My mother was a knitter. That’s not just a euphemism for saying she was the one who bound the family together. No, she knitted – sweaters, scarves and gloves, socks, baby clothes. You name it, she knitted it, using patterns, needles and wool, in plain, purl, moss-stitch, fair-isle and cable.
When I was four, she taught me to knit. With 10 stitches on the needle, using leftover wool and plain stitch, I knitted six long strips, which my mother sewed together to form a rectangle around which she crocheted a decorative edge, creating a blanket for my doll. I still remember the blanket, though not its colours.
I can’t recall her knitting during the war years, when everyone was exhorted to provide warm items for our boys in conflict. Maybe she thought she had enough on her plate providing food for her family without messing about with wool and needles. Perhaps she had not perfected her knitting skills (apart from a doll’s blanket) and was afraid her work would not be up to scratch.
When the war was over and we followed my father on a posting to Gibraltar, we were given extra clothing coupons, and I became the lucky recipient of two brand new sweaters, or jumpers as we used to call them, both with V necks, one grey and one beige. I think this was the first time I had worn a piece of clothing that wasn’t a “hand-me-down.” The grey one fit perfectly and I loved it, but the beige one was large – to allow for growing – and I tried to avoid wearing it. I was not sorry when it was stolen from the clothesline on the roof of our apartment building.
Sometimes my mother would crochet, something I never learned to do. Many years later, when I did a lot of entertaining, I asked her to crochet me a set of 12 place mats and four larger serving mats. She obediently set to it and completed them in time for Christmas. Mind you, she always maintained it had ruined her eyes.
In December 1969, I phoned across the Atlantic to tell my mother that I had given birth to a baby girl. The news was not well received because the father was not in the picture, but I told her how beautiful the baby girl was and how happy I was; before we hung up, she asked what she could knit for the baby. I suggested two knitted dresses, and they arrived within a week – not hand knitted, unfortunately, but very lovely white cotton knit with pink edging. I took it as a sort of acceptance of my daughter, Polly Belinda.
When Polly’s sister Lys was born two years later, I asked for matching knitted skirts, and they too arrived accompanied by little tuques with bobbles on the top. Now she had five grandchildren to knit for – my sister’s three and my two.
When relatives became too fussy about what she knitted, she joined a company that paid her two shillings and sixpence (about 25 cents) to knit baby bonnets. Whatever the complexity of the pattern, she could whip off two in an evening. When I went to visit, I would mutter about slave labour, but she was perfectly happy with her earnings.
She was a keen churchgoer and helped raise money by knitting for the Christmas bazaar. When she moved to the same town as my sister, she took what I referred to as her dowry – an assortment of her craft that would serve as her introduction to the church in the new town.
She never possessed a television and would listen to the radio instead while knitting. I don’t own a television either and recently decided to take up knitting again. I turned on the radio and cast on three stitches. The pattern was undemanding, and I started by increasing stitches in the first 10 rows. I don’t know how many times I undid those 10 rows and restarted. I finally had to turn off the radio so I could concentrate. After many stops and starts, I finally completed a pair of baby boots but have not attempted anything since.
By the time she was well into her ’80s, mother had abandoned bonnets and switched to little vests for newborns in underdeveloped countries. The patterns were quite simple, and she churned out vests in all colours until the cancer that she had lived with for many months finally slowed her down. A few days before her death, she put down the needles and wool for the last time. I inherited the final vest. I was supposed to send it to a newborn, but I kept it instead. It now sits in a drawer amongst my undergarments. I can’t seem to let it go.
Janet Stevens grew up in England, now lives in the Glebe and is taking a course in memoir writing at Abbotsford.