The Knitting Spell
The following lecture was made for a knitting festival (Prjónagleði) held in Blönduós, Iceland in June 2016.
Hello my name is Helga and I am an addict! A knitting addict.
The early years
I grew up in a family of addicts so there is no wonder that I was greatly affected right from an early age. Some of my first memories evolve around my grandfather knitting countless red wool hats that he would give to any and all in the family. He, for one often had one on his head. My mother was highly addictive to knitting and any craft for that matter and she used to sit in her chair by the window in our spacious and bright house here at Húnabraut 3, in Blönduós with her yarns and knitting needles and yes sometimes a cigarette!! This was before smoking was officially a health hazard and eventually she did quit. I remember her being totally absorbed in her knitting projects, with a knitting needle or two in her mouth, mumbling to herself various stitch counts and measurements. She was totally out of it – the addiction really having a strong hold over her. The rest of the family sometimes felt a little left out but with an addict in the home you tend to get a little codependent. And we were – this was all we knew and to us it was normal. Having wool mice in every corner of the house, knitting projects on chairs and tables, pins in the floor carpet and last but not least wearing the beautiful and exceptional sweaters my mother used to knit for us, and we wore as if they were cheap factory made cotton t-shirts. Like I said we knew nothing else and were clueless as to all the work and dedication my mother put into her ambitious and one of a kind sweaters and other knitted pieces.
As time passed and I became a teenager acrylic, polyester and nylon sweaters and clothing started to replace the beautiful home made garments that many of us wore at that time. Apparently many women were happy to let go of the knitting needles and to leave the sewing machines and my peers increasingly showed up at school wearing nylon and acrylic sweaters with bold graphic designs. These sweaters were of course as any synthetic material at that time very ill suited to keep people warm and used to stink if they got too dirty. But boy were they cool!! We are talking about the seventies here, synthetics signified a new era in clothing as well as most other things.
My mother, being the knitting addict she really was did not let go of her knitting needles and so for me no acrylic sweaters. I had to continue wearing the home knits made by my mother although now a little more reluctant than before. When my mother’s good friend and my namesake Helga Ólafs gave me a baby blue acrylic sweater with a bold black graphic design for my 11th birthday I was ecstatic and started to protest wearing my traditional, warm and wooly sweaters. My mother tried every imaginable way to get me to wear my home made sweaters but nothing worked and the ice cold, stretched and smelly blue and black sweater became my signature fashion for a while. My mother did not give up, feeding her knitting addiction making more and more sweaters for the family members that now had less and less interest in wearing them. Factory made was the cool thing and wearing home made could give the impression that you did not have the means to buy things or that your were old fashioned. Not only did my mother expect us to wear home made sweaters she also made most of our other clothing with her beat up Husquarna sewing machine that was in constant use in her tiny and filled to the brim with projects sewing room in our hose here in Blönduós. Finally she came up with the great idea of taking garment labels out of store bought clothing and sewing them to my home made sweaters and other home made clothes that she expected me to wear. This way when I had to take off my clothing in gym they would have labels on them just like the store bought clothes my peers increasingly wore. It worked and for a while and my mother had a daughter that semi happily wore her beautiful knitting disguised as store bought garments with labels and all. It is easy to convince an 11 year old to cooperate but as I got a little older my mother lost her game and I completely refused to wear home made. And so she increasingly started to knit for herself and for me the occasional long hippie scarf and I was, at last free to mostly choose my own clothing.
Staying away from addiction
I managed to stay away from the knitting addiction for years since having an addictive parent can influence a person in such a way that they want to stay away from such addiction. When you are eighteen you do not want to be like your parents – anything else thank you! It was not until I had my children that I started to knit myself since there is something about being pregnant and having babies that makes it a woman’s duty to knit something – talk about pushing people towards addiction. I was not very good at it and the first sweaters for my sons had strange necklines, misshapen sleeves and unusual proportions. But infants are powerless and have to wear what their mothers choose regardless of shape, comfort or fit!! So I muddled on for a few years, made this and that but I cannot say with a good conscience that I was addicted – it was more like drinking the occasional glass of red wine and leaving it at that. Horses were more my thing. Of course my addictive mother showered my sons with sweaters and compared to her my knitting mine was painstakingly less perfect.
.....and gradually losing my game.....
Since knitting has always been a part of my life in one way or another I never left the knitting needles completely but I can honestly say my true addiction gradually grew more and more as I got a little older. It sneaked up on me – I guess like most addictions do. Normally when you realise that you are an addict it is too late and the addiction has such a hold on you that it is a big deal to turn it around. My mother never left her addiction and when she died, way too young, all her yarns and unfinished knitting came into my arms and filled my workspace at home. I guess the outlet for my grief over losing her was to finish her knitting projects. I put her photo on the wall in my studio and promised to finish her all her half knitted sweaters and to use up all her yarns. Since she never wrote anything down and never worked with patterns I really had my hands full and was for months trying to get into her head to understand what she was thinking when knitting each particular sweater or garment I tried to finish. Like her I sat with a knitting needle in my mouth, mumbling, measuring and counting until someone would come to my studio checking out how many persons were actually having a dialog in the room. I was becoming my mom, with the wool mice in every corner of my workspace, yarns on every countertop and a patient family around me. So knitting became my way of healing my sorrow over losing my mom and keeping the connection to her alive. Sometimes I would get really pissed off with her due to the lack of written instructions, charts and measurements and sometimes knitting would glide along easy as a pie. And I finished all her projects.
Healing sorrow and finding a new knitting dimension
This experience of sitting through a full winter with my mothers knitting turned a corner for my knitting and me. I think for the first time I saw knitting as more than making a garment or a craft you do as a hobby. I realised for the first time the strong physiological emotion and physical movement connected to knitting. Since my devotion to finishing my mother’s projects had kept me knitting for hours on ends I could really feel the knitting addiction getting stronger in my mind and my body. I had to have my fix – every day, or evening if you will. And now when all my mothers knitting was finished and in order to feed my renewed and growing addiction I had to make my own projects and now with a very new outlook on knitting. I started to make new rules for myself. Write everything down, make things right, not to be careless or let chances lead the way. I found a new discipline in my approach to knitting and it somehow was on a different level than before. I guess you could call it a certain professionalism that came from the realization that knitting is noble and that it can make you a better person. In my quest of finishing my mother’s projects I had found renewed respect and love for this, until now in my life, a hobby without much prestige or importance.
And now the true addiction kicked in. A day without knitting would be unimaginable and sitting in my sofa at night with my knitting tray full of projects, knitting stuff and mind you sometimes (or maybe always) a glass of red wine would become the best part of the day. A time to quiet the mind after the hours of running around performing all the tasks we humans put on ourselves. The knitting was becoming a spell settling in so strong that my husband sometimes had (and has) to call my name several times before making a connection. My sons would make a nasty game of interrupting my counting of stitches 2,4,6,8,10,100,102,202,302, again and again until I became immune to interruption and developed the skill to count stitches correctly regardless of interruption. My mind really learned how to split in two parts, the knitting part and the other part that had to communicate information to the family, talk to friends and watch television. My hands became so skilled in the movement and nuances of knitting that they automatically would stop if there were mistakes about to happen. “Wait a minute – this does not feel right.” When knitting I was really running on automatic. Way back when my analytic husband and engineer son used to ditz my knitting and see it as a homely craft I would challenge them to make calculations for sweater measurements, necklines, sleeve lengths, increases and decreases and they would quiet down real quickly realising that maybe there was more to this “hobby” than met the eye. Today they would not dare ditz my knitting and my son regularly lets me know his children need sweaters and that I have a reputation to live up to.
Knitting, like yoga, can bring about a state of flow.....
We are born with a brain that is split in two, a left-brain and a right brain. The left-brain deals with logical thinking, measuring things, stacking, processing and organising whereas the right brain deals with ideas and feelings. In most tasks we have to go through the left-brain to get to the right brain. That is to say we have to learn tasks and facts based on information that we try to understand and put together in our mind to make a whole. It is only when we know the basics of these tasks and facts and have practiced them for some time that we can achieve a state of flow – that is to say – the body and mind take over and a task becomes automatic. We cease to think and analyse and we can go elsewhere in our mind or quiet it altogether thinking nothing. It is a pause for our brain and we relax, and we have engaged the right brain. In my humble experience there are few things better suited to achieve this state of mind than knitting. Since I am also the rider of horses and teacher of horsemanship I can testify that achieving this state of flow is the ultimate goal for successful riding although much more difficult than with knitting since two very different bodies and souls have to come together in riding but only one has to be engaged when knitting. There is no better way to teach a body to relax and a mind to slow down. Maybe knitting is a little like counting beads on a rosary, the repeated chant that quiets the mind and brings it to a state of flow. This is when knitting is easy, knit and purl and a simple or often used pattern.
.....but can also make a person go crazy.....
There is another side of knitting, at least for me, that is not so Zen like and has nothing to do with a state of flow, relaxation or calm counting. This is what I like to call “tear my hair out, short of breath, sleepless and grinding teeth” condition. This is when my left-brain plays games with me and I have to figure out a knitting design or a pattern and make it work. These are hard times for me. Getting an idea and successfully executing it can be a stressful thing for me. It can keep me up at night since before I start any knitting project I have to have everything figured out in my head beforehand. The project can become like screaming monster in my head pushing me to figure our ways to make it work. For me fit is everything and I am extremely critical of myself if my sweaters are less than perfect, and they never are!! There is no such thing as a perfect sweater – or a fully trained horse for that matter. So I am doomed on two accounts. So when designing a sweater my mind is in an upheaval until I have the visualised and solved the practical ways of execution and then the knitting is a piece of cake mostly in the desirable and heavenly state of flow. So maybe knitting is the perfect practice combining critical and analytical thinking as well as offering relaxation and a quiet mind. In other words it keeps us sharp and focused through the use of our left-brain understanding patterns and the mechanics of knitting and also helps us relax and engage our idealistic and feeling right brain.
What to do with the overflow of yarns?
I have been saying that knitting is in some ways like an addiction or a spell – but it is a good one although some comparisons can be made to less preferable addictions. For example the addicted knitter often keeps a stash hidden away somewhere, I know I do. Keeping a stash can be both good and bad. It is good because you can look at it and dream about all the great things you could make from all this unused yarn if only you had the time. But it can also make you feel quite bad since it tells you in a very blunt way that you have bought way too much yarn and not made anything from it. So it is just sitting there reminding you not to buy any more yarn since you have way too much already. Then you put it in a basket or a closet where you do not see it anymore and buy more yarn. So it is an addiction – and the bad thing is that yarn manufactures have got us by the balls. They have found out that nothing feeds our addiction more than bringing ever so often a new yarn to the market that we absolutely have to try and therefore must buy. They truly know our addiction feeding it by showing new yarn in our face way too often. We are doomed to lose since our yarn hunger is being constantly fed and played with. I have tried to make some rules for myself but tend to bend them since I after I turned fifty I convinced myself that maybe life is too short now not to buy all the yarn you could wish for.
Aaaaaaahhh.....the knitting station on the sofa. Pure bliss!
At home I have my knitting station on my sofa and spend most evenings with my knitting needles, an audio book or a good documentary on Netflix or YouTube. I also admit the glass of red wine on the counter – now there is another addiction for you guys. What a great combination of noble tasks. I have found out that one good thing about having the knitting needles in your hands all night makes you eat less and drink less since your hands are busy making sweaters for your grandkids. So that is a winner, knitting can actually be a diet tool keeping your hands out of the candy box and on your needles. You can multitask, educating and improving yourself through electronic media. So that is another winner. You can make a one of a kind garment for your loved ones or yourself and today, different from my growing years when my mother had to coax me to wear her knitting - homemade knits are seen as treasures. A one more winner for knitting so maybe the knitting spell is not so bad but filled with purpose and all good things for us fortunate enough to have been addicted to this noble craft.
Happy knitting dear friends