Bouguereau Knitting Girl Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
There is something personal about knitting your first scarf. It is like writing the first draft of a book or producing a soufflé. It isn't something that you immediately want witnessed, especially as a beginner knitter. Whilst I have been casting my grandmother’s knitting spell: in there, wool round the needle, under and off, with regular abandon over the last weeks, keen to produce the right conditions for knitterly success, I have also been fairly secretive about knitting as my new passion. The commitment is still there, and the passion to really master a craft instead of constant dabbling, but I have been feeling exceptionally clumsy with the needles. My mother is a staggeringly good knitter and has always shocked me with the dexterity of her technique. The woman looks like she is playing a violin instead of knitting, her fingers flashing with incredible speed as the individual acts of taking up the yarn and making a stitch, morph into one fluid movement. Intimidated by this memory, I have been knitting carefully, indulging in a much less streamlined example of the knitter’s art. I had the idea that I would be shamelessly knitting on buses and in parks, sharing the knit with all and sundry, but this is naïve knitting, tentative, a little confused and very slow. Maybe you know what I mean? Several times I have asked myself, how hard can it be, this making of loops?
It’s pretty obvious that Bourgereau’s ‘Knitting Girl’ (above) was an accomplished knitter – for there she is, daringly resplendent, plying her needles in the daylight. It might seem that she is knitting something simple and homey, socks perhaps, but its my guess she was more of a lace and intarsia girl and any socks she made would be edged with something intricate. Take another look, she meets your gaze, no shying away and burying her face in a state of universal beginner knitters’consternation, rather, her countenance, her stance, are those of the public knitting club, of which, as yet, I am not a member. And a bit of frustration has crept in, for I am so keen to get better, to take my little bit of yarn from the realms of the garter stitch scarf to the lofty echelons of lace shawls, to leave this knitterly awkwardness behind me: to be able to work out replacement yarns, to read a pattern, to speak ‘knit’.
Or that’s how I began the week, slightly frustrated, slightly embarrassed, wishing I was somewhere else, someone else – an advanced knitter, a 2013 ‘Knitting Girl’. My project was of course, the classic beginner’s scarf, in garter stitch of course. I will get better, I told myself determinedly, I will, I will. I found a bundle of knitting needles in a charity shop, and invested in a ball of the hand painted Japanese yarn, Noro, believing that if I really loved the yarn, then I would surely be able to finish it. I found it online and was intrigued by its self striping qualities, which knit into such a subtle and interesting cornucopia of patterns and colours. When it arrived in the mail, I sat for ages just stroking it, as if it where a cat, recumbent in my lap. Then I intentionally identified a whole afternoon in my diary for starting to knit with it. For seasoned knitters – and by that, I mean knitters who have moved beyond a basic scarf grooved with garter stitch - the high of producing a length of soft and wearable fabric from string and sticks is likely to be soon forgotten. It is a place that is difficult to return to and one not usually heralded in the pages of a knitting magazine. It is also considered as a given that we will want to race through our garter stitch scarf lengths as quickly as possible, seeing them merely as markers on the way to something more intricate. We are mostly convinced that because there is so much to knit, and so little time, we need to knit fast, learn fast and fairly gallop through the rigours of first scarf construction.
Berthe Morisot XX Young Woman Knitting ca -1883
And for me, that is how the journey of the first scarf began, as a race to get somewhere else – to the absorbing and heady world of Ravelry queues, the mystifying language of steeks. It was tiring that I had to concentrate so much. It made me cross. I know some knitters who enjoy watching a DVD as they churn out a sweater and remembered that my grandmother liked to watch TV as she knitted socks, without a pattern. I wanted to be out in public demonstrating technical flair and creative virtuosity. I wanted strangers to bill and coo at my colour choices and shake their heads at my crafting abilities. I dreamt of hearing them say ‘Wow, I want to do that’. I wasn't supposed to feel cross, that wasn't why I’d taken up knitting. It was this repeated confrontation with irritation and frustration and downright crossness that got me thinking: this isn't how its supposed to be, so why does it? Would it instead be possible to let go of some of the pressure and lean back into the world of the beginner knitter? Enjoy being there, just me, the yarn and the pointy sticks, doing a haphazardly choreographed dance and releasing a stretch of nubby scarf, probably indented with a fretwork of holes?
So that is where the beginner knitter (aka me) sits this week. Trying to lean back into the moment and acknowledge it for what it is, no more, no less. No effort in getting somewhere else, just relaxing into the actual physical activity of knitting, learning to listen, not just to the burr of the TV set, motor bikes revving outside, the night time breath of my old cottage, but to my own individual knitting rhythm. For me, it’s about pushing expectations aside (even generational ones, that fancy sock-knitting grandmother for one) and finding my own knit. And when I do, I’ll be ready to give that Knitting Girl a run for her money, because then I’ll knit in any dell/wood/park/café/garden/public place that I damn well choose.
Lee Ronald likes to begin things, in fact it might be one of the things she’s best at. She is a beginner knitter, beginner dressmaker and beginner cross-stitcher. However she seems to have forded the river of beginning in terms of words for she earns her living as a freelance writer and editor, www.thewordgarden.co.uk. When she is not writing or beginning things, she is usually partaking of her national (English) sport of tea drinking in her home office in the quirky and historically inspiring city of York.