Thanks for the Torture
Scandinavian woman in see-through shirts and
a dare from a taunting sister are responsible
for my insatiable need to knit.
began at the tender age of ten, when my family moved to Helsinki. I was
thrust into the Finnish public school system without a clue how to speak
the language beyond a few phrases (“Where’s the bathroom?” and “How
are you?”), plus a couple of crucial words thrown into the mix
(“ice cream,” and, more importantly, “chocolate”).
school students had to pick between shop and handwork classes. I figured
that since I wouldn’t understand a word of what the instructors
would be saying unless it had to do with the rest room or a candy bar,
I would be safer going the handwork route: it’s far less likely
you’ll chop off a finger with a crochet hook than a circular saw.
the first few months of class, I had no trouble. We sewed and crocheted.
We dabbled in simple embroidery. Then . . . well, then we tried
our hand at knitting.
the nightmare began.
first project was slippers, starting with what I now know was garter
stitch. My hands fought with the yarn and the needles, and had I not
been so young, curses would have been flying from my mouth at an alarming
rate. As it was my head felt ready to explode, and my fingers were so
stiff a simple tap would have shattered them.
class, the teacher would make rounds, and each time fixing my mistakes—which
consisted of a good half of my stitches made incorrectly and picking
up several I had dropped without knowing it. I still remember the scent
of coffee on her breath and the sheer blouses she wore to show off her
black and scarlet bras. Her mouth would concentrate on my errors as her
dark lipstick pursed into a tight rosebud, looking as if she couldn’t
figure out how this dunce of an American couldn’t get it.
the time I reached the ribbing that was the
toe half of the slipper, I was convinced
my teacher was a sadist. My first slipper
looked like a mutated rodent. The second
at least resembled a slipper, but with
one huge and misshapen and the other three
sizes smaller, good luck wearing the pair.
The fluffy pink balls on the tops were
almost the same size as each other. Did
that count, even though they weren’t
the following months, we probably moved on
to other skills, but all I remember was the
next knitting project: mittens made with five
needles. Let’s just say that by the time I finished, I was ready to poke
out someone’s eyes with the double-ended sticks.
I hadn’t counted on was being challenged by my little sister. She
took one look at my mittens—which I felt a perverse sense of pride
over completing—and declared that I couldn’t have made them. “Or
if you did, I bet you can’t make another pair.”
I can,” I said in my best snotty big-sister voice, not to be cowed
by someone a full two years—almost two and a half years—younger
yeah? Bet you can’t make a pair for me.”
so I didn’t recognize a self-serving dare standing in front of
me. I took the bait, used my allowance on her favorite color of yarn
(peach) and a brand new set of double-pointed needles. Then I spent what
felt like the next few millennia working on her blasted mittens. At least
I knew she could use them almost whenever I finished them, since the
Finnish winter lasts just short of forever.
show her, I thought, knuckles turning
white as I gripped the needles.
the reality was that by the time those mittens
were done, I had discovered a few things. The
first was that my hands could relax, holding
yarn and needles in something less than a death
grip. The others? That this knitting thing
is fun. Plus, I’m pretty good at it—look; I actually created something
was officially addicted. Pretty soon I gravitated
to the yarn section of any department store
to drool. I could spot a yarn store from ten
blocks away. Upon constant pleading from yours
truly, my mother ordered a subscription to
a knitting magazine. Day in and day out, you
could find me on my bed, knitting away on my
latest project or pouring over patterns. My
best Christmas present ever was a complete
set of circular needles with their own case.
began knitting for my family. First was the
vest for my mother’s
birthday. Looking back, I realize how ugly the thing was, yet she wore
it several times, humiliating herself in public to make me feel good.
After that I made my father a pair of slippers. In Halloween colors.
To his credit, Dad wore the black and orange atrocities until they had
holes—but at least he got to show his appreciation in the privacy
of our home.
two decades later, I’m still addicted, and I have no desire to
kick the habit. I especially love knitting for my kids. They argue over
whose turn it is to pick out something for me to make just for them,
and I never know if the creation will have cables, ducks, a checkerboard,
Superman colors (done all of those) or something else. Currently it’s
one daughter’s first initial, a giant-sized letter in lavender
on the back.
only downside to the way I was introduced to
knitting was that for several years after returning
to the United States, I couldn’t decipher
any pattern written in English
Purl. Cast on. Gauge.
had to look up several terms and mentally translate
everything. (Oh! Gauge means tiheys!)
For a time I relied entirely on my stockpile
of Finnish magazines. Out of necessity, I eventually
learned to read a pattern in English. But today
as I cuddle on the couch, yarn in my lap and
needles clicking as I work ribbing, you can
still hear me muttering, oikea, nurja, oikea,
each time I pick up my needles, I’m thankful for that sadistic,
transparent-blouse-wearing-Scandinavian and my cheeky little sister for
leading me to a world of magic I never would have found on my own.