Would you believe that it snowed here last night? The budding trees are bending from the wind and the sky is a menacing shade of gray! This is California after all!
When I listed a new garden theme digital collage in my Etsy shop Chrystelle today I thought, we should be looking at seed catalogs, not sitting down by the fire to knit in mid April! Well that led me to think of knitting, and I remembered that I wanted to share the story of how I learned to knit!
I first learned to knit from a French girlfriend. Annie was from Saint-Etienne de Baigorry, A village between France and Spain in the Pyrenees Mountains. Her home, she teasingly told me had to be accessed by taking a plane filled with Parisian snobs, a train filled with over-sexed boys sans deodorant, and an open-air bus filled with disconcerted chickens bound for the cassoulet pot. Then, she would laughingly say, “You must climb like a goat wearing espadrilles the rest of the way up a rocky mountain path. Which is why I have such very big feet!”
Baigorry is famed for it’s rose granite farmhouses, it’s ancient Roman built bridge, and it’s prolific Irouleguy vineyards. The Basque Country is renowned for it’s bakers, handball players, folk-dancers, and sheepherders. Of course where there are sheepherders there are sheep, where there are sheep there is wool, and where there is wool— le knitters! Annie and her identical twin sister learned to knit at the age of six and were patterning their own matching garments by their teens. They knit, as she described, with the old village women sitting on benches in the doorways of red-shuttered white-washed houses while someone sang a sad Basque song of a sailor’s return from the sea. They knit sweaters and shawls, berets and stockings, baby gowns and bridal veils; all flawless and all scented with the lavender they carefully tucked in every drawer and cupboard.
I was trying to get pregnant for a second time when Annie taught me to knit. We began on a baby jumper, simple, neutrally yellow, petite! Annie was so very patient. Others had attempted, insisting I hold my hands the European way; and learn to cable immediately while scolding me for my novice tension. I quickly mastered the baby jumper, but for a time I knit only infant apparel, fine tuning my newly learned skills. My eyelet strung booties and picot edged bonnets were a sensation at every baby shower, but I was stuck in a rut. I needed to work up some knitting nerve!
Annie emphatically insisted that I could easily learn to knit anything. That only my fears, and other’s discouraging words were preventing me from tackling a lace scarf, or a shawl-collared cardigan. With a little prayer and thick skin I began, and soon saw the truth in her exhortation. She taught me the methods, shortcuts, and secrets of knitting; dispelled lies, ripped with mercy, and even taught me garment care.
To Annie, laundering knitted garments was a careful experience. A sweater would, in sacrosanct baptism, be washed by fastidious nail-clipped hands in a large tub full of cool water and Savon de Marseilles. Excess water was rolled away in an immaculate envelope of white terry towels. The sweater then placed tenderly on a vintage drying rack in the window that faced her tiled courtyard.
We knit everywhere. We knit on the glider swing, under the trumpet vine, awaiting the dessert of luscious Gateau Basque, and wishing the dark away. We knit on the lawn; next to the sweet pepper plants she grew for French omelets, while shooing her cat, Pushkin, away from our yarn. We knit in our brook-side mountain camp as our friend St. Martin played his concertina and the children gathered wood violets. We knit in the tiny waiting room of the intensive care unit where Annie’s thirty-seven-year-old deaf husband Michel had been brought after a heart attack.
She pulled the yoke of a small sweater, two needles and two skeins of wool, one red, one white from a straw bag, “ I’m making this for Damian,” (my elder son) she began. “Do you think he will like snowflakes?” she said as she expertly and swiftly figured the placement in her head. “Don’t you need a pattern?” I asked. She laughed at my impertinence. All afternoon I watched her knit with hands that so often had shown Damian how to sign, “I love you”. She stopped only to hold hands with hospital nuns praying for Mike’s recovery. He died two days later. Annie died several years after that.
I never learned, as Annie had, to knit without pattern, to confidently estimate size, or invent my own jacquard. Oh, of course I will take a color risk, and go for the peculiar yarn. I will look at a stitch library and take off on a lark, but there was something Annie had learned long ago in that beautiful valley in the Pyrenees: a way to look at a craft without doubt of its outcome. It must have been something the old women taught her, something I do not comprendre.