I make and craft and create to discover the magic and the mystery in things. Pickles? I can make those! Handknit sweater? That, too! A felted handbag? I learned how to do it one summer seven years ago. Lip balm? I made some this year!
What all of these things have in common is not necessity or having to make do or any kind of motive of need or fashion. Nor is crafting a particular passion. I can go for months without taking up a new project.
What they have in common is that I wanted to unravel the mystery of something that struck me as beautiful and rare. I loved making lip balm with my boys not only because it was a great idea for Valentine’s favours, but mostly because it took all of the mystery out of something I use several times a day. I had been paying an outrageous $40 per tube of lip treatment because after many, many tries, it was the only one that worked. Learning how to make my own, made cosmetics something totally accessible, and I could control the quality and the contents. That was a powerful feeling.
I have known how to knit since I was a child, and my mother, bless her patience, helped along many a hobbled project when I was little. Most of them I abandoned. In elementary school, I think I may have completed a knitted bear, and perhaps a blanket to go with it, and in high school I made myself one simple summer sweater, but I was not a star knitter by any stretch of the imagination. My mother was. She knitted, crocheted and sewed the most beautiful and intricate things. She always had a project on the go. When I got to university, and my mother was an ocean away, I happened to see some gorgeous Icelandic wool on sale in a bin in big department store, of all places. It came in a cellophane package, with about ten balls of wool for the main colour of the sweater and one ball each of the secondary colours. There was a pattern for a chunky fairisle sweater, and it looked so wonderful for the Montreal winter that was already hinting at its severity. (I had moved from Egypt. I was not at all used to Canadian winter.)
I love the internet! This is not the pattern I used 25 years ago, but that’s the model, complete with her white headband.
At first, I just looked at it longingly, feeling that it was something so far out of my reach, and then I thought, “No, I have what I need to be able to make that.” I bought the wool and the needles, and I set out to make it.
The only problem was that in all the knitting I had done, my mother had always cast on the stitches for me. I had never done that alone. I didn’t have any choice but to go it alone this time, so I taught myself how to cast on simply by closing my eyes and remembering the motions of my mother’s hands as she did it. There was a trick and a rhythm, and after a few false starts I found them. I was amazed at the time to have been able to draw that out of my memory. Muscle memory by proxy.
Making that sweater was so much more than just arming myself for a cold winter. I felt such a sense of accomplishment in moving myself from beginner to intermediate knitter, and my joy at succeeding at the project was immense. I wore that sweater for years with great pride. I made two more, all with the same sense of joy, and with increasing confidence and willingness to improvise with colour and pattern. It was also contagious: several other women in my dorm went off and bought the same kit, and we’d sit and knit together, avoiding term papers and the drama of the wider world for just that little while. Making our own sweaters gave us a common purpose and a space apart from the world that worked so hard to define us.
The moment of remembering my mother’s hands casting on my stitches is a touchstone for me. I think of it often and fondly as a minor miracle of memory and motion and chance. How many times would I have actually witnessed her casting on stitches? How carefully was I watching? I often wonder if or what motions of my hands my own kids will remember years hence. We don’t plan these moments, but in some way, shape or form, I hope that there will come a time when they are trying something and can close their eyes and see me doing it.