Playing Along: Knit 1, purl 2

Friday, January 31, 2014
I don’t really make things.

I mean, give me some Legos, the instructions and a couple of hours, and you’ll get back something that probably looks a bit like the photo on the box, but actually making something with my hands is usually beyond me.

I think most of it has to do with two things: patience and my hands.

The former (as anyone who has been a passenger while I’m behind the wheel in traffic can attest) is a quality I simply don’t have.

The latter aren’t really meant for artistic work or creating anything. Their primary function appears to be feeding myself, raising pint glasses to my face and “communicating” with other drivers while I’m behind the wheel in traffic.

The hands, I think, are the bigger problem. I don’t have the delicate, precise tools at the end of my arms that say, a pianist, jeweler or surgeon would have. No, my food-stuffers are blunt instruments, at best, used when expediency is the paramount concern, rather than delicacy.

I think that’s also why, despite the best efforts of instructors and editors, I am a terrible typist.

But I digress.

Having been a reporter for a while now, and having covered a fair number of municipal meetings and press conferences, I’ve noticed that the people who 
aren’t directly engaged with the proceedings, or staring at their mobile devices, or dozing off are all doing the same thing: knitting.

So much so, that I believe the four things that most often come out of city meetings are: committees, subcommittees, tabled motions and sweaters.

Leslie Ann Bestor, a co-manager at the WEBS yarn store in Northampton, said many people have taken up the practice of using their time at meetings in a non-intrusive way to create something.

Knitting is one of those creative activities that has a practical application and leaves you with something at the end that is, hopefully, aesthetically pleasing and that will be used and enjoyed.

Where it may have been done once out of necessity — back in the dark days before a person could buy a sweater on a cellphone from a public restroom at 5 a.m. — knitting isn’t something people tend to do these days just to save money.

Bestor says that, considering the cost of yarns and the amount of time required to knit a project of any significant size, it’s often less expensive now to buy a knitted sweater or scarf than to make one from scratch.

Wool yarns, I learned, can run a few dollars for each loose bundle, called a skein, and up to $60 or more for higher-quality fibers like cashmere.

As she showed me varieties of yarns in the store, Bestor asked, “You’ve heard of cashmere?”

“Of course,” I said. “It’s my favorite Led Zeppelin song.”

It might be my imagination, but I think Bestor started speaking more slowly and clearly to me after that.

I had no idea that there are so many fibers available these days that knitters can use. Bamboo, for instance. Who knew?

We got to a room at the back of the store where eight women are seated at a pair of long tables, each working on their own projects in various stages of completion.

WEBS hosts drop-in sessions at the store for anyone who wants to knit without having to sit through a hearing on roadway easements.

My arrival doesn’t go unnoticed.

“Wow, a guy is here,” one woman says.

Bestor said that, while it’s true that more men are taking up the needles, it’s still a relatively rare sight.

The novelty was kind of fun, sort of like being the last raisin in a bowl of oatmeal, but soon everyone went back to knitting.

We talked a little history while stitching away. Before the industrial revolution, Bestor said, knitting and weaving were artisans’ trades done mostly by men. But when weaving became factory work, knitting was mostly relegated to the home — and to the homemakers left behind during the workday.

Bestor took the liberty of getting a set of needles ready for me and “anchored” one of them with yarn (called “Northampton,” appropriately enough) and showed me how to do a simple stitch.

You take one needle, and use it to pry the top loop of yarn from the second needle, drape a loose end of yarn around that second needle and then somehow slide that stitch-in-progress off the first needle onto the second. Or something like that.

I realize that part of the difficulty for me is thinking in three-dimensional space and understanding how each stitch is constructed.

For example, through sheer repetition I can tie a bow knot, but I couldn’t look at a bow knot and tell you how it was made, or, by just looking at one, figure out the steps needed to make it.

So it goes with knitting. I’m making stitches as Bestor and I talk, but I couldn’t tell you how.

After a few minutes, I’ve stitched together enough yarn that I’ve made something that’s a bit more than lint, but much less than a napkin.

From there, Bestor said, you just keep going until you have what you’re making.

Easier said than done, of course.

Deciding what to make is one matter, figuring out how to make it is another. To that end, there are countless books and magazines filled with pattern after pattern after pattern.

Deciphering those patterns is a discipline unto itself.

One of the attendees showed me the instructions for a sweater she was working on. It appeared to be a non-descript grid of black lines with occasional circles and bumps at particular intersections.

The ability to look at that and see a sweater within reminded me of the characters in the “Matrix” films who can look at strings of computer code and see the images they represent.

“Is that Sanskrit?” I ask, pretty well dumbfounded.

What impresses me even more is that skilled knitters can create entire projects as one large piece, not a collection of smaller, individual pieces stitched together.

Stephanie Recor, of Conway, was working on a project like that on the evening I was there. When it was finished, she told me, the entire sweater would be one, continuous set of stitches. It baffled me that someone could knit a tube to a particular point, stop, take a left or right, and begin stitching a larger, connected tube off the first, and keep going until it’s complete.

I decided that it’s actually as much magic as any sleight-of-hand trick — it just takes longer. Until my visit to WEBS, I don’t think I ever appreciated the effort that went into those scarves, sweaters and blankets that would occasionally emerge from one of those dusty wicker baskets stuffed with yarn and needles at the homes of my aunts and grandmothers.

For what it’s worth, my advice is this: If someone knits you something, you should appreciate it, even if it’s ugly. It went through a lot to get to you.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.