, have to taper. Nice and wide at the shoulder, so that you can move your arms about easily, and then a more sensible width down at the cuff. You start with the cuff and work upwards, increasing at regular intervals by adding stitches at the end of a row. Well, let’s just say that someone made a little error in calculations, and that five stripes up (i.e., about three hours work) we realised that I was knitting some kind of an enormous bat wing. Unravel, unravel, unravel. Cue deep and tragic despair.

Holy blistering batwing, Batgirl! Unravel that madness.

Here is the situation at the end of day three:

Day four, things got better again. Probably because I decided that it would be an excellent idea to watch all six hours of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice in one sitting. You know, the one where Colin Firth jumps in the lake? There are few activities that are not improved by a good dose of Colin Firth in a sopping wet shirt, I find. Frankly, it was a wonderful day, not least because I conquered my first sleeve. I was starting to feel a bit less like I was wearing gardening gloves, though we established that where it took mum 1.5 minutes to knit a row, it took me 6.5. I guess those thirty-odd years of extra practice count for something after all…

Watching the Rome Marathon live feed.
As well as Pride and Prejudice, I watched a good chunk of the Rome Marathon that day, because my wonderful friend Julia was running it. 

She finished in the top of 10% of women, top 22% overall, which I think deserves a serious tip of the cap. My Jane Austen/knitting marathon was, however, a considerably more sensible way to spend a Sunday.

Day four’s progress:

By the start of day five, I was becoming slightly obsessive. I was knitting EVERYWHERE. In bed, cooking, at the hairdressers, driving the car, taking the dogs for a walk. OK, some of these may or may not be entirely true. You can decide which.

This obsession was all very well, but at the end of day five I was knackered and slightly dizzy. Every time I closed my eyes, green yarn danced and knotted in front of them.

Here’s day five, and how I felt at the end of day five:

 On day six we went to IKEA. I knitted in the queue. No word of a lie.

In another shop, mum held up a rather attractive jumper, suggesting I should try it on. “Bof” I said, in my very best French accent. “I can knit zis maself, oui?” Suddenly, I was some kind of Karate Kid-style knitting prodigy.  Despite several hours of retail therapy in between stitches, I made good progress, and had knocked a full minute off the time it took to knit each row. Cast on, cast off, Grasshopper.

Here’s the situation at the end of day six.

On day seven, I started the heart, and it all got a bit intense. The concentration required to keep changing colour from dark green to red to light green to red again was immense. There were more tears, because I felt tired and overwhelmed. I was trying so hard to do it perfectly, to get it right, to impress mum and make sure my design came out as I had imagined it. Several times I started knitting with red and just carried on to the end of the row, when I should have swapped to green at the edge of the heart. Back I went, unpicking, counting furiously, fighting to stay cool. In the end - and this is a measure of how exhausted and stressed I was - I went to bed leaving just ONE LINE of the heart unfinished. Is it only me that finds this extremely strange behaviour? One line? Surely I could have finished the heart? But I really and truly couldn’t do any more. Not a single stitch.

Here’s the end of day seven:

On day eight I awoke refreshed and ready.  I finished the heart in the shower. OK, I didn’t really. Or did I? I wouldn’t put it past me…

The sun shone, meaning more multi-tasking.

At the end of day eight, all the pieces of the puzzle were ready: two sleeves (evil sleeves), and a front and back that had been sewn together, allowing a continuous rib to be knitted all around the neck with circular needles.

End of day eight:

Day nine was sewing day. I freely admit that I allowed mum to sew the evil sleeves to the body of the jumper. She kindly left me the easy bit, which was sewing up the sides. It was extremely satisfying to discover that the stripes front and back did indeed match up. There had been doubts at one stage, due to some slightly overzealous ironing. It isn’t wise to overzealously iron one’s woolly…

Sewing the stripes together
At the end of day nine: It lives, Igor, it lives!

So, all-in-all it took: nine days, a full kilometre of yarn, one broken needle, two viewings of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (yes, I watched it twice, and what?), a full rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar, six hours of Pride and Prejudice, a few outbreaks of tears, a lot of patience, a little obsession, and enormous supervision from She Who Must Be Obeyed. Not in a million years could I have done it without her. Thank mum!

She Who Must Be Obeyed. A worldwide knitting legend.

It was an extraordinarily intense process, and hugely rewarding to see the long strands of wool becoming a mass of fabric. But at the back of my mind I always had one worry. What if I hated it? What if I did all that work, and then I hated it and never, ever wore it?

Well, here's day ten:

The jumper goes to yoga

The jumper has breakfast

A few hours later, the jumper has lunch. The lady behind the jumper is really enjoying her sausage,

The jumper drives us home

The jumper walks the dogs
So there’s my jumper. Turns out I definitely like it and I'm definitely going to wear it. It’s a bit baggy, perhaps. The sleeves are slightly too long. And, well, it’s hardly discreet, is it? You couldn’t miss me walking down the street in that. But there’s something kind of joyful about it. I love the contrast of the green on red, and the sheer exuberance that I feel when I put it on. I made this, I think to myself. I may look a little bit bonkers, but I made this

I haven’t quite mastered the Zen of Knitting, but I think I might be on my way. Oh, and mum's really proud of me. She thinks it's fantastic how I persevered even when it was difficult and frustrating. But just to remind me who's boss, she started a new jumper:

Smart aleck.  

Twenty-three down, seven to go…


  1. Ha ha! Lovely. I learned to knit aged 6. The journey was about the same. Great jumper, JoJo.