My grandmother was a prolific knitter. I spent what felt like hundreds of hours standing to be measured, so she could craft skeins of yarn into sweaters for me to wear. My favorite was a lavender one, complete with darker lavender buttons. She knit blankets. She knit potholders. She knit colorful Christmas stockings for me, my brother and our cousins.
So, I was around knitting almost my entire life, but never was compelled to pick up a set of needles — until one Christmas.
No matter which family house you visited at the holidays, if you saw those Christmas stockings, embroidered with our names and glistening with intricate beadwork, you knew it was Grandma Rolene who put in the hours to make sure Christmas had her special touch. When I was a kid, they were just stockings, but as I got older, I came to realize they were much more than that.
With age came arthritis, which made it hard for my grandma to continue knitting. She had to hang up the needles.
Around this time, my first nephew was born. I decided that he needed a stocking like my brother’s. I had come to know what these stockings meant. This was a knitting project to connect the past generations with the future, through yarn lovingly stitched together.
I’m not sure why I didn’t ask my grandma for help. Instead, I bought a knitting book and decided to teach myself how to knit so I could replicate that stocking.
The pattern — a large green stocking with white and red at the top, that featured Santa Claus carrying a Christmas tree on the front and two hanging Christmas ornaments on the back — definitely wasn’t for beginners. But I decided to forge ahead anyway.
First, I needed to match the colors. I managed to do that with a wool-blend yarn, Lion Brand Wool-Ease, for the most part, but then a few colors were hard to find, such as the ones used for Santa’s beard and the pink in his face. I needed a furry yard for the beard. And I opted to go with a pink yarn I had at the house from other projects for the face. In the end, that turned out being a bit thicker and harder to work with using those needles, so I learned the importance of wool weight. I also learned that the furry white yarn I used for the beard was a b*&ch to work with.
Next came the graph paper. I needed to replicate the pattern and the only way to do this was to count the stitches. I don’t really remember, but I must have asked my grandma how to do this because there is no other way I would have known. This was not something you could find in books and YouTube wasn’t as loaded with how-to videos back then.
So, I counted each color in each row, carefully plotting it onto the graph paper with little instructions. I eventually ended up with several sheets of graph paper taped together to show both the front and the back.
Now, I was ready to knit and not just knit, but knit for the first time.
To be fair, I had done some simple crocheting in grade school. Nothing fancy, but I had worked with some form of needlecraft before, even if it wasn’t with knitting needles.
I managed to find a stocking pattern that was similar, but without the details. It was a generic knit stocking pattern, but it was enough to show me how to curve a heel, curve the toe and how to make the knitted pattern along the top. So I used that as a little bit of a guide.
I ended up having to ditch the first partial try of the top because it just didn’t look right. The second try worked better, but I still found it so hard to do each stitch. It didn’t feel natural.
I don’t remember how long it took me to knit. I think it took a few weeks. I do remember messing up on my count and having to undo stitches a few rows back to fix mistakes. What a pain! My grandma had an old row counter and I finally understood the value of that. It’s such a simple tool, but can save you hours of undoing work.
When I finished knitting the stocking, I didn’t know what to do with all of the yarn crisscrossing the back. So I unknowingly did what you’re not supposed to do: I cut them all off and basically made the back fuzzy with half-inch bits of knotted yarn. I later learned you’re supposed to crisscross the yarn as you work through the pattern. Doh!
I embroidered my nephew’s name onto the stocking and added the sequins and beads with some thread and a sewing needle, placed it in a box and wrapped it up.
When I presented my first knitted object to my toddler nephew, he pulled the stocking out, placed it on the floor and started playing with the box. Fortunately, my brother, recognizing the significance of the gift, made sure the stocking took its rightful place on his fireplace mantle, next to his own matching stocking.
When my younger nephew came along, I made him the same stocking. This time, I used the magic of the internet and found the original pattern from the 1960s. Mine had been pretty darn close!
When I completed that second stocking, a few years after the first, I realized that on that first stocking, I’d done all of the stitches backwards. Every. Single. One. No wonder it was so hard! The stitches are crossed in such a way that the stocking doesn’t have the same stretchiness as one with regular knitting and it looks slightly different.
I asked my oldest nephew if he wanted me to redo the stocking so it was correct, but he told me that no, he actually liked it better with the unique stitches and that it made him feel like it was “his” stocking, different but yet the same as the others.
In the years that followed, stocking requests poured in. My brother asked if I could make one for my sister-in-law, so they’d have a family set. My friend asked if I’d make a set for her family because it reminded her of the kind her grandmother had made. I fulfilled all the requests.
I — the self-proclaimed non-knitter — knit seven of those Christmas stockings in all, using yarn to connect families and to connect one generation to another. The hours I spent learning how to knit from a book and creating those stockings also connected me to my grandma, who’s now long gone. I came to understand that needles and yarn aren’t just tools of a craft — they’re a way to connect generations and show love.
Susan Valot is an award-winning public radio reporter and podcast host/producer in the Los Angeles area. She hosts Quanta Magazine’s Science Podcast. Her work has appeared on NPR, KCRW and other outlets. When she’s not figuring out how to knit, she’s normally off on local hiking trails or playing ice hockey.