Lost Purls

Learning to knit was not something that came easily. Many of the women in my family have been knitters.  At least two of my great-grandmothers, both of my grandmothers, as well as assorted aunts and cousins. I took so easily to other crafts that my father’s mother, my Nona, taught me to knit and sew at a young age.

At that age hand sewing was far more interesting for me but still it was too slow of a process. I was making friendship bracelets and other jewelry all the time. Even the most complicated piece didn’t take more than a few days if I set my mind to it. Sewing could only captivate my young and voracious mind for so long.

Knitting was even worse. I mastered the basic knit stitch pretty quickly. Then I tried to purl. For whatever reason I hated that second stitch. I sincerely cannot remember what it was about it but my young hands just didn’t like switching from one to the other. I dropped a stitch while knitting a square, and didn’t notice until the whole thing began to unravel. Frustrated and in tears, I tossed it aside, vowing that I would never knit again.

It was half a dozen years or so before I picked up a pair of needles. Every summer I have the luxury of spending a few weeks with my father’s brother and sister and their families. We stay in a couple of cabins on Vancouver Island. The times that we are not exploring the forest or ocean we do a lot of crafts.

Multi-tasking at its finest. Nona, in the bottom right corner, is knitting and playing scrabble. Surrounded by her grandchildren.

One sunny day I approached our picnic table and discovered my Nona teaching my sister and younger cousins to knit. All of my anger at the unraveling square vanished in a strange surge of jealousy.  I picked up a pair of needles, a spare ball of wool, and watched as Nona led them through the process of casting on.  I couldn’t just admit that I didn’t remember how.

My second go at knitting lasted a bit longer than the first. I figured out how to purl without losing my stitches or my sanity. I knit myself a scarf. Grand plans to knit my friends scarves or socks for Christmas danced through my head. Then something else drew my attention away. School, friends, a boy, a new project.

Yet again my needles sat idly in my craft bin. The closest thing they had to contact with wool were the dust bunnies that shared the bin with them. It was around this time, while I was in college, that my grandmother knit me my first Cowichan wool sweater. Traditionally the First Nations of the Pacific North West knit these sweaters in heavy buffalo wool. They are adorned with patterns and motifs inspired by the local wilderness and animals.

One of the vintage patterns from White Buffalo Canada. Groovy.

I didn’t want a sweater knit from buffalo wool. I had seen them, and tried a few on, in a vintage store. As comfortable as it was, I felt like I was being weighed down. So I presented my grandmother with a bit of a challenge: take a pattern meant for very heavy wool and adjust it accordingly to the lighter but still chunky wool that I deemed appropriate.

Next step, was finding a pattern. Luckily we had a helpful family friend who hunted down a few on the internet and enlarged them. The end result was a grey sweater with orca whales on the back and front pieces. A wave motif borders the bottom and top of the sweater. It was miles too big for me. A symptom of adjusting the pattern. Afraid of making it too small in the new wool, she knit one of the largest sizes.

I was perfectly happy with the bulky sweater that fit over everything. I have it still, and wear it often. The wool pills more and more, leaving dots of grey behind on all of my other clothing. I have had to sew the zipper back in more than once. Its the most comfortable thing I own.

The first and favourite. Perfect for playing with the pooch on a sunny but biting spring day.

Nona was never happy with it and after I came home from traveling I received my second orca sweater. This one was blue, knit out of a higher quality wool, and a much better fit for my body. I appreciated the gesture. As an artist I understand the hatred one can have for something that didn’t turn out quite the way they wanted it. I do love my orca 2.0. Still, I wear the giant grey one more often than not.

One of my least favourite cliches is “third time’s the charm”. As with so many cliches it’s horrible because so often it turns out to be true. Such was the case with knitting. My third and final attempt to learn to knit was during winter 2015.

Duncan had moved from Scotland to Canada several months before. We stayed in the Lower Mainland for the summer, but both of us wanted to work a mountain season. Fernie, BC was our chosen spot. A little two bedroom apartment became our home. Sharing it with us were another couple, Rose and Damien.

All four of us were moved in and ready to go for the start of the winter season. Unfortunately, the snow had other plans. Lack of snow meant lack of work. Rose began knitting in her spare time. At first I watched out of the corner of my eye but I had little interest. Then she bought some circular needles and jumped straight into making a hat.

I was amazed at her audacity. She was a beginning knitter, what insanity led her to think she could just make a hat like that? The funny thing was, she could. And she did. It was a gorgeous fair isle tam that Damien wore with pride. Suddenly my brain began turning.

I picked up some knitting needles, started clicking away. After an infinity scarf to remind myself what I was doing I jumped straight into a cabled blanket. And then a fair-isle hat.

Choosing this pattern for my first hat ever almost exterminated my desire to learn knitting once and for all. Instead I delighted in the new opportunities that fair-isle and knitting in the round would give me. I am hooked now. Knit, purl and sinker.

By the time the winter was waning, visions of sweaters danced in my head. That had been my goal the entire time. Scarfs are pretty, socks are comfortable and blankets are warm. But the Cowichan sweaters… I could never get them out of my mind. The ultimate combination of art and function. I knew I had to make one, or give up on knitting forever.

But that is another story.


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