Letter from Paris: Go Big and Stay Home
I began writing this letter in August, but find myself finishing it in September. From one day to the next, there’s a chill in the air. Last night, I pulled out my trusty worker’s jacket (a second-hand “bleu de travail” I picked up at the flea market) for the first time since spring.
The last two months have been difficult, though I hoped to get by without mentioning it. In brief, my doctors here in France took a long, careful look at me and found that not everything is as it should be. As a result, I am in the midst of a series of chemotherapy treatments that will last at least until the end of this month. They may add a few more sessions. Right now, we don’t know.
As chemo goes, mine is kind. My prognosis is excellent. The cancer is neither rare nor swift. Four sessions in, I’m as roly-poly as ever. My eyebrows and beard have thinned, but they’re hanging on. I can still work, though not as much as I’d like to.
Once every two weeks, I go to the hospital and a kind, gentle nurse who says my accent is charming sticks a needle in my arm and attaches to it a plastic bag of custom-tailored poison.
After that, I go to bed for several days. More days, each time. I’ve never known fatigue like this. It’s not drowsiness. It’s not mere physical exhaustion. I feel … vanished. I have a body, somewhere, but it won’t move even if I will it to move. I want to wake up. I tell myself: wake up, wake up, wake up. Still, I don’t wake up.
The idleness is getting me down. I have a lifelong horror of enforced stillness, of unwilling confinement. Here I am, though, and the only way out is through, and the only way through is by not going out.
During the long hours when I can’t move but can think–a frightening prospect with a brain like mine–I have taken to knitting in my head.
That’s exactly what it sounds like. Face down on the pillow, I imagine casting on. I count stitches as the phantom yarn slides around the phantom needle. I begin to knit. I create impossible swatches where cables morph into lace and back again for no reason at all, and acres of plain knitting emerge and vanish as my brain slips in and out of consciousness.*
After a few days, I blink and stir and drag myself off the bed. Then, I knit for real. And in earnest. Life goes on and so does work. I rush to get as much done as possible before the next round knocks me down again.
What am I knitting?
It’s time to refresh the windows at Les Tricoteurs Volants, my neighborhood’s charming yarn shop. The theme is antique knitted lace. With Enrico, the owner, I mined my collection of Victorian patterns for a selection of especially bewitching edgings.
The original inspiration for the window display was the sort of lace notebook kept by many knitters in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The example in my collection, dated 1882, is typical: patterns copied out painstakingly by hand, with a tiny reference swatch pinned to the page.
Tiny swatches won’t stop passersby, however. So I’m going big.
Enrico had some bulky natural white wool/mohair tucked away in the shop. Not for sale, just the remnants of a sample batch spun up for him by an independent mill. It’s not the most pleasant stuff to knit with–sticky as flypaper, and sheds like a nervous cat–but it makes bold, proud lace. You should be able to spot this sucker from across the street.
The Apple Leaf Edging
I’ve often recommended to students in my introductory lace classes that they begin by using heavier-weight yarns (like DK or worsted) to play with whatever motifs tickle their fancy. Don’t worry about doing a whole shawl or even a shawlette. Just play, explore, grow accustomed to the ways mesh and motifs are constructed and shaped. Thicker yarn will help you to see and understand what’s going on, instead of just fumbling along with a death grip on the pattern.
Do that for a little while, and you’ll jump into your first “real” lace project with confidence and gusto.
To more advanced students, I often recommend … the same thing. Pick a fascinating motif or edging and try it out. Use whatever yarn and needles are handy. Since you’ve already got a sense of how lace works, your brain will delight in combinations of yarn overs and decreases you haven’t seen before. You’ll begin to imagine new ways of doing things. You may even end up designing something of your own.
These laces from the late 19th century were designed to stand out in a crowded field. There were thousands of edgings being published in books, magazines, and newspapers. You couldn’t keep feeding knitters the same plate of leaves and diamonds and chevrons and expect them to lap it up.
So the designers went wild. Look at this.
The Gotto Edging
The largest holes? Those begin with a base that’s something like a one-row buttonhole, from which a whole litter of new stitches is born in the next row.** Zing! Wow! Fun to work. Blew my mind. Made me forget the nice nurse and her bag of poison for a while.
It’s okay, you know, to give your brain a break from whatever rough stuff you’re going through. Living in the moment is great, until it isn’t. Then I don’t want to live in the moment, I want to knit through it until it’s over.
And so I shall.
*Upon reflection, this sounds less like an impossible swatch than it does any number of shawl patterns I could name, but will not.
**If you’re interested, I am gradually releasing all these edgings patterns, corrected and translated into modern knitting terminology, to the patrons in my Patreon group. Apple Leaf is already there, Gotto will follow next. Then the others, in due course.