Saving Myself Stitch by Stitch
Today we’re delighted to present an essay by New York Times bestselling author—and knitter—Caroline Leavitt. Caroline’s twelfth novel, With or Without You, was just published (yesterday!) by Algonquin Books.
—Kay and Ann
Age of Dinosaurs
I taught myself to knit during my first marriage. I was really young, and really naïve, but back then I told myself the reason my husband was never home was because he was a partner at a law office, and he was busy. His absence left me to make a life for myself with the oceans of time I had—with writing, with occasional teaching jobs I was always fired from, with dance classes, and then, with knitting.
Knitting ate up the empty hours and made me feel productive and full of hope. I charted my own patterns, using graph paper and measuring tape, doing mathematical calculations for a sweater with elephants marching diagonally up a side, vests with people gathered in forests. I spent hours in the yarn shop. Knitting came easily to me.
I decided to make something special for my husband, something he could wear, that people would know I had made for him. Something that would tell everyone that he was mine.
“What would you like?” I asked him and he said, “Brontosaurus grazing on vegetation, front and back.”
I took up the challenge. I made graph upon graph of the brontosauruses, one on the front, two on the back, the careful arch of their long necks, the three different shades of bright green of the vegetation they were eating, so real and alive they seemed to be waving in the wind. For a lark, I added a sun.
When I was working these intricate patterns, I couldn’t do anything else but knit: I couldn’t worry about my husband not calling during the day because I couldn’t stop knitting. If he didn’t come home at midnight, but at one, well that gave me another hour to knit.
When I finally finished, I stared at the sweater in wonder. It was the most gorgeous, mysterious thing I had ever seen. The whole design was as alive and vibrant as a painting. The stitching was perfect. I put it on as if it were my husband hugging me, and then I wrapped my hands about myself, practically swooning with pleasure.
The night I finished, he came home at two in the morning. I was so excited I could hardly sit still.
“I have something to show you!” I said.
He sat down heavily on the couch.
“I have something to tell you, too,” he said. “I want a divorce.”
False Start and New Beginning
Of course, that tragedy changed me. I couldn’t knit anymore. Just the thought of lifting a needle made nausea roil in my stomach.
It wasn’t until years later, when I felt I had gotten over my first marriage, that I tried to knit again, seduced by some soft gray yarn. But I couldn’t knit, and every mistake seemed like a hammer to my heart. I decided that I hated knitting. It was boring. It was not for me anymore.
Fast forward another five years. I fell in love with a funny, smart journalist named Jeff and we got married. It was such a different relationship from my first marriage! We were together 24/7. We talked all the time!
I began to think I wanted to make him a sweater, and this time, I did, a knit-from-the-top, deep chocolate sweater, and though I struggled through the process and the planning, it was perfect. Except that Jeff didn’t really wear sweaters, but still, he wanted that sweater, in his drawer, where he could look at it and touch it and admire it—and me.
I stopped knitting again.
But then the Coronavirus came, and everything changed. We had a curfew. We all had to wear masks. We had to see our son virtually on Zoom, which broke my heart. Restaurants, movies, museums, subways. All shut down. Every day the news got worse. The death toll rose. The anxiety grew. I couldn’t sleep. I began having virtual sessions with a cognitive therapist.
“There’s something you can do to help your brain,” she told me. “You need to do something with small motor skills. Do you knit? Do you crochet?” she asked.
As soon as she said that, the memories flooded back, the hunching over graph paper, the joining of different colors and textures of yarns.
I bought the cheapest cotton yarn I could find, in wisteria with a kind of sheen to it as if it had been dipped in starlight. It would be pretty to look at as I knit. I didn’t mind that the needles I had didn’t match. I began to knit lopsided rectangles, planning to rip out the yarn when I was done. The mindlessness of it was satisfying, and I carelessly knit like this for weeks, until I began to notice how pretty the rectangles looked, how good it felt to touch them.
I browsed online for the very easiest of sweater patterns: no fancy complicated stitches, just garter; just one color so there would be no worry about joining yarns; just two big rectangles for the front and back, and two smaller rectangles for the sleeves. It was a pattern I would have disdained before.
“Won’t you be bored?” a knitting friend asked me.
“I’m just straight knitting,” I told her. “For anxiety. I’ll probably just rip it out and I don’t care.”
I began knitting at night when Jeff and I would sit on our couch and watch a film. I began to notice how I loved that I didn’t have to think about anything, that I could just knit in the dark and not even have to study a stitch. I loved the surprise when the film was over, and the lights went back on, and there was 3 inches of knitting and it actually looked okay.
“That’s really pretty,” Jeff said, touching the yarn, and I felt warmth traveling up my body.
“Yeah,” I said, “I guess it is.”
Knitting Myself Calm
It took me three weeks to make my sweater. I put it on, astonished. There were holes in the front that before would have made me crazy. Instead, I focused on the feel of the yarn, how soft it was on my skin. I looked at that full-of-holes sweater, and not only did I feel pride, but I told myself calmly: the next one will be better.
And the next one was simple, perfect, olive. I didn’t need another sweater, but I needed to knit.
I suddenly wanted to knit for the people I loved, who would love the sweaters back. So my third sweater was for my niece Hillary. She wrote to thank me and to let me know that her twin 9-year-olds wanted sweaters knit for them, too.
I ordered more yarn for more sweaters in the same simple pattern—in deep purple, in silver, in lavender with a touch of gray.
And I know now that knitting was always about love, but I just had it all wrong when I was knitting for my first husband. Back then I was so desperate to be seen, to be perfect.
I knit every single night now. It’s saving me through this virus time. Yes, it’s soothing, but it’s so much more. I think about who else I can knit a simple sweater for: my cousins, my friends, my sister who has estranged herself and who might be coaxed back by the perfect soft yarn, the deepest color. I sit beside the husband I love and knit myself calm, every ridiculously simple stitch and click of my needles knitting everyone I love together, even as we are apart.