By Rachael Herron
My grandmother was a New Zealand farm wife who lived on a sheep farm, which was handy since she was a knitting addict of the highest order. In my mind’s eye, she is always in one spot, even now that she’s been gone thirty years: She sits in her green upholstered rocker, her feet tucked up on the embroidered footrest, a blanket wrapped around her, her needles clicking in her hands. The air smells pleasantly of burnt toast and rose water. Her fingers never slow, never stop.
When I was born, my grandmother knitted a garter-stitch blanket for me. Just the size of a twin bed, it was my constant comfort growing up. Made of long strips in many colors, she used yarn from her local area, Ashburton. That wool has worn like iron, and I’ve always been curious which mill spun it. I’m 45 now. There still isn’t a single hole in the whole thing. As I write on the divan in my office, it rests behind me. I pull it over my legs on chilly afternoons. When I ball it up under my head, it’s a perfect scratchy pillow for naps (scratchy wool is, of course, unbearable unless there’s enough love knitted into it. Love makes everything softer).
I’ve been thinking recently, as friends and family age and get sick and die, about what we leave behind as knitters.
What I’ve realized is this: We are the lucky ones.
We are the makers. From our fingers come one-of-a-kind, truly unique items that mean something.
What we make lasts. What we make is useful. What we make is beautiful.
The non-makers of the world leave behind things. They leave vases and furniture and jewelry and silverware. These things are nice to have, but you can’t cuddle a serving spoon. Kitchen tables don’t warm cold feet. Diamond rings don’t dry tears very well (though I’ll certainly give it a shot, if you ask me to).
We, on the other hand, leave behind so much! (Let’s not even think about how many unfinished objects my loved ones would find in my knitting closet if I were hit by a bus today. It’s more than ten, fewer than a hundred. Probably.)
We leave finished objects. We leave sweaters that are out of style but still soft. We leave socks that have a tiny hole in the toe but are still warm. We leave stuffed animals that have been worn into realness, like the Velveteen rabbit.
Best of all, I think, we leave blankets.
Blankets are the Holy Grail of leaving-behind. They don’t go out of style. You can wear absolutely anything under them, including (especially) pajamas. They’re shareable, and even with moth holes and dog-chewed edges, they’re still full of warmth and love.
Science alert: knitting carries the DNA of the one who made it—as we knit, we shed epithelial cells right into our work. (This is why your cat likes best to sleep on the cashmere cowl you knitted—it’s not because it’s so soft, though that doesn’t hurt, it’s because it smells like you and will always smell like you. Your cells are literally knitted into it.)
Those blankets are the hugs of the knitting world, reminding us of arms that can’t hold us anymore.
Blankets knit for the photographer's children by his grandmother and mother-in-law. Photo by James Godish.
We also leave behind our tools. Clara Parkes, of Knitter’s Review, says that her grandmother left her “needles, mostly single-pointed straights in slightly bent plastic or clangy aluminum or slightly rough wood. I don't use them, but I wouldn't trade them for anything in the world.”
Oh, that slight bend in the needle, that curve where a loved one’s finger pressed so often the metal or plastic softened and bent, giving to the pressure. What a gift it is, to fit our fingers into those spots, to feel those grooves.
Diane Muskal Gross says, “Some of the needles I found in Grandma's hutch were bent and dirty. Grandpa had used them for tomato plant stakes.”
How gorgeous is that? Diane has the needles her grandmother knitted with that her grandfather repurposed to grow vegetables. Ashes to ashes, knitting to tomato vine.
We also leave behind things that are more nebulous, more difficult to measure and store.
We leave knowledge. We leave legacy. We leave attitude.
When I wanted to learn to knit, my grandmother was almost 7,000 miles away. I asked my mother to teach me. She knew how to knit, but the bug had skipped a generation. I like to think of it as the gift Grandma gave just to me. Seeing the yarn and needles in Mom’s cedar chest brought on a desperate, painful yearning in my heart—you know when you fall in love with an activity before you even try it? That was me with knitting.
Mom taught me the basics: casting on and off, knit and purl. With those simple gifts, she passed on her own mother’s legacy. The knowledge she gave me that day when I was a pesky, annoying, hyperactive 5-year-old, is something that I use daily and will until I die. Knitting calms me in a way nothing else does. Knitting isn’t meditation to me—it’s even simpler than that. It’s like breathing. It’s just who I am.
By teaching me to knit, she also gave me a certain attitude to life, an attitude that says, “Oh yeah? That’s all you’ve got to offer me, big-box store? Well, I’ll just make my own, and it’ll be so much more awesome.” It says, “I’ll make my friend who just lost her husband a sweater to keep her warm this first lonely winter rather than sending a bouquet of flowers.” It says, “I’m never bored. I entertain myself by making something completely new.”
We also leave behind unfinished works.
The heartbreaking things are the pieces left unfinished. In Anne of Green Gables, when Ruby dies, Ruby’s mother gives Anne an embroidered centerpiece she’d been working on.
“Ruby would have liked you to have it….It isn’t quite finished—the needle is sticking in it just where her poor little fingers put it the last time she laid it down, the afternoon before she died.”
“There’s always a piece of unfinished work left,” said Mrs. Lynde, with tears in her eyes.
“But I suppose there’s always someone to finish it.”
Lori Gluckman Winterfeldt says, “My knitting group included Janet, who was a great-grandmother in her late 80s. She had begun a blanket for her great-grandchild, which was left undone when she died. As a group, we decided to each take turns knitting the blanket to finish it and presented it to her daughter to pass to her great-grandchild. I think for each of us, it was our way of grieving for—and paying tribute to—a woman who taught us so much about life. I'm pictured here with other members of our group after finishing the blanket.”
We are the lucky ones.
What we make lasts (especially if it’s made of acrylic—that stuff will last millennia).
What we make is useful. It’s warm, soft, and comforting.
And what we make is beautiful, just like we are—just like the ones who went before us, and just like those who will come after, the ones with cold feet who will need our leftover warmth and love.
Rachael Herron is the bestselling author of Splinters of Light, the Cypress Hollow series, and the memoir A Life in Stitches. She's a proud New Zealander as well as an American, and she wishes she could knit and play ukulele at the same time.