September 24, 2019

The ties that bind One woman’s abandoned project becomes another’s therapeutic treasure

The ball of bright purple yarn grows smaller each day. Slowly, I knit it into 6-inch-by-6-inch squares. It might become, after I put all the squares together, an afghan, a warm weight of wool fabric to lay across my knees like a well-loved pet. Or I might lay it on the floor to make an island of color against the hardwood surface.

I am not especially fond of bright purple. My eye lingers longest on grayed tones of blue, rose, brown, red and off-white. I did not choose this jarring purple yarn; it selected me.

For reasons I don’t quite understand, friends and family see me as the sort of woman with whom they can “place” their orphaned skeins, their handicapped or abandoned knitting projects, the hopeless tangles of their frustrated needlework attempts.

“Here, take this,” they say, “I’ll never finish this. Maybe you can do something with it.” Sometimes my house overflows with these waifs. Sometimes they reside in baskets in a closet for years before I am inspired to do something with them. Inspiration is a fickle thing and may strike me at extremely inconvenient times – when I already have other needlework projects in progress, when I ought to be writing, when the cat wants to sit in my lap.

But one day, when it’s snowing outside, I’ll feel the loose ends of the day snaking out to claim my thoughts, when I am longing, perhaps, for a diversion from the printed page. I root out the baskets of yarn, line them up like cradles, each one unique in what it contains, each one lively with creative possibility. How, I ask myself, can some of this fit together? What does it want to be – sweater, scarf, mitten, hat, socks, afghan? Usually, my fingers make the decision, the texture of the yarn speaking as loudly as color.

I rummage in the beat-up utility basket which once belonged to my late sister. There I find knitting needles of the right size and length – 8s, long, for a sweater, double point 5s, short, for mittens. I sit down and begin.

As I knit, my thoughts are free to wander anywhere – life, love, relationships – but they always settle on the person who gave me the yarn. Somehow, the kindness of that person, who saw in me a repository for her unrealized creativity, becomes enmeshed in the loops I knit. In that way, the process of knitting and the piece, itself, becomes a symbol for that person, who drifts so pleasantly into my thoughts. Somehow, the regard I feel for that person is caught in the strands and the energy of caring is knit into the rows.

The ties that bind …

The bright purple yarn was a handoff from a seminary student who became immersed in the delights of Old Testament archaeology, more adept at untangling the mysterious kinks of ancient history than in winding skeins into neat, fat balls. She did not recall the yarn’s history, but I know from the way it’s spun – two-ply with a certain rough feel and the scent of lanolin – that it could have come from Bartlett’s mill in Harmony, founded in 1821, where sheep farmers still bring fleeces to be processed. It’s the best kind of yarn, redolent of barns and hayfields, warm and practical. It contains bits of chaff – a sliver of hay, the spine of a burr – and smells like the animals from which it came. It is of the earth and as I knit the purple squares – some in seed stitch, some in cables – I feel connected to the pastures where the sheep grazed and lambs bleated on a frosty March morning.

My great-great-grandfather Herrick, whose family was early settlers of Harmony, may have carried his fleeces to Bartlett’s mill, and returned with finished, off-white skeins for his wife and daughters to knit into socks and mittens to guard them against the deep cold of the long, isolated winters on Sugar Hill.

The ball of purple yarn, the click of the needles, the rhythmic motion of my hands and fingers, remind me of my Grandmother Hamlin and the red sweater she knit for me when I was 17. That was the year I taught myself to knit, guided by a 10-cent copy of a Coats and Clark instruction book. She and my mother offered to teach me, but I was too fiercely independent then to grasp the simple verity of what they wished to teach me. They let me figure it out for myself which is, perhaps, a much more valuable and lasting gift.

I think of my Uncle Bill knitting for me a pair of white mittens with rust-colored ombre stripes on the wrists. I was 9 years old. He suffered from a heart ailment and could no longer work. I don’t know where he learned to knit, but I remember him telling me that as a youth in the 1920s, he had taken the skill with him when he went to work in the lumber camps where men often knit for enjoyment and utility – cutting wood was hell on socks and mittens.

I think of my mother’s friend Lee, knitting a sweater from Scandia “thick and thin” wool in a lovely off-white color with a darker thread running through it. She carried her knitting everywhere, but she was no social shrinking violet. She knit almost as fast as she talked, drank beer straight from the dark brown bottle, used pungent language, and chain-smoked. “Use big yarn and big needles,” she once advised me. “It goes faster.”

I think of my late sister, Nancy, knitting for her husband pairs of socks with two narrow red stripes planned to fall just below the wearer’s knees, socks with a certain air of rugged elegance knit right into them because her “hand” was so steady, so precise. Her mother-in-law, Alice, taught her to turn the heel and that lady wrote out the directions in longhand on a sheet of blue-lined tablet paper. Those directions, a relic of my sister’s knitting past, a fragment of the collective history of the anonymous men and women who knew by heart how to double-knit a heel, belong to me now.

And I think of the student, who gave me the purple yarn, off somewhere on the other side of the world unearthing shards of pottery, leaving me here content to enjoy the wooly skeins of treasure waiting in my baskets.

Ardeana Hamlin is a copy editor at the Bangor Daily News and the author of “Pink Chimneys,” a novel set in Bangor in the early 1800s.

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