The fall season tends to be the busy season for many knitters, and it is for me too, because our family birthdays have clustered in November and December and because my sisters and I get together for Thanksgiving. That’s when I want to give knitted things to my sisters because I can get photos, and I must have photos. In a way the photos are more important to me than the knitted item itself, once I have finished making it.
Last year the autumn deadlines forced me to knit myself to a frazzle, so this year I tried to take the lesson and spread things out over the course of the year. Actually I had one significant piece of gift knitting ready last spring, but that was done on a deadline for a visit in April that didn’t happen. It was for my younger daughter, Zoe, the doctor in Minneapolis, who can make good use of big cozy stranded pullovers made of chunky single-ply yarn. It was an adaptation of one I had made for myself, which applied the chart of a cowl pattern, depicting a snowstorm, to the form and numbers of a big warm sweater. But in April, the pandemic was taking hold in the United States, and travel shut down. Zoe was starting to treat covid patients, and the combination of a daughter in a high-risk profession traveling across the country in an airplane to visit parents in a high-risk age group sounded like a plan that could go very, very wrong.
Here’s my version of the blizzard sweater:
During the summer, I devised a formula for a saddle-shoulder pullover whose yoke/sleeve piece connected to the body pieces with a decorative twisted i-cord join that I’ve been using for the last year. I made myself two versions of this design, which I blogged about here. Melissa had a trunk show from a more-or-less local (Virginia) dyer, Kim Dyes Yarn, and I was in the store when the yarn arrived, so I went home with yarn. Zoe was the one who expressed more interest in having me knit her a sweater in this design using the yarn I had just bought. And she started talking about rescheduling that canceled visit for early November, when her schedule permitted nine whole days of time off! I didn’t dare think that the visit would really happen, but I carved out time at the end of August to get the sweater knitted in a pressure-free timeframe. Also because I still remembered how to make the design and still was interested in it.
Looking at the colors now, I wish I had chosen a blue or a green as the contrast color in the hem edges and the twisted i-cord join rather than the orange.
Last spring, my sister Nancy had a significant birthday that ended in a five. We had been talking about having a weekend birthday get-together in Florida, where she lives, but the pandemic was storming our shores while we were discussing it and we went into lockdown by her birthday. As a surprise for her, my sisters sent me photos of all the jewelry Nancy has made for us over the years, so that I could compile them into a blog post to publish on the day itself as a tribute to her artistry. We also arranged to have a surprise lunch sent to her door while we had a group video call, and it was a lovely remote birthday party, back before we all got jaded to seeing people on screens instead of in real life. Nancy had sent me an incredible necklace for my birthday, so I offered to make her a sweater for her birthday. She asked for something like what I had made our sister Judy for her birthday a couple of years ago.
The plan was to give it to her at Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, when it would be more useful than mailing it to her in Florida. And I would be able to get pictures. No pix? Didn’t happen. When it comes to my knitting, I totally subscribe to that statement.
So in early October I started assembling colors mostly from yarn I have dyed over the last six months. I made two rough gradients, one in blue/greens and the other in orange/pinks. For the body, the blues and greens would dominate, in stripes of 10 rows, separated by 2-row stripes of the oranges and pinks. The sleeves would do the reverse, oranges and pinks in slightly wider stripes than the body (for the sake of the numbers), separated by 2-row stripes in the cool colors. One of the magical characteristics of plant-dyed colors is that they always look great together in any combination, but even knowing that, I was surprised by how the warm colors of the sleeves enhanced the cool colors of the body in a way that made the result greater than the sum of its parts.
In the past, I have hand-knitted the necks of my machine-knit sweaters. This time tried something different. I hung the neck stitches on the needles and knitted four rows in a black bean-dyed color, a gray-blue, then joined the first row to the fourth row to form a welt, and changed to an onion skin-dyed greenish brown and knitted four rows, switched to the biggest tension setting for the fifth row to create a fold line, then went back to the previous tension setting for the final five rows. I bound off and whip-stitched the bind-off row to the welt row, by hand. I modeled the sweater while waiting for Thanksgiving when we hoped to have a covid-safe get-together.
In the meantime, it became clearer that my younger daughter’s trip from Minneapolis to Baltimore would actually happen as scheduled on 6 November, for a whole nine days! As a doctor, she had access to professional PPE and covid testing, and she was doing telemedicine during the couple of weeks before traveling. She got a negative test a few days before traveling and had no exposure to patients, and she kept her N95 mask and goggles on through three airports (except for a quick meal at Chicago Midway as far from other people as possible, and fortunately it wasn’t crowded that day) and two airplanes. We all wore masks when we picked her up in the car and kept the windows open, and didn’t hug her until after she took a shower as soon as she walked in the door. It was a great hug.
As soon as she was disinfected, I gave her the sweaters that had been waiting such a long time for this moment. She loved them both. I had misgivings about the saddle shoulder sweater. In addition to regrets about the contrast color, I was surprised that the length of the sleeve and body was so much shorter on her than the prototypes were on me, with similar numbers and yarn, notwithstanding the obvious fact that she’s a good bit taller than I am. My error was in shortening the length of the upper body from armpit to neck to accommodate her slimmer body without adding length to the sleeves and lower body to compensate for the shorter yoke. Oh well. Bracelet sleeves are a thing. Sweaters that come to the top of the hip bone are a look. And she likes the sweater.
After I retired and established my daily routine, I noticed how much my day was like daycare. My morning exercises were like P.E. Time, the morning walk was Outdoor Playtime, then Lunchtime, and Nap Time, and Arts and Crafts. My husband Charles picked up the idea and ran with it, and started staffing our daycare with imaginary figures from the daycare we sent our children to several decades ago: Miss Alvinia, the cook; Miss Paula, who owned and ran the daycare; Miss Ann, Miss Tanya, the teachers. During her visit, our adult daughter with the medical degree who treats sick people and phones anxious families with news of their condition and treatment, became the new pupil at our daycare. And she liked it. She joined us for Outdoor Playtime, and she enjoyed the elaborate salads from the organic market that Miss Alvinia prepared, and she dove right into Nap Time.
Of course I made her model for me. She told me I was taking terrible pictures.
As we were completing our Outdoor Playtime walk on the day after she arrived, our phones started lighting up with news alerts: Pennsylvania was called for Biden and now he had the 270 Electoral College votes to become the President-Elect! Spontaneous cheers and honking erupted all over the neighborhood as my neighbors also received the news on their phones. I heard people shouting “thank you!” at a car with Pennsylvania plates. I encountered our next-door neighbors carrying their small children in their arms while the wagon that they normally cart them around with was filled with bubbling wine. The next day the three of us posed with the headline in the print newspaper.
1990 was a big year for pregnancies in my family, and my two of my sisters and I had a harvest of babies in the fall and early days of 1991. My sister Mandy and her daughter, whose boyfriend is also a member of the class of ’90, arranged a birthday party in Philadelphia while Zoe was visiting, and with trepidation and an eye on the rising infection rates, we attended. Dinner was at a restaurant in my sisters’ neighborhood, outside of course. Everyone there lives their lives mindful of the anti-infection protocols. I put my mask back on whenever I wasn’t eating. We stayed overnight at Mandy’s house, and in the morning, we talked about measures we could take at Thanksgiving to make sure no one, especially our oldest sister Nancy, got sick. Preparing the food ahead of time so that we didn’t cook together in close quarters for hours in one kitchen. Eating outside with the households at separate tables. Windows open and fans blowing inside. A new air filtration system.
Zoe’s visit came to an end after nine perfect days. Much as we hated to have to give Zoe up to the airplanes that would take her back to her empty apartment in Minneapolis, I had to focus on the fact that we had stolen a wonderful nine days from the pandemic. I forced one of my unused sweaters on her, one that looked a lot better on her than on me, and I tried to get her to take more. I’m at a point in my sweater production in which the making is more interesting than the wearing, so I’m eager to give things to people who can use them better than I can. She declined the other things I wanted to give her for the time being. Not enough room in the suitcase, she said.
We had a final photo shoot. This time Zoe didn’t yell at me for being a terrible photographer.
No one got sick after the 30-year-olds’ birthday party, but the public health warnings about Thanksgiving were getting more and more dire, and the infection rates everywhere were tracking almost vertically on the charts. Sadly we decided that getting together for Thanksgiving was a dangerous plan. The sweater I made for Nancy and the sweaters I want to hand on to my other sisters are still upstairs in my bedroom, waiting, hopefully, for a postponed Thanksgiving to be held on Inauguration Day, when we really will have something to give thanks for.
If I had really been on top of things, I would have finished a sweater I was working on for my older daughter’s birthday in time for Zoe to model it for me while she was here. It was a machine-knit raglan pullover, and I had done the back and half of the front when Zoe arrived. My knitting machine is in the bedroom Zoe was sleeping in, and I didn’t want to invade her space by working on that project while she was here. So I waited until the bedroom was unoccupied before getting serious about finishing that project. Now it’s done and in the mail and my photos don’t have a body in them.
The design for the sweater came from using my available materials in the best way I could think of, which is my usual way of designing. I got the yarn at Melissa’s most recent trunk show of Rita Mae Yarns. I have used this base before, and the resulting fabric is one of the best I have ever made on the knitting machine. Unfortunately, the base has been discontinued, so I bought all of the blue yarns (and am now kicking myself for not having bought it all, in all of the colors). I came home with three skeins of the light blue, three skeins of the dark blue, and one skein of the medium blue, so I needed to devise a color arrangement that would use the three colors at a 3:3:1 ratio. The dark and medium blues were much closer to each other in value than to the light blue, so I contrasted wide stripes of the light with the dark and alternated the dark stripes and light stripes with gradated medium and dark stripes.
Since the design was so simple and classic, and the colors were relatively quiet, considering my usual, I put special care into making the seams and details as perfect as possible. I especially like the neck band, which was another version of the neck band I devised for Nancy’s sweater. The pocket offers an element of quirkiness, since it’s so big, bigger than I meant it to be, to be frank. After I sewed it on, very carefully to make it as technically perfect as I could do it, I went to bed wondering if its proportions were excessive and I would have to take it off and reknit it. But when I came downstairs in the morning and saw the sweater propped up against the back of the couch, I warmed to its proportions because its size enhanced its functionality and made the big gradated vertical stripe into a bold design element.
Meanwhile, I’ve been plugging away for the last six months on hand-knitting a sweater for Charles, the person with whom I share space and germs, the person who tends to me like the kitty I won’t let him have after the cats we had 20 years ago died, after declining for nearly as long as they were young and healthy. He’s a nurturer, much more than I am, and making sure I take my pills and eat my salads is one of the organizing principles in his life. My contribution to his life is to find things, figure out things, and navigate, after which I then say, “They call me Scout” so that he will reply, “Thanks, Scout!” I also knit for him once in a while. I would knit for him more, except he declines my offers because he already has a version of whatever I’m offering him, but he liked the swatch I made of a mosaic stitch scorpion in black on red. After a tortuous design process that wound its way around six months of mental blocks and slow progress, the sweater is almost done now. I had to unpick the original hem edging and am now re-knitting it in a boring 1X1 ribbing that works a lot better with the design. This one will get its own blog post because the design process is a good story.
Melissa has been making the rounds of local media lately to solicit contributions to Lovelyarns’ 500 Hats project, an annual charity project to donate hats to one of Baltimore’s public schools. When she first went on TV, she blamed the pandemic for the fact that she didn’t have the hats she usual gets by this point in the project, so I bought some printed German yarn by the Opal company in the colors of Hunterwasser paintings so that I could machine-knit a couple of hats for the project.
Unlike all the other things I have knitted for other people lately, these would go to people I don’t know who would never personally acknowledge the gift. So that’s as close to altruistic giving as I’m going to get, except that it isn’t totally altruistic. I have a pattern for a machine-knit hat that is constructed sideways and shaped with short-rows, and I want a practical exercise in the circular shapes that can be gotten from short rows so that eventually I can apply the mathematical concepts to a sweater yoke. I’m giving the hats away to people who can’t thank me, but I’m getting applicable information out of the effort.
When I first started writing this post, its initial title was “What I Did For Love”. I was thinking that it would be mostly a pictorial of things I’ve made for other people. There might have been some thoughts about reaching saturation on things I’ve made for myself and the satisfaction of making things that answered questions but then adding to the satisfaction by bestowing them on people who would use them better than I would. I might have waxed philosophical about having started off as a selfish knitter who knitted for the person who would appreciate my work the most, that is, me; but then finding myself getting more and more detached from things after realizing that it’s the new information that interests me more than the finished object.
But as I described each item I made and the circumstances of giving them or not giving them to my family members, I realized that the real story was the effort to maintain relationships with the people who are most important to me during a pandemic whose vehicle for thriving and spreading is human relationships. In a country led by a fact-based chief of state, this would be a matter of public health. But the U.S. chief of state treats facts as if they belonged to a political party that is conspiring to defeat him, and now the public health mechanics of curbing the spread of an airborne virus are rejected by a propagandized swath of the population. Here in the United States we are being killed not only by a virus but by politicians and the propagandists serving them.
Inauguration Day just can’t come soon enough, if only to stanch the bleeding.