New Years Day is a unique moment of pause before setting off to the next and after completing the last 365 days—a time to reflect and imagine. This year I have big plans for publishing a book of knitting essays that will include ten of my own designs. The book is filling my imagination and giving me reason to reflect on how I came to be so committed to knitting, creating and thinking about wool, needles, function and beauty. The last few days I’ve been jotting down names of people I need to remember in the acknowledgements and have been thinking about two amazing women who gave me the gift of knitting.
Auntie Freda taught me to knit the first time—thread weight white wool, size 11 straight needles that looked like weapons and a pattern for a “Simple Shell”. I was about 12 years old. She gave me one formal lesson and sent me home with my tools and instructions. After that I got a few hints and corrections on Sundays when I dragged my knitting bag to church. In spite of what seems on reflection to have been a dry and excruciating way to learn, I was hooked. But then it might have been the lavender scent of Auntie Freda’s rose coloured sweater, her soft silky hands and her elegant British accent. Or it might have been the rhythmic way she threw the wool over the needle and the intoxicating act of creation—the string turned into fabric—I will never cease to be excited when that happens.
A few years later, at 17 years old, I married and moved to Tsartlip First Nation. There I found all the women making wool and knitting Cowichan sweaters. It was 1972; the sweaters were the ultimate statement of cool. I couldn’t believe my good luck to be living amongst so many women who were as passionate about hand-work as I was.
Laura Olsen, my mother-in-law, taught me to knit the second time. This time learning to knit included washing, carding, and spinning raw wool. Nine size seven, double-ended needles replaced the spikey size 11s. Laura didn’t give me a pattern or any formal instructions. She washed wool while I helped, she spun while I watched, and she knit while we visited. She expected that sometime, somehow, I would know how to knit sweaters something like hers. I did, and in the last 40 and more years I have knit enough sweaters to clothe my family dozens of times over. The second time I learned to knit was more intuitive than the first. It taught me to find the pattern and design and to work with trial and error until the outcome was something of beauty. But more than that, Cowichan knitting also had to be about function and economy. My new knitting companions were gritty ingenious women who had strong and gnarled hands and who stayed up all night to finish a sweater so they could sell it and buy food for their kids.
Auntie Freda and Laura are gone now, but the creative cycle continues as I find myself teaching knitting to new enthusiasts. These words of pause are filled with tremendous thanks for two of my teachers, and they are an appeal that I may design and knit acts of gratitude to these women for many years to come.
Photos: (Top) Sylvia wearing one of Laura's sweaters. (Bottom) Gifts given to Laura's knitter friends at her memorial.
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