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By Katherine Welsh

If you’ve been in a mall lately, you are well aware that Gift Season—that giving-and-getting extravaganza encompassing Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, and more—is here. And close on its heels will be Valentine’s Day. Knitters everywhere are turning to their needles with a vengeance to whip up mittens for mom, an afghan for an aunt, socks for sisters and, perhaps, a sweater for a sweetheart. Before embarking upon the latter, though, naïve knitters should be aware that they are flying in the face of one of the most pervasive superstitions of knittingdom: the Sweater Curse.

Leah* was one of the myriad innocent victims of the Curse. She once knit not one but two sweaters for her boyfriend—and then they broke up. Her Dad was the lucky recipient of one of the sweaters, and the other went to Leah’s new boyfriend, making Leah feel plenty guilty for giving him a gift made for another. Not one to give up easily, Leah later knit a sweater for another boyfriend and suffered another painful break-up. She is now happily married to a man who [luckily?] doesn’t even like sweaters.

Although Leah’s story ended happily, scores of knitters will tell you that the Sweater Curse is nothing to joke about. Just mention it to any group of knitters, and you’ll be regaled with stories of romance gone awry.

I first heard of the Curse when I wrote to a knitting e-mail list for advice on a new project. I had discovered that, although my boyfriend had previously dated at least two knitters, none of them had made him a Dr. Who scarf—a replica of the 15-foot erratically-striped scarf used on the British science fiction show. And he loves Dr. Who. I asked the group for advice on knitting this scarf, but in response, I got advice of a very different kind. I was immediately deluged with cautionary messages. "Never knit for a man before marriage!" one read. "Don’t put all that time and effort into something for just a boyfriend," others advised. And almost all of them mentioned the Sweater Curse.

In its most dire form, the Sweater Curse states that if you knit anything for a romantic interest before he or she is bound to you by a tie such as marriage, he or she will break up with you. Many knitters staunchly believe this—some because of repeated personal experience. Rose tells one such story:

"I made two sweaters for men I was involved with and lost both, in addition to several men I lost while I was still in the process of making a sweater. When I started dating my last boyfriend, we talked about the curse, so I made him an afghan, then a scarf. Finally for Christmas that year, I made him a beautiful green Aran sweater, and we laughed about the curse because things were going so well between us. Two weeks later he dumped me by e-mail without any explanation then or since. People can laugh and give me a thousand examples of times it didn’t happen [to them], but I’m not risking it again. I’ve lost the best sweaters that way."

There are plenty of knitters who don’t believe in the curse. Libby writes, "I am proof that the curse is not necessarily true! I knit a sweater for a boyfriend one Christmas, and less than a year later, we were married. Still are, too, and happily." Like Libby, many doubters of the Curse are living proof that it is not universal. Some doubters appear to be victims of the Curse, but argue that other factors, such as immaturity, were the true reason for the collapse of their earlier relationships, not their knitted gifts. Other knitters, though, believe that what we call a Curse is, in fact, a symptom of the psychology that plays out in our relationships.

Some suggest that knitting for a partner is a similar [albeit less drastic] tactic to that of having a baby to save the relationship. June broke up with her boyfriend of a year and a half just as she was in the middle of knitting him a pair of socks, which was the only gift she ever knit for him. "I wonder if maybe I decided to knit for him because I knew the relationship was on the rocks," she writes. "I was hoping that affection [as expressed by the socks] would hold us together when we were drifting apart."

Sara ended a relationship because of her own knitting project—or, rather, her boyfriend’s response to it. Although he professed to like the sweater she knit him for his birthday, he wouldn’t wear it in public because it was "uncool" without a designer label; he even put down the sweater in front of his friends because they were teasing him about being too domestic. He then went out of his way to buy Sara a birthday gift of the exact same monetary value as the yarn that went into the sweater, openly disregarding the time, effort, and love she had put into the sweater’s creation. "Gifts don’t have to be of the same value, as long as they come from the heart, but this one obviously didn’t," she writes. "So I broke up."

While few knitters use knitted gifts so consciously as a gauge for the worthiness of a potential mate, it seems clear that the innocent sweaters may indeed serve such a purpose. When a man receives a hand-knit gift from his girlfriend, he must confront the fact that she cares about him enough to spend the thought, time, and energy required to create a personalized, hand-crafted gift for him. Some men are uncomfortable with so obvious and public a declaration of emotional intimacy, especially if they fear or are not ready for a higher level of commitment.

Indeed, a knitted gift may appear to be an outright statement of commitment. "Knitting for a boyfriend is a very domestic gesture which presumes a future together . . . at least to somewhere beyond the time it takes to knit the object," she wrote. If the one who receives the gift is uncomfortable with these implications, he may end the relationship as a result.

This, then, may be the "truth" of the Sweater Curse. The creation of the sweater itself does not force the relationship to end. But the sweater may serve as a catalyst for one of the partners in the relationship—the one who receives the gift or, in some cases, the knitter herself—to recognize and express the fact that he is not comfortable with the view his partner takes of the relationship. Some knitters embrace this aspect of the Curse and are happy that their sweater incidents alerted them to the unsuitability of a potential partner. After describing how she lost a boyfriend while finishing a sweater that he had actually requested, Carrie praised her husband for cherishing her knitting and wrote, "I thank my lucky stars that the other guy was scared off by the sweater!"

So what’s the verdict? Should you knit your boyfriend a gorgeous raglan for Christmas or just go to Best Buy and pick up the new computer game he’s been eyeing? Well, would he like it and wear it? Some guys just don’t wear sweaters, or scarves, or whatever it is you are thinking of knitting. If you don’t mind it not being a total surprise, it’s generally smart to run the idea by him first, and perhaps ask him to help pick out a pattern and yarn. That way you won’t risk spending umpteen hours knitting something in a style or color your partner secretly despises.

If you determine that your partner would enjoy receiving the gift, and that you’d enjoy knitting it, go ahead. Just keep in mind what the sweater may suggest to him. A hand-knit gift will hint at a certain level of both commitment and domesticity. Make sure that you are comfortable with this before you express it to your partner. And be aware that your expression of these feelings may cause your partner to confront his own. Most importantly, though, keep in mind that if you are in a loving, secure relationship, you should have nothing to fear from the Sweater Curse.

So what happened with the boyfriend for whom I knit the massive scarf? I gave him the work-in-progress for Christmas and finally finished it around Valentine’s Day. And, well, yes, he did break up with me in early March. A year and a half later, though, he’s still my best friend, and he still loves the scarf. I’m knitting him socks for Christmas.

* All names have been changed.

model: jaQ with scarf     photo: kat
Kat Welsh & cat Katherine Welsh is a knitter and writer living in New Hampshire with her roommate and the most beautiful kitten in the universe, who enjoys helping her mommy knit and type.
© 2002 Kat Welsh. Contact Kat.