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Picking up the sticks

Aug 2, 2012 - By Jamie Drendel

I'm a knitter, and don't try to cure me

I do it everywhere. In the backseats of cars, in dark movie theaters, in the middle of wedding receptions, during the seventh-inning stretch. I once pulled it off in the middle of a busy grocery store.

I'm a chronic knitter. The doctors say there's no cure.

My friends, family and pets have all staged various forms of intervention. All failed. I persevere through the eyerolls and the sad shakes of the heads and the yarn balls batted through every leg of every piece of furniture in the house by paws that belong to critters who just want belly rubs. I brush it off, and in the case of the yarn balls, I sigh and begin to untangle and rewind them with slow, deliberate care.

For me, picking up the sticks stuck.

Every knitter remembers his first time. I was a late bloomer.

Sure, I had messed around before -- first with crochet hooks in my great-grandmother's dark living room and later with a sewing machine in my mother's kitchen -- but no one in my family knew how to work the needles. Even I thought it was nuts. Two needles? How in the world would you hold them?

As it turns out, it's easy, and I tell this to every passing stranger who looks at my paused hands with wide eyes and says, "Oh I wish I could do that." (By the way, this is a dangerous thing to say to someone with a line of wool trailing from her purse; she probably carries spares.)

I started knitting the summer before my senior year in high school. I went from being a volunteer at Lincoln's New Salem in my hometown of Petersburg, Ill., to being a full-time temporary employee.

New Salem is a reconstruction of a village that Abraham Lincoln bopped around in for a time. My job was to sit in a log home and wait for tourists to drop in and pepper me with questions. Question: "Where is Lincoln's home?" Answer: "He was a young bachelor, and it was uncommon for young bachelors in that period to have their own homes, so he did a lot of couch surfing with kindly villagers."

It was an easy gig.

The job's biggest challenge was staying awake while sitting in an 1830s-style dress, petticoat and daybonnet in a hot house with one openable window (the door) and no air conditioning. Add in a slow tourist day, an unpopular house, the hum of locusts, a gentle afternoon rain shower or a boring book, and conditions are ripe for a nap.

I had to find a way to keep conscious.

Open hearth cooking was hot work, and playing the pennywhistle was probably not appropriate for my age and gender. Weaving was OK, hand sewing was dull, and crocheting hadn't even crossed the pond yet.

That's right. It was the 1830s, and crocheting, the one yarn-related hobby I knew how to do, was "too modern" in the states. While the European ladies were daintily hooking their lace doilies, we American broads were bullying sweaters and socks out of pointy lengths of wood.

So that's how I found myself in the village's tavern with two freshman girls from my high school, my fellow students, and a middle-aged acquaintance, our teacher. She was patient and sat with us all morning as we stitched tight and bumpy rows with clumsy hands. She even helped me retrieve my knitting needle when it slipped out of my fingers and through a crack in the floorboards.

She was also a frequent patron of the library where I worked part-time. Soon after my first lesson, and before I had the chance to work out my feelings toward knitting, she came into the library with a gallon-sized freezer bag full of aluminum knitting needles.

She handed them to me, saying they were extras she didn't need anymore. When someone hands you a bag of knitting needles, you take it, fall in love, and get to work.

I still have most of that original set. Over the years I've added to it with double-pointed needles, circular needles, needles with removable tips, and needles made out of warm, hand-friendly wood and bamboo.

The old aluminums slowly have found new homes in the hands of curious family members, friends, co-workers and boyfriends.

I wouldn't say teaching these loved ones how to knit instilled in them a deep respect for fiber arts and those who practice them, but I will say that they don't try to stop me anymore.

They've learned my knitting in public is not an indication that I'm bored, that I can keep up with and join in conversations, and that at the end of the night, when they leave the bar with depleted wallets, I go home with a healthy buzz and a new hat.

Friends, conversations, beers and hats. What could be better than that?

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