Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.
It is said in my family that my grandmother heard the government was planning to send a man to the moon and her entire response was, “Why? All they’re going to find up there is an ash heap. We have one of those over by the railroad tracks.”
Apollo 11 touched down and it was revealed that the surface of the moon does, in fact, look remarkably like the ash heap by the railroad tracks. She was gratified. As Armstrong talked about a giant leap, she talked right over him. “I told you so, ” she said. “Didn’t I tell you? I told you.” Science had merely confirmed what she already knew.
After several generations of being thought quaint, weird, slow, backward, old-fashioned, and obsolete, knitters have reason to feel gratified. Science has confirmed what we already knew. Knitting isn’t just quaint, weird, slow, useful, and beautiful. Knitting is good for your health.
When a rash of articles like this broke out in the mainstream press recently, non-knitters of my acquaintance choked my inbox with eager messages.
This specimen is typical.
Hey Franklin, have you seen this? I thought of you when I read it. I guess you are onto something after all. Maybe I should try it if it helps your brain, ha ha ha! Send me some yarn! Ha ha!
Laugh it up, friend. I told you so. Didn’t I tell you? I told you.
One of my less jocular acquaintances didn’t just send the link, he asked a question:
When you’re knitting, can you feel it working?
I wrote back,
I can’t speak for all knitters, of course; but for me the answer is yes.
And he wrote,
Okay, what does it feel like?
Huh. I hadn’t tried to pin that down before. I knew knitting made me feel better. But better how? Better why? When you write about knitting you don’t often get asked to write about knitting going well. You get asked about your disasters and your mistakes and the day you took out a restraining order against the entrelac shawl that had been willfully causing you distress for six months. Disasters are funny. Disasters are interesting. Happy projects that proceed without incident from cast on to bind off are dull reading, and make the writer sound smug.
But now this friend wanted to know what it feels like when knitting is going well. Why does it feel good? It doesn’t look like it should feel good . Have you looked–really looked–at a knitter lately?
Most of us are a mess, ergonomically. We tend to fall into either the Hunched category, huddled over our work like vultures toying with the last of the rabbit carcass; or the Sprawled category, languidly pawing the tangled mess that has spilled over our stomachs as we loll on the sofa.
And the motions themselves are less than compelling. We’re not launching a skateboard up a ramp and over a ravine. We’re not turning a radish into a chrysanthemum with rapid flourishes of a tiny knife. We’re not frantically covering a canvass with broad windmill strokes of oil paint. We’re pulling a little loop of yarn through another little loop of yarn with the end of a twig.
So no, it doesn’t look like much. Yet it feels good. Why?
To answer the question I had to go back to moments in my life when things were so bad that I didn’t so much want knitting as need it.
There was the time, for example, when it became clear that my grandmother–who had suffered a stroke and then spent a year perfectly alive but perfectly miserable–was going to die. It took a long time. She was unconscious, but alive. About once a day I would get a message from my father:
Granny continues to slip away.
I had so many thoughts. She was my first needlework teacher. A rare source of unconditional love. The last of my grandparents. Almost the last of her generation. The thoughts circled in my brain like horses on a carousel, up and down, creaking, ceaseless. It began to wreck me.
Someone who knows me well propped me up in a chair and put a project in my hands.
“Just knit,” he said.
So I did. I pulled loops through loops with the end of a twig. I did this thousands of times.
I was still thinking but now my thoughts were divided. I remembered my grandmother saying, “This is how you thread a needle,” and it hurt. But at the same time, I had to keep thinking, “Two purls, now knit. Two purls, now knit.” With my attention split in two, the sad thoughts hurt a little less.
Granny continued to decline. I continued to knit. While she gradually disappeared, a little jacket gradually appeared.
We dwelt for two weeks in uncertainty. How long could she go on? The doctors were mystified. Ninety-three years old, and in the hospital for the third time in her entire life. She might last a month or even more. My knitting was a certainty: if I kept pulling through new loops, I would make fabric. Panic rose in my chest, but if my hands worked steadily the panic would subside.
Then a phone call: she was gone. Peacefully, with dignity.
I hadn’t finished the little jacket yet. There was more knitting to do. Life stops, life goes on. You just have to keep stitching.
I could hear my grandmother’s voice.
“I told you so, ” she said. “Didn’t I tell you? I told you.”
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008–now in its third printing) and proprietor of The Panopticon (the-panopticon.blogspot.com), one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. On an average day, upwards of 2,500 readers worldwide drop in for a mix of essays, cartoons, and the continuing adventures of Dolores the Sheep. Franklin’s other publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and a regular column on historic knitting patterns for Knitty.com.
These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with an Ashford spinning wheel and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.