Getting Hooked

May 3, 2014

I grew up surrounded by women who made magic with two sticks and some wool. It was clear to me that it was a G-d given talent, this ability to craft something from almost nothing with a rhythmic flick of the wrists. It awed me to watch them work, and it didn’t hurt that I often benefitted from the output.

In fact, I still cling (with guilt, with love) to a cable sweater my grandmother knit for me late in her life. Believing she could do anything, I selected an ambitious pattern that was too much for her arthritic hands. Though she agreed to the undertaking out of affection for me, she cursed her enfeebled dexterity, the pattern, and me for not choosing something simpler until the blasted thing was done.

Years earlier, she — along with her sisters, her friends, her neighbors and occasionally, my mother — would race ahead at full throttle through skein after skein, a word I prided myself on knowing at a young age. The stitches emerged from their nimble hands and transformed into full garments with such ease that I naively believed the process was a simple one.

The same presumptuousness fueled my attempt to pirouette after watching a ballet segment on PBS as a young girl. Just a simple spin! Anyone can do that, I said to myself before falling promptly to the floor. Yet to knitting I felt genetically entitled. I was convinced that all I’d need was a lesson or two before I could whip up a cardigan in a flash. After all, everyone I knew could do it, even if no one thought to teach me and I foolishly never asked.

This same group of women also crocheted, albeit less often. I preferred the click-clack melody of knitting, but the silent one-hook motion still intrigued me. I particularly loved watching miscellaneous scraps of wool metamorphose into afghans bursting with colors that matched only within granny squares. Alas, I never learned to crochet either.

Eventually, sleep away camp set things right. We’d idle on our bunk porches during free time with the swarming mosquitoes and the humidity. Some girls talked or scribbled letters home. I wrote silly poems. One day, I looked up and noticed a tall girl named Leah and her friends busy on the porch opposite mine. They were crocheting kippot. When I inquired, they told me they made them for their brothers and fathers, sometimes for a boy they thought was cute.

Beyond the realm of yarmulke-making observant Jewish girls, knitting and crocheting did not then enjoy the same hipster chic they do today. They were the avocation most often though not exclusively of women of a certain age, conjuring up images of grandmas in housecoats. Regardless, I was an old soul. If making kippot was my way in to the club, I was game.

Leah patiently showed me the ropes, handing me a teensy tiny metal hook and a spool of cotton thread. I learned what a dugma (pattern) was and how to work a name – in English or in Hebrew — into a design. She taught me how to fold the crocheted circle into quarters and measure it against my knuckles to determine whether the dimensions were large enough for a man’s head.

Before summer’s end, I’d perfected crocheting kippot, but from the very beginning, it was much more than a craft or a skill. The process soothed me, lifted me out of a rainy-day funk, and offered me the smallest sense of control in a world in which we have absolutely none. More important, it gave me the savvy to make something usable and lovely from the simplest of items and provided me with an internal home base for times when things get rocky.

(That it also put me, decades later, in the category of women who do cool things was quite an added bonus.)

With growing confidence, I moved past the tiny needle and thread to thicker wool and bigger projects: scarves, stuffed animals, hats, and later, afghans. I have since whipped up countless blankets for newborns and newlyweds. I even crocheted a uterus for a friend who had to let her biological one go and a fake beard for my son’s Purim costume.

Sadly, I could never take on sweaters, which involve way too much measuring for my right-sided brain. And though I made the kippot for our entire wedding party twenty years ago, my middle-aged eyes now struggle with the thin thread and tiny needle required to crochet a new kippah for my husband.

I think about that moment when I saw those girls in camp crocheting together on the porch, how it invited conversation. Now, when I crochet in public, I find it has the same effect as walking a puppy in the park. It has inspired commentary, compliments and nostalgia. Mostly, though, it offers a pretty distraction for others when the magazine selection is paltry at the doctor’s office.

Likewise, I still love watching others knit. I enjoy the action like I’m at a play, tapping my feet to the rhythmic sound of their needles. Occasionally, too, I wonder whether I’d have ended up a knitter if Leah had been knitting mittens that summer, though I doubt it. I took a beginner’s class at the local high school a few years ago. I learned to make a scarf out of Fun Fur, but did not fall madly, deeply in love.

So I’ll stick with what I know best and what I enjoy most, and I’ll crochet. One day, the rest of me will catch up to my old soul. I’ll be ready, hook in hand.