Purls of Wisdom
Ah, knitting. We all love it because it’s fun, it’s calming.
But did you know that knitting can also stitch hope into our lives?
In my new novel, Days of Wonder, I write about a teenaged girl accused of attempted murder and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. She loses everything, but I knew that to survive incarceration, I had to give her something of her own that might make her feel better about herself and give her hope.
I dug back to my own dark times to see if there could be any connective tissue between what helped me in my life and the life of an incarcerated girl. In my twenties, my first husband cruelly left me. Later, my fiancé died; I lost a pregnancy; and later, in pandemic lockdown, people I loved perished from Covid. Friends, beliefs, activity, all helped me, but people in prison don’t always have those things to count on. And then I remembered an incredible balm through my tragedies: knitting. But could I use this in a novel? Was knitting allowed in prison?
I began to research, including on MDK, and to my surprise, I learned that women in prison do indeed knit, (men, too!) and that in some prisons, knitting is even taught (see MDK’s article on hero knitter Lynn Zwerling).
I wanted a way to experience this, and activist author Jean Trounstine came to my rescue, inviting me to her women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature—an award winning alternative sentencing program—in Framingham, Massachusetts. There, a probation officer, sometimes a judge, and fifteen or so women sit in a circle in a classroom to discuss a book they’ve all been reading, applying that book’s lessons to their own lives and their futures. Some people knit in the class. “And they’ll discuss your novel!” Jean told me.
As soon as I walked into Jean’s class, I felt the women, all ages, all casually dressed in jeans and hoodies, stare at me. I clumsily sat down. It’s so hard to breach a divide with people you don’t know, whose circumstances were so different, so I tried to be truly authentic. I told them how honored I was that they had read my novel, and I told them that no matter what their opinion was, I would value it. One woman’s shoulders loosened. Another woman tentatively smiled. And when the class, which I loved, was over, I asked the women if anyone would talk to me about how they coped in prison. “Are you going to sensationalize us?” one woman snapped. “I just want your truths,” I said, and she relaxed.
I asked them what they did for fun, how they managed their anger and their losses, what made things easier or seem impossible for them. “I knit in prison,” one woman told me. “It gets me much less anxious. And it breaks up the boredom, which is the worst thing about being incarcerated.”
For weeks afterwards, I logged hours on the phone and on email talking to the women, making notes. One woman told me knitting is healing because it takes you out of your circumstances, like meditating. Jean told me of a woman whose self-harm escalated until she set herself on fire, but recovering, she kept her mind and body occupied with knitting, which allowed real healing to happen.
One thing the Framingham women told me they suffered the most in prison was the almost unbearable loss of community. One woman told me that she and some other women used to spill dish liquid on the floor and slide across it, and in having fun, in laughing, they forgot where they were for just a while, they bonded. Knitting does that, too, because anything that gives women a chance to open up and talk, helps them realize that we are all linked by a common thread, be it cotton, wool, alpaca, or the less-than-lovely yarns the prison has.
These women knit for themselves, but they also knit for others, building friendships, self-worth, and even bank accounts by selling baby buntings or little hats to guards or visitors. “Knitting empowers you,” one prison knitter said. “Making money means you aren’t useless. You can contribute to the world.” And knitting is a skill you can take with you to the outside, either by teaching knitting classes or selling your pieces on consignment.
When you feel you’ve lost everything, knitting can give it back. My character in Days of Wonder finds that knitting is a way to show her love to those who might reject her if they knew she’d been in prison. And talk about life lessons! One of the most gorgeous things about knitting is that you can unravel your mistakes and reknit them, covering a hole with embroidery, making flaws uniquely beautiful.
“Prison is all about deprivation,” Jean told me. Being able to have something special to share makes an incredible amount of difference. “You can see the calm taking over women who knit while incarcerated. Prison is about conformity, containment, and repression, but any sort of new skill learned, any self-expression can make those walls bearable—or even breakable. To be able to finish something, when so much is cut off in prison, is everything.”
I used all those incredible lessons in my writing, giving redemption to my character with knitting both inside prison and out, making my heroine—and others—see her true worth. And those lessons seeped back into my own personal life, too. Now grappling with the devastating estrangement of my sister, I soothe my pain with intarsia.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter where you are. Knitting connects women in prison and those living free lives and those on the printed page, too. We all pick up the yarn, the needles, and then stitch by stitch, we conquer grief, we knit ourselves into healing, we save our own lives.