Kim Adrian Feature

P1100270.JPG

Kim Adrian’s short sto­ries and essays have appeared in Tin HouseAgni, the Gettysburg ReviewCrazyhorse, the New England ReviewNinth Letter, the Raritan Review, and else­where.

Among the awards and recog­ni­tions she’s received are a P.E.N. New England Discovery Award, an Artist’s Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, three Pushcart Prize nom­i­na­tions, and the Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction from the New Ohio Review, as well as res­i­den­cies at the Edward Albee Barn, Ragdale, and VCCA, and schol­ar­ships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars.

Knitting 101

1. Taking Chances

knittingimage1To the novice, the craft of knit­ting can seem a fussy and bewil­der­ing thing, but real­ly, even fair­ly com­plex pat­terns are doable with noth­ing more than patience, dili­gence, and a mod­icum of skill. Still, one must always approach the activ­i­ty of knit­ting with a keen sense of adven­ture. As one of the nicotine-infused salesladies who work at my local yarn shop once told me (dis­gust­ed by anoth­er customer’s fear of impro­vi­sa­tion), “Knitting is all about tak­ing chances!”

2. Materials

knittingimage2You will need, of course, a pair of needles and some yarn. There are many options in both depart­ments, but steel needles are cold, noisy, and unyield­ing, while plas­tic ones are much too slick, pro­vid­ing lit­tle to no trac­tion. I advise wood­en needles. Bamboo is fine and gen­er­al­ly cheap, though the cheap­er the bam­boo, the coarser the grain, which can be annoy­ing, because after a while—say five- or six-hun­dred stitches—you will come know every groove, no mat­ter how shal­low, in those needle tips. My point is, look for a good brand. As far as yarn goes, cot­ton is for masochists. Ditto linen and silk. Cashmere is expen­sive and, though beau­ti­ful, does not last. Acrylics—we won’t go there. But wool smells good, is gen­er­al­ly eco­nom­i­cal as well as for­giv­ing and friend­ly, mean­ing that it will, to at least a lim­it­ed extent, cor­rect a whole range of knit­ters’ mis­takes in the all-impor­tant area of ten­sion, as it is both nat­u­ral­ly elas­tic and grip­py. This can­not be said of the oth­er fibers. Be sure to buy a beau­ti­ful color—one that makes you hap­py, or sad, or some oth­er inter­est­ing emo­tion. And take spe­cial care to con­sid­er the tex­ture. It must be of a con­sis­ten­cy that will not bore you, which doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean what it sounds like. Tweedy, chunky, over­en­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly gor­py yarns are the most monot­o­nous of all after only a few dozen rows. On the oth­er hand, com­plete­ly smooth, unvar­ie­gat­ed yarns, par­tic­u­lar­ly in unnat­u­ral­ly bright col­ors, have been known to make sen­si­tive types faint­ly sui­ci­dal.

3. Anatomy of a Knit Stitch

knit3

A knit stitch is noth­ing more than loop, and a row of knit­ting is sim­ply a row of loops—not cir­cles, as in chain mail (to which knit­ting is fre­quent­ly and erro­neous­ly com­pared), but open at one end. What makes them knit, what makes them stitch­es, is the fact that each row of loops inter­locks with the row of loops above and below it. In oth­er words, the bel­ly of each loop is the recep­ta­cle for the “legs” of the loop direct­ly above it, while at the same time, its own “legs” are anchored by the loop beneath it. Meanwhile, each loop is con­nect­ed, of course, to its hor­i­zon­tal neigh­bor by the sim­ple fact that it belongs to the same piece of yarn. And here­in lies the real mag­ic of knit­ting. It is pos­si­ble, in fact quite nor­mal, to knit a com­plex three-dimen­sion­al gar­ment with but one, albeit extreme­ly long, piece of yarn. Knitting, in this way, may be seen as a metaphor for time, nar­ra­tive, and even, to stretch the point (though not by much), life itself. What I mean is, knit­ting teach­es us that all those lin­ear con­straints to which we humans are so well accus­tomed (birth-to-death tra­jec­to­ries, one-word-at-a-time lin­guis­tic pro­gres­sions…) are con­fig­urable in decid­ed­ly non-lin­ear ways, in ways that, with just a bit of patience, dili­gence, and a mod­icum of skill, might even keep you warm.

4. Casting-on

knittingimage4Linear or not, all things have a begin­ning, a mid­dle, and an end, and while mid­dles usu­al­ly pre­oc­cu­py us most, they are worth pre­cise­ly noth­ing with­out decent begin­nings and ends. Thus we arrive at the art of cast­ing on. There are many ways to cast-on, includ­ing the Spanish two-needle method, the invis­i­ble or pro­vi­sion­al method, the twist­ed German method, and the cable method, to name but a few. However, for our pur­pos­es, the long-tail cast-on will suf­fice. It is, in fact, one of the best meth­ods of begin­ning near­ly any knit­ted piece, being quite stretchy yet neat in appear­ance. Simple as it is, how­ev­er, it would take an inor­di­nate amount of space and time to ade­quate­ly describe in words, there­fore I advise you to make your way to the near­est yarn shop or your clos­est knit­ting-acquain­tance and request a tuto­ri­al. In any case, it’s a kines­thet­ic learn­ing process, and you will nev­er know how to cast-on, or to knit, for that mat­ter, until you’ve actu­al­ly tried to do so with your own two hands. As you will see, once you’ve found your­self a teacher, the long-tail cast-on is espe­cial­ly sat­is­fy­ing because it goes quick­ly once you’ve got the rhythm, and the rhythm is dic­tat­ed by the pleas­ant physics of knot-mak­ing, which is essen­tial­ly what you are doing—making a string of knots into which you will knit your first row of stitch­es. Just as when you were very young and learn­ing to tie your shoelaces, so cast­ing on using the long-tail method can be learned by men­tal­ly repeat­ing a sim­ple but effec­tive mantra to your­self, one that describes the neat con­stel­la­tion of points the tip of your needle must trace again­st the var­i­ous sur­faces of your hand as it entan­gles the yarn at speci­fic angles so as to lure it into its prop­er con­fig­u­ra­tion on the needle. “Twist down to thumb base, thread up to index tip, draw through loop, pull snug,” might work. In short, cast­ing on is not dif­fi­cult, just a lit­tle intri­cate. Unlike so many oth­er ways of begin­ning so many oth­er things, the beau­ty of cast­ing on is that you know pre­cise­ly when you are done with it, and so you know exact­ly when you’ve entered the mid­dle of your own lin­ear non-lin­ear adven­ture. This can hard­ly be said of most things in life. Children seep slow­ly into adult­hood, some­times nev­er quite ful­ly arriv­ing. Spring sighs itself into sum­mer, only to col­lapse, slow-motion, into autumn. And so on.

5. Continental vs. English

knittingimage5I learned to knit not from my moth­er or grand­moth­er or any oth­er the­o­ret­i­cal­ly benef­i­cent rel­a­tive, but from an intel­li­gent wom­an who owned a fan­cy yarn store in San Francisco. I’d just had my first child—a girl—and as I want­ed to be an alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent sort of moth­er than my own, I thought I’d begin by knit­ting my daugh­ter a sweater. The intel­li­gent yarn-shop own­er was an excel­lent teacher, though I, lost in the woods of con­fu­sion that sprout up around any knit­ting neophyte’s first efforts, didn’t real­ize this at the time. For instance, she taught me to knit in the “Continental” style, which involves hold­ing the yarn in the left hand and which is, for this rea­son, more effi­cient than the much more wide­ly prac­ticed “English” style, in which the yarn is held in the right hand and lit­er­al­ly thrown over the needle with each and every stitch. The dif­fer­ence between the two styles is com­pa­ra­ble to the European vs. the American man­ner of eat­ing with a fork and knife—the European man­ner being the one in which we cut our food with our fork in our left hand and our knife in our right, then lift the morsel to our mouths direct­ly, as opposed to the American man­ner in which the food is cut in the iden­ti­cal way, but the knife is then put down on the plate and the fork trans­ferred to the right hand, only to be raised to the mouth. There’s an entire extra step there—completely unnec­es­sary, just like throw­ing your yarn. (I did once see an old­er Chinese wom­an knit­ting an elab­o­rate jer­sey on the sub­way; she used, as far as I could make out, the Continental hand/yarn con­fig­u­ra­tion but on her right hand and she knit—with a pair of actu­al bam­boo skew­ers bound­ed by rub­ber bands at one end—extremely quick­ly; per­haps there is a Chinese style of knit­ting that is to both Western styles what chop­sticks are to the clum­sy and brutish fork and knife?) In any case, when you find someone—whether a nicotine-infused sales­wom­an at your own local yarn shop, a rel­a­tive, or a friend—to teach you how to knit, request to be taught, if at all pos­si­ble, in the Continental style. Eventually, you can learn the English style as well, which comes in handy when doing col­or­work. This is down the line, of course, but some­thing to look for­ward to: hold­ing two dif­fer­ent col­ored yarns, one in each hand, and knit­ting with them in turn. It’s a won­der­ful­ly stream­lined oper­a­tion and, as an added ben­e­fit, can keep young chil­dren and fel­low tran­sit pas­sen­gers in a state of qui­et hyp­no­sis for a few min­utes at a stretch.

6. Knitting vs. Purling

knittingimage6It is prob­a­bly a good idea to clar­i­fy at this point what we mean by the term knit­ting because it sig­ni­fies two dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties, how­ev­er close­ly relat­ed. Knitting is a craft, but it is also a speci­fic way mak­ing stitch­es. Every way of mak­ing stitch­es that involves a pair of knit­ting needles—slipped, cabled, twist­ed, woven, increased, made, mul­ti­plied, purled, or knitted—falls under the gen­er­al activ­i­ty head­er we call knit­ting. The most com­mon type of knit­ting hap­pens to be knit­ting. Running a close sec­ond is purling, which essen­tial­ly mir­rors knit­ting, or inverts it, mim­ics it but at the same time revers­es it. Besides increas­ing and decreas­ing, as well as cast­ing on and bind­ing off, there is lit­tle aside from knit­ting and purling that you need to know in order to cre­ate a wide vari­ety of objects, from sweaters to shawls to blan­kets to children’s leg­gings and toys. The cre­ation of cables, bob­bles, lace, dec­o­ra­tive edg­ings and all that is just icing on the cake, or what more expe­ri­enced knit­ters do in order to keep them­selves amused. Stockinette is a fab­ric cre­at­ed by knit­ting on one side (the “right” side) and purling on the oth­er (the “wrong” side). It is what most peo­ple pic­ture when they think of knit­ted fab­ric. Ribbed fab­ric also con­sists of alter­nat­ing knit and purl stitch­es though on the same side (or, as it were, both sides simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, since a knit stitch on one side will look like a purl stitch on the oth­er, and vice ver­sa). Many basic tex­tured pat­terns, such “seed” and “moss,” are noth­ing but alter­nat­ing knit and purl stitch­es, var­i­ous­ly syn­co­pat­ed. Common as it is, purling con­sti­tutes many a knitter’s bête noire. According to the intel­li­gent yarn store own­er, peo­ple dis­like purling because they learn it sec­ond, after becom­ing thor­ough­ly accus­tomed to the smooth, more or less intu­itive slip­ping and slid­ing motions asso­ci­at­ed with knit­ting. Purling, by con­trast, involves pick­ing and twist­ing motions and thus goes some­what slow­er. For the­se rea­sons many peo­ple find it annoy­ing. Technically, the dif­fer­ence between the two stitch-mak­ing pro­ce­dures is this: when you knit a stitch, you pull the yarn through the front of the loop below it and when you purl one, you pull the yarn through back. In this way, knit­ting may be seen as a tiny metaphor for tak­ing, since you bring the yarn toward your­self, where­as purling may be seen as a tiny metaphor for giv­ing, since with every stitch you move the yarn away from your­self. The larg­er metaphor, then, would be to keep the two actions in bal­ance. It’s some­thing I like to think about. In any case, it is imper­a­tive that you find some way—philosophical or otherwise—to make friends with purling because to be a purl-hat­ing knit­ter is to be in a state of con­stant ambiva­lence. It is like being a cook who hates clean­ing up, or a gar­den­er who hates weed­ing, or a talk­er who hates lis­ten­ing. Equilibrium is key. Allow the act of purling to teach you patience. After all, life is full of lit­tle irri­ta­tions. And it is also short.

7. Choosing a Project

knittingimage7The most com­mon project for first-time knit­ters is the garter-stitch scarf because to make one all you do is cast on a cer­tain num­ber of stitch­es, knit straight for as long as you want the fin­ished pro­duct to be, then bind off. Voila—you’ve got your­self a home­ly hand­knit scarf. Another pop­u­lar first-time project is a hat with a curled edge because the­se are small and, like garter-stitch scarves, do not require any purling as the work is done in-the-round, which means that the “knit” side faces you at all times. But knit­ting-in-the-round presents its own chal­lenges, and I, per­son­al­ly, found it impos­si­ble in the begin­ning. Despite the protes­ta­tions of the intel­li­gent yarn-shop own­er, the first thing I ever knit was a lit­tle red cardi­gan, size 6 months. The yarn was a wool-cash­mere blend in a bright straw­ber­ry col­or and the but­tons were old-fash­ioned brass half-bar­rels, embossed and enam­eled on top with a trans­par­ent red glaze. The over­all effect was clum­sy but sweet. My daugh­ter is now thir­teen years old. I’ve knit her many toys, sweaters, vests, pon­chos, and even a very ugly felt­ed coat in the inter­ven­ing years. Most recent­ly, I gave her a white cable hat for Christmas, but she lost it in the snow. Before that I gave her a long, slim, laven­der-col­ored cardi­gan in an Italian yarn—all wool, but with such a soft “hand” it almost seems like cash­mere. She wears it all the time. I have son, now, too, a love­ly lit­tle boy, and every day, it being mid-win­ter, he wears a pale grey turtle­neck with a deep ribbed yoke that I made when he was three, because although he’s five-years-old now, it was orig­i­nal­ly enor­mous. My father likes this sweater so much that he’s request­ed an adult ver­sion. My hus­band wants a vest with but­tons. My daugh­ter would like a new cable hat, my moth­er a plain black cardi­gan, my niece a pink jumper with pock­ets, and a wom­an I’ve known less than a year has hint­ed broad­ly that a blan­ket for her baby, due in two months, would be much appre­ci­at­ed. At some point every seri­ous knit­ter bumps into the ques­tion of exact­ly how gen­er­ous he or she wants to be. Do I knit for myself? Do I knit for oth­ers? Do I go back and forth? It’s a per­son­al thing. I go back and forth, though the bulk of my knit­ting winds up being for myself and my chil­dren. At the moment, for rea­sons I rec­og­nize but do not ful­ly under­stand, I’m on an espe­cial­ly intense jag of knit­ting for myself. My cur­rent project, for instance, is a Nordic-style pullover with some del­i­cate col­or­work on the cuff and neck areas. It’s com­pli­cat­ed, but I’m hope­ful I’ll fin­ish in time to wear it at least once or twice before spring gets here. I feel I should knit my father’s sweater next, or my husband’s vest, but there’s a pret­ty blue gilet that I’d like to make myself for the sum­mer. And then there’s a brown cardi­gan, the design of which I’ve been mulling over for months now, that I plan to knit in the Tyrolean style, which involves embroi­der­ing tiny flow­ers into the hol­lows of pro­nounced cables, and this, also, would be for me. I try not to fight my nature on this score. I often feel I don’t have enough. It’s an emo­tion­al thing. A holdover from child­hood, when we always man­aged to get by, mate­ri­al­ly speak­ing, but sur­vived on next to noth­ing in areas like affec­tion and gen­tle­ness. Of course, I’d like to be more mature, but in my expe­ri­ence you are where you are with this sort of thing. And I’m still in the knit-myself-a-boat­load-of-sweaters stage.

8. The Importance of Gauge

knittingimage8You will not believe me, not deep down, and you will ignore me. Most begin­ning knit­ters are very dubi­ous about this. But I would be remiss not to stress the impor­tance of test­ing your gauge before start­ing any sig­nif­i­cant knit­ting project. Gauge is essen­tial­ly stitch­es per inch, and even a quar­ter of a stitch, more or less, per inch, could mean the dif­fer­ence between a knit­ting suc­cess and a dis­as­ter. Terms, here, should be crys­tal clear. There is needle size, yarn type, and ten­sion, and the com­bi­na­tion of all three of the­se results in your gauge. The small­est knit­ting needles are very small indeed and used only for lace projects. These can be as thin as pins. The largest are so fat as to be frankly obscene, for which rea­son one rarely sees peo­ple knit­ting with them in pub­lic. Yarn, also, comes in many weights or diam­e­ters. Due to vari­a­tions in tex­ture, it also “blooms” at dif­fer­ent rates. Blooming is what yarn does once it’s been knit up, washed, and blocked. Some yarns need to bloom before their true beau­ty becomes appar­ent, while oth­ers seem to loose their char­ac­ter entire­ly once bloomed. Lastly, ten­sion is how tight­ly you knit. Generally speak­ing, the more per­fect your tension—not too loose, not too tight, and above all, unchanging—the more uni­form and ulti­mate­ly hand­some your knit­ting will be. I tend to knit loose­ly, though most peo­ple with imper­fect ten­sion go the oth­er way, too tight, and must wrestle with every stitch. Give five knit­ters the same size needles and exact­ly the same yarn, and ask them to knit up a swatch of pre­cise­ly the same num­ber of stitch­es and you will quick­ly real­ize the role ten­sion plays in knit­ting. It is tempt­ing and prob­a­bly not entire­ly incor­rect to see the indi­vid­u­al knitter’s ten­sion as a reflec­tion in some way of his or her per­son­al­i­ty. In any case, this is how to test your gauge: a prop­er test swatch is rough­ly 4 x 4 inch­es square and knit using not only the very needles and yarn you plan to use on your project, but also the exact pattern—inclusive of cables, col­or­work, and fan­cy stitch­es. Once knit­ted, your swatch should be washed, pressed, and care­ful­ly blocked until it is bone dry. Only then do you mea­sure, and if, at this point, you find your gauge is off—for instance, may­be you’ve come up with 5 stitch­es per inch where­as the pat­tern spec­i­fies 5.5—you must start the entire process over again. Why? Is half a stitch real­ly so impor­tant? It is. An extra half stitch mul­ti­plied by the cir­cum­fer­ence of your gar­ment, if you’re mak­ing one of those, means a bag­gy fit. Alternately, a quar­ter stitch less than indi­cat­ed might trans­late into an uncom­fort­ably tight sweater or sim­ply an ugly fab­ric. The com­mon­est mea­sure for adjust­ing gauge is to go up or down a needle size or two.  You could also con­ceiv­ably change your yarn to achieve the same end. The oth­er vari­able is, as I men­tioned, ten­sion, but that, being a mat­ter of phys­i­ol­o­gy (hand size, etc) and, above all, tem­pera­ment, is a much more dif­fi­cult thing to alter (though not alto­geth­er impos­si­ble).

9. Time and What to Do with It

knittingimage9Knitting, of course, takes time. For this rea­son, the activ­i­ty is often snide­ly derid­ed by folks who believe they have “bet­ter things” to do with theirs. Ignore the­se peo­ple. Time, much more so than the actu­al mate­ri­als used or tech­niques employed, is what gives hand­knit items their inim­itable beau­ty. Look at any fine­ly con­struct­ed piece of hand­knit­ting. Examine the stitch­es close­ly. Meditate on them. What do you see? Time and care (and may­be the occa­sion­al dog, cat, or human hair woven in—these things hap­pen). I am at the moment, as I think I men­tioned, work­ing on a Scandinavian style pullover with some del­i­cate slip­stitch col­or­work at the cuffs and col­lar. This sweater is being done in very fine Norwegian yarn on small needles. My esti­mat­ed num­ber of stitch­es for the entire sweater is 64,800. This sounds like a mind bog­gling num­ber until you con­sid­er the fact that I knit, with  mod­er­ate speed, approx­i­mate­ly 35 stitch­es per min­ute. In an hour, with no seri­ous dis­trac­tions, I can get through 2,100 stitch­es, which means the sweater will, by its com­ple­tion, have tak­en just over 30 hours to knit. If I were to knit for an hour every day, I’d have a new sweater every mon­th. But at most I knit two to three hours a week, in small, ran­dom incre­ments. Knitting was orig­i­nal­ly done by shep­herds, who knit as they walked alongside their flocks. Later, in the house, by wom­en, it was done near sim­mer­ing pots and nap­ping babies. Now, for most part, it is done, at least in my house, on the couch. I some­times ask my hus­band to read to me while I knit, but he usu­al­ly puts him­self to sleep this way, so I also lis­ten to audio books—lately it’s John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, though I’ve also knit­ted my way through the Iliad and much of Sherlock Holmes. Knitting is a good thing to do while you are doing some­thing, but not much, else. Waiting for the doc­tor, the bus, or for your son’s after-school origami work­shop to let out all offer excel­lent knit­ting prospects. It’s also per­fect­ly accept­able to knit among friends, in-laws, and oth­er inti­mates at casu­al gath­er­ings and, as it keeps your hands busy, knit­ting can be a very effec­tive diet-aide when dessert-time rolls around. Lectures and meet­ings, depend­ing on con­texts, also present fine knit­ting oppor­tu­ni­ties. Some peo­ple claim even to read while they knit, though I don’t believe them. However you round out your knit­ting expe­ri­ence, do try, every once in a while, to do noth­ing but knit, and see how that goes. It is, I won’t lie, tedious. You will feel your­self slip­ping slow­ly and inex­orably through the invis­i­ble fin­gers of time, just as you feel the yarn slip­ping through yours. And yet you will have the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing that you are mak­ing some­thing of it.

10. Correcting Mistakes

knittingimage10While caught up in the long and some­times seem­ing­ly nev­er-end­ing mid­dle of a project, small errors are fre­quent­ly made with­out your notic­ing. You drop a stitch. You inad­ver­tent­ly increase (or decrease) a stitch. You split your yarn. These are all extreme­ly minor mis­takes that can be fixed with patience and a cro­chet hook. With slight­ly larg­er prob­lems (or minor prob­lems in com­plex pat­terns), you will on occa­sion be oblig­ed to tink, that is, knit back­wards, some­times for many rows, care­ful­ly lib­er­at­ing one stitch at a time from your needles until you reach the prob­lem. With the worst sorts of mis­takes, how­ev­er, it will be nec­es­sary to frog—or rip out—portions of your project and even, in the most hope­less cas­es (as when you dis­cov­er late in the game that you actu­al­ly hate the col­or fuch­sia), the entire thing. Honesty is imper­a­tive in the­se sit­u­a­tions. Close scruti­ny not only of the work you have done but also of the work that lies ahead, as well as your own motives and incli­na­tions is of para­mount impor­tance. Many an unsuc­cess­ful knit­ter is unsuc­cess­ful because he or she prac­tices the art of self-decep­tion. Oh, I need to lose a lit­tle weight any­way. Or, Oh, so-and-so should real­ly branch out fash­ion-wise. Resist this. When you real­ize deep down that the sweater you are knit­ting will under no cir­cum­stances flat­ter its recip­i­ent, stop and frog. You will soon see that the most painful part of the process is the deci­sion, as frog­ging itself is weird­ly cap­ti­vat­ing, in an exis­ten­tial­ly eerie sort of way, since the stitch­es, so painstak­ing­ly assem­bled, jump with such mind-numb­ing rapid­i­ty back into the void of form­less­ness. Once a work is frogged, there’s a great sense of lib­er­a­tion, at which point, you sim­ply begin again, mak­ing the required changes. If you are an hon­est knit­ter, you will frog more often than you might care to admit, and peo­ple in your life might con­sid­er you neu­rotic. Rest assured that you are not neu­rotic, only smart, and that the peo­ple in your life are lucky, because their sweaters flat­ter them. There is, how­ev­er, anoth­er cat­e­go­ry of mis­takes that are a bit trick­ier to deal with as they can only be reme­died with inge­nu­ity and flair. In the­se cas­es, there’s noth­ing overt­ly wrong with what you’ve got, but you know that if you con­tin­ue along your chart­ed course, noth­ing spe­cial will have been cre­at­ed. For exam­ple: when knit­ting a sim­ple pullover, you might real­ize as you approach the shoul­ders, that it is too sim­ple, though the fit, the fab­ric itself, and the col­or are pleas­ing. Here you might opt, as I have on a cou­ple of occa­sions, to incor­po­rate a bit of tex­ture, such as some sim­ple smok­ing or Quaker ridg­ing , for the last few inch­es. Incredible what a small touch like that can do. Or, after the knit­ting is com­plet­ed, you might choose to change the neck­line with a bit of steek­ing (see below). Also, embroi­dery is always an option. Another exam­ple occurs to me just now. This is slight­ly off-top­ic but per­haps infor­ma­tive: look­ing back over the­se pages, I see I’ve adopt­ed a for­mal and some­what arch tone. In this way, I have suc­ceed­ed, as I so often do, in hid­ing vast por­tions of my true self. Why do I care about knit­ting? Why am I writ­ing the­se instruc­tions? I wish I’d been a bit clear­er about the­se things. But per­haps it’s not too late. I care about knit­ting because it seems to me a form of love. I’m writ­ing the­se pages because love con­fus­es me and I thought, sub- or may­be semi-con­scious­ly, that if I spent some time dis­sect­ing the act of knit­ting, I might get some­where in my more or less reme­di­al under­stand­ing of love. My under­stand­ing of love is reme­di­al because some­times I don’t know if I feel it or not. Sometimes it’s crys­tal clear, as with my chil­dren. Sometimes it’s pret­ty murky, as with my moth­er. It’s murky because she is so emo­tion­al­ly deformed as to be, her­self, inca­pable of it. She’s had a hard life. She is men­tal­ly ill. She was sex­u­al­ly and oth­er­wise abused as a child and has since that time abused her own self cease­less­ly and remorse­less­ly. I under­stand that. And yet I have nev­er knit her a sweater. A hat, yes, once, but it was sil­ly. Her sui­cide attempts, addic­tions, and self-muti­la­tions con­fuse me. Her para­noia exhausts me. Her hos­pi­tal­iza­tions depress me. Above all the things she says to me deflate and dead­en me. I rarely speak to her any­more, but when I do, the old nas­ti­ness is still there, still sharp, wily, ruth­less. I am a mid­dle-aged wom­an. My moth­er is an old wom­an. I’ve worked hard on my emo­tion­al armor, but she can still kill off small bits of me. Someday, may­be I’ll knit her the plain black cardi­gan she asked me for, years ago. Someday, I may feel I’ve given myself suf­fi­cient amounts of that which she was nev­er able to give me. Someday, may­be I’ll learn to love her despite her faults. And some­day after that, may­be (who knows? all things are pos­si­ble), I’ll learn to love her because of them. After all, we can­not frog peo­ple, not our­selves, not oth­ers, not even par­tial­ly. Mistakes are part of us, and not so much wrong or ugly as in pos­ses­sion of their own sad and irrefutable log­ic.

11. Finishing

knittingimage11For the first sev­er­al dozen rows of any project, the needles seem to han­dle the weight of the work. You hard­ly notice it. But at a cer­tain moment, a moment that dif­fers with each project, you will sud­den­ly real­ize that out of the lin­ear monot­o­ny of yarn, yarn, yarn, a thing is grow­ing, mak­ing itself known, tak­ing form, becom­ing real. It is a feel­ing that I, per­son­al­ly, nev­er tire of. As this form takes on greater and greater clar­i­ty, as it curls in your lap—almost alive and full of some­thing you might even call personality—your excite­ment will no doubt grow, as well as your con­fi­dence and expec­ta­tions. Most knit­ters get so car­ried away with the seem­ing­ly mag­i­cal fruition of form as it slow­ly accrues in their laps that they for­get that the act of mak­ing a knit­ted object does not end with the knit­ting itself, but with the fin­ish­ing. Some peo­ple hate fin­ish­ing so much that they hire out to have it done. But this is unnec­es­sary. The trick is to build up a head of steam. As you bind-off your last row of stitch­es, remem­ber, you are far from fin­ished. Steel your­self. Eat some baked goods. And move on. Even with the most inge­nious­ly con­struct­ed seam­less sweaters, there will be count­less ends to be woven in and care­ful­ly snipped. There will be wash­ing, press­ing, and block­ing to do. In most instances, there will be plen­ty of seams to sew, which is an art in itself. For coats, jack­ets, cardi­gans, and some vests, you’ll have to choose, buy and attach buttons—occasionally ridicu­lous amounts of them. There may be embroi­dery or over­stitch­ing involved. There may, as well, be some clev­er doc­tor­ing nec­es­sary (some after-the-fact shap­ing with cre­ative seam­ing, for instance, or aggres­sive block­ing). There are even instances in which you will be required, as part of the fin­ish­ing process, to steek, or actu­al­ly cut the work you’ve just com­plet­ed in order to make arm­holes and/or front open­ings, as in tra­di­tion­al box-shaped drop-shoul­der designs from Sweden and Norway. In short, all of this takes time and enor­mous reserves of patience, but it is imper­a­tive that you not let things lan­guish at this point. Keep going. Keep going. You are almost, but not quite, there.

12. Care of Knitted Objects

knittingimage12And then, sud­den­ly, you are. You’re done. Properly worked and fin­ished, a new­ly com­plet­ed piece of hand­knit­ting is a vague­ly mys­ti­cal thing, almost hum­ming with love and inten­tion. At this point, you might neat­ly fold the work, wrap it in tis­sue paper, and give it to some­one. You might slip it over a child’s head. You might mail it away to Chicago, for your sis­ter. Or you might try it on, your­self. It’s won­der­ful to wear some­thing that’s been knit­ted by hand, and not only because it’s beau­ti­ful (or at least cute, or at least sweet­ly clum­sy) but because it is time—it’s a part of someone’s life, your life. It is also tra­di­tion. (The ear­li­est known exam­ple of what we think of as knitting—as opposed to nal­bind­ing, an old­er and visu­al­ly sim­i­lar craft—is a pair of ele­gant two-col­or socks from Egypt, ca. 1,000 CE.) For the­se rea­son and oth­ers clear­ly allud­ed to in the pre­ced­ing pages, the act of knit­ting can be seen as one of resis­tance. To knit some­thing by hand is to resist our cul­ture of cheap, instant and cor­po­rate. Of unremit­ting con­for­mi­ty. Of con­ve­nience at all costs. To hand­knit some­thing is to cel­e­brate the indi­vid­u­al as well as the mir­a­cle of oppos­ing thumbs. Yet even now, after hav­ing com­plet­ed this noble act of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, resis­tance, tra­di­tion, and skill, your job is not com­plete­ly done, because well-loved hand­knit items will wear-out at the cuffs and elbows, the seams will sep­a­rate, the wool will pill. Here are a few things to keep in mind. To wash a hand­knit object, use a gen­tle sham­poo or liq­uid soap and tepid water. Never scrub or wring the work, but press it gen­tly to remove soil. Never, ever let it soak. Once it is clean, gen­tly knead the object to extract as much water as pos­si­ble, then roll it in a large bath tow­el, then unroll it, and, final­ly, block it on a large, flat sur­face in pre­cise­ly the shape you want it to be. Air-dry until not the faintest hint of mois­ture remains. To remove pilled balls of wool, do not pull, which only loosens more fibers, ulti­mate­ly exac­er­bat­ing the prob­lem, but care­ful­ly snip off at the base with a pair of tiny scis­sors. To patch heels, elbows and cuffs, my best advice is to watch a you-tube video. Search under “darn­ing” or “Swiss darn­ing” or “sock mend­ing.” That’s what I did. Never store your sweaters on hang­ers, which will deform them, but fold them neat­ly and keep them, if pos­si­ble, on open shelves where you will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to give them a good stiff shake every few days so as to dis­lodge any poten­tial moth lar­vae. I hate even to men­tion the­se crea­tures, but wool moths con­sti­tute a real and con­stant threat and it is impor­tant that you be on your guard again­st them at all times. Wool moths are dif­fer­ent from food and oth­er moths. They do not fly toward the light. They do not come out at night. Pheromone-based lures and oth­er kinds of traps don’t work with them. They like pro­tein, and so they like wool. They espe­cial­ly like wool that has trace amounts of human sali­va, blood, or mucus on it, also bits of food, and they will seek out the­se spots to lay their eggs. The best way to pre­vent or fight a wool moth infes­ta­tion is to be an excel­lent house­keep­er. Keep things tidy. Vacuum week­ly, and not just the tops of your rugs, but the under­sides as well. Move your fur­ni­ture and vac­u­um under­neath it. In this regard, I do not prac­tice what I preach. I am, by nature, a messy per­son, and wool moths have been a part of my life for years, I’m afraid—even though, I can assure you, noth­ing sick­ens me in quite the same way as the sight of one of those sil­very lit­tle Lepidoptera flut­ter­ing limply out of my clos­et, drunk, it would seem, on my work.  Mothballs reek, but are the only effec­tive method I’ve found of killing the crea­tures. I have tried for a more Buddhist approach. I have tried to embrace the wool moth as part of the nat­u­ral cycle of things. I have med­i­tat­ed on the deep­er real­i­ty of this sit­u­a­tion and come to the quaint but not untrou­bling con­clu­sion that a wool moth is noth­ing but wool. Wool trans­fig­ured. Wool woven by a bit of moth-y genet­ics into the form not of the sweater or blan­ket I worked so hard to cre­ate, but a tiny, vora­cious, dart-shaped bit of shim­mer. Kill a wool moth and you will see it is prac­ti­cal­ly noth­ing, noth­ing at all, just a faint smear of iri­des­cence, like a bit of tau­pe-col­ored eye shad­ow. I would like to say some­thing wise and poet­ic about wool moths, some­thing sage. But wool moths make me wor­ry, like the small patch­es of grey in my husband’s beard make me wor­ry. Everything wears out, even­tu­al­ly. Everything gets old­er, and old­er, and then, final­ly, it gets old. My chil­dren are grow­ing up. Someday, I won’t be able to cov­er them in woolen arti­facts of my affec­tion. Someday, they will go away. I know this but opt for deep-seat­ed denial. In the mean­time, I knit. And I knit. And what I knit wears out, is eat­en by moths, lost, or given away. But slow­ly, I am start­ing to under­stand. Every sock, hat, scarf, and shawl, every sweater and pair of mit­tens that I make is only a tran­sient form. The con­stant is not what’s knit­ted or who knit it. It’s knit­ting.

 

Interview with Kim Adrian by Gary Percesepe

You are work­ing on a mem­oir. What are the chal­lenges that you face in writ­ing this gen­re, and how do they dif­fer from writ­ing a nov­el or short fic­tion?

I feel freer writ­ing non­fic­tion than fiction—I think because plot has always seemed an arti­fi­cial con­straint to me. I strug­gle with it. But in mem­oir, and in explorato­ry non­fic­tion in gen­er­al, you have a lot more lat­i­tude in terms of struc­ture. For me, the most lib­er­at­ing way to shape prose is to think of it as a kind of inves­ti­ga­tion. I like the process of unearthing—through the writ­ing itself—a mys­tery and mak­ing sense of it. The past and mem­o­ry are nat­u­ral sub­jects for this approach, so memoir’s a good fit. In terms of the chal­lenges of the form… For me, the biggest issue is that in mem­oir your sub­ject is such a mov­ing tar­get. Because you’re manip­u­lat­ing your mem­o­ries so much, putting them in order, putting them to use, and this changes them. Your mem­o­ries are your mate­ri­al, your fuel. This is a fun­ny com­par­ison, but I was watch­ing a Marx Brothers film with my hus­band the oth­er day, Go West. There’s this amaz­ing race at the end. The vil­lains are on horse­back and the Marx Brothers are on a train and they’re all vying to get to the next sta­tion because who­ev­er gets there first gets a big con­tract and a lot of mon­ey. The prob­lem is, the steam engine has run out of coal, so the Marx Brothers decide to feed it wood. At first they feed it some logs that are lying around, but then they run out of logs, so they start feed­ing it suit­cas­es and ship­ping box­es, but pret­ty soon they run out those too, so then they start dis­man­tling the train—the seats and tables, even the floors and the walls—until the whole body of train dis­ap­pears into the engine just to keep it going. When I saw that, I was like, “It’s just like writ­ing a mem­oir!” When you’re writ­ing a mem­oir you’re going somewhere—you’ve got this goal: you’re writ­ing a book, you’ve got to fin­ish, reach your des­ti­na­tion. But you use up huge por­tions of your­self in order to do that, because when you spend a lot of time with your mem­o­ries, writ­ing about them, you kind of kiss them good­bye. They don’t belong to you in the same way any­more. They become a sto­ry, out­side of you. In a way, it’s free­ing. In anoth­er way, it’s kind of scary.

That puts me in mind of some­thing James Salter said in his mem­oir, Burning the Days, where he wrote, “to write of some­one thor­ough­ly is to destroy them, use them up. I sup­pose this is true of expe­ri­ence as well–in describ­ing a world you extin­guish it–and in a book of rec­ol­lec­tion much is reduced to ruin. Things are cap­tured and at the same time drained of life, nev­er to shim­mer or give back light again.”

Right. And is it real­ly worth it? If I were tru­ly com­fort­able in the present, con­tent with it, would I be writ­ing this mem­oir? Writing entails los­ing, but it’s what writ­ers do. And while I agree that you lose much of the shim­mer of things for your­self, inter­nal­ly, it’s not entire­ly gone because that’s your job as a writer—to put some­thing like light on the page.

Are there any mem­oirs out there where you read them, you say to yourself—yes, that’s what I am try­ing to do. Or not do.

As much as I appre­ci­ate them, I’m not try­ing to write a mem­oir that reads more or less like a novel—with a cast of well-round­ed char­ac­ters, lots of dia­logue, and a clas­sic sort of plot. I mean mem­oirs like Angela’s Ashes or The Glass Castle or The Liars’ Club. My favorite mem­oir is Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard. Also, although it’s usu­al­ly called a nov­el, Remembrance of Things Past, which is the ulti­mate inves­ti­ga­tion of mem­o­ry. That’s a big part of what I’m inter­est­ed in—an explo­ration of what the past actu­al­ly is—how do we know it? How does it con­tin­ue to exist inside us and between us? How do we escape it, if that’s what we’re after, or embrace it, or just find peace with it? Now that I think about it, Bernhard hard­ly does any­thing along the­se lines in Gathering Evidence. His is just a pret­ty straight­for­ward auto­bi­og­ra­phy. The thing I love about that work is that he nev­er hedges. He’s bold. There’s this com­mon thing in mem­oir the­se days, espe­cial­ly mem­oirs about dif­fi­cult child­hoods or fam­i­lies, like the one I’m writ­ing, where it’s con­sid­ered impor­tant to show that every­one in the sto­ry is both good and bad. Maybe in vary­ing amounts, but this kind of “shad­ing” is de rigueur. But in his mem­oir, Bernhard is the absolute hero—not in any big, macho way, but just because he’s clear-sight­ed and he believes that see­ing the world clear­ly is impor­tant and rare. He also writes about real­ly lim­it­ed or awful peo­ple, and he doesn’t both­er to shade or nuance most of them. In a way I find this much more hon­est than going out of your way to give gra­da­tion to char­ac­ters just to make them palat­able or com­fort­ably rec­og­niz­able or not too ugly. Bernhard was a child when the Nazis were in pow­er, and he is absolute about their evil­ness and stu­pid­i­ty. It’s more coura­geous, I think, to some­times deal in black and white than end­less greys.

I’m cur­rent­ly writ­ing a mem­oir and I find the char­ac­ter I have the most dif­fi­cul­ty being fair to is myself.

It’s hard to cre­ate a char­ac­ter of your­self. You have too much infor­ma­tion and can get all tripped up try­ing to explain your­self. I’ve noticed this par­tic­u­lar­ly when I write about dif­fi­cult things, like my mother’s men­tal ill­ness. I get this very dis­tinct per­sona going. It’s more than a voice, but less than a char­ac­ter. It’s like a fil­tra­tion sys­tem. I fig­ure my char­ac­ter is going to get on the page whether I want it to or not, and this per­sona helps me feel less vul­ner­a­ble, which, iron­i­cal­ly, helps me reveal more, be more vul­ner­a­ble, tell more of the sto­ry. Sometimes she sur­pris­es me, because she’s pret­ty dif­fer­ent than I am in real life. She’s bossy and some­times she gets this odd­ly liti­gious thing going in her dic­tion, which always baf­fles me, but it makes for an inter­est­ing alche­my between my mem­o­ries and her approach. She’s tougher than I am and the sto­ry comes out dif­fer­ent­ly than it would if I were just telling it in per­son. It’s clear­er.

Where do your char­ac­ters come from, and what is the truth in fic­tion?

I admire writ­ers who can con­coct char­ac­ters. Make them up. This kind of thing seems relat­ed to act­ing or play-act­ing. It’s a great abil­i­ty. But I don’t do much of it. Someday, may­be some­thing in me will shift and I’ll be able to do that. In the mean­time, my fic­tion is just one or two degrees away from non-fic­tion. I did write a novel­la once that was more pure­ly inven­tion. But gen­er­al­ly, I don’t do it so much. In any case, I think you can cram as much truth into fic­tion as you can into non­fic­tion. Don Quixote is as fic­tion­al as it gets, but it holds a boat­load of truth. Honesty has always been a kind of obses­sion for me. A com­pul­sion. Fudging things, even if it’s to get to a larg­er truth, is def­i­nite­ly a com­pli­cat­ed process for me. This is why fic­tion is such a strug­gle, and non­fic­tion so com­par­a­tive­ly easy.

Would you agree with one of your char­ac­ters who states that it is pos­si­ble to fall in love with parts of peo­ple? And if so, which parts are prefer­able?

I agree with that. In fact, I think we can only love parts of peo­ple. Never the whole per­son. People are just too big. Too com­plex. The parts of peo­ple that inter­est me, that I fall in love with, or think are intrigu­ing, are usu­al­ly the parts that they’re less aware of them­selves. Self-con­scious­ness throws up a big screen, and usu­al­ly that’s bor­ing. But when peo­ple get out­side of their own heads, their own self-inter­est, let go of their own self-image and engage with some­thing they love, that’s inter­est­ing. I just had an image of a dad with a baby bot­tle stick­ing out of his pants pock­et. That’s the kind of thing I mean. I like it when peo­ple for­get them­selves. Like on the sub­way, when someone’s real­ly into what they’re reading—that look that goes over their face. It’s like they’re out­side of them­selves because they’re so into their book, but at the same time, they’re more pure­ly them­selves. If someone’s real­ly into their work, you can see that look then, too. I think this is basi­cal­ly what hap­pens in roman­tic love, or even just flir­ta­tion, but between two peo­ple. Because when some­one has that kind of reac­tion to anoth­er per­son, when they’re real­ly intrigued or absorbed by anoth­er per­son, they lose track of them­selves. And when that fas­ci­na­tion is mutu­al, it’s called love.

I like what you say about self-con­scious­ness here, and would like to invite you to unpack a com­ment John Updike once made in this regard. Interviewed at Paris Review, Updike said, “I real­ly don’t think I’m alone among writ­ers in car­ing about what they expe­ri­enced in the first eigh­teen years of their life. Hemingway cher­ished the Michigan sto­ries out of pro­por­tion, I would think, to their mer­it. Look at Twain. Look at Joyce. Nothing that hap­pens to us after twen­ty is as free from self-con­scious­ness because by then we have the voca­tion to write. Writers’ lives break into two halves. At the point where you get your writer­ly voca­tion you dimin­ish your recep­tiv­i­ty to expe­ri­ence. Being able to write becomes a kind of shield, a way of hid­ing, a way of too instant­ly trans­form­ing pain into honey—whereas when you’re young, you’re so impo­tent you can­not help but strive and observe and feel.”

I don’t think it’s exclu­sive­ly a writer’s issue. Our child­hoods are just richer. In part, it’s because when we’re young, every­thing feels myth­i­cal. Your par­ents, your home, your neigh­bors, your extend­ed fam­i­ly, your favorite tree. Everything seems to point to some enor­mous mys­tery you can just bare­ly make sense of. And every once in a while, a lit­tle piece of the mys­tery seems to detach and make sense of itself, come into focus. You under­stand your rela­tion­ship to it, and it shrinks to real-world pro­por­tions. Though the whole thing nev­er com­plete­ly comes into focus, and we keep being haunt­ed by that mytho­log­i­cal feel­ing for the rest our lives. What he says about recep­tiv­i­ty to expe­ri­ence also seems not exclu­sive­ly a writer’s issue. Maybe it’s a lit­tle worse for writ­ers, because we’re will­ing to use up our expe­ri­ence in a dif­fer­ent way, but most­ly I think it’s just a rot­ten trick of grow­ing up. Children have an eas­ier time being in the present. They have less sta­t­ic on their brains—fewer judg­ments, sto­ries, wor­ries, assess­ments. They’re less expe­ri­enced and so nat­u­ral­ly more neu­tral, more objec­tive. I fig­ure impres­sions just take bet­ter to that kind of sur­face than they do to the sur­face of the adult mind, which is so mud­died with con­cerns out­side the moment. As we get old­er, our minds get more crowded—ironically, mem­o­ries do a lot of that crowding—and it gets increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to form the kind of gor­geous, crys­talline mem­o­ries we asso­ciate with child­hood. My grand­fa­ther pour­ing ketchup on his scram­bled eggs, for instance. Why do I remem­ber that? The col­ors struck me, I thought it looked hor­ri­ble and couldn’t imag­ine want­i­ng to eat it, but most­ly I think there was just noth­ing else on my mind at that moment. In that moment, I was all about those scram­bled eggs and ketchup. To this day, I can still see them.

~

Kim Adrian’s short sto­ries and essays have appeared in Tin HouseAgni, the Gettysburg ReviewCrazyhorse, the New England ReviewNinth Letter, the Raritan Review, and else­where. Among the awards and recog­ni­tions she’s received are a P.E.N. New England Discovery Award, an Artist’s Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, three Pushcart Prize nom­i­na­tions, and the Editor’s Prize in Nonfiction from the New Ohio Review, as well as res­i­den­cies at the Edward Albee Barn, Ragdale, and VCCA, and schol­ar­ships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. Find more at kimadrian.com