“Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
I’m a knitter.
Yes, I mean actual knitting – yarn, needles, piles of knitting pattern books based on literary heroines, fibre strands clinging to my black clothes, first-name-basis with the local yarn shop, Ravelry member kind of knitter.
People must love to shop with me because I go around pointing out everything I can make myself.
I’m a delight.
I began knitting as an adult. My granny attempted to teach me when I was a child but it was a non-starter. She didn’t like to knit herself, much preferring gardening or baking (she was my hero: when I’m 85, I hope I’m also subsisting on baking and strawberries while reading cowboy novels). Also she did not like teaching children to do things. So I squeaked some acrylic onto a needle for a painful afternoon: when I decided knitting was tedious and boring, she sighed with relief and went back to her garden.
In what I can only now credit to a hormonal delusion, when I was pregnant with my second child about ten years ago, I resolved to take up knitting. I had a year of maternity leave from work ahead of me and I wanted to learn something.
I began the way we usually do in this age: YouTube. I watched tutorials and held my needles awkwardly in my hands, attempting to follow the soothing-voices and capable hands of the knitting teachers online. I never got the hang of it. It seemed impossible and hard – how could one possibly make lovely things out string and sticks and codes? I peeked into knitting pattern books and it was a foreign language of acronyms and numbers.
Sidenote: I bet that the reason the British government knew women would make excellent codebreakers at Bletchley Park during World War II is because someone high up in the military happened to catch sight of a shawl knitting pattern and thought, “Whoever can decipher that shawl pattern could probably defeat Hitler.”
After my son was born, I took myself over to an elderly lady who owned a rundown hole-in-the-wall knitting shop in my neighbourhood. I signed up for a knitting class and – because this is what sisters do to each other – I signed up my poor sister as well. She was six months pregnant herself then. I am sure she was very grateful to me because there was nothing she wanted more for the last trimester of a cold winter pregnancy than to spend her Saturday afternoons perched on a metal folding chair in the backroom of a knitting shop, hunched over needles while Shirley rolled her eyes at our ineptitude. Bless my own heart. And hers.
Yet we managed to learn how to knit. Once I knew how to knit, all I wanted to do was knit. I confessed to Nancy, who worked in Shirley’s shop, that I didn’t want to do anything else. She nodded knowingly. “I’ve been knitting for fifty years,” she said, “and I would take it into the shower with me if I could.”
I’ve knit scarves and cowls, a tea cosy that looked like an owl and fingerless mittens, toques and baskets for baby soothers. I’ve counted stitches for countless baby sweaters and bonnets and booties for all of my own children as well as every new baby in our circle. I once knitted a cozy for our French press coffee which Brian thought was going a bit far. I make sweaters and shawls, cowls and facecloths.
Once I flew too high and attempted a lovely smoking sweater for my husband (who does not and never has smoked): I’m sure I followed the pattern properly but somehow he ended up with buttons popping off around the chest and oversized arms dangling down to his knees.
We never speak of it.
Knitting has become a joy for me. I love the work itself – it is tactile and it forces me to be present there in the moment, to pay full attention. It’s humble and repetitive, challenging and meditative. I love to create beautiful things that people love. I love seeing my daughters in the sweaters I knit for them (my son despises handknits so feel free to put him on the church prayer chain, thanks). I love sending baby sweaters in the mail to friends. I love to pray for people while I knit for them.
I also love the creativity of knitting – choosing colours, finding patterns, adapting them, the texture and feel of the yarn, the way certain colours look in the light. I find this liminal place of creativity and creation and work, all dancing together.
When I’m in a good writing stretch, I feel the same way I do when I’m knitting: at peace and fully present. I find that space between striving and resting where my mind is active and my hands are doing what they were meant to do and something that wasn’t there before is taking shape. I love my work and I can get lost in it, forgetting to eat, to drink, to stretch. When I finish a good stretch of writing, I feel spent and satisfied.
My husband says he feels that same way when he’s working on a house project. He loves to drywall, lay floors, cut baseboards, build furniture. He loves how he feels when he’s doing it, like he’s at peace in his soul and his mind because his hands are busy and he’s creating something good. The act of creativity is as much of a gift as the product of the creativity.
So much of our lives are what Eugene Peterson characterized as a “long obedience in the same direction” with no real finish line: parenting, marriage building, discipleship, friendships, growing up, making the world right. We simply keep going, building lives and worlds by the day.
But with writing and with knitting (and my husband would say with his projects), I feel the rare joy of completion. When I’m done, I step back and say, “Look at what I’ve created. It wasn’t there before but now it’s here.” This is immensely satisfying.
I’ve read that knitting in this day and age is a feminist act. We are reclaiming the work of our grandmothers, declaring it just as worthy as the work typically described as a “man’s work.” We are making subversive cross-stitch and opening bakeries and canning our own food as a big rejection of GMOs. Most of our mothers or grandmothers were set free from the obligation of these things – baking bread, knitting socks, sewing dresses, preserving, quilting – and for that I’m thankful. (I bake my own bread every now and again – I always end up proclaiming that the price of bread has suddenly become quite reasonable to me.)
But now that we’ve been set free from the drudge requirement of the work, we can return to it as empowered choice. We engage voluntarily, as a choice, eager to work with our hands again, to slow down, to create. Making time for that side of ourselves, loving and honouring our creativity also honours our mothers and grandmothers, our fathers and grandfathers. Knowing how to do things yourself honours your own capacity and the line of time that stretches back.
It’s an act of reclamation. Cooking, gardening, sewing, painting, writing, baking, quilt-making, preserving, handmade furniture: this sort of work isn’t menial or degrading but life-affirming and beautiful and necessary. It’s also a helluva a lot of fun sometimes.
We make things. We make them because perhaps we’re made by a Maker. My friend’s Coast Salish tradition refers to God as “Creator” which is so beautiful and invitational to me. Creator made the world and celebrated – “it’s good!”
Madeleine L’Engle wrote in her excellent book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, “The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.” We’re bringing order out of chaos, beauty out of emptiness, something out of nothing, and so we’re glorifying Creator, we’re reflecting Creator, we’re testifying to Creator.
I think a lot of people forget about creativity, about making things, because it seems easier to leave it for the professionals. Much like we’ve professionalized being a Christian, we’ve professionalized being creatives. Unless we are getting paid to do it, we’re happy to outsource it or accept a big-box version to fill the spaces – we’ve got bills to pay and laundry to fold and a world to save.
Who has time to knit a baby sweater when a store-bought one will suffice? Who bothers writing a book when everything has been written already? Who bothers painting a mountain when thrift stores are stuffed with mountain landscapes? Who dares to write a play while Lin-Manuel Miranda exists? Who sings around the campfire when you could watch The Voice?
It takes hubris and hope to create; the good news is that we all have it. It also makes us more human. We are conditioned now to be consumers: it feels good to be a creator in some small capacity.
Kurt Vonnegut writes, “They [the arts] are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
This reminds me of a story from almost a year ago, near Valentine’s Day. I am not that sort of crafty so we always pick up a box of store-made Valentines for my children to scrawl their friends’ names on and hand out at school. No mess, no fuss. This has worked for years now: we’ve given away little cards with Star Wars characters and Disney princess stickers.
But that year, one of our tinies was determined to make her own. I didn’t know that was her project when she disappeared to the art table with a stack of computer paper and the marker box. Two hours later, she appeared with mismatched squares of paper, each one with a unique picture on it and her childish printing. She had made a special Valentine for every kid in her class, based on what they liked. She drew the Minecraft zombie for Ethan, Moana on her boat for Avery. One after another, she had communicated her love for her friends and her own creativity and thoughtfulness in a deeply personal way.
Like an idiot, I said, ‘Oh, honey, you didn’t have to do that! I would have picked up the store bought ones.”
And she said, “Mum, don’t you know? making things makes me happier than buying things.”
Back to my sticks and string – one could make the argument that knitting nowadays is impractical. With cheap mass-produced goods at every box store or luxury brands in expensive shops, why bother to take the time and the money to create your own hand knits? Quality yarn can be a bit pricey and it takes time and attention to knit. Surely one could do something else with that time and that money.
One could make that same argument for writing. After all, the world hardly needs another book. My creativity isn’t likely needed by the world in the strictest sense. Or for the song you’re writing or the quilt you’re piecing or the chair you’re building or the poem you’re writing or the room you’re designing or the paper you’re writing or the meal you’re cooking from scratch. Why bother planting a garden when you can buy your food at the store? Why bother baking bread? Piecing quilts? Painting canvases in the garage while the baby naps? Coding a game? Making Valentines?
But we do it anyway. I think we were made for creativity by Creator and so the work brings us joy as much as the result. I’ve seen creativity in more than just fibre arts and the written word: I’ve met creative coders, out of the box business builders, imaginative project managers, doctors with ingenuity, resourceful teachers, pastors with vision for creative community. We were made to create, to make, to build, to love it.
Homemade creating teaches us something about being human that purchasing everything from someone else simply can’t teach. I want to make more room for creativity in my life this year – I want to prioritize it not only for my own fun but for my wholeness.
We aren’t fully practicing resurrection without the useless goodness of making things.
I’ve stopped asking whether or not anyone needs my writing or my knitting. Because I need it. I do it because I was made to it, because it makes me feel fully alive to do it. Because I’m working out what God has already worked in. Because I believe even a knitting pattern brings glory to God. Because this life was redeemed by Jesus and this is a bit of redemption right now. It’s a bit of beauty and wholeness, an act of discipleship to Creator, a resistance of professionalization and commercialization to simply take time to participate in the wonder of stepping back to pronounce something as entirely good.
Because we were made by Creator who delights in pine trees and primroses, people and purling.