When I was a young girl, most of my mother's women friends happened to be knitters. Whenever they came for a visit, it was in the company of a basket or a bag dedicated to carting the ingredients of a pastime that seemed soothing, orderly, and endlessly productive. Though it struck me as rude to remove all eye contact and divide attention between conversing with friends and looping away at a patch of scarf or a hat, the whole process impressed my mother.
Soon after an evening with a friend culminated in six inches of stocking cap, and a visit from my 20-something cousin ended in a sweater vest, I wound up in knitting class. Everyone in attendance seemed older than I and fluent in the language of knitting. They talked comfortably about gauges, row numbers, and stitch styles while I sat by silently, beginning to mourn the loss of my capacity to take knitwear for granted.
I was handed a beginner's book and told to pick a project. Fueled by the knitters' lively chatter, I chose the toughest project in the book: the cable-knit pullover. The directions were on the last page, beneath a photo of a happy young girl. I would come to know the reason for her broad smile: Clearly, someone else had made her sweater.
Without a stitch of experience, I strolled through the knitting section of the department store, searching for some idea of what I should be looking for. A gentle clerk helped me find needles and a counter, but she left the yarn up to me. I fell in love with a ball of sky-blue mohair, but I knew I needed something cheap and durable, in case things went wrong. Finally, I loaded up on school-bus yellow yarn from the bargain bin. It emitted the brightness of hope.
Casting-on proved easy, and learning the knit stitch was as simple as tying my shoes. Switching over to purling was more like tying the shoe of a kicking baby. Alternately knitting and purling in a strict pattern, row after row, was like trying to get a kicking baby to tie my shoe. lt just didn't happen.
I quickly learned how to unravel and start over while other students clicked away confidently and soft patches of woolly perfection grew beneath their needles. I grew weary of tearing out my work when gaps and knots appeared, so I lowered my standards. Still, I struggled, I sweated, I cried.
The yarn became dingy, overworked, and fuzzy. The yellow became so loud and intrusive that I knew, if ever I finished the project, it was the last thing in the world I would wear. I suddenly understood why so many knitters make gifts of their goods.
I'm not sure if it was my lack of progress or my general unhappiness that finally moved the instructor to pity. She provided enough help to get me through the cabled parts. By the end of the course, I had somehow turned out three pieces that resembled a front, a back, and one sleeve.
I put the pieces in a bag, shoved it into the far corner of my closet, and tried to forget about it. My mother, however, made sure the bag joined me in marriage. For the past 25 years, it has shuffled among various closets and attics throughout our many moves. Recently, I called it into service as a lesson for my daughters. "Always finish what you begin," I said, showing them my failure.
"You know how to knit? That's cool!" they responded, only interested in what was there, and not what was missing. "Why don't you finish it?" they asked.
"Maybe someday I will," I said, knowing I'd sooner learn to change the oil in my lawn mower than relearn to purl. I had come to accept the fact that my sweater would forever remain unfinished. Then came Oscar Night 2001.
My younger daughter and I settled in to watch the long pre-award parade of fashion. Most were glamorous, some were gaudy, all were worn with confidence. Suddenly, Sela Ward appeared in a long, pale shimmering dress with a high collar and one long sleeve. Her radiant smile made it obvious that she considered the dress complete.
If one sleeve was good enough for Sela Ward, it was good enough for me. At last, my sweater was finished. Of course, there is still the matter of mustering enough courage to actually wear a school-bus yellow, cable-knit sweater with one sleeve in public. That might take a little more time.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor