Gathering the first threads
A wise man called Paolo Freire once said that it’s not so much about thinking, but rather participating in thinking about what has already been thought before, and adding to it.
Knitting is something like that. The yarns and the tools may be different, but it all links back to something that came before. We just keep adding to the thread. And that’s me: another stitch on a long needle.
It would be hard to explain why I sat down to write a book on knitting without first describing my lifelong relationship with wool and needles. And so, like all good knitters, let me start first with a loop and a slip-knot on a pointy needle; one stitch linking to the next without pause.
I was born in 1945, just after World War II ended. It was a different time, when ladies only left the house if they were dressed in stockings, frocks, hats and gloves, and the men were clad in suits, bow ties and hats. My family and I spent winter holidays at one or other country hotel, and some of my earliest knitting memories stem from these places. There was Ceres, in 1948, where I fell into the swimming pool dressed in my knitted Princess Anne look-alike coat while trying to find the bottom with a stick. In Ladismith a year or so later, I remember sitting outside the hotel kitchen in the winter sun, being taught to knit by the women who worked there. I loved their chatter and their singing. I sat and clicked away alongside them, knitting mostly holes, ignorant then of the horrors of apartheid that divided us.
My mother’s hands were never idle – idleness being something too terrible to contemplate. She sewed, knitted or crocheted everything that we wore, but all I longed for was a ready-made Foschini outfit from the store down the road. I climbed trees, skinned my knees, and did not behave like a genteel young lady. The beautiful, lacy, hand-knitted fil d’écosse socks hung at my ankles and hats never stayed on my head for too long.
My mother visited the library to take out heavy books with patterns for knitting and crochet. (Crochetand Fine Knitting by E.E. Visser is one that I remember well.) The books fascinated me. I loved how the patterns repeated themselves so I could work out what came next without even looking at the book.
By the time I was ten, I had nagged for a circular needle (which I still have, though now rather bent) and started knitting round doilies in lacy stitches and eventually an entire tablecloth. It’s strange that suddenly lace knitting is all the rage again.
In my matric year, the English set-work book was A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’s book was remarkable and kindled my deep fascination with the French Revolution. My classmates immediately dubbed me Madame Defarge, a tricoteuse who knitted while heads rolled on the guillotine.
Years later, when I became a teacher, I realised how much that early training in knitting had helped me with mathematics. I could easily solve algebraic and geometric problems because for me they were like knitting patterns– logical and easy to follow once you picked up the right thread. I went on to university to study science and not languages as my mother had intended. “A real bluestocking,” she grumbled.
Another major knitting adventure came in 1963, and involved a rust-coloured Aran sweater with a fold-over collar which I knitted right at the start of hippiedom. I wore it until it literally fell to pieces, even though my boyfriend (who would later be my husband and then my ex-husband) hated it. Perhaps his distaste for my knitting should have rung alarm bells sooner.
At the same time that I knitted my sweaters, there were many other women knitting away for other reasons. The so-called “knitting needle guerrillas” undertook deep-cover espionage and reconnaissance during the Struggle years. During long, drawn-out treason trials, these woman sat knitting in the front rows of the court, recording the often trumped-up evidence against their men. Knitting yarn followed these women into prison. For many of those incarcerated throughout the 70s and 80s in the infamous John Vorster Square prison, knitting was the only permitted diversion. My mother’s sister Esther, an ardent knitter and crocheter who ‘discovered’ apartheid in 1938 and promptly joined the South African Communist Party and the liberation movement, was arrested in 1982 and taken to John Vorster Square with wool stuffed in her bag and needles secreted in her bra.
Throughout her long incarceration and subsequent exile, kind friends and family kept her supplied with wool and needles, which she used to knit baby blankets.
Even more amazing is the recently released story of the knitting that took place on Robben Island. The Lighter Side of Life on Robben Island by Fred Khumalo, Paddy Harper and Gugu Kunene (Makana Investment Corporation, 2012) paints a picture of a political prisoner smiling and knitting:
After lying low in exile for a few years, Gordon Webster let down his guard, only to be arrested at Messina near the Zimbabwe border while trying to infiltrate South Africa. After his capture, he was sent to the Island.
Robben Island was a dead-end. There were no delusions of a Sunday Prison Break for Webster. The quick-thinking, fast-paced guerrilla was now in confinement. His spirited personality had to find an outlet.
It was not soccer or rugby that he would pick up to while away his time. Nor was it boxing, karate or athletics. Webster picked a peculiar hobby for a revolutionary in a revolutionary house: he fell for knitting – hook, line and stitch – trading bombs for wool and needles.
“My best student was Webster”, recalls his knitting teacher, Jerome Joseph “JJ” Maake, a fellow inmate.
The attribute that made Webster the best student was his patience, according to JJ.
In my quiet life on the other side of the bay, watching the lights going on and off on the island, I knitted for the babies of friends and family right through my university days and beyond. In the 70s, working at the State Vaccine Centre at the Hiddingh Complex in the Gardens, there were tedious hours spent waiting for orders, so knitting and a good thriller were essential.
Later, when my own children were born, I became my mother reincarnate. I made all of their clothes until the day I realised that the girls preferred Woolworths and looking like the rest of their friends.
When my Elna sewing machine was stolen, I simply stopped, and packed up my needles too.
More than twenty years passed without me touching wool. And then, some thirteen years ago, when a good friend was about to become a grandmother, she asked me to help her crochet the edging on a blanket for the new bundle of joy. The hook slipped into my palm as if there hadn’t been a day’s break. Suddenly, there was no stopping me. Blankets and baby clothes just floated out for each and every surrogate grandchild.
By this time, I was working in the NGO world, training teachers in science and language. One of my colleagues introduced me to a group of women who ran a self-help group at the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Manenberg, a gangster-ridden, poverty-stricken area of Cape Town. Despite the gang wars, flying bullets, protest marches and strikes, we have been knitting together ever since.
I was inspired by the number of women taking our mothers’ domestic skills – born out of necessity then – and using them to create wondrous items that pamper, glamorize and cosset. More importantly, I was inspired by how many knitting groups provided independence for so many women and men who would otherwise be jobless and dependent.
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Finding the Thread.