There’s a short list of accepted truths that most knitters have to learn the hard way: Never knit for a boyfriend, don’t talk while trying to turn a heel, October’s too late to start knitting for Christmas, and no matter what they tell you at the yarn shop, metallic mohair is a bad idea.
To this list of hard-won wisdom, novelist Caroline Leavitt can add one more: When your husband expresses interest in intarsia (knitting with many different colors of yarn), hire an attorney.
Leavitt (“Pictures of You”) is one of the 24 contributors to “Knitting Pearls: Writers Writing About Knitting,” editor Ann Hood’s latest addition to what is becoming the increasingly crowded field of craft memoir. “I suppose you could say a knitting project ended my first marriage,” writes Leavitt, who goes on to describe how she missed all of the sure signs her marriage was unraveling, including the most obvious — her husband asks her to knit a dinosaur sweater. An adult-sized sweater with a brontosaurus on the front and back.
I feel certain that if such a foolhardy project were made known to the members of my knitting circle, we would have rallied and found her a new apartment within 24 hours. But like most of the essayists in this surprisingly melancholy collection, our heroine is stranded in unfamiliar terrain, a little lonely, a little lost, leaning on her needles like Virginia Woolf, who famously told her husband, “Knitting is the saving of life.”
Like Hood’s earlier anthology, “Knitting Yarns,” this collection (patterns included!) helps explain why knitting is so often the life sport of the literary set. Novels and Norwegian mittens require hours of sitzfleisch, and provide proof that “small amounts are cumulative,” as Anne Bartlett explains in one essay. The gentle mindlessness of handwork also unleashes fresh ways of seeing the familiar, like Jodi Picoult’s remembrance of how her grandmother’s stitches “lined up like little kamikaze pilots, would leap into the abyss between the tips one at time, making the sacrifice of the individual to be part of the greater whole.”
Though this collection includes a top-flight list of contributors including Maile Meloy, Dani Shapiro, Diana Gabaldon, Jane Hamilton and fiber “rock star” Jared Flood (if you have to ask …), it must be reported that not every selection here is so tightly woven. Soporific descriptions of old sweaters, tricky patterns and allusions to Madame de Farge abound. One that lingers is “The Italian Hat” by Lily King (“Euphoria”), who recalls how a hand-knit hat becomes a piece of personal armor for her 9-year-old daughter, struggling to find her voice in a foreign language.
Stewart O’Nan also strikes a poignant chord, reflecting on the task of knitting warm socks for faraway soldiers: “It’s both a perfect activity and a perfect metaphor for those who sit and wait. … With its calm, methodical progress, it’s a promise, in the midst of war and chaos and loss, that, somewhere, an orderly world still exists.”
As good as some of these pieces are, reading about knitting is still no replacement for actually knitting. So if you give a copy to a knitter you know this holiday season, be sure to throw in a few skeins for stitching up the cute stole pattern that St. Paul’s The Yarnery contributed on page 196.
Laura Billings Coleman knits mittens and writes for magazines in St. Paul.