If you Google the two words “knitting” and “pandemic” together, you will get about 23 million hits. You’ll also do very well with “knitting through the pandemic,” and “knitting” with “Covid” will get you 266 million options, the very first of which, at least when I tried this, was a British pattern for a Covid-19 teddy bear (he wears a mask).
You’ll get feature stories about how the pandemic sparked a global knitting craze, or how knitting has become “the cool activity” during the coronavirus crisis, a Times story on knitting for the apocalypse, and also many personal testimonies, like this one by Ann Hood, who has written before about knitting and grief, in particular about the role that it played in her life after the sudden death of her daughter.
This past week, I was invited to speak at a meeting of crafters at the Windsor Public Library in Windsor, Conn., because I’ve written about knitting, and especially about the confluence of knitting and medicine. (The 1992 article I wrote about knitting in medical school and residency, and getting yelled at for it, gave me a special satisfaction because it let me answer back; the Times Magazine ran letters in response for weeks after it appeared, some from people who were furious that knitters had the temerity to knit at work, others invoking Eleanor Roosevelt knitting while ambassador to the United Nations, or remembering the comfort of watching knitting needles moving while falling asleep as a child in a London underground station during the Blitz.)
The group of crafters who joined the call to talk about “Why Crafting Matters” had their hands busy. They included a couple of knitters — distanced and masked, of course — at the local yarn store, Ewe and You, and others joining from home.
We went around the Zoom room and showed our various projects in progress. Then I talked a little about knitting, about writing about knitting, about the research on knitting (and other crafts) to promote health and reduce stress, about knitting (and other brain exercises and social interactions) to stave off dementia.
The women at the meeting were all knitting their way through the pandemic. One said that she had not done any knitting for the first two months of lockdown, and certainly not for lack of yarn — she had just moved to a larger apartment, in part to give her yarn stash more room. But one night the power went off, “so I cast on a hat,” she said. “It broke the dam.” Since then she has made many things, and donated them to charity, often through Care To Knit. Another was making garments for a new baby niece — “I’m not sure when I’ll get to meet her; knitting helped me feel like we’re bonding.” Another had finally had the chance to finish sweaters, which had long sat unfinished, and to start new ones.
Knitting puts me in the moment. As someone who has failed every attempt at meditation, or even at mindfulness, knitting calms my mind and brings me to the table, real or metaphorical. My hands move, I am aware of their movement. The yarn moves through my fingers, around my fingers, and I am aware of the tension (tension is another term with a technical meaning in knitting, and also, of course, a certain metaphorical importance).
And yet, at this pandemic moment, the yarn in my fingers and the project dangling from my needle was also connecting me to the past, beyond this strange and terrible year, and to the family members far away. I was working with a particularly beautiful ball of variegated velour yarn that I bought almost exactly a year ago, attending a pediatric meeting in New Orleans, and which I started making into a scarf for my daughter on a family car trip from New York City to New Hampshire last December.
As I stitched the next row, I thought about that lost world: big professional meetings. Casual travel from one city to another, armed with restaurant recommendations and the determination to take an hour to visit a local yarn store (The Quarter Stitch in the French Quarter). Family car trips. I had cast on 30 stitches for this scarf, as the very simple store pattern suggested, but my daughter wanted it longer and thinner, so I ripped out (“frogged” would be the usual term) after a few inches and started again with only 24.
How disgraceful, I thought, making my way back and forth across these short rows (knit 3 purl 3 repeat to end), and starting to beat myself up; I could so easily have been making a few inches of progress every day, this scarf could be finished, I could be beginning the next project. And I instantly recognized, this is how I tend to do self-care; I jump very quickly from something comforting that might yield a small sense of accomplishment to bitter self-reproach.
On the Zoom, we talked about learning to knit — about who taught us, and why that matters. Do you think that knitting sometimes skips a generation, I asked, and several of the others agreed. My own mother did not knit; I learned from my father’s mother, my Grandma Mimi, born in the East End of London, transplanted to the Lower East Side in the 1920s, where her self-described “Jewish Cockney” English was useless, and she had to learn Yiddish in order to shop, fraternize, and place and counter curses — my uncle wrote a story about my grandmother’s Yiddish witchcraft.
I tell you this to explain that she taught me “continental” style knitting, rather than “English,” which may be somehow traceable to that mix of ethnic identities. Thanks to her, I am a “picker,” not a “thrower” — I catch the yarn with my right-hand needle, instead of wrapping it. She made me the knitter I still am.
We mustn’t skip this generation. If you know the joy of knitting, this is the time to pass it on — and you have all the generationally appropriate tools available on YouTube where you can find all manner of beginning videos. For English knitting, there’s how to knit a scarf for beginners, or Ryan explaining how to knit in a cheerful accessible way — for continental, there’s Nancy or Maryna or Rokolee.
Rachel Schuster, the owner of Ewe and You, talked about using remote gatherings to foster the sense of community which used to manifest in group activities. Many of her customers, she said, knit for charity and give away what they make. “Just keep making, keep going, when you start getting into a rut of feeling sad, just keep going,” she said. “Completion is huge.”
I need to be in the moment, but I also need the future and the past. I’m doing a few inches every day now on the scarf for my daughter, and I have another ball of variegated velour, also from New Orleans, to make one for my son. I will feel the yarn in my fingers, I will be in the moment, but I will also be in those past moments, with the people I love most, moving through a world we want to see again. I’m going for completion.