If any of my peers growing up did handcrafts, they never admitted it in public. It seemed that the socially acceptable way to establish a sense of self worth was through traveling soccer teams, prom courts, and AP coursework. To pursue a vocation that involved making something with one’s hands—whether in a shop class, a home economics class, or simply by way of personal pursuit—in my hyper socially aware teenage mind, could potentially brand a young scholar as a loser.
When I skulked up to the next farm and asked Ruth, the matron, to show me how to crochet, I hid the yarn and hook away in my room as though they were pornography. I never learned how to do more than the chain stitch.
Children and grown-ups alike stop to put their hands on the wool, to sink their fingers between the strands.
I was thirty before I worked up the courage to walk into a yarn shop and purchase a set of rosewood needles and a skein of wool. Still unable to admit the appeal of fiber, I ostensibly bought them for Bob, who had once confessed to me that he thought knitting was pretty cool and that he’d like to know how to do it.
Bob promptly and repeatedly found himself tangled up in the yarn. In an effort to assist him, I looked over the instructions and attempted to follow them myself. I wound up staying up past midnight, thrilling in the victory that came with mastering the garter stitch, realizing that I suddenly had power to do amazing things—to make toys and clothing. That newfound confidence led me to rediscover our family’s flock of sheep, to realize that there was more value to these woolly creatures than the yield grade in the butcher shop.
Thus, in spite of the stigma I associated with handcrafts in my early years, Saoirse and Ula have grown up beside a knitting basket. I take it on car trips, keep it under the table at the farmers market for when business is slow, dash off a couple of rows while I share a morning cup of coffee with Bob, and use it in place of a cocktail to unwind in the evenings.
A few years ago, Saoirse came to me and asked me to teach her. After she had spent a few months mastering finger knitting, I put her in my lap, wrapped my arms around her, and showed her how to cast on with needles. For a brief period she would take to picking up her knitting whenever she saw me doing it. She grew bored of it within a month or so, but resumed with fervor last year when she realized that she had the power in her hands to complete some pretty neat projects.
And while Saoirse had begun learning to knit and weave, Ula figured out how to use scissors. Her little toddler’s fingers would be unable to resist her big sister’s wool, and, not knowing what else to do with string, she did the only thing she could: cut it. As soon as any of us were distracted with something else, that clever girl would chop Saoirse’s knitting yarn into 6-inch segments, snip unfinished weaving projects off the loom, slice through a square of Saoirse’s carefully formed garter stitches. There is a reason she has earned the nickname “Little Shiva” among our neighbors.
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Ula started first grade this year. And in planning out our school year, I asked my Little Shiva if she would like to learn how to knit. She gazed at me as though I had produced the world’s biggest lollipop for her personal delight.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, hopping up and down.
We started last Sunday, when I gave each girl her new schoolbooks and materials. Saoirse got a stack of books, a beading kit, a pair of new moccasins, and some walnut ink. Ula got a small library of “I-Can-Read” books, a pair of purple moccasins, and then I presented her with the rosewood needles I had first learned to knit on, along with a large basket filled with yarn, from which she could choose her very own skein. Bursting with excitement, she held it in her hands, squeezed it with her little fingers, touched it to her cheek.
I showed her how to open the skein and instructed Saoirse to hold out her hands so that she could keep the yarn from getting tangled while Ula wound it into a ball. I promised Ula that we would start later that week, once she wound her yarn.
Something strange happened as she worked. The ball dropped a few times, unwinding as it rolled away. Ula grew increasingly emotional.
“I can’t do it!” she finally cried out, tears in the corners of her eyes.
“Of course you can,” I said, sitting down to help her. As we worked together to wind the rest, Ula grew more distressed. Her breathing started to get shallow, tears poured from her eyes.
“Sweetheart,” I said, “we don’t have to do this now.”
“No, I want to.” But now the tears were coming in a steady stream.
“I think we’ve done enough for today. Let’s put this away.”
“No!” But then, a few minutes later, she threw the yarn on the floor and wailed. “I don’t want to learn how to knit anymore!”
I wound the last few strands around her ball and tried to think fast. Ula had said she wanted this. Just the day before, she had been bubbling to Grammie that she was going to learn to knit in homeschool this year. Was it possible that simply winding the wool was too much for her? Was I wrong to let her try this?
I realized we were in dangerous territory. If Ula walked away in tears at this moment, she was going to conclude that she couldn’t knit, that she would never be able to do it. She might see herself only as Little Shiva, unable to balance her destructive force with the ability to create.
Watching her new enthusiasm, I think about all the things we consider most urgent in our education system.
Now, knitting is not necessary for survival in this world. But it is a valued activity in our home. Furthermore, I understand the tactile attraction of a skein of wool. I watch customers walk by at the farmers’ market, where my yarn is displayed. Children and grown-ups alike stop to put their hands on the wool, to sink their fingers between the strands. Most of them admit that they haven’t the first clue about how to knit or crochet. Their fingers crave contact with the lush softness, but they feel powerless to transform the raw material into something beautiful and useful.
Ula didn’t need to become a full-fledged knitter. But she did need to know that, when her fingers were drawn to something as pleasing as a skein of wool, she was empowered to engage with it. It was fine if she decided that she didn’t like to knit. But if we stopped at this moment, she was going to conclude that she couldn’t knit. If I postponed lessons to another day, she would carry a memory of failure with her, and would be even more resistant to trying again.
This was a knitting emergency. She needed to walk away successful. I could not let her tears stop her progress. I cancelled every activity I had planned for the morning. The garden didn’t need weeding or watering. Lunch could come late. Phone calls didn’t need to be returned.
I pulled her into my lap and held her, not saying anything. When she had calmed down, I asked her if she would let me show her how I cast on.
“You don’t need to do it today,” I lied, “It’s just that this ball of yarn is so beautiful, I really want to do it. So I might as well show you.” She placidly let me pry the ball from her fingers and drop it into a basket. I held out my hand, wrapped the wool around my thumb, and slid the needle through. I did it a few more times.
“Can I try?”
We cast on 15 stitches that morning. Upon finishing, she asked, “Can you show me how to knit now? Today? Please?” I showed her how to slide one needle under the other, to wrap the yarn around, to pull it through the stitch, to slide it off the needle. “Under, around, through, and off,” we began chanting together. We knit a row together.
What matters most to me right now is that she learns that she can make something beautiful, whether that is a simple song or a row of knitting.
“OK, that’s enough for today.” I said, satisfied that we were through the emergency.
“Please? Can we do just one more row?” So we did one more. Then we did another. And another.
Finally, I persuaded her it was time to put the knitting down. She ran and found her sister. “Saoirse! I can knit!” She ran and found her father. Flinging her arms around his waist, she cried out “Daddy! I can knit!”
She announced it to the neighbors, to her best friend, to her grandparents. She took to carrying her knitting basket around the house. She took it to bed with her. What a huge shift from my own childhood experience of hiding away my attempts to crochet.
Watching her new enthusiasm, I think about all the things we consider most urgent in our education system. Children are now supposed to be reading and doing arithmetic before the end of kindergarten. They are supposed to be able to tell time and read calendars before they develop a sense of the passing hours or observe changes in the phases of the moon. They are supposed to be able to navigate the Internet before they understand their cardinal directions.
I won’t argue that these skills don’t have value. But not today. Not for Ula. Not in the first grade. What matters most to me right now is that she learns that she can make something beautiful, whether that is a simple song, a crayon drawing, or a row of knitting. And from the pride that emanates from her body as she sits in my lap with her knitting, I am certain that is what matters most to her, too.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.