As a child, I thought of knitting as a kind of magic, in which a one-dimensional object became two-dimensional or even three-dimensional. While you watched, a very long piece of string somehow turned into a hat or a sock or a mitten, something with shape and weight, an inside and an outside. Appropriately, this transformation was accomplished with long shiny sticks, like the magic wands in fairy tales.
It wasn’t only the materials that, for me, were transformed. The people who could perform this magic seemed, in everyday life, to be everyday humans. But when they picked up their wands they turned into sorceresses or fairy godmothers, mistresses of a secret art.
My mother, like most of her friends, could knit, but she much preferred sewing, and made charming clothes for my and my sister’s dolls on her old treadle Singer. When I was seven she tried to teach me to knit, but without success. Under her reluctant instruction I managed about twelve inches of a lumpy scarf in alternating wobbly stripes of brown and canary-yellow garter stitch. Then I gave up, and for several years refused to try again.
My mother was of Scottish descent, and always reluctant to waste anything. After a while she took over the wool and created an afghan of alternating brown and canary-yellow squares. It was one of the few knitting projects she ever completed, but it lasted for a long time. It was admired and even loved by my younger sister and eventually by both her children and mine when they were small. For one of them it temporally became a beloved and comforting ”blankie,” or as psychologists call it, a “transitional object.” Only I never liked the thing, no doubt because it reminded me of my wonky failed scarf.
Eventually, a friend of my mother’s managed to teach me to knit in the rapid European method, in which the yarn is held in the left hand and there is less movement of the arms. My first project was also a scarf, but this time a more successful one, in a light, soft, blue wool.
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According to historians, knitting is probably very old. Few ancient examples have survived, though socks from Egypt are believed to date from the eleventh century. Archaeologists have found many more woven textiles, but it seems likely that knitting may predate weaving. Weaving demands a settled environment, and bulky equipment in the form of a loom. Knitting requires only a ball of yarn and needles, and it would therefore be well suited to nomadic people who followed the migrations of game or the seasonal ripening of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Knitters can and still do carry their work with them: even today you will often see women knitting on long journeys.
By the late Middle Ages, knitting was well-established. A fourteenth-century painting by Bertram von Minden shows the Virgin Mary finishing up what looks like a loose pink short-sleeved top. Weavers and seamstresses typically work sitting down, but it is possible to knit while standing, or even while walking. It can also be done when it is too dark to sew, something that was especially important before the invention of electricity. Shepherds and shepherdesses traditionally knit as they watched their flocks, and there are many seventeenth-, eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century paintings of women in peasant dress knitting, often while standing up. Back then, it wasn’t just a hobby, as it often is today, but an essential household craft. Many women (and occasionally men) either created wool socks, scarves, and sweaters for themselves and their families, or went without.
Since it did not demand physical strength, knitting was something you could do at any age, and to judge by the art of the period, the very young and the very old were frequent knitters. Some not only supplied their families but also made things for sale, including fine silk stockings for the rich. “Young Knitter Asleep,” a painting by the eighteenth-century French artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) shows a little girl, about seven years old, who has dozed off over this monotonous task.
Crochet, patterns for which first appeared in the early nineteenth century, was at first a very different kind of handcraft. It belonged to what was referred to often as “fancy work,” which included tatting, tapestry, and embroidery. The important thing about fancy work was that it was both artistic and unnecessary. It was a characteristic leisure occupation of well-to-do women who did not have to create anything essential. Instead they demonstrated their taste and skill by making decorative objects: embroidered handkerchiefs and slippers, crocheted lace for edgings and trimmings, little net purses, doilies and runners for tables, and fancy antimacassars for sofas and chairs. Knitting was practical and plebian; fancy work was largely decorative, and prestigiously useless.
In nineteenth-century literature, it’s often true that good women knit and bad women crochet or do fancy work. In Jane Austen’s “Emma,” the long-suffering good girl, Jane Fairfax, is a dedicated knitter, as is her aunt, Miss Bates. (Emma herself does not knit.) Hester in Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” is a self-supporting single mother who knits and sews for a living. On the other hand, Thackeray’s anti-heroine Becky Sharp, in “Vanity Fair,” practices fine netting in order to show off her long white fingers and captivate Josiah Sedley.
In Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” Levin’s loyal and lovable wife, Kitty, knits while she is in labor with her first child. Anna herself crochets nervously and automatically as she confronts her lover, Count Vronsky, who has just returned from a party:
“…You don’t know what I have suffered waiting for you. I believe I’m not jealous. I’m not jealous: I believe you when you’re here; but when you’re away somewhere leading your life, so incomprehensible to me…” She turned away from him, pulled the hook at last out of the crochet work, and rapidly, with the help of her forefinger, began working loop after loop of the wool that was dazzling white in the lamplight, while the slender wrist moved swiftly, nervously in the embroidered cuff.
The virtuousness of knitting was emphasized in wartime, when even well-to-do women were encouraged to knit for the troops. In Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” both Jo and Beth do so during the Civil War, Beth happily and uncomplainingly and Jo with some irritation.
“…It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!” And Jo shook the blue army sock till the needles rattled like castanets, and her ball bounded across the room.
The tradition of patriotic knitting for the military continued for years, both in fiction and in real life. During the Second World War, when I and my friends were in high school and college, we were recruited as knitters. I still remember the hanks of heavy, slightly oily, dark-khaki yarn we were issued, and the blurred mimeographed patterns for scarves and socks. The more expert knitters among us were also able to produce thick gloves, and helmets that covered the whole head except for eye and mouth-holes. When I went into the Unitarian Church on my first day as a volunteer and was met by a figure wearing one of these death’s-head helmets, I was terrified.
In fact, this apparition should have been no surprise: the association between knitting and death is a persistent dark side of the craft. Readers of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” will remember the two women, one young and one old, who sit silently knitting black wool in the office of the company that is about to send Marlowe to the Congo. As he looks at the older of the two, he tells us:
An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes. Ave! Old knitter of black wool. Morituri te salutant. Not many of those she looked at ever saw her again—not half, by a long way.
The most famous and sinister knitter in literature is surely Madame Defarge from Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” set at the time of the French Revolution. Madame Defarge, whose husband keeps a wine shop in Paris, is a tall, handsome, black-haired woman in her forties. Her father, brother, and sister have died as the result of the cruelties of an aristocrat, and she seeks revenge on him and his family. As she waits, she knits the names of potential victims of the guillotine into her work. Later, she and her friends go to watch the deaths she has forecast. Dickens did not invent this detail: many scholars have recorded that revolutionary women would often knit as they stood watching the public executions.
The best-known knitter in twentieth-century fiction is also closely associated with violent death, though as a benevolent rather than a malevolent spirit. This is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, an elderly lady, constant knitter, and amateur detective who lives in a tiny English village where she solves one case after another. Anyone who has lived in such a village themselves, or cast even the most passing glance at crime statistics, cannot help but be surprised at the number of murders that take place in or near St. Mary Mead. Can it be that Miss Marple’s hobby somehow draws the victims there? After all, there has always been a kind of uncanny aspect to knitting, sometimes good, as with my mother’s afghan, and sometimes evil. A steel knitting needle can be a weapon, especially if its point has been quietly sharpened. There are several instances of murder by knitting needle in detective fiction; but as far as I know no one has ever been killed with a crochet hook.
Even in real life, knitters are aware of the supernatural side of their craft. What is widely known among us as “the sweater curse” is recognized as a superstition, but one which many personal accounts support. Essentially, it says that if you start knitting a sweater for any man in whom you have a serious romantic interest, he will break up with you before it is finished. (A few knitters I know claim that the curse also works with scarves.)
The rational explanation of the sweater curse is that a handmade sweater is typically thick, elastic, and clingy: it suggests that the woman who is making it wants to surround its recipient and enclose him. To be presented with such a garment is a signal to a man that its maker has serious plans for him. If he is not ready for this, the gift will embarrass him and may frighten him away. (The same phenomenon, according to one of my informants, has been observed in relationships between two women.) It has been claimed that knitting a deliberate mistake into the sweater will break the curse, but according to one of my friends this doesn’t usually work. Knitters would therefore be well advised to wait until after the wedding to start any such project—especially since it is also believed by some that a sweater made for a husband both warns off other women and keeps him safe at home.
This essay is drawn from “Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting,” which will be published in November by W. W. Norton.
Alison Lurie has published nine novels and is a former professor at Cornell University.
Illustration by Nolan Pelletier.
I've been passionate about hobbies my whole life. I love learning, collecting, researching and developing new skills. Some of these skills have proven useful in my career, and some are just for me to enjoy. Today we're gonna talk about the private ones. The ones that make life better and help us decompress at the end of a long day.
Growing up together Emma and I had a LOT of hobbies including: horse back riding, gymnastics, basketball (yes really), writing children's books, knitting, line dancing, cooking, reading, acting, painting, drawing, singing, dying our hair (every color!), collecting vintage, cheerleading, photography, running, scrapbooking, wood working, beer making, sewing, baking, collecting and everything in between. It's fun to stay busy with stuff that makes you happy. Hobbies come and go over the years. I love the idea of always having a "current obsession".
If you're in the market for a new hobby, here are a few tips to help you choose the right one for you…1. Find something that helps you forget your day and unwind.
Running is my perfect "alone time" hobby. I like to run with headphones and listen to my favorite guilty pleasure music. I have time to think. I forget about work. When I'm done I feel renewed. I love all of these things. It's also a good hobby for my personality type, because I can make and achieve small goals, which is a huge source of motivation for me. Right now I'm working my way up to a 10 mile run and it feels amazing to get closer and closer to my goal. In the end the goals are secondary, though. What I get out of my hobby is that it sets aside time just for me. Some people may feel exactly the opposite, needing a social hobby instead.
2. Take inventory.
Literally, look around your home and see if there are any neglected hobbies that you started but haven't completed. Last week our brother reminded Emma how she had been writing a children's book (this was four or five years ago), and she had totally forgotten about it! She never finished that project, and now she's thinking she might pick it up again, just for fun.
You also need to take inventory of your life and think about what kind of time you have to devote to a hobby. We are all busy, especially during certain seasons of life. So be honest with yourself about what kind of time you have to devote to a hobby and don't over-commit or try something that you just realistically can't accomplish. A hobby is something you should do for you and should make you feel good about yourself, not constantly sad that you aren't achieving as much as you think you should or are unable to really enjoy it.3. Explore things first.
If you're feeling stuck, try going to a hobby store and just walking around. You don't have to buy anything. Just look around and dream about what you might like to try. Talk to your friends and see what they are doing. Maybe you can join them? Or maybe they will give you an idea for a project you might like to try. And if possible, try things out before you commit (financially or otherwise). For example, if you're thinking you might like to try rock climbing, go with a friend and use their equipment before you dive in and commit to joining a gym or buying supplies. Use your mom's sewing machine and see if you like sewing before you buy your own. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I've definitely been guilty of making those impulse buys only to watch it later collect dust. Giving yourself freedom to explore different options is a great way to feel like you don't have to stick with something you end up not loving. Go ahead and dip your toes in the water!What about you? What hobbies are you in love with right now? What helps you relax? xo- Elsie (& Emma too)