The first time I knitted a sweater I was nineteen years-old.
My then-boyfriend-now-husband had moved to the frigid northland of Montreal, Quebec at the end of the summer, and a sweater seemed like the natural thing to send his way for Christmas. I had knitted before -- a few boxy mini-stockings and one or two scarves -- and I was sure a sweater would be an easy next step. Besides, I now had a load of free evenings and a half dozen good cd's; ample setting to compensate for the size shift from scarf to sweater. Looking back now I am thoroughly impressed with my optimism, if slightly bemused at my grand naïveté.
I chose a pattern that seemed relatively simple, picked the warmest washable wool in the shop, and headed home.
Two days later I was back.
"So, how exactly do I 'increase stitches'?" I asked the lady behind the counter. Clearly a sweater was going to be significantly more complicated than a scarf.
To her everlasting credit, she took one look at my pattern, noted the size I had circled, and sat me down. "So, this is your first sweater?" she asked, simultaneously nodding her own answer. "Let me show you a few things."
At that table in the back she showed me how to increase stitches. Then she showed me how to decrease and to bind off, how to cross-over stitches and pick them back up, how to weave in my ends and attach a sleeve. I left that night feeling mystified and dazed, but also oddly encouraged. I got halfway through the back piece before returning for a refresher course. Then I went back twice the next week. To say my progress was glacial would be a drastic understatement. By the time autumn had worn itself out and the snow started falling in earnest, I was concerned the sweater would miss completion not only for that Christmas but the next as well. Still, every evening I headed for my room, dropped in some music, and lay down a few more rows.
And ever so slowly the sweater grew.
By some miracle I finished and sent the package off in time for the holidays; he mailed me a picture of himself wearing it on Christmas morning. And by some ever greater miracle it fit. A good present, all in all.
A good present for the both of us.
Those months spent shaping it were cathartic for me. Something about creation that blisters and even draws blood, something about hands on wool and wool on wood; they never fail to inspire and calm me. The tight spots in my mind eased; the blocked passageways opened up. Those months took me to a place I felt as enveloped and protected as if the sweater had been meant for me.
Two years later he left Montreal. As he swung through London he found a sweater in a downtown shop that he picked up and sent my way. I was living in Minnesota by that time -- the far north of Minnesota -- and a good wool sweater was worth the weight of the wearer in gold. No blisters and knitting lessons required for that one, and yet it somehow had the same effect on me. Easing and inspiring, opening things up, just as a good wool sweater should.
I found both sweaters this week, loose in the dress up bin. However did they end up there? If I framed such things to hang on the wall, those two would be first in line. But I never manage to pull that off; I'm more of a wearer than a preserver, for good or ill. So instead they're on the shelf awaiting the winter, even if we have to head high into the mountains for cold that merits them.