Knitting for Poets: Elizabeth Zimmermann
The only thing that approaches the satisfaction of finishing a poem is completing a sweater.
OK, admittedly I stick to sonnet-length baby sweaters. But still.
Composing a poem and creating a fabric—whether weaving or knitting--actually have a surprising amount in common, not least a lot of terms—take the word “text” itself for example. Line? Related to linen. We spin yarns in our narrative poems. Poets spend a lot of time wool-gathering.
And there is the similar pleasure in watching something magically form beneath our hands.
Knitting patterns have much in common with metrical poetry. The row is the line. Patterns of stitches are like feet—elaborate or simple—playing out in on and off syllables, in purl and knit, with occasional wild substitutions, like lace stitches or cables. Texture and color, the pleasure of materials. Gauge.
Elizabeth Zimmermann (1910-1999) is the foremother of modern knitting. She emphasized elegance of design—(nearly) seamless sweaters, circular needles, the arithmetic of proportions. She encouraged people to knit without being slavishly tied to patterns. She modestly called her rather scientific design discoveries her “unventions.”
She was also a wonderful writer, and her directions are delightfully chatty and sharply intelligent and full of wisdom and verve. Sometimes she is aphoristic (“Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crisis.”) There is a Jane Austen flavor to her wit (“If there is one fact on which all grandmothers agree, it is that no daughter-in-law knows how to wash wool.”) She can be lyrical (“Washing a real sweater is akin to bathing a baby, and brings the same satisfaction of producing a clean, pretty, sweet-smelling creature—very rewarding.") She is often funny. (“Dorothy Case links her needle guards with wool; then they can both get lost together.”) And sometimes her patterns and advice read themselves like found poems. Here is her description of needles made from different materials, from Knitting Without Tears. I would title it simply, “Needles”:
Very useful in the larger sizes—say #10 to #15. Well-worn wooden needles can become well loved. Their benevolent clack is soothing, and brings back the feeling of childhood. New needles, not mellowed, may be broken in with sandpaper or steel wool, and light application of paste wax or linseed oil, but the best finish is attained by years of use, preferably with natural oiled wool.
These have become quite rare, and should be reassured. Sandpaper helps them too.
The original clicking needles, which come in small sizes, for socks and lace. They tend to rust, so get out the steel wool, and oil them lightly before putting them away.
Tortoiseshell and Ivory
Museum pieces. Cherish them.
The famous old fire hazard, but why sit so close to the candle? Extremely brittle; not to be sat upon.
Good rigid needles. If the outer coating has worn off, watch out when using them with natural oily wool (sometimes called “boot wool”). The lanolin in the wool causes the metal to blacken, and this will come off on your knitting. No great tragedy, as it washes out quite easily, but rather unsettling. A “6 aluminum needle has been known to furnish an excellent emergency shearpin for an outboard motor. It once saved us seven miles of paddling. Then I had to spend hours re-pointing the needle on rocks, having nobly, but foolishly, offered the business end instead of the knob end for sacrifice.
An excellent rigid needle. Bends when sat upon, but is easily bent back.
Plastic or Nylon
Splendid for those who like flexible needles.
It is pure boasting to mention these. I own a few sets, and use them reverently. They are as gently curved as the tusk from which they sprang.
For much of what she says, I can substitute “poetry” for “knitting”:
“If you hate to knit, why, bless you, don’t; follow your secret heart and take up something else. But if you start out knitting with enjoyment, you will probably continue in this pleasant path.
Consider the agreeable material and tools.”
A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...