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By A.E. Stallings

During Greece’s long hottest-on-record summer, and while Arcadia was, literally, burning, and while I was without babysitting and left with the lioness’s share of child care (we have a three-year old, Jason), I took up . . . knitting.

I hear in the US knitting is actually pretty trendy. The trendiness hasn’t hit here yet—yarn shops are full of little grandmothers (yiayiades) buying pastel yarn for baby blankets, or heavy black stuff for widow’s weeds. People eye me—a blonde foreigner browsing through the yarns—oddly.
My own grandmother taught me to knit when I was small, but I was never very advanced. I think I made a couple of ugly acrylic garter-knit sweaters with lots of dropped stitches. I’ve now taken it up more seriously, and have been getting better.
I think about poetry while I am knitting. Maybe I am knitting in order not to be writing a poem—the activities seem very similar to me. The relation between knitting and purling seems to me exactly the same as the relationship between iambs and trochees, for example—the same stitch seen from different angles. The number of stitches cast on is something like determining the syllables in a line. The pleasure is making something out of nothing, or rather, something out of the raw material—wool or cotton or silk, acrylic or cashmere, strange nubby blends. And there is the sensual feel of the thread running through your fingers, just as I feel the texture of words in the mouth, some smooth, some rough, some “natural”, some “synthetic,” some thick, some fine.
“Texture”, “textile” and “text” of course are all cognate. “Complexity”, “perplexity”, “implication” all have to do with knitting. When we tell a tale, we “spin” a “yarn.” We “weave” a plot. The word “subtile” means “finely woven.” Even the word “line”—which is related to “linen”—means a thread or a string.
The Roman poet Lucretius (more on him later) “weaves” textile metaphor throughout his great poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), not only as a metaphor for poetic creation, but for the structure of the universe. “Order” comes from the Latin for laying the warp of the loom. The atoms or “first-beginnings” are the warp and the woof of the world. It is a bold—and arguably feminine—metaphor.
In Greek myth, weaving is how women tell their stories, whether it is Arachne, Philomela, Helen or Penelope. Beautiful cloth, a necessity made luxurious, was as much a treasure in the ancient world as gold or silver. (“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt”…) But it rarely survives, and as textiles decomposed, so did the stories–the voices–of those women. There is a wonderful book, by the way, on the importance of cloth: Women’s Work: The First 20,000 years .
Is knitting something I am doing instead of writing right now? Possibly. But it is something I can do while, say, watching a toddler in a wading pool. I guess that is why women did the spinning, the weaving, the cloth-making. I worry about the conflict between ambition and motherhood. I want to store my words where moths cannot get at them.

Comment (1)

  • On September 26, 2007 at 9:12 am Amit Majmudar wrote:

    One more connection between language and weaving…. The Incas of Peru, before the Conquest, had a whole system of “writing” based on a variation of knots in colored strings, the “khipu” or “quipu.” No linguist or mathematician has been able to translate (unravel?) their meaning and function with absolute certainty; there’s no Rosetta Stone here to crack the mystery open with, and hence no chance for a Champollion. Most scholars believe them a purely mnemonic device for inventories and goods received–but I like to imagine alien Iliads bound up in those intellectually Gordian knots.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, September 18th, 2007 by A.E. Stallings.