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Artifacts of a Knitting Life
It was August. Very hot and very humid. An Iowa City summer day. We were cooped up in our cool house and needed to get out. My kids wanted to go to Artifacts, a store worthy of its name. So we piled into the car, and cranked up the air conditioning. When we got there the kids rushed straight to the new vintage clothing department in the back. I lingered in the front, browsing through shelves cluttered with what could have been the artifacts of my childhood- toys, jewelry, fabric and dishes from the sixties.

I didn’t have to look hard to find the socks. They were near the humming air conditioner. Big and gray with red and tan toes, they looked like the socks the woodsman in Little Red Riding Hood would wear. Who really wore them, I wondered. And what I really wanted to know was, who knit them?

They were socks knit from the toe up, something like a Balkan slipper sock. A foreign way of making socks, I thought. They were knit confidently; this knitter had made plenty of these sturdy socks. The socks were made from scrap yarn, perhaps from leftovers from hats and mittens the knitter made for her woodsman husband and elf children.

Then there was a shawl, too, lavender, light and lofty, knit from a kind of Shetland wool with an even and steady gauge. The moth holes seem to dance on the perfectly knit and purl stitches.

I brought the socks and the shawl to the counter and asked Todd, the owner, about them.

“I bought them at an estate sale,” he told me.

I lectured Todd a bit about his purchases. Did he know the socks were knit toe up? Interesting, I added, It is a clue about where was this knitter from I continued. I was fascinated and my children, my best social critics, were too busy trying on clothes to stop me from chatting and speculating about the knitter's style and work.

Todd listened and waited patiently and then he said, “There were needles, too, bone, I think. Would you be interested?”

“Yes, always,” I told Todd. And I thought about how lucky I was. I would soon have some piece of local knitting history. I’m not sure why wool and needles, shawls and socks, and a knitter I never knew, meant so much to me on that sweltering summer day, but I was touched by the connection. It seemed as if it was a message of sorts like the bread crumbs Hansel and Gretel had left to make sure that they could find their way home. This knitter’s legacy might be the story I needed to find to help me navigate through life’s journey.

Todd told me the needles were buried with the boxes of other treasures he purchased that day. He promised me as soon as he unpacked some of the boxes, he’ d let me know. Meantime, I had the socks and shawl and a long hot summer with three kids home from school ahead of me.

Months later Todd ran into my husband at our food co-op. “Tell Michelle, I have the knitting stuff she wanted,” he said. “Have her drop by any time.”

The very next day, I made it to the store. Behind the counter, a box, thin and narrow decorated with delicate flowers was waiting for me. It formerly held perfumed rectangles of soap. And inside this box, the treasures; hand craved bone knitting needles and crocket hooks, and folded crisply, tucked under the cardboard package of six, size 1 stainless steel, double pointed knitting needles was a World War Two, Red Cross knitting pattern leaflet, with instructions for knitting gloves for our serviceman.

The discovery of the pattern made me more than mindful of the moment and time and place. It was as if this knitter had carefully packed all her needles and instructions for me, the next knitter. The pattern was not creased or worn. What did that mean? Did bad news, a son or loved one killed in the war, cause her to put away her needles and the pattern? Or did she put it all away for the next knitter, for the next war, because her war was finally over and her woodsman or elf child would soon return home?

Window to a cold autumn dayIt was a cold autumn day, the maple leaves bright and fluttering and the prairie wind fierce.  Perfect knitting weather.

I took my rectangular box of treasures home. I laid all the contents out on the table near my own knitting. I went upstairs and found those huge woodsman socks. Not so huge when I tried them on. A perfect fit. I went back downstairs and wrapped myself in the lavender shawl.

The house was quiet and the kids were at school. I should have been working on my new book. But I couldn’t head down to my studio, to my private, little inner world, not just yet. Right now, I was enveloped in this other world. The world of my box and hand carved needles and the official Red Cross pattern for war-weary hands.

I made myself a cup of hot tea. I sat down in my knitting chair with the tea on the chair’s arm and my new needles and hooks, my gift from an unknown Iowa knitter resting in my lap. The wind was howling outside. The sky was heavy and gray. Maybe snow that night. Or the next day. Soon, surely. The tea was very hot. I drank it from a cup and saucer that had belonged to my mother. A knitter, also. There was a purple iris on the side of cup and gold rim. A bone china special purchased in 1960’s by my mother at the Central Market grocery stores.

I tried out the carved bone crochet hook. I have never seen or used bone before. Only read about it. I took some of my leftover sock yarn and made some simple crochet patches. I tested the needles, too. I could use the patches for an afghan. My oldest would be going away to college in a year and it would be grand to give her a warm patchwork cover, slowly and carefully knit with these carved needles. They were made to last longer than a lifetime and that is how long I hoped my gifts to my daughter would last.

I worked a pattern and drank my tea. Life, I thought. This is it. Raise kids, do honest work, stay healthy and sane, nurture your relationships, try and grow old with grace. Amidst all this, knitting a warm blanket, a lavender shawl or a pair of sturdy socks does seem like a simple, special gift. The socks, darned and worn again and again, the shawl, still light and warm, softer from use. And the carved needles, hooks smooth for years of use get put away and then are found again.

image of teacup and red cross poster

Authored by

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, Room for the Baby, will be available from Random House in Fall 2012. Visit Michelle Edwards at her website or on Facebook.
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