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Karen Nelson


Casting On



The winter of 2004 was my nemesis.  I had new baby #2, and I knew we wouldn't be getting out in the brutal cold and treacherous ice of an Ozark mountain winter.  I'd conquered every project around me, and babies aren't that hard after the first one, so boredom was threatening.


I had always turned a blind eye to knitting.  I knew how to crochet like a master, so what could knitting offer me?  Those needles don't even have hooks on the end to hold onto the yarn, for goodness sake.  They're pointed, sharpened to a homicidal finish that makes them fit only for props in an Agatha Christie novel or game of Clue.  But I didn't want them to get the best of me.  Two sticks and some string, that's what.  I had to be smarter than that.


My mother had knitted when I was very small.  I can remember her sitting up in bed after a near-death experience with pneumonia, working with tiny short needles and fine sparkly yarn- a perfect 1950s reproduction business suit for my sister's Barbie doll.  It was fascination itself to watch the needles flash in and out and the newly-born fabric drop from the needle a millimeter at a time.  I was sad when mother gave it up - the knitting, not her life.  She made a marvelous recovery, but I never saw her knit again.  Like I said, I was a late child, and late children often miss their parent's first-blush enthusiasm for parenting.  But still, I held that image in my mind - my mother calm and creative and productive, even in sickness - and knew that I wanted that for myself.  Little did I know that years later I would work my way through chronic illness with all kinds of fiber arts.


The time was ripe.  I already knew I could do other things with yarn and fabric.  I had crocheted tiny layettes for my daughter, cranked out breezy sundresses on the sewing machine, and pieced more than a hundred quilts.  I had the requisite children to make knitting look like an appropriate thing for me to be doing at my age.  My mother's old knitting needles were languishing in a drawer upstairs.  How hard could it be?


It turns out, very hard.  Whereas in crocheting you manipulate the yarn with the hook, in knitting the opposite is true.  You manipulate the yarn around the needle.  Your fingers do all the work while the needles just sit there in your cramping hands and take all the credit.  In crochet, you start with a single loop and build on it, with each stitch more or less locked into place as you go.  In knitting, you attempt to harness dozens - sometimes hundreds - of loops on a single slippery stick before you can build on that row, and even then, one flick of the wrist and they all go tumbling off the edge like lemmings to their doom.  But I was housebound, and I was going to learn to knit, dammit!


The genesis of any knitting project is casting on.  It sounds like the reverse of what fishermen do, and in a way it is.  Fishermen cast their line into the depths, hoping for a result to come to them, whereas knitters bring the line to themselves and force it to be more than a single string.  For me, casting on is the first meeting of new lovers, the sweet touch of a new baby's cheek, the brave step into a new country.  The casting on is the counting and measuring and planning and certainty that this time it is going to be perfect.



Here's how it goes:  You place a loop on the tip of one needle.  (Lay the other one down.  He doesn't do anything here.)  Cheaters, like me, make a slip knot and snug it up on the needle.  Other, more conscientious knitters, do some kind of magic trick to get that loop on, but there's only so much new stuff I'm willing to learn in one winter.  Now hold the needle in your right hand and loop the yarn clock-wise around your upheld left index finger.  (At this point in all needlework instructions, there is a suggestion for left-handed persons to reverse all directions.  If you are reading this left-handed, it's probably best to flip to the back and read the whole book back to front.)  Next, slide the needle in your right hand up your left, from wrist to index finger, holding the needle parallel to your left finger and sliding the tip of the needle under the yarn wrapped around your finger.  If you've managed to not recreate a Chinese finger-trap, slide your left hand out of the whole business and pull the yarn taut around the needle.  Congratulations!  You've just made one loop on a stick.  Now do that 347 more times, and you'll graduate to ROW ONE.  That's right.  All that casting on of stitches isn't even a real row, so you haven't really started your pattern yet, which means you just spent 2 hours doing the equivalent of twirling your hair – but with a purpose.


Casting on is promise itself.  Simple ingredients that you hope will turn out more or less like the picture in the pattern.  Casting on is like starting out in life.  You have yourself, some hand-me-downs, maybe a first semester at college or a new spouse or a ticket to Bora-Bora.  There’s a plan, but it’s loose.  Anything could happen.  The work is all ahead of you, and you haven’t learned to be afraid of it.  Not yet.


There's no other way to start than at the beginning.  Any other activity - whether writing a report or cruising Disneyland - a person can hop in the middle and move in any direction.  But to create something new, something tactile and present, requires a beginning.  A woodcarver cannot apply varnish, then whittle a nose, then cut a branch from a tree.  A glassblower does nothing until the glass rods have been heated.  Artists and artisans understand the power of beginnings.  They know that possibility has a taste and a smell and a certain lungs-about-to-burst feeling about it.


Fiber artists especially know the infinite options contained in their materials.  I imagine it is something akin to a baker surveying a shelf of flours.  Those who enter a yarn store don’t see balls of mohair and hanks of cotton.  They see afghans and baby booties and scarves and mittens.  To have raw materials is to have purpose.  I am making something!  I create!  I am a creator!  Hubris?  Perhaps.  We all want to feel a little god-like, and if 28 rows of garter stitch in a bamboo silk does it for you, then who are we to object?


A century ago a pair of knitting needles was as ubiquitous as your cell phone, so there's something to consider when you're feeling all superior about quaint pastimes.  Think knitting is slow?  In a hundred years, your great-grandkids will shake their heads at the pitiful results you were so proud of on your iPad.  Fiber enthusiasts know that speed is not the only measure of success, much as money is not the only defining characteristic of a satisfying career. 


Of course, there was bound to be a knee-jerk reaction to all this science and technology mania that society is experiencing.  "Organic" is the "Open Sesame" of today.  Grass roots?  Sign me up.  Knitting is back.  So is crochet, weaving, spinning yarn, and just about anything else a person can do with a piece of string.  


I was the late child of parents who were forty years behind either coast.  My father didn't experience indoor electricity at home until his senior year.  My summer vacations included helping bake bread, feeding livestock, and watching the hours tick away on my grandmother's mantel clock because there was no television to watch or air conditioner to sit in front of.  When left to their own devices, a child will learn to do most anything to keep from being bored.  Naturally, I started crocheting at age 8 – and reading fairy tales.  I wanted a wig.  A beautiful red wig that reached the floor - my spicy version of Rapunzel.


My mother could only teach me a chain stitch, which is merely a single length of yarn looped upon itself to create a long chain that is surprisingly elastic and strong.  I had a (hideous to me now) skein of Red Heart yarn in a shade that would put Raggedy Ann to shame, and an aluminum crochet hook that was cold to the touch at first, and liked to slide around the threads in a maddening way.  I chained.  I worked that hook in and out of the loops for hours, fashioning 4-foot lengths of "braids" for my wig.  It took days.  And when I was done, I knotted the ends together and clipped them to my glow-in-the-dark white blonde hair with those metal snapping barrettes all the girls wore in 1983.  I was glorious.  My red hair brushed the floor and I felt a steady, pleasing pull on my neck from the weight of all that yarn.  I had created something real; brought a dream to life.  I was hooked.


I spent the next decade crocheting everything imaginable.  I spent the decade after that quilting hundreds of designs for baby, lap, bed, and doll quilts (not to mention bags and vests and jackets).  And then the catalyst winter came.  


Every winter for as long as I can remember in my adult life, I have set a goal to learn something I don't currently think I can do.  Yes, it leads to a lot of useless information rolling around in my head, and an embarrassing number of finished items that make a kindergartner's first pinch pot look like a museum piece, BUT I have acquired a lot of lessons along the way that permeate my life.            


With practice, your muscle memory will take over and you won't have to think about it so hard.  You'll start to focus on the process and not the product.  You'll enter a meditative state and begin to find peace and clarity of mind.  You'll crank out scads of baby layettes and caps and sweaters.  And you will only occasionally feel the urge to stab those needles into the depths of the nearest couch cushion.  However, like all beginnings, there is hope.  


Karen Nelson is a writer in the Ozark mountains of Southwest Missouri. Her years of teaching in the public sector and interest in young adult literature have led her to write integrated theme units for some of today's best YA authors, as well as a host of teaching aids and lessons for fellow educators. 

Her historical and local interest articles have been published in The Ozarks Mountaineer Magazine, All Roads Lead to Branson, The Independent Scholar, and online news journals. She writes regularly on her blog from her hobby farm, while homeschooling her two children.

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