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Rag Doll

Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.

habit-illo-03-14-lowresWinter in Chicago takes no more notice of the first of March than a mean-eyed general takes of boundary lines. It tramples right along, both fists swinging. Winter here is a bully, unstoppable, and knows it.

As the months drag on I always find myself growing smaller and smaller, retreating under blankets and into tighter corners. The flowers in the borders–if they ever existed, I may have dreamt them–survive the cold by shrinking, and so do I.

In the stillness I turn contemplative. I've been thinking through my early childhood, which seemed always at my fingertips until with a snap, a few weeks ago, it withdrew to a place so remote I worried I might lose sight of it completely, forever. If you have dropped a piece of complicated knitting that has fallen off the needles, you know this feeling. One moment, there is a shawl. The next, there is a tangle.

Perhaps this is how life goes, as you grow older? I must have crossed a border without noticing, like the mean-eyed general–punching away without realizing what I left behind.

So now I sit under the blankets, eyes closed, and try to gather up the threads that slipped.

This is my first memory of needlework.

I am four years old, and it is very hot. We are living in Arizona, in the early seventies. Arizona is still something of a frontier, and to elderly visiting relatives from the east it must seem like the moon.

I am perfectly accustomed to things my grandmother marvels at. Spanish spoken on the television. One hundred degrees at eleven o'clock in the morning. Cactus in the yard twice as tall as my father. Darting weird birds and lizards, and poisonous spiders right under the doorstep.

My grandmother has brought needlework with her. When she sits, out comes the needlework. My grandmother is small, even smaller than I will be thirty years later, but she is never still. When she sits, her fingers move. She has fabric the color of Arizona sand stretched tight in a big metal hoop. She is embroidering a scene in rough yarns, mostly green and brown. She can talk to me, follow a soap opera, and at the same time sketch the outline of a leafy potted plant with her needle.

Once, grandma takes the fabric in its hoop and puts the hoop on my head like a keffiyeh. My little Arab, she says–and I am, her late husband my grandfather was Lebanese–and I am thrilled. It is the only time I am ever allowed to touch the hoop.

I have a rag doll who has been too much loved. She was a birthday gift, on my first birthday; then one day I decided she was my best friend. She goes everywhere with me. I have taken to using whatever I can find–rubber bands, belts, shoelaces, handkerchiefs, kitchen towels, pillowcases–to expand her wardrobe to include veils, turbans, capes, aprons, and flowing gowns. This amuses people greatly, but will amuse them less when I turn five. There will be a furtive attempt to dispose of all my dolls. It will be unsuccessful.

Because my rag doll has been too much loved, she is badly hurt. Her cloth face has burst at a seam. Her right temple oozes stuffing, just below the hairline. I notice, but don't care. She will never be less than beautiful to me. I tie her up in a new creation–a strapless evening gown that is really a flowered bath towel–and show Grandma.

Grandma pokes the burst seam and clicks her tongue. The hoop is set aside and I don't remember the negotiations, but little Annie is removed from my clutches and undergoes a full physical examination. Not only her face, but her legs are sorely in need of repair. Her original dress is so threadbare won't stay on. That dress is no longer respectable.

The hoop disappears for a few days while Annie is given new legs and–most dramatically–a new face, cut from muslin and embroidered by Grandma to match the old one. My mother steps up and sews her a new dress from a serviceable red-and-blue fabric covered in anchors. It's a little boy's print, made into a dress for a little boy's doll.

Nobody questions this, yet. All they notice is that I love this doll, and she needs help. So they give it to her, and they give her back to me.

In celebration, I make her a new veil out of one of my father's undershirts. Like the little sister who will be born next year, she looks good in hats.

The doll is here in my workroom. She was not disposed of when I turned five. She has always been with me. Grandma, too, was always with me.

And then suddenly, she was not.

But here is her work, still with me. And so here she is, still with me.

Are you still and small in the cold?

What do you remember?

—–
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 KnittingYarn Market NewsInterweave KnitsInterweave CrochetPieceWorkCast On: A Podcast for KnittersTwist 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.

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