Monday, July 11, 2005

What Impacts My Knitting, or A Personal History

Or better yet, what parts of your past have impacted your knitting? I’ve been answering some questions from several sources lately about what impact various things have had on my fiber life. It’s a topic that invariably involves a visit to my past selves. In order to clarify my own mind, let’s take a quick trip back in time.

I grew up in what socialists call a turbulent time. I was born in 1955 in the fairly large Midwestern city of Cincinnati. My parents were immigrants from East Tennessee, where they had been raised in one of the poorer regions of Appalachia – Campbell County. Before I was really old enough to remember living in the city, we moved out into a farming community closer to my dad’s job.

My parents were both born during the early 1930’s, which made them Depression babies, and they both reflected the historical mindset that includes both the Depression and World War II. Security was very important, as was civic responsibility. Both my grandfathers were coal miners, with all the dangers and hardships involved in that career. They worked hard, saved what they could, and each bought some land of their own, which made them fortunate in that time and place. But life in coal-mining Appalachia was difficult, especially during the Depression years, and money was always hard to come by. So my parents grew up to take pride in their self-reliance.

My father left home after high school graduation (he was the only high school graduate in his family of seven) for a job in Detroit. He was drafted and served in the Navy during the last year of the Korean War and immediately thereafter. My mother left her Tennessee mountain home after graduation from the same high school as Daddy and found a job as a secretary in a small company in Cincinnati. She shared an apartment with her brother, sister-in-law, and a cousin or two to make ends meet. She and Daddy married the day after he returned from the Navy. Dad found a job in Cincinnati quickly, and they stayed there until 1961.

Then the President let them down. Dad’s job ended. Mother had been staying at home with my brother and me since my birth in 1955. Single-income families were still the norm then. Dad found another job in short order, since he was not only very good at what he did, but had also continued his education, adding the appropriate academic credentials to his resume. And we moved back to East Tennessee.

But it was an East Tennessee that was about as far as it could be from the rural county where Mother and Dad grew up. Our home was an hour’s drive - and 30 years - away from my grandparents’ houses. Oak Ridge, Tennessee is still called The Secret City, and then was called The Atomic City. My dad’s new job was at the most secret of the three facilities at that time – still known only by the acronym Y-12. We had no idea what he did, or where inside those high fences ringed with razor-wire and security personnel he did it. But that wasn’t really unusual. My schoolmates didn’t know anything about their father’s jobs, either. In fact, we rather looked askance at those children whose fathers had jobs anywhere other than ‘the plants’.

The 1960’s in Oak Ridge were a heady time. The Cold War was in full paranoiac flower, the various plants were in the forefront of all the high-tech advances in nuclear energy and the space race, jobs were secure, politics were liberally conservative, and good schools were important. There were lots of children of all ages, and school, church and civic activities comprised the social round for families. It was a good time to grow up.

Political discussion was largely restricted to the adult sphere. We kids were more interested in the space race. Security measures weren’t restricted to the plants – we walked home from school via back routes several times each year and practiced retreats to the school interior in case of attack. Yes, I remember where I was when JFK was assassinated – home from school with a stomach virus and watching the Dallas motorcade on TV from the living room couch. Very vivid memories of the motorcade, Johnson’s swearing-in, and my parents’ crying while watching the news that evening.

My childhood was great. My parents were young, gasoline was cheap, and we all loved to explore. We went to craft fairs, historical exhibits, museums, concerts and plays. I was always interested in the weaving and spinning exhibits, and Mother sometimes told us about our great-grandmothers, who had helped clothe their families through their efforts at wheel and loom. I would stand for an hour at a time, watching and asking questions. Those demonstrators were endlessly patient, especially in the face of my mother’s usual admonitions to hurry along. She had watched these things done often enough in her childhood to find them commonplace. I, on the other hand, was fascinated.

Vietnam didn’t affect me personally until my youngest uncle was drafted in about 1968. I was just about 15 – old enough to be very conflicted. I didn’t want my uncle to be put in harm’s way, but at the same time I was proud that he, like several of his brothers and my own father, was going to serve. Suddenly the TV newscasts were frightening and personal. And with the arrogance so normal to that age I decided that the war was wrong, and that the old men in the White House should stop it immediately. I proclaimed this attitude to everyone around me. To my parents’ credit, they listened and largely kept their own counsel.

Anti-war protests were never a part of my personal history despite my feelings, which were too mixed to allow public expression. I was interested in the counter-culture, but in a merely intellectual fashion. It all sounded good, but I had been deeply grounded in the idea that societal change comes only slowly, with a great deal of work from a solid majority of people within the system. Sometimes a through study of history does confer a little bit of perspective, even to a teenager.

The feminist movement did strike a chord, and I became not only interested but involved. The movement was gearing up around the time I was looking for my first part-time job, and I was quite incensed that the only things available to me were low-paying clerk or baby-sitting jobs, while my younger brother was offered much more lucrative pay as a construction gofer. I had grown up helping to do the same remodeling projects that he had, I was larger and stronger than he was at the time, yet these men dismissed me entirely because I was a female! My parents supported the feminist movement from a sense of fairness, so I wrote letters to congressmen and senators and wrote school papers on the societal benefits that would ensue from the passage of a constitutional amendment.

I was a member of the very first group of 18-year-old voters. I eagerly registered and exercised my franchise, and have voted in almost every election since. If I do decide to miss voting, I have an uncomfortable flashback to my dad saying, “Your vote may not make a difference; but if you don’t register your opinion, you have no right to complain about what is done in your name.”

Watergate and Nixon imparted an awareness of the evil that can be done by politicians in the name of national security and a pronounced cynicism regarding the actual worth of all politicians. I’m part of three generations that saw their faith in their own government severely shaken. I think we’re still dealing with the repercussions, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. In a strange way, Watergate appeared to deliver the final blow to the counter-culture movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s. I offer no explanation, just the observation that it appeared to be so.

So what do these personal reminisces about various historical events have to do with fiber? Indirectly, quite a lot. My parents’ upbringing impacted my own. We moved back to Tennessee when I was 6, and I started to school here. I spent all the time with my mother’s parents that Mother and Daddy would allow. A household with an aunt who was close enough to my own age to be a playmate was a plus, as were the uncles who were only slightly older than their baby sister. It was much more fun than a household containing only one slightly younger brother with whom I had little in common.

My great-grandmothers also lived with my maternal grandparents. I hadn’t been around a lot of older folks at that point, and I really enjoyed getting to know these ladies, even though at first I was a little afraid of them. My Grandma Lay, in particular, was still quite spry physically, and was quite upset that neither my aunt nor I had received what she considered necessary basic instruction in needle arts. She saw this as a job to be done, and took it on. By the end of the next summer she had made sure we had the rudiments of quilting, embroidery, crochet and knitting. She and my great-grandmother Reese had been spinners and weavers in their younger days, and her spinning wheel and loom had come with her to my grandparents’ home. But there was no room for her to set them up; they languished in a storage shed that burned down shortly after her death.

My grandmother took over our needlework instruction after Grandma Lay died. Once I had progressed beyond the rudiments in sewing, Mother took over and refined my skills in that area. I am now a proficient seamstress, due in no small part to her sometimes impatient but always proficient tutelage. I designed and made Halloween costumes for my children, designed and sewed my hand-wovens into garments and ecclesiastic paraments, and am an adequate quilter and embroiderer because of her. But I seldom have the passion for a sewing project that I do for other pursuits.

I was always more interested in laces. Grandma Reese always had doilies, handmade and carefully blocked and starched, on her tables under the lamps and pictures. Some were crocheted, some knitted. She changed them out seasonally, and would add to them when she found a pattern she liked. Grandma enjoyed making lace, and did as much of it as she could. Many people were recipients of her skill – handmade lace trims on a sheet and pillowcase set were a “welcome to the family” gift for most of her six daughters-in-law and a few of her granddaughters.

Since I inherited Grandma’s body type and eyes, I suppose it was only reasonable that I get her love of lace as well. That passion for lace has led me in some strange directions through the decades. I couldn’t knit English fashion with an even-enough tension for my great-grandmother. So I dabbled at knitting, but didn’t become proficient until I re-learned Continental fashion knitting in my 40’s (after I learned to spin). Between my early teens and my late 20’s, I crocheted. Around age 30, I finally learned to tat. Those two skills kept me happy for years. But eventually I became quite expert at both, and maintaining a skill doesn’t require the same sort of attention and practice that is necessary for learning. Mine is a curious sort of mind, continually in search of something new to discover and explore. I inherited that from both parents, and they nourished it happily, as I attempt to continue doing today.

My mid-30’s ushered in a decade of health problems. In order to keep my brain functioning while dealing with those health problems and my growing family (a daughter and two sons were born between my 29th and 33rd years) I began to explore weaving. Beginning with a rigid-heddle loom, I quickly progressed to 4- and then 8-harness floor looms. Suddenly a whole new lace world opened up! I happily explored 4- and 8-harness lace weave structures, and then bought a used 14-harness countremarche loom and continued my explorations. I juried into a prestigious guild, turned down membership in a national guild due to a lack of time, and had fun learning.

Loom laces led to bobbin lace, and I played with that for awhile – just long enough to decide that it didn’t blend well with a household of children and their assorted animals. I’ll get back to it, but probably not until after all the cats and dogs have left! What a curious kitten can do to an uncovered lace pillow is heartbreaking. I still maintain an IOLI membership, though, and have quite a file of ‘someday’ projects.

Selling my 4-harness floor loom led to an invitation to assist in beginning a local fiber arts guild, and that membership opened the door to my next passion. I learned to spin on a toy wheel top-whorl drop spindle during a weekend-long public demonstration at a local museum. I was supposed to be weaving – had commented several times that spinning took too long, and there was no need with all the lovely yarns and threads available commercially. But when I got my hands on the wool and tasted the magic of making yarn, I was hooked! A couple of weeks later I found a handmade Saxony wheel for sale and bought it. It was much too fast a wheel for a beginner, and I didn’t really have room for it, so I sold it and bought a used Ashford Traveller. I’ve spun hundreds of miles on that wheel. Later I added a Majacraft Rose, and now a Kromski Symphony – I finally made room for another Saxony wheel!

My grandmother lived long enough to cheer me on in my explorations. She took great pride in my return to my family roots, often telling me (and my cousins) how proud she was that there was another tatter, spinner and weaver in the family. I was always proud to make her something special once I’d reached a certain level of mastery of a new skill, and when she died my aunt told me that all those gifts were in a special drawer, carefully pressed and folded. I understand that there were some arguments between the various aunts about their disposition. I do know that I didn’t get any of the pieces back!

My mother has displayed a certain ambiguity about my adult explorations, although she encouraged my crocheting and sewing as a child and teen. She didn’t really see why I wanted to weave, was rather resentful that I’d mastered tatting when she couldn’t, and still doesn’t understand my spinning. But she’s become more reconciled to my avocations through the years, realizing, I think, that these things are as important to me as her quilting is to her.

I can trace my life in the pieces of my work that surround me. The crocheted trims on my mother-in-law’s guest towels and the matching framed doilies on her walls always remind me of the early days of my marriage. The crocheted and framed elaborate fine cotton doily that hangs in my mother’s living room is a reflection of the balance I’ve always strived to maintain between my roles as daughter and daughter-in-law. Mother also uses and displays various woven pieces, and brags about the handspun Shetland, originally-designed rectangular shawl I made for her this last Christmas. As my mother-in-law does the similar piece I made for her the year before!

A framed piece in the entry of my home shows how I blended two passions – I cut and hemmed a small circle of hand-woven fabric, then trimmed it with tatting. The shawls thrown over various pieces of furniture, the hand-woven dishtowels in my kitchen, and the various pairs of lace-patterned socks I wear happily attest my skills. And show their progression.

I have an office decorated with family photos and pieces of my work. A hand knitted, wide-brimmed hat hangs on my office wall surrounded by a hand-painted, hand woven silk scarf with beaded fringe. My coffee cup rests on a tatted circular doily. A space-dyed and spun silk cap has been knitted into a lamp shade. A continually-changing family photo montage is pinned on a piece of hand woven fabric on my bulletin board. It all works. Shortly after moving in, I was told that my office was the prettiest in the entire project!

I can look around me at home or at work and see the results of my own creativity. I look at a piece and remember what I was doing and feeling when it was made. Memories are in those pieces. The ages and stages of my children, my marriage, and my life are reflected in my hand work. I’ve shared those passions with my children and husband. All of my children know how to spin and knit and tat and weave, even though only my youngest son has actually completed more than a single project, or shows any inclination to continue practicing the skills. But the other two may come back to it later in their lives – I did. My husband has started cross-stitching, and loves doing it for all the same reasons I love my own fiber pursuits.

Now I’m beginning to work on projects for my grandchildren. My first wedding ring Shetland shawl was made for my first grandson. I’m now knitting very small socks and sweaters between shawls, and showing the next generation how to do some things like baking and spinning. It may strike a chord, it may not. But it will be fun! And perhaps, when they’re a bit older, they’ll be part of the next generation of fiber artists.

1 comment:

Katherine said...

Dear Pamela,

I just found your blog and have really enjoyed going through and reading all your posts. Your thoughts are very insightful and inspiring! I am a young knitter and spinner who has a heritage of fiberarts and recently took up these crafts, out of a love for fiber and color. I hope to perfect my skills in future years, as I learn new techniques and stimulate my creativity. I am currently obsessed with socks and shawls, using my own yarn and store-bought. I look forward to reading many more of your posts! Learning about others' motivations and philosophies of their crafts is very interesting to me.