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Beyond Stitch and Bitch

Reflections on Knitting and Life

by Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs

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Reflections on Knitting and Life
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs

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Excerpt: Beyond Stitch And Bitch

Chapter OneElizabeth ZimmermannMother of the Craft

At times, small events remind us that creativity notonly endures but expands to touch and inspireothers. That's why the death of renowned knitterElizabeth Zimmermann in 1999 was worthy of anobituary in the New York Times. Non-knitters musthave been confused when they picked up the paperthat day. The nation's paper of record devotedalmost a thousand words to commemorate theaccomplishments of a professional knitter-yes,that's what she was; no, the designation wasn't a contradictionin terms.

Zimmermann wasn't strictly a fashion designer,even though thousands of women and men still followpatterns she created almost half a century ago.She didn't have the celebrity of the Missonis, theItalian family whose knitwear sells for thousands ofdollars, nor the cachet of Kaffe Fasset, the Britishdesigner whose beautiful colors turned knittedsweaters into artistic canvasses. Zimmermann had asingle-minded passion for the craft that allowedher to "see knitting in everything" and a gift to helpothers see as she did. By overturning the traditionalapproach to knitting with her revolutionary techniques,knitters were given the freedom to createpatterns to suit themselves.

Her most famous "unvention" which was whatshe called the techniques she devised, was hermethod for making a sweater. First, she abandonedstraight needles for circular ones. By knitting cylindersinstead of flat pieces, she eliminated the needto sew a sweater together. "The human being is soconstructed that it [sic] can be completely coveredby a series of shaped tubes," she explained in herbook Knitting Without Tears. "We knitters can fabricatenatural-born tubes by the very nature of our craftof circular knitting.... It is only a matter of uniting the tubes by knitting together and we could, ifdesired, make long johns for an octopus."

Then she used mathematics, a subject longdeemed too weighty for women of her era, to deviseformulas that guaranteed a perfectly fitting garment.The knitter determines the number of stitchesfor the body by knitting a four-inch swatch andmeasuring the number of stitches that equal oneinch. Then she multiples that figure by the desiredwidth of the sweater.

The next step involves following percentagesthat Zimmermann had carefully worked out. If theknitter wants long sleeves, she casts on 20 percentof the body stitches per sleeve. She increases regularlyuntil she has 33 percent of the body stitches.

After knitting the sleeves and the body, the knittercan relax.

"Now the long haul is over, and the fun begins,"Zimmermann wrote. The knitter follows the restof Zimmermann's directions for joining the sleevesand body by knitting all three pieces together on acircular needle. She guides the knitter step by stepfrom the yoke to the neck, giving percentages assignposts so the knitter won't get lost.

This "unvention" allows a knitter to modify abasic design to her taste by adding small patterns,switching yarns, or changing stitches, without worryingthat the finished garment would hang from hershoulders like a sack or squeeze her chest like a vise.

Zimmermann's initiation to knitting was hardlyexceptional. She'd been drawn to the craft as achild in England. Her memories of childhood governessesand private schools evoke scenes from anineteenth-century children's novel-with a daringlymodern heroine. "I had a wonderful hidey-holein a gone-to-seed cabbage patch," she recalledin her book Knitting Around, "and one day had theexcitement ... of falling through the roof of anabandoned chicken house, garnering the first permanentscar on my leg."

Surrounded by knitters, one day little Elizabethasked to learn. Her mother promised to teach her-ifshe behaved for a full day. The little girl did, andher mother was true to her word. Thus, the courseof Zimmermann's life was set. She spent the rest ofher life with needles in her hands and yarn loopedthrough her fingers.

She attended art schools in Switzerland andMunich. In Munich she met Arnold Zimmermann-whomshe dubbed her "Old Man"-whocould "carpenter, plumb, read ... brew beer, andfish...." They fled Germany after he was heardridiculing Hitler, married in England, and, in1937, immigrated to the United States. Eventuallythey settled down in an old schoolhouse in Wisconsin.Through it all Zimmermann knitted.

As her passion for her self-described obsessiondeepened, so did her exasperation with the patternsof the day. They were rigid, as if pattern designerswere drill sergeants and knitters were new recruitsgoing through boot camp. There was no room forcreativity. No room for a woman-because virtuallyall knitters then were women-to express herself.The message was clear: the knitter-the woman-wassupposed to follow, not lead, because the designer-theauthority-knew best. But Zimmermann had anartist's eye and the assurance to strike out on herown. Instead of following directions, she modifiedthem and ended up creating her own patterns. Shebroke ranks and showed others how to do the same.

Am I veering into a feminist interpretation ofZimmermann's life? Yes I am, even though Zimmermann'sbooks suggest she didn't have much to do withfeminism. When explaining her Pi shawl design, forexample, Zimmermann said, "If you are a man, youprobably realize that this is simply the formula forPi, but if you are a woman, you put such concernsout of your mind when you left high school."

Perhaps she misunderstood the movement.She was a wife and mother, occupations that, at thetime, laywomen believed feminism looked downupon. True feminism values a woman's work, as wellas a woman's ability to think for and to assert herself.Feminism champions empowerment, a wordthat didn't even exist in the mid-1950s, whenZimmermann published her first knitting pattern.

When her first pattern appeared in Woman's Daymagazine, Zimmermann didn't receive a dime.Instead, the magazine published her name andaddress as the source for the yarn and patterns.The arrangement was a fair bargain for the time,when a woman's work was undervalued at best andtrivialized at worst. Still, it illustrated a law of capitalthat gave rise to the women's movement in the1970s: payment indicates value. In the 1950s, societyconsidered women capable of managing ahouse but not a business. They were to be satisfiedwith recognition and emotional currency perhaps,but not anything Zimmermann could exchange foryarn or needles.

Zimmermann didn't get paid, but she got an opportunity.And she used it. The readers responded toher invitation to create patterns to please themselves,not a distant designer. Torrents of lettersarrived. Four years later, she launched her ownpublication.

So yes, this is a feminist interpretation of awoman who, in all probability, wouldn't havedefined herself that way; however, it doesn't matterwhether Zimmermann embraced women's lib orscorned it. She opened the door for other womensimply by using her strengths and speaking hermind. Most importantly, Zimmermann made thecraft of knitting respectable, while keeping it firmlyin the hands of its creators. Quilting, embroidery,and weaving have been elevated from craft to art-theresult of the women's movement insisting thattraditional women's crafts be taken seriously. Societyresponded, but, ironically, by taking them outof the home, these crafts lost their purpose. Artschool quilts hang on the walls of museums ratherthan lying on the beds of their makers.

But shawls and sweaters don't hang on the wallsof galleries and museums. Art schools don't offermajors in knitting. Knitting remains the Cinderellaof the crafts movement. A beautifully knitted hatwarms its owner's head and brings joy to all whoadmire it. And the best part is that anyone can learnto create such loveliness-all one needs is a ball ofyarn, a pair of needles, a teacher, and some time.Anyone can knit and more and more people continueto do so.

We have Zimmermann to thank for this. She hada passionate desire to teach others the joy of knitting,not its limitations. Her influence expandedthe niche for everyone. Without Zimmermann, wemight not have the current range of publisherswho specialize in various crafts. Kaffe Fassett mighthave stayed with oils and canvas instead of turning toyarn and knitting needles. Zimmermann "broughtintelligence and validity to a craft that had beentrivialized as women's work," Linda Ligon, thenpresident of Interweave Press, told the Times forthe obituary.

At a time when women had far less control overtheir lives, Zimmermann gave them confidence.She opened a way for an ordinary woman to enrichher own life and the lives of others. She paved theway for hundreds of thousands of knitters, men andwomen, to express themselves without relying on anoutside authority's approval or oversight.

As the editors of the Times rightfully recognized,hers was more than an accomplishment. Itis a legacy.

The Busy Woman's Mbius Scarf

Most knitting references give two ways to knit a Mbiusscarf: a method that knits in the round and anotherthat knits back and forth. The first method is so complicatedmy head hurt when I tried to visualize theprocess. I didn't dare knit it; I was afraid I'd end upwith a tangled mess.

The simpler way involves knitting a scarf, puttinga half-twist in it, and then sewing the endstogether. The half-twist lies flat when you wear thescarf and it fits wonderfully under a coat or jacket.

My way is even simpler. I use size-17 needlesand two strands of yarn and cast on enough stitchesfor the length. Then I knit a few rows-no more than20-for the desired width. Don't be alarmed by thenumber of stitches. You can make this scarf whilewatching your favorite television show, and it willbe finished before you know it.

I use seed stitch instead of garter stitch to makethis scarf. I think seed stitch is a beautiful way to addtexture. The pattern is simple: cast on an oddnumber of stitches, then Ki, Pi for every row. Likegarter stitch, seed stitch is reversible and the edgesof the scarf will not curl.

Materials: 2 balls (190-200 yards each) of worsted weight yarn (3 1/2 to 4 oz.) 1 size 17 circular needle 1 yarn needle

Gauge: 2 stitches = 1 inch over pattern

Length: 60 inches

Width: 5 inches

Directions: Holding two strands together, cast on121 stitches.

Knit 1, purl 1 back and forth on circular needlesuntil the scarf is about 5 inches wide. Bind off.

Finishing: Put a half-twist in the scarf. Sew theends together to join the ends of the scarf in a circle.

Copyright © 2004 Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs
All right reserved.

Chapter TwoThe One Who Dies with the Most Yarn Wins

I love yarn entirely too much to part with it. I haveclosets and rooms full of skeins and balls. Sometimes,I even fall asleep while working on my latestproject, so I can touch it as I doze. There are times,though, when my ardor cools and common sensereigns. Then I look at my tables and shelves overflowingwith yarn. That's when I walk through myhouse and realize I have to make some difficultdecisions.

That is why I sat in the middle of my storagenook, yarn to the back and front of me, yarn to theleft (keep) and right (give). I shifted skeins fromone pile to another, pausing when I came to thestack of beige cotton.

Should they go to the right or to the left?

I ran my fingers over the tightly plied strandsand held a hank up to the light, admiring the way thethread shone underneath the bulb. I'd bought theyarn when I lived in Dayton, back in ... what? 1991or 1992? Now it was already well into the twenty-firstcentury, and I lived in Cleveland. The yarn companyprobably didn't even make that brand anymore; if itdid, surely the color had been discontinued.

I'd never started the sweater that had inspiredthis purchase. For ten years these skeins had waitedpatiently, expecting that one day I'd actually put mygood intentions into practice. I looked at the yarn,humming to myself as I struggled to decide: shouldthey stay or should they go?

I tightened my mouth, turned my head, andtossed them onto the pile to my right, ignoring thetwinge of regret and suppressing the tiny thought thatstill suggested I might want this yarn ... someday.