I sat at my Gran’s feet and watched as her knitting needles clicked and clacked. It was always a singlet for a new baby. I would watch in awe as the little garment would grow and be added to the pile in her bag. It never grew larger but it was always being added to. When someone was in need, Gran would reach into her bag with kindly hands and the toppling tall pile would become slightly smaller. We all wore them – those blessings of love – children, grandchildren, friend’s children and grandchildren.
Image: Knitting by EmilyClaireCasey, DeviantArt
But no one seemed to hear me when I asked to learn. “Your hands are too small yet” they gently explained. I refused to accept it and made them give me yarn and knitting needles, but it was hard and I put them away. Seven, and I tried again, this time with more success. Still no-one seemed to understand the urgency I felt to learn. I taught myself without knowing how and one sunny afternoon, my dolls were soon adorned with red tank-tops and skirts. Then Mum came home…
“Well,” she said. “I guess you aren’t too small!” and gave me a beginner’s lesson in knitting. In the years following, my Gran taught me to pick up stitches and my Aunty Helen (one of those safe family friends that every child needs) helped me with the challenges of pattern reading and my first jumpers.
Since I first picked up yarn and needles, they have never been far from reach. They have seen me through loneliness, abuse, unemployment, romance, heartbreak, a failed marriage, domestic violence, health problems, getting evicted and being so poor that I don’t know how my children would have shoes and coats for winter. Yarn and needles have brought me joy – a way to give and share delight and love. My children have been invited to parties on the strength of my one-of-a-kind handknitted creations. Today, I am the President of the Handknitters Guild of South Australia.
How did I know I could survive as long as I had knitting in hand? I don’t know. It just proved to be true. Brian Weiss says that if you have truly leaned something in a previous life then you just can’t not do it in this life. Once learned, it is intrinsic to who you are. And so it is.
“definition of knitting:
To unite closely, to grow together, to connect, to engage,
as hearts knit together in love.
as broken bones will in time knit,
and become sound.”
Madaloon on Deviantart
It was the 1970’s and I was very small when I first begged to be taught to knit. Smaller than she had been when she was forced into labouring in the mills. I had a warm bed and clean dresses and a mother who loved me and bullied me in equal measures. Mum seemed to understand that I just couldn’t cope with being hungry and would push the raw cut vegetable pieces toward me with the blade of the knife as she cut them for dinner. I was never hungry and I was cuddled often.
We would get together for family birthdays – my grandparents, my parents, aunties and uncles and cousins. There was a rhythm to family life and a gentle order to our time together. The women cooked. The men laughed and joked. The children played. We ate and ate – wonderful homemade food – food prepared in the way my Irish great-grandmother had handed down – soup and roast and jams and cakes – mostly prepared from what we grew.
Washing the dishes was a ritual that involved everyone offering and most being turned down. Those who cooked were the first to be relieved of duty and teenage children were frowned at until they offered to wipe up. I remember the damp tea towel becoming sodden in my hands as we wiped and wiped, the kitchen slowly returning to order.
And then came the best part. After our meal, Granny and Aunty Dell would sit and knit and reflect. I listened and learned, embraced in their love.
Image: To knit. by Madaloon on DeviantArt
I scurried back and forth beneath the machine as it clicked and clacked with metallic precision. The noise was deafening but I paid it no mind, intent on picking up the stray fibres that fell to the floor. I hated these inhuman machines that allowed for no rest and no joy.
“When I have children,” I promised myself, “I will make them things with my own two hands and I will put love and joy into every stitch. They will not wear inhuman things made by these machines.”
Image: Child labourer, Newberry, South Carolina by Lewis Hines 1908
It was a fierce and passionate promise that rang through the ethers, as such promises do, to survive death and rebirth. I didn’t know that I would not live to adulthood in this life. I would not have the children I yearned for when I was but a child myself – skinny arms and pale legs in a dirty shift – just one of the many child labourers of the Industrial Revolution.
I sit here now, typing on the porch, circular knitting needles and yarn close to hand, keeping faith with the child I was. Where to begin? When I first met her, or when I first kept faith with the promise she made herself? Is this her story or my story? We are one.