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Rachel Marie Stone

Knitting Without a License

On Elizabeth Zimmermann.

Seven years ago, I began knitting in earnest. Though in childhood I had made more than my share of uneven scarves and lumpy potholders to be worn and used by doting adults, I had never progressed beyond the rudiments of the craft. Perhaps my failure to acquire greater skill with fiber and needle can be attributed to the general perception, around the time I entered my teens, that knitting was an activity to keep grandmothers, or perhaps great-grandmothers, busy. If I'd ventured to hint that my own grandma take up knitting, she would have laughed and swatted me with a rolled up copy of Ms. or The New Yorker.

"You're not a 'knitting' grandma," I observed as an elementary schooler, much to her amusement.

She wasn't. Perhaps for her, knitting was like the Yiddish she spoke in childhood. Rather than being something to be cherished and lovingly taught to the next generation, it was something Old Worldly and primitive, something to be cast aside to make room for things urban, sophisticated, American, modern.

Indeed, knitting is a homely, humble, and ancient craft. Like other such crafts—pottery, brewing, spinning, weaving—it is also, in contemporary society, entirely unnecessary, which may indeed be one reason why those who knit love to do so.

Even as North Americans spend more and more time tapping their fingers against screens, we grow more and more enamored of "unnecessary" crafts: home brewing, sewing, food preservation, and, yes, knitting. Mason jars are stylish among people who've never "put up" anything; the lumberjack look is favored among people who earn their living behind MacBooks. Just as the Great Depression gave hand-knitting a boost in popularity, the economic downturn of 2008 seems to have coincided with widespread nostalgia for "homey" crafts, and greater numbers of young people are picking up needles and fiber and, often with the help of YouTube videos, teaching themselves the craft that their grandmothers yearned to be liberated from and their mothers never learned. (To wit: at this moment, my mother is in the next room, knitting; I have been giving her lessons.)

My friend's Grandmother Doris was, unlike my own grandmother, a "knitting" grandma (she's now a knitting great-grandma). She handed me my first pair of needles and got me started. As with so many ventures in my life, my eagerness to knit had a literary motivation: the books accompanying my American Girl doll, Molly, featured a story in which Molly and her friends knit a blanket "for the War Effort" as part of a school project. I consulted Doris and my McCall's Giant Golden Make-It Book when I got stuck, and happily imagined my knitting as something more than just knitting—that I was, like Molly, participating in something of vast scale merely by clicking needles together.

In 2008, at age 27, in Scotland, my fingers again itched to take up the craft, not realizing how enmeshed in the zeitgeist I might be. The elderly ladies in my church had never stopped knitting. I have two tiny and finely knit cardigans made by Sybil for my son Graeme; every baby born into St. Andrews Episcopal Church received at least one or two sweaters knit by her.

But when I started to knit again, I, like every reader, writer, and introvert I know, consulted knitting books of all kinds. Many of these were maddeningly specific: dictating the exact brands and colors of yarn to be used; demanding total adherence to the pattern. In writing, in crafting, in life, such imperiousness has never felt quite right to me. Where, as Anne of Green Gables might say, is the "scope for the imagination" in slavishly reproducing the garments of other designers? Mightn't I just as well purchase them ready-made and save myself time, trouble, and, in most cases, money?

Soon enough, I discovered books written by Elizabeth Zimmermann, who was the first knitter to be honored with a New York Times obituary and the woman who, in the middle of the 20th century, quietly revolutionized American knitting.

Born Elizabeth Lloyd-Jones in 1910 in London, Zimmermann knitted avidly from the age of seven or eight. She studied art in Switzerland and later in Munich, where she met Arnold Zimmermann, a brewery master who, in the mid-1930s, happened to express an unflattering opinion about the Führer within earshot of an SS agent. Elizabeth and Arnold fled to England to be married, and emigrated to the US in 1937, where they struggled and scraped by, raising three children. Eventually they retired to an old schoolhouse in Wisconsin, which became the headquarters of the knitterly revolution that Elizabeth began almost by accident.

In the 1950s, when American women living in prefab houses were eager to accept industry's redefinition of cooking as the artful reassembly of boxed, bottled, and canned processed foods, their crafts tended toward a similar top-down conformity. The knitters Zimmermann knew tended never to deviate from the patterns. And in those days, American knitters, unlike their European counterparts, tended to knit garments in sections, flat and on two needles, which then necessitated a laborious process of assembling and sewing up.

Zimmermann—who, like her husband, was not inclined to blindly follow instructions—set out to knit differently. Her understanding of the ancientness of the craft gave her humility; when she developed an innovation, she called it an "unvention," so sure was she that the techniques she developed and discovered had been tried by someone, somewhere, before—as they almost certainly were; as almost everything is, if you read the history closely enough.

Zimmermann's years of life drawing gave her a keen sense of the structure of the human body, all of which, she noted, can be covered by circular tubes of varying length and diameters. And so she introduced (or perhaps re-introduced) American knitters to circular knitting; knitting that is seamless, organically shaped for the parts that they are to cover. For those people for whom the seams at the toes of socks are an irritation, seamless clothing offers blissful comfort.

But perhaps the comfort afforded by such garments is less significant than the design achievement that they represent. Zimmermann's innovation (I am sure she would prefer me to designate it an "un-novation") was to fully realize the possibilities inherent in the craft of knitting itself; knitting the Zimmermann way meant that knitting could be more fully itself, not a copy of sewing. As her daughter and protégé Meg Swanson noted in the Times obituary, Zimmermann's gift was that of a sculptor. With nothing but yarn, needles, hands, and her keen intellect, she conjured organic, seamless, and beautifully constructed garments.

Even more significant for the liberation of knitters from strict obedience to knitting patterns was Zimmermann's development of eps—Elizabeth's Percentage System, a simple mathematical formula making it easy for people like me, who were never stellar at math, to create and knit custom sweaters to perfection. My husband's unusually narrow waist and proportionately longer arms are never so well clad as when he wears his eps sweater, made by me. Revealing the principles of good design and fit, and doing so in language that is learned, clear, friendly, and calm, Zimmermann's books continue to give unsure knitters confidence to move beyond absolute surrender to someone else's instructions.

Of course, innovation (even if it isn't, really) is often scorned; when, in her early retirement, Zimmermann began publishing her designs in major knitting periodicals, she "soon became annoyed by editors who felt it their duty to translate my style and designs back into the standard, two needle technical blather." Any non-knitter, or new knitter, who picks up a standard set of knitting instructions is likely to find them unreadable: "Rnds 1-8: k2p2; Rnds 9-16, st st; Rnds 17-25, dec by k2tog every 3rd rnd."

By contrast, Zimmermann was "careful to write instructions like a KNITTING-human-being, describing this homely skill clearly, kindly, and completely." This kind of freethinking and assertion of human creativity (it's hard not to draw a connection between her attitude toward knitting and the attitude that drove the Zimmermanns far, far from the Third Reich) led her to found her own newsletter and press and supply company, which is still in existence. You can pick up the phone and pepper her daughter with your knitting questions.

This "human-being" quality of Zimmermann's writing makes her books enjoyable to read in their own right. I return to them for intellectually stimulating reading as well as for comfort; her instructions on knitting may as well be instructions on life, though she only rarely says so directly:

Good knitting, like good cooking, good grammar, good gardening, and good living in general [requires one to]: Read up on the subject, listen to all opinions, do not necessarily follow them, do your own thinking, cut your coat according to your cloth, be prepared to rip (a very purifying experience) and then go on and knit with love.

In her independence, her sense of history, and her commitment to and admiration of human freedom and creativity, Zimmermann reminds me of another teacher of an ancient craft, Julia Child. (Like Child, Zimmermann hosted a delightful PBS show.) And in these same qualities, she reminds me of novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. These women, like most great artists, bring to their crafts a keen sense of history, a deep respect for their materials, and a sense of wonder at the endless possibilities of human creativity.

Perhaps it is appropriate that a woman raised to believe in British exceptionalism, who married a German who got into trouble for questioning German exceptionalism, came to America and became the godmother of American knitting, teaching everyone who would listen how to knit "without a license." At the close of her Knitter's Almanac, she lists her goals for the next year of knitting, and closes:

By this time next year, some of these will have been achieved, and some scorned and abandoned. Some as yet undreamed of whims will have taken shape. I'm ready for them, my mind is open, my needles poised … . My word, such good fortune. I can only hope the same for you.

A sense of wonder and gratitude, the understanding that lofty goals are worth setting but sometimes better released in favor of something different, perhaps even better, and an openness to as yet unforeseen possibilities: in creative ventures, in life, these are among the most precious and human of blessings.

Rachel Marie Stone is the author of Eat with Joy: Redeeming God's Gift of Food (InterVarsity Press).

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