When I first lived in the New City of Fés (Fés Djadeed as we called it), I was not the rabid lace knitter that I am now. I had done color work during the Lopi Icelandic Sweater rage, and I knew my way around a raglan sweater pattern. But the color work was not even done holding a different yarn in each hand. I knew one type of increase, one decrease, and one bind off. I was 26 years old, I had been knitting for 15 years, and I was still a beginner. I was still a serial knitter. I would not have dreamed of starting a project, or even stocking the supplies for the next one, before the current job was done. I was on the cusp of change.
This would have been the spring of 1980, and I would have had money burning a hole in my pocket. It had taken nine months for my work visa to be processed, and to get my first pay check – a whopper with all the back pay. I had gone from scrimping, as the last of my $2,000 ran out, to feeling quite flush. I was experiencing that special sort of ennui that comes from at last having the where-with-all to entertain yourself, but having lost the habit of embarking on a spontaneous frolic. This particular afternoon, I was flailing about for something to do, tired of sitting in the coffee shop; two hours was long enough to nurse a café cassé. It was Sunday, so The Oasis, the only place to buy books in English, was closed.
As I wandered the streets, looking in windows, I saw a display of attractive magazines and colorful balls of yarn. I had recently finished a sweater for myself, and thought that, since I could afford the yarn, I’d start a new project. I looked through the magazines available, all in French, Italian, and German. One, Anna, a German publication by Burda, had some good graphics of how to make stitches. I figured it would be easy enough to match up the words, symbols, and pictures. It would be a pleasant break from speaking Arabic and drinking mint tea and espressos in the cafés.
There was a pattern for an alligator in this particular issue of Anna and I figured it would be a fine present for a friend who was pregnant. I picked out the yarn and straight needles. The only circular needles were some unpleasant nylon ones in pastel colors. I went home, cast on, and started to knit.
I don’t remember much else that was in the magazine except for two things. One was a kangaroo and baby set that I later knit for another friend. The other was a lace table cloth by Herbert Niebling.
As a child I had fallen in love with tiny crochet hooks and #30 thread. My grandmothers both did handwork. I am sure they were pattern followers, and steeped in tradition. Today we would call them craftswomen, but then it was just what they did. Both crocheted, both tatted, and one knit. Both coached me with stories of how they had learned their handwork. One grandmother had a subscription to Work Basket Magazine from which she made doilies and edgings. She often had what she called a “plaster” on her finger from where she had jabbed herself with her crochet hook. I took this to mean she had some alternative to a Band-Aid. The other grandmother worked more with yarn, and was less wounded by her tools.
The lace table cloth was made of the thread I adored, but it was knit! I had never imagined lace knit. As I worked on the alligator, the lace whispered to me. Before long the magazine naturally fell open to the pictures of the lacey white cloth draped over a colored background.
For those of you who have never experienced a Burda pattern book, it comes in two parts. There is the glossy tantalizing display of finished projects, with minimal information about the required materials. Stapled in the center of the magazine are a couple of newsprint sheets. There are outlines of patterns you can trace onto tissue paper, each outline being in either a different color or embellished with different symbols, matching a different project. For a pair of rompers, you might follow the blue lines marked with triangles, while for a blouse black lines marked with squares. The patterns for each would overlay each other on the same sheet of paper. There were other sections where outlines for embroidery, knitting, or maybe cut work or bobbin lace would be laid out. This one had probably four different charts that made up the instructions for the knitted lace tablecloth.
It took me three days to go back to the shop. I bought a set of thin steel needles, 20cm long, and a couple of balls for #30 thread. Circulars, even nylon ones, were not an option for needles that small. I went home and abandoned the alligator.
The next several weeks were spotted with frustration and satisfaction. I learned to tension my knitting. The cotton thread was quite unforgiving and frequently broke. It took a while for me to work my way past round 20. I got very good at casting on in the round. I learned that when I got stressed about a particular symbol, my knitting got too tight and the thread would break. I discovered strategies for keeping my stitches loose enough to knit, but not so loose that the needles I didn’t have immediately in my grasp would come shooting out of their stitches. I memorized symbols, learned some German knitting words, and gradually made progress. I was working with two sets of stich repeats per needle.
Then the day came when my needles were too full for me to easily see what I had accomplished when I laid my work out on the table. I was in constant danger of dropping stitches, and I had no skills in repairing my work. I headed back to the store and got a new set of needles. I moved half the stitches from each needle to my extra set. Moving to a single set of stitches on each needle made it easier to keep track of the pattern and helped catch errors early on. I think I ended up buying four sets of needles in all. I resorted to rubber bands wound around the ends to keep my stitches from spilling off.
I never did finish that table cloth. Whether it was lost in a move, or there was a serious loss of stitches, I don’t remember. What was important about this was that I knew lace knitting existed. I did not return to it for nearly a decade when I came upon a book on Traditional Knitted Lace Shawls by Martha Waterman (the actual version I got, complete with errors). Then I discovered Gloria Penning and her Lace Knitting books. I made shawls, window hangings, inserted lace into sweaters. I learned the beauty of algebra present in all lace knitting – that if you add a stich in one place, with a yarn over, you need to take it away in another, knitting two stitches together. I learned that you could do the same with a different sort of increase and create beautiful flowing designs that mimicked the foam on an agitated sea.
By the mid-90s I had amassed quite a collection of lace patterns from German and American sources. My mother-in-law graciously got me an ongoing subscription to Anna magazine each Christmas. In an Ebay purchase I found that original magazine that contained my first lace tablecloth. Confronted by a gnarly series of projects at work, that had me learning to program and build applications for a variety of Unix platforms, it was to lace knitting that I turned to calm my mind and soothe my soul.
When I participated in the Maine Writing Project in 2005, I established myself as a public knitter; the it is way I am still remembered by alums of the class who invariably ask if I’m still knitting. We were required to give a 10 minute presentation about writing, learning, and self-definition. I chose to speak about the rhythms I see in lace and knitting, and how those are reflected in how I write, discovering images connected by a single thread.