I was never particularly good with my hands. In an era where girls were expected to do cookery and needlework at school, I was spectacularly ungifted. I remember Miss Norris, my needlework teacher – with the elfin hair cut and short skirt of the sixties – looking disdainfully at the smocked apron I made in my first year. Meanwhile, in cookery class, my egg custard flopped, to the consternation of Mrs.Price, a rather homely-looking, middle-aged woman with bobbly jumpers. (A couple of years later it was she, not Miss Norris, who would not return to school one September because she had run off with her lover). At home my mother knitted prodigiously, usually cardigans for my sister and me, and I watched her working the yarn expertly without taking her eyes off her favorite television shows (Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Whats my line? with Dame Isobel Barnett). She kept her collection of knitting needles in a large Dairy Milk chocolate box, and would send me round to Hanfords the drapers to buy an ounce of wool when she was running out. I thus became versed in the language of knitting, 4 ply, double knit, tension and raglan sleeves were all frequent words in our daily life. She taught me how to cast on, plain and purl, and cast off so that I could knit small items for my dolls. I did this with reasonable success, very slowly, and without taking my eyes off the needles.
I eventually was able to throw off the tyranny of Miss Norris, and went on to fail miserably in my cookery ‘O’ Level exam. Since then, crafts and I have peacefully taken two different paths in life. Then, towards the end of last year, I learned that my first grandchild was on the way. This was delightful news, of course, but for a while I fretted about how I could be involved in this happy family event when I lived so far away. Then, one morning, I sat up in bed with primeval urge to knit a blanket for the baby. It would be both symbolic and practical, and neutralize some of the guilty feelings I had about being on the other side of the Atlantic.
First, I had to find an easy pattern and beautiful wool for a bella figura, as the Italians say. I checked online for knitting stores, and, the same day, purposefully made my way down to 79th street, where there was a shop which had some good reviews. Knitty City was a small basement shop populated by women of all ages. The older ones were sitting in a circle around a table outdoing each other with stories of new great-grandchildren and bar mitzvahs. Others pondered over the glorious colours arranged casually on the shelves. I heard fascinating fragments of conversations; ‘without that scarf to work on, I wouldn’t have got through my bar finals’. The therapeutical possibilities seemed exciting. I admired a beautiful baby blanket in exquisite colors and asked if it was for sale. “No, it doesn’t work like that’ grinned the shop assistant.”you have to do the work yourself.” I came away quite a bit poorer and with a bag full of vibrant reds and grey for our little fella.
A few weeks and several dropped stitches later, two blankets are in production. As a novice member of the discourse community, words like drapage and stitch definition are making their way into my conversation. A friend of mine was told by her academic advisor that doing a PhD is a bit like knitting. You just have to get to the end of each row. This call to the wild might just keep me sane through the emotional and academic hurdles of a doctoral progamme.