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...Or, why sometimes not giving is the kind thing to do

During the wretched heat waves of last summer while I was languishing on the sofa, practically panting and watching the ice cubes in my drink melt at alarming rates, I dreamed of knitting.

Or rather, I dreamed of a cooler time, when the very thought of wool, or even linen or cotton wouldn't raise my core temperature an additional ten degrees. To pass the time, I'd imagine that it was chilly enough to knit snuggly sweaters, smartly shaped socks, snazzy slippers. I imagined cool nights, a fire blazing, delicate tea in a matching cup and saucer steaming by my side, dozens of things flowing off my needles as if by magic. Gloves. Mittens. Socks, hats, scarves, sweaters, just in time for. . .

Just in time for me to be smartly clad this winter.

I hereby declare that, for this year at least, I am knitting only for myself. It's true. There will be no felted slippers, no chenille scarves, and no aran hats issuing from my house to any other. I expect there to be gasps at this: knitters have a reputation, even among ourselves, for being the sort of people who love to churn out baby gifts, who love to knit scarves for nieces and nephews, sweaters for boyfriends or grandchildren. I know of knitters who have been asked by coworkers or other non-relatives point blank for a knitted item, like it's a batch of cookies. So entrenched is our reputation that when I am knitting in public, the question I am asked most often (after "is that knitting or crochet?) is "who are you knitting that for?" So entrenched is that reputation that if I say "for myself," I get looks akin to those one might give to a professional puppy-stomper. We're supposed to knit for others. We're supposed to like to give away the products of our hours and hours and hours of labor.

And we do. Knitting is one of the human skills whose results cry out for dissemination. Giving a hand-knitted item is wonderful. Offering something hand made to someone we love, or to someone for whom it is needful, is an act filled with shy pride, with love, and with true good will. A grateful, touched recipient is icing on the cake. For most knitters, this is the common experience.

So why won't I be knitting gifts this year? Before you think all sorts of horrible things about me, before you chalk me up as selfish, or lazy, realize this: things don't always go so well.

Listen: as well known as knitters' reputation for generosity is, we also have a reputation for getting things wrong. Many of us as children experienced the horror of being forced to wear a shockingly colored, itchy sweater hand made by a dear relative - and many of us grew up to perpetrate the same injustice on the young in our lives. The very small can't object to these gifts, but I have heard of grown-up folks who tactlessly and naively asked that an intricate aran be reknit in a more flattering color. There are heartbreaking tales of indifferent, even hostile recipients. There is the curse of the boyfriend sweater, too well documented to be doubted. I have heard of knitters who, asking after one of their creations, were stunned when they were told it was never worn or used, or worse, was set out for donation to the local charity. In North America, anyway, it is stereotypical that knitters' gifts are received with a barely concealed rolling of the eye.

And yet who among us has not felt the impulse (and sometimes the pressure) to knit gifts for the people in our lives? I say it is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit that we knitters, in the face of lore and sometimes of our own bad experiences, continue to ply our craft and yearn to share its results. And I am not immune. I have knit for people. I have knit with a heart full of anticipation to present my hand-made offering.

I got an enthusiastic-but-touched-with-puzzlement "thank you" when I handed a hat for my newborn niece to her parents. True, it was knitted soon after I had taught myself continental knitting and I managed to twist every stitch so that the tiered effect looked more like a swirly-cone. And true, the hat was not really sized for a newborn. In fact, it made her look like a Who from Dr. Seuss. My brother and his wife report that, over a year later, it now fits, but that it still makes her look like a Who.

Maybe you're scoffing right now, suggesting that I am too thin-skinned to be put off gift-giving over a simple little incident like the Who hat. Wait, there's more:

I promised my sister a sweater for her 30th birthday, which was last May. As of the writing of this article, it still has not been sent to her. It's finished. Blocked. All the loose ends woven in. It's ready to go. So why hasn't it been sent? It's a little, well, revealing. Just a little too revealing, I think [see left]. Oh, she'll get the sweater, but now I'm on a quest to find the perfect little camisole to wear underneath it.

Still not convinced?

I made a hat for my sweetheart. He plays soccer, and in the chilly Bay Area, nothing looks more sporty than a knitted black cap on the soccer field. Using a pattern I found on the internet, I actually swatched, checked gauge and everything, counted stitches correctly. Blocked it. The resulting hat is so small that, when worn, it constantly battles to spring itself from the head. It would fit only if he were tragically disfigured. Perhaps if I felted it, he'd at least get a yarmulke out of the deal.

I really don't get it. I have knit sweaters and other things for myself that fit, look well-made and make me jut my chest out just a tad when someone asks "you made that?" I think I freeze when knitting for others, that my brain becomes addled in a peculiar way, preventing me from knitting well.

And even if I could knit consistently well for others, as soon as I promise something for somebody, it's a sure bet that I will not get it done. My skills in time management are not my strongest, and I don't do well with even self-imposed deadlines. Then missing them makes me feel guilty, which makes me resent feeling guilty which makes me resent the thing that's making me feel guilty, and around and around like an evil carousel. I didn't actually finish knitting the va-va-voom sweater for my sister until July, fully two months after her birthday.

At least I finished that one. A dear friend saw me knitting with a groovily colored rayon blend and loved it. I had enough left after knitting a shell for myself [which turned out great!] to make a little tank for her, so I carefully took measurements of one of her existing tanks, carefully drew a little sketch of what it would look like, carefully computed my gauge, and set to work. I finished the first half in a day or two, and felt confident that I could deliver the tank within the week I'd promised. But then, I had some issues with the i-cord straps and it has been bunched up in a knitting bag ever since.

Sorely do I wish that there were some check, some inner voice of reason, some genie that could pause time so that, before the sentence promising a gift were fully out of my mouth, I would see a tableau showing a frantic knitter at midnight the night before something is promised, wired with caffeine and cursing both the sweater and its recipient. In this way, if I chose to finish the sentence, it would be with the fresh, full knowledge of the gravity of the undertaking.

Even if I were suddenly vested with tremendous competency, I fear that I am lacking the gene that makes people look at something and immediately think of the perfect person for it. I would love to have that ability, if only so that just one time I could see what my face must look like when I suddenly realize that my gift is inadequate. I have never once been in a yarn store and had my eye caught by the perfect color for relative x or friend y, never once leafed through a pattern book and thought "say, that cap would look quite smart on so-and-so." I do like to give gifts, and I think about my loved ones very often. But, perhaps because of knitting horror stories I've heard, coupled with my too-vivid awareness of my knitting limitations, I don't think of knitting for them.

So I just can't do it this year. This year, I am officially not fretting, not worrying deadlines, not cursing, not losing sleep to finish things. This year, in front of a warm fire and soothing cup of tea, it's me, my list, my credit card and the Internet. I wish I were giving hand-made gifts, but I suspect that the reason I'm not is that I tend to get too wrapped up in things I make - too much of my ego is invested in them which for some reason, at least this year, causes them to come out wrong.

I am very lucky indeed to have friends and family who would go to the ends of the earth wearing shockingly colored, itchy sweaters before they'd hurt my feelings. I just love them all far too much to do that to them.



Kate Boyd wants to give a shout out to her patient sister.

She is trying to use her morbid fascination with knitting socks for good, not evil. Her most recent accomplishment was learning to love again after the Red Socks broke her heart.





Models: Kate Boyd, David Grosvenor, Ella Katherine Boyd
Kate Boyd, David Grosvenor