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A Knitter's Portrait

This column by Michelle Edwards, author of A Knitter's Home Companion, originally appeared in The Weekly Stitch newsletter. To sign up for the Weekly Stitch and get columns like this, free patterns, how-to videos and more, click here.

mother knittingMy mother, Lillian Edwards, was a life-long knitter. She was an attractive, well-dressed woman: tall and thin with dark black hair and almond-shaped brown eyes that almost looked Asian. She called them “laughing eyes,” and that is how I like to remember them.

I’m told that as a young woman my mother knit socks, argyle ones. It was in the days before I was born, perhaps before she was married ... maybe even as a young, single, working woman, living in Manhattan with her parents in a tiny apartment on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island.

My mother grew up poor. Her parents were both Russian immigrants. My grandma Yetta, with a handkerchief soaked in vinegar, wrapped around her head, rested a lot. She suffered from migraines and was always carrying a large purse with her -- as if she was waiting to be uprooted again. This time she would be prepared. I would often seen her stuffing sugar packets in her purse when we were at HoJo's.

My grandfather, Samuel, was as a quiet man. Hard to reconcile my gentle grandpa with the gangster he used to be. My grandfather and his brothers were the strongmen for a liquor smuggling ring during prohibition. When they double crossed the boss, two of my uncles were murdered in broad daylight at a Philadelphia street corner. My grandparents, my mother, and my uncle fled Philadelphia in a hurry and slipped into Coney Island where they could meld and blend into the mass of Russian Jews like themselves.

I don’t know who taught my mother to knit. Maybe my grandmother did, when she was not resting. It wasn’t a question I ever thought to ask my mother when she was alive. I know that she taught me how to knit and that she knit like a Russian Jew, with her yarn in left hand, wrapped around second finger, picking open the stitch and pulling the yarn through with her right hand needle. It is a very fast and efficient way to knit and I am often asked by knitters out here in the Midwest to teach them “my way” of knitting.

By the time I knew my mother as a knitter, she was a middle class housewife, and she bought her yarn in downtown Troy, New York at Pearl’s Yarn Store. She bought her yarn, project by project; there were no large stashes of ‘I think maybe I’ll make this into a sweater sometime’ yarn.

Pearl Berg had a store in a brick building next to the gas station that her husband Art owned. There was a big picture window in front and large awning outside shading the name, "Pearl’s". Inside the store were an oval wooden table covered with knitting projects and cubbies of yarn from ceiling to floor. And it was dark. There was only the one window in the front of the store.

knittingneedlesThe yarns in those cubbies at Pearl’s were made into beautiful sweaters by my mother. At the height of the acrylic craze, my mother knit with wool. She knit lots of mittens, even kitten ones with googly eyes; heavy-hooded ski sweaters for the three of us kids to wear in winter; a very large tennis sweater for my very large father who never played tennis; a stunning mohair and silk green car coat for herself (my mother, who learned to drive as an adult). My mother made mohair sweaters for me and my sister. Mine was cream colored with specks of yellow and blue and red. My sister, the blue-eyed exception in our brown -eyed family, had a blue version: baby doll blue with a navy cable up the center. I remember getting to choose the yarn and my mother taking our measurements. I remember trying on the sleeveless sweater. And most of all, I remember my mother’s solid advice, 'when you knit a sweater, do both sleeves at once'.

As my mother grew older, Pearl’s went out of business. She bought her yarn where she could, mostly WT Grants. She began to knit easy projects like a Florida sweater that was made in a flash with lots of yarn-overs and stretch. My mother started to pick variegated, acrylic yarns to crochet afghans instead of knit. We kids were all gone by this time and my father died young, so alone in an empty house my mom would crochet in the evenings. Mindless handwork while she mindlessly watched TV. It could have been the tumor that eventually and slowly took over her brain, or the overwhelming sadness of being alone, but the zip went out of my mother’s knitting in those years.

The last project my mother ever did was one we did together. A simple afghan, starting as a rectangle and with colors changing every couple of inches. We used black to mark the color changes and when I can home from wherever I was in those days, I would work on it too. It is the only piece of my mother’s handwork that I still own. It is very large and heavy, almost like a rug. I am amazed that my mother and I, two pretty good knitters, would think to crochet such a piece. But we did. It tied us together in a way that has brought warmth to the grandchildren she never met. They love that afghan, and it was crocheted so tightly together, almost felted, that it should be around to warm the next generations to come. And for the other legacy of my mother’s knitting, the competent and careful, there is me. I make my sweater sleeves at the same time. And pairs of socks, too.

Sometimes I feel sad that I don’t have one of those beautiful sweaters my mother knit. Only pictures of them. But the real gift of my mother’s knitting is that she taught me how to knit. And I will always be grateful for that.


Michelle Edwards is the author/illustrator of A KNITTER'S HOME COMPANION and many award-winning children's books including CHICKEN MAN and STINKY STERN FOREVER. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys talking about books in schools throughout the US and beyond. Her newest book, MAX MAKES A CAKE, is now available. Visit with Michelle at her website and on Facebook and Twitter.

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