Opinion

The tale in the knitting

Time was when I had lots of time to knit, mainly when visiting in Paris. One all-wool cardigan had two large cables down the front. I was wearing it before I noticed a mistake. One twist went this way when it should have gone that way, but if anyone else ever noticed, it was never mentioned. 

I stuck to straight knit-purl for a baby sweater and two men’s pullovers. I thought that a baby afghan with cables would take a long time during a trip out West, but I finished it in two days. In desperation to avoid the boredom from the front passenger’s seat, I bought a book of patterns and more yarn.

My teacher knit the German or European way, which was much faster than the American way. The finished American-style product appeared more even, but not enough for me to take extra time and effort. A friend here in Rochester could read a book and knit American style at the same time. I later wondered if she was one of the multitaskers who go back and forth from one task to another while actually doing only one at a time.

Another friend loved to knit, but was bored with sewing the sections together and said, “I have enough sweaters for myself. Get a pattern and yarn for me, I’ll knit, and you can finish it off.” I had never tried designs, but she knit me one sweater with beautiful roses on the front. I was more than willing to join the pieces together and sew on buttons. Adding a lining made it more like a jacket, very warm.

Madame Lafarge, I recalled, was another knitter in Paris, a benign creature sitting clicking her needles.

But a little research revealed that she was purely fictional, a character in “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. As she knit, she “ruthlessly” sought revenge against a couple and their child, as she sat thoroughly enjoying public beheadings. She would even knit the names of victims of the guillotine into sweaters. It was said, “Her whole being is consumed in revenge and she will not rest till her bloodthirsty desires are satisfied.”

One website gives 30 famous people who were knitters, including actresses who knit as they waited on set: Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Minnie Mouse (!), Sofia Loren, Shirley Temple and Bette Davis. In 2013, Princess Kate Middleton was learning to knit, but reported that she was lousy at it.

There are many quotes about knitting, mostly from “At Knit’s End: Meditations for Women Who Like to Knit,” a book by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. My favorite, “In the 19th century knitting was prescribed as a cure for nervousness and hysteria,” is followed by her note that present day frustrated beginners may exhibit those same symptoms.

In its day knitting served a purpose for me and the sweaters that I knit then still provide both warmth and warm memories.

Byrna Porter Weir was born and grew up in Houlton, where her parents, Ina and Porter, were portrait photographers. She now lives in Rochester, N.Y.  

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