My mum was always trying to give me things to do, because I was insatiable. I loved making things and I needed to be busy all the time. I was one of those annoying children who must be occupied. All I needed was equipment, or a space. I was pretty practical and I was happy to make mud pies if I didn’t have anything more sophisticated. When I was 8 she gave me a pair of knitting needles and taught me to cast on and I picked it up pretty quickly. The first thing I knitted I gave to my Dad as a Christmas present. I chose 2 balls of acrylic yarn, one was in a weird turquoise colour the other was avocado green. It sounds like it could almost be ok, but it definitely was not. It was meant to be a scarf shape but it ended up a being baggy square with many holes in it, it was atrocious. Every single day my Dad put this hideous garment on when he went to work and probably took it off immediately. But that made me very happy.
The second piece I knit, my mum gave me a pattern or got me going and I made a purple sweater for myself out of two squares; so a boat neck sweater, seamed on the sides, ribbing on the top and bottom, it couldn’t have been easier. I loved the colour purple and I couldn’t find purple clothes and I realised that this was something I wanted to do. Plus I had something to do with my hands, which for my mum was an agreeable solution, it was an essential ingredient to her having peace of mind as there were three others younger than me and she could get me occupied.
My mum knitted sporadically throughout her life. She was very busy. Her mother was a very creative person who sewed my sister and me matching clothes. I think she designed most of them as well. I’m sure she knitted and taught my mum how to knit. I taught my sister, with four of us I did a fair amount of looking after the others. I was probably just about patient enough to teach her when she wanted to know what I was doing.
I know that I knitted all the way through high school, but I’m not really clear on that. I do remember knitting a few pieces in university, by then proper full garments and I remember landing in London for Grad school and knitting a lot then. I knit presents for people – baby garments. In our era this was extremely rare, we’re in between the great waves of knitting. Our mothers and grandmothers knew how to knit, and babies got these wonderful things that would be hand me downs and stay in the family. In my generation very few people were knitting and it’s only now in the last decade that knitting has really come back and become a phenomenon. I was the only person I knew who knit for many years, it was really an eccentric thing to do. People thought it was odd and there was no-one to talk to about it. The patterns were often very old fashioned, not very interesting. It was difficult to find wonderful fibres. Then Kaffe Fassett came along, and I discovered him when I was in London. I knit the love of my life (who then dumped me) the most beautiful sweater by another designer. It was a take-off of a tapestry pattern of knights in armour on horseback zipping across the sweater, knit in a chunky fashion. I made one for myself that was very romantic with roses and castles in delicious ice-cream colours of roses. I was very proud of these two sweaters.
Men who dumped me after I knit them sweaters then becomes a theme. If I want to get rid of somebody, I knit them a sweater. Maybe in my mind I know, but the sweater seals the deal. I’ve had sweaters that I made that were put in the wash and shrunk to dog size, I’ve had sweaters that were rejected and left in a pile, beautiful things. The husband that I acquired – I was knitting him a Scottish pattern with intricate cables in black cashmere sweater. It is still in pieces with the last part still to knit. It is literally 95% knit and has been for 20 years. Everyone once in a while I look at this pile of absolutely exquisite chunky black cashmere and think I could unknit that and make something different. But it stays there as some kind of grim reminder.
I was living in Vietnam, and you couldn’t buy yarn or needles and you don’t want a knitted garment in your lap as it’s hot so I kind of gave up. Then a tragedy happened in my family. I’d just moved back to New York when my beautiful ten year old nephew was run over by a car. It was absolutely shocking and devastating. There followed many nights of just sitting, numb, drinking whisky. At some point, my sister in law started knitting. Somehow she acquired a ball of yarn and a pattern. My other nephew, Theo who was 8 was at a Steiner School started to arm knit at the same time. He found it very difficult to talk, but somehow he could talk when he was arm knitting. That unlocked something in my brain and I started knitting. My mum started again after a long hiatus, and my sister who teaches knitting and wins prizes at fairs was already knitting. All the women plus Theo were knitting. I needed it. Once I picked up the needles I almost couldn’t stop, I knitted everywhere, all the time. Every time I get upset, or depressed or anxious I pick up my knitting needles. It’s now associated as a pacifier or safety net, it’s like those fuzzy animals kids carry about with them. I now need knitting like I need to breathe. If I don’t have a knitting project I need to work on, I get a bit scatter brained.
I’ve always been very interested in garments that convert. I’d stopped knitting for a bunch of years, probably because of the husband and the cashmere jumper. I’d put all this work into it, and it’s not cheap. So, I didn’t knit for a very long, long time, but when I came back I found that people were now creating beautiful patterns in amazing fibres. I discovered Olga Buraya-Kefelian had these funky textural non-garmenty garments. So I started knitting things that have very interesting constructions. I’m now designing things with a twist to them and I love the fact that you can wear it just whatever way.
My cuffs and collars project is fantastic as there’s always a new idea for something to knit. I’m an architect and I’ve always liked spaces that you could modify somehow. Very minimal background and you can completely change the room with a vase of flowers or a piece of art. I travel a lot and I have always knitted when I travel, knitting is very associated with travel for me. I also have a lot of packing dilemmas. I’m always trying to pack successfully into the smallest amount possible. I thought wouldn’t it be cool if I knit a base sweater that has component parts that can be changed. I’ve thought about it a lot, a round necked sweater with ¾ length sleeves and you can change the collars and cuffs and just button through. You come across these amazing random balls of yarn as a knitter that you don’t want to knit a whole garment in, but you can change your simple basic sweater into something with confetti on it, or wild feathery things or a geometry in a different colour. Whatever trend you want to embrace. It can be fully creative, and it maybe takes you a weekend and if it’s a disaster who cares? The components take up literally no space and you’ve got yourself 4 completely different outfits. So I’m now turning it into proper patterns that I will put on Ravelry. It’s taken a long time to develop the patterns because I hit on these little lacy collars and then before I finished they were all over the catwalk. I was initially a little dismayed, but I think people will really appreciate it. My sister tells me that people will call you up with the dumbest questions. The actual sweater requires some competence, but that expresses so much of who I am and how I like to design things.
My sister brought me to Ravelry. Initially I resisted as I didn’t care, I wasn’t there for public adoration; knitting was medicinal. I knit very neutral colours so I didn’t feel like it was show-offy knitting. It really satisfied part of my brain because I’m a spreadsheet person. I love working with numbers so I came up with a way of making them very tidy and it’s very satisfying. Ravelry lets me record these things. I’ve got this visual format and I can go back and check things and see what I said about them. There’ve been a couple of pieces that I’ve put up there where I’ve got lots of likes but it doesn’t enter my head, I don’t care. It’s nice to feel that you’ve inspired someone but for me it’s not really about a community. It helps me create that spreadsheet that helps my mind work. I like seeing the little squares tot up and I really like knowing how many miles of knitting I’ve done. At the bottom it shows your personal Olympiad. I’ve circled the globe, that’s how much knitting you can do when you really need it.
I remember I was in the middle of nowhere in China in a village. I’d taken a bus somewhere and I noticed that on the street corners these women were standing knitting and talking to each other, and gossiping. I knew that knitting was a way of telling stories, passing through generations. I thought about Theo finding his voice knitting. There is something to this. You are knitting a story. For me it’s meditation at a very deep level. I know it lowers my heart rate and makes me less anxious. The fact that I’m making a fabric that feels sensational to me. It’s a very slow process, sewing is much faster. I love this idea of making it at its root or its base. You’re actually making a fabric. I saw that with these Chinese women, they were making something very substantial. I bought yarn from them. I still don’t know what the label says, but I bought a whole suitcase full. The colours are absolutely delicious.
My knitting comes from an idea of something that I want. So I go looking for the fibres. Sometimes it’s the fibre that inspires me. I knit with all kinds of fibres. I’ve knit with paper, I’ve knit with silk wrapped steel. I knit a giant Mobius strip in silk wrapped copper. It’s pure knitting. It’s got this subtle glint so under lights you can see the copper shimmering. You knit with no. 1 needles, it took extreme concentration as it’s very tiny. I knit that in Vietnam and it took me about two years as its very fine lace weight. It was part of my healing process. I remember that I had to undo a bit as I’d dropped some stitches and it made me think of Ulysses. I had split up with my partner of 12 years and was thinking that I was Penelope.
Knitting has been a profound part of my life. I’ve encouraged people to knit over the years. One of the joys is ripping it back, and doing it again so that it’s perfect. If you can embrace it then you will truly love knitting. It’s ok if you shed a husband to never go on with that project. I’ve left a mistake a few times, but to my maths mind it’s very irritating. You knit because you enjoy knitting, so why is it painful to us to go back and spend another couple of hours knitting the garment? To me, it’s now I’m going to make it better and there’s a joy in being able to do this. I can take the garment back to where I made a mistake and I will wear it. Instead of regretting it and maybe never wearing the garment as it’s going to be evil for me. You have to embrace all of it, and know why you are knitting. For me it calms me down and centres me so it really doesn’t matter what I’m knitting. You should never be desperate to finish something unless it’s Christmas and you promised your Dad a hat or you’ve got something so amazing you need to enter it in a state fair to win a prize.
There’s no reason to be racing your way through knitting. It takes the joy out of it, it awakens your inner patience. This is the part of me that I love and want to nurture and bring out.
Want to know more? Melissa publishes her patterns and progress on Ravelry