Knitting and Memory

An excerpt from my book, The Fat Lady Sings

I am a knitter. We knitters come in two basic types. The project knitter buys yarn and pattern for a specific project and knits that and only that until it is finished. Process knitters knit to knit. We love to look at, touch, and acquire yarn and usually have several projects going at the same time. The finished project is nice but it is the process, the knitting itself, that is engaging. Sometimes the project is never completed or it is unravelled and the yarn used again for something else. I love the feel of the yarn as it slides through my fingers as I knit. I stop frequently and pull the fabric into shape and touch it and look at it and enjoy the color and shape. Knitting a sock, knit from top to toe with a single thread which is never broken, I marvel at the genius of the first person who figured out how to "turn the heel" and change the sock from a simple tube into something which hugs the form and shape of the human foot. These days I knit a lot of lace, knit with fine thread on small needles with intentional holes, for lace without holes is not lace at all.

Some years ago I dreamed:

I am in my analyst's office talking with him.  I am knitting as I talk. I’m making a large deep purple shawl, something to wrap myself in to keep me warm.  I see a hole, a place where I made a mistake and I know I will have to take out several inches of work to get to it and fix the error, that a short cut won’t work.  He says this work is like that.

In the dream, I am working with beautiful deep purple yarn. The yarn is deep rich purple, my favorite color. Purple - the color of the vestments of Lent, a color of mourning. Purple, "the red of passion balanced by the blue of reason, or the real by the ideal, or love by wisdom, or earth by heaven, or, psychologically, the union of opposing energies within an individual.”(The Book of Symbols, p.694) The color of royalty. The color of an ancient dye made by the Phoenicians from the sea snail. The color of grapes and lavender and wisteria and iris and violets. Purple is the color of the Crown chakra. "...the highest and most sacred values are represented by purple.”((The Book of Symbols, p.694

I had a large quantity of this very yarn for some time, a soft and elegant yarn 100% cashmere, almost unimaginably soft to the touch. Lustrous and rich in feel and color. I had the yarn but couldn't find the right pattern, couldn't find what it wanted to be. I would look at it on the shelf with my cones of beautiful yarns and try to feel, to imagine what it should become.  Then I had the dream, a dream about the purple yarn, analysis and my efforts to create something I can wrap myself in, something warm and soft. In the dream, I pause in my knitting to look at the fabric and see, several inches below where I am working, a hole, not a hole belonging to the pattern but a large hole, a hole which distorts the lace. 

I am not a perfectionist with my knitting. When I find an error, I don't often rip out work I’ve done. I try to find some relatively easy way to fix it, to cover the error so no one will notice. But this hole in the shawl I am making from this yarn is one I cannot ignore or overlook. The knitter's adage that if a mistake can't be spotted by a man galloping by on horseback, then it needn't be repaired just doesn't apply for this hole. In the dream, I know I will have to rip out several inches of knitting. Many lace knitters use safety lines, a contrasting yarn threaded through the stitches every few inches making ripping back easier. They rip back to the safety line and needn't fear losing stitches because they will be held by the line. I work without such a line. When I rip back, I must move slowly, stitch by stitch, paying as much, even more attention to the unknitting as I do to the knitting. Slow and painstaking work,

Some time after the dream, a designer who created wonderfully intricate patterns which usually feature a lot of beads, announced a new design, one she called “In Dreams”. And it was to be done in a mystery knit-along, with sections of the pattern made available every two weeks over a span of three months. As soon as I learned of it, I knew this was the project for this yarn. I had no picture to tell me what the final shawl would look like, only that it would be a semi-circle and have many beads. I had to be willing to knit each part as it became available and trust that the finished design would be pleasing to me and would suit my purposes. 

I began. I completed the first section. But the beads were wrong, too large and not the color I wanted. So, I ripped it out and began again. This time a significant error appeared right near the beginning. Ripped it out again. Finally I completed the first clue and began the second. The work goes along without incident until near the end of the clue, when I discover an error. I have to slowly and tediously take out several rows, nearly an inch of work. I must pay careful attention as I come to each beaded stitch lest I lose the beads, and there are nearly 100 of them, tiny beads, in each row in this section. I fix the error and then discover I have made it again, in the same place. Three times I have to unknit that inch of work, three times I have to work not to lose a bead or drop a stitch. Finally, on the fourth attempt I succeed in completing the pattern section. There are five more sections yet to come. And then another large error. I have to rip it out again. This is not smooth going.

I used to knit sweaters, for me, for my children, for my husband. And afghans. Then for a long time I mostly knit socks. These days I am drawn to knitting lace, the more intricate the design, the larger the stole or shawl, the better. What does it mean that I want only to knit designs with deliberate holes in them? Donald Kalsched tells us, “Memory has holes.”  In my dream I am knitting a lace shawl as I do in waking life after the dream. In the midst of the intentional holes which shape the pattern of the lace appears a misplaced hole, a mistaken hole. Memory has holes, holes which both shape the pattern and disrupt it, as in my dream.

The word "memory" comes to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means "mindful." It comes from an Indo-European root smer- — which in one form refers to grease and fat. How is memory connected to ‘fat’? Think about how difficult it is to get rid of fat. Russell Lockhart writes,  "It sticks. It adheres. It won't leave. It leaves traces. A memory is what sticks, what adheres in the mind. Memory is the fat of the mind.”(Lockhart,Word as Eggs, p.188)  Related words that share the history of memory include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. The word mourn also shares its derivations. The same root that gave rise to memory gives rise to mourn. Lockhart continues: “When someone has passed away or slipped away, we mourn. When we are in mourning, we are deeply engaged with the memory of that person. Our mind is full of memories. We can only mourn through memory and with memory. We mourn for what we had and can now have only in memory.” Memory, mourning and fat.

I pick up what I have been knitting and it contains memory. I see what the day was when last I knit on this piece. My hairs get knitted into the fabric as do my cats' hairs. The daydreams dreamed, the worries worried, the interior dialogues are all there, part of the fabric that I knit. Each piece carries my life knit into it, its fabric also the fabric of my memory. I am knitting lace. I am doing analysis. There I am working on knitting the lace of my life, repairing holes that don't belong, trying to work out the pattern.

Note: I intended to include a photo of the finished purple shawl. Alas, when I dug it out, I discovered it had been heavily damaged by moths so that it is now filled with many many unwanted holes. All that remains to show its complexity is this shot of one part of the design.

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© Cheryl Fuller, 2016. All  rights reserved.