Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thinking about thinking about knitting / Two old sweaters stage a cedar closet jail break

Two different strands wind through today's post, but never fear, they come together at the end.

1. Thinking about thinking about knitting

When I knit, my thoughts sometimes wander to knitting to the past. Then I think about the long-ago knitters and what they were thinking about, a sort of recursive trip down memory lane

As they knit along, those old time knitters knew for sure they were making something valuable. Long ago people thought about their clothes much differently. In that society, people listed clothes in their estate inventories, or made made them part of their will. A nice pair of hand-knit stockings were worthy of being passed along as a special bequest for usefulness and remembrance. That attitude lasted a long time, too.  When asked why she kept old clothes which no longer fit, my grandmother (born in Austria in 1902) used to reply with a German proverb that "clothes outlive their people."

Today, clothes don't have that resonance.  Clothes are not really considered valuable.  That, too, is something I think about when knitting: after all, it takes a certain thickness of skin to be a confirmed hand-knitter in the day of cheap ready-made sweaters and expensive yarn. However difficult life was for the old-time knitters, the usefulness of their craft was never at issue.  So, while we think about knitting's value while we knit, that's one thing with which the old-time knitters never had to concern themselves: clothes in that day were valuable and scarce.

2. Two old sweaters stage a cedar closet jail break 

Another by-product of clothes not being considered valuable nowadays is that, when people pass on, it seems a bit creepy, almost, to keep their old clothes around.  The old way of passing your clothes on to others hardly exists: those clothes are more likely to end up in the goodwill store than being worn around. And yet, hand-knitting, at least around here, recently broke this trend.

two old sweaters

Here are a couple of sweaters I knit a long time ago for my father (brown sweater) and my stepfather (green vest).  When both men passed on, I got the garments back.  For years and years they sat in the cedar closet.

Meanwhile, my son was born, and grew and grew. Last year, at 12, he outgrew the sweater he'd been wearing as a sort of a dress-uniform for semi-formal occasions.  He told me he needed a new one.  I almost cast on then and there, but something passing though my mind sent me upstairs to the cedar closet instead. Down came the brown sweater. To my surprise, it fit him.  For the past year, this old sweater has become his new dress-uniform. A few weeks ago, I was up in the closet again, looking for an old project to photograph for the blog. There sat the green vest.  That turned out to fit, also, so now he has a sort of a uniform-rotation. (And who says the knitter's children have no sweaters?  That kid has two!)

I almost didn't bring the sweaters out of the closet, because I thought it would be kind of unsettling. Instead, the sight of those old sweaters given a new life turns out to be a sort of relief.  I feel like I can think about their original owners again without  the first thought being "oh! they're both dead now." For one thing, I have to remember just how small both my father and stepfather really were, when I see the kid running around in their old sweaters.

sitting on the shelf with the everyday clothes

When these two old sweaters escaped from the cedar closet to sit on the shelf with the every-day clothes, they turned out to be something valuable, like something made by the old-time knitters: a glimpse of my family's past as well a glimpse of the textile-past, both brought to life.

Further, I now know something about the old time knitters and their thoughts which I didn't know before.  When we knit, we think a lot about the person we are knitting for.  But when they knit, the long ago knitters were making making a garment independent, in a certain way, of the person for whom it was knit.  I mean, I'm sure they thought about the sweater-recipient, but they also expected that the garment would be passed along when the recipient had no further need of it; not gotten rid of, or stuck in a cedar-closet jail of remembrance.
* * *
Something new to think about while I knit, I guess.



Blogger Jason said...

Wow I LOVE the green vest. Do you know what the pattern is? Also, I think it's awesome that your son is now wearing sweaters you knit for your dad and step-dad. Such great handiwork should be passed down. I only hope to one day knit such worthy garments.

November 17, 2011 at 4:15 PM  
Blogger lilheart17 said...

I really enjoyed reading your reflections. I think we should change our perspectives about death and pass on clothes or other articles that had meaning to that person.

November 17, 2011 at 4:57 PM  
Blogger Classics Revisited said...

What a beautiful essay! I love it. When my father was still alive, I didn't know how to knit and couldn't have made him a sweater, but I can experience it vicariously through your writing.

November 17, 2011 at 5:28 PM  
Anonymous Stephanie said...

Lovely writing. My Dad died last June and my Mother has undone some of his 'plainish' jerseys,hanked, washed and balled ready to be reknit. I have already used some of the wool for jerseys for two wee grandsons, wonderful and precious. The quality of that old wool in many ways superior to many 'yarns' around today but then it was just plain pure 100% wool.
Very Best Wishes

November 17, 2011 at 6:30 PM  
Blogger Summer said...

Thank you for your comments about the value of good clothes. Am so glad that your son can wear them. They are beautiful. I have always valued good clothing and have kept some of my 100 percent wool clothing for years. It is handy this year since I have had trouble finding wool clothes in stores. I have a sweater that I hand-knitted in '96 and I still get compliments. Good clothes are valuable. Hope your son will get to enjoy his sweaters a while longer before growing out of them.

November 17, 2011 at 7:58 PM  
Anonymous Geri said...

I'm glad that not only can your son wear the vest and sweater, he WILL wear them. He's knitworthy and you don't have to expend any more effort other than to transfer the good thoughts you had whilst knitting the items for your deceased loved ones to your son. Very sweet.

November 17, 2011 at 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Mimi said...

What a beautiful essay. Thank you. I kept a sweater my mother knit and wore often. I kept it next to the bed for a year, because it smelled like her: a combination of cologne and face cream and grey wool. When the scent faded, I unraveled it and will someday make soft, grey, embroidered sweaters for her great grandchildren.

November 17, 2011 at 9:09 PM  
OpenID revknits said...

Love your reflections. When my brother died unexpectedly, I saved the vest I had knit him, partly because he did even though it no longer fit him.

And the sweaters I'm knitting my Mom who's 89 - assuming they are in good shape, I'll totally be wearing them myself!

November 17, 2011 at 9:12 PM  
Blogger Shoelaceswitcher said...

This is a lovely way to view handknit sweaters, and motivates me to finally give one a try.

November 17, 2011 at 10:43 PM  
Blogger betty2dogs said...

Thank you for posting this essay.

November 17, 2011 at 11:45 PM  
Anonymous ChristineB said...

When my mother died in 2003, my sister and I went through her belongings and I found a sweater I had knit for her about a year or two earlier. It was the first sweater I completely hand knit to completion (I had only machine knit sweaters before), made of Lion Brand Wool-Ease heather yarn. I kinda wrecked it when I threw it in the washer & dryer to get rid of the cigarrette odor, but it's still a comfort to me when I'm feeling under the weather.

Today would have been my mom's 77th birthday - thanks for the reminder of why knitting matters.

November 18, 2011 at 6:30 AM  
Blogger Carly said...

Very poignant. I love the idea of heirloom knits. I recently made a blanket for a friend about to have a baby and hope that the blanket sticks with the kid throughout its life, just as my baby blanket has stuck with me.

You've inspired me to find out what my mom did with the hand-knit sweaters I'm sure my Grannie and Grampa left when they died. Grannie was a prolific knitter, so they must be somewhere.
Even though I didn't learn to knit until after she'd died, I now use her needles to knit, so it's as though we still have a connection somehow.

November 18, 2011 at 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Marie/Underground Crafter said...

So glad you found a new life for those sweaters and shared your reflection. When my grandmother passed on, I brought some of her clothes into my collection and find a lot of comfort wearing those outfits.

November 18, 2011 at 3:04 PM  
Blogger Andrea PGN said...

What an interesting post today. It's funny how important clothes were long ago (or not so long ago)

November 18, 2011 at 7:19 PM  
Blogger StickLena =KnitLena said...

We have the same opinion about re-using passed away persons knitted items. I would love to have such an opportunity, but sadly nothing left...

November 19, 2011 at 8:04 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

A very interesting insight about how old knitters thought. It's great the sweaters are being given a new lease of life by your son.

November 19, 2011 at 10:07 AM  
Blogger Michelle said...

While I don't think any are handknits, I got some of my grandmother's clothes after she died this summer at age 100. She was always a sharp dresser, and I have gotten compliments whenever I have worn some of the clothes I got from her closet. It makes me feel special!

Loved this post....

November 20, 2011 at 10:26 PM  
Blogger Cassy said...

I've thought more than once about how knitted goods can and should be passed down to others. I hope I have a long list of fancy knits to will to people, or maybe I'll give them away before that so I can see people get to wear them.

November 21, 2011 at 11:30 AM  
Blogger OPKnitter said...

When I went off to college in 1969 my mother made me a simple handknit poncho. I wore it through school & for a bit thereafter & then it sank into the bottom of a cedar chest. Several years ago the daughter of a close family member was getting ready to head off to college. Along with a couple of smaller handknit goodies, that 1st care package contained the poncho, washed, reworked a little around the neck, & back in fashion.

November 21, 2011 at 12:13 PM  
Blogger TECHknitter said...

Hi Jason--I left a comment on your blog, but in case you didn't get it, or in case anyone else wants to know, the green vest is from an old Columbia-Minerva pattern "Aran Isle classics, " booklet # 691, published 4/84.

The pattern is modified from the men's serpentine pullover on page 5. I think it was the third or fourth thing i ever made.

November 21, 2011 at 3:21 PM  
Blogger Mari said...

I really enjoyed this post. I am glad to see that someone else found a home for knits for the past. I received knits from a friend's sister who had passed, some beautiful ganseys that would have otherwise just sat in a cedar closet and I cherish them and think of my friend when I wear them. When my mom passed away 10 year ago I gave a sweater I had knit for her to another "motherly" friend of mine explaining to her that I had knit it for my mom and that I thought it would be nice for her to have it now. She still wears it 10 years later.

November 22, 2011 at 4:06 PM  
Anonymous Maureen said...

I really enjoyed reading your reflections on knitting and knitters of the past. I too frequently find myself thinking about the knitters of old as well as the recipients of the knitting in hand. There is something very intimate, and life affirming, and connecting, about the whole endeavor. Thanks for sharing

November 23, 2011 at 5:16 PM  
Blogger kmkat said...

I still have the little dresses my grandmother crocheted for me when I was a toddler. Heirlooms, indeed.

November 26, 2011 at 11:24 AM  
Blogger Scotkat said...

What a lovely knitting blog of 2 old sweaters coming alive again fantastic.

So enjoyed your story thankyou.

December 6, 2011 at 2:13 AM  
Blogger ArtGirl said...

what a lovely post! thank you for sharing your thoughts. i often wonder whether it's worth it (the time and money) to quilt (and beginning now to knit). in some cases, i've decided 'no' and give that person a gift card to babies r us instead of laboring over a baby quilt. in other cases, the answer is a resounding 'yes!' its worth it because that person will cherish what i've made for them.

January 7, 2012 at 5:48 PM  
Blogger Lynne Phelps said...

This reminded me of a comment the Yarn Harlot made at one of her book tour appearances:
"It used to be considered a waste to buy something that you could make. Now it is considered a waste to make something that you can buy."
Interesting that this change is so recent (from a historical perspective), since ready made clothing has changed clothes into disposable items instead of an investment. Quality in workmanship and materials used to be important as clothes would hopefully last a lifetime. And look what this has done; fashion fads are a product of our throw away society. When you expect to be wearing clothes for years and years you stick with classics!

March 11, 2012 at 3:01 PM  

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