How knitting a sweater brought me out of a COVID slump

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Hands knitting a coral sweater.

In the winter of 2020, while browsing at Backstory Books & Yarn, a local used book and yarn store in Portland, Oregon, I stumble across a giant hank of pale gray yarn lurking on a top shelf. I immediately pick it up and trace the softness of the Targhee strands with my fingers. The label states it’s from Blue Moon Fiber Arts, a local dyer I’m familiar with, and best of all, it’s enough to make a sweater. A quick peek at the price tag makes me even more jubilant — I have enough store credit to cover the purchase, basically making it free.

I find the perfect pattern for the yarn, Myrna by Andi Satterlund. Vintage-inspired, it’s cropped and form-fitting and will pair perfectly with dresses for the colder months. After almost a full episode of the BBC series “Pride and Prejudice” and numerous turns of the yarn winder, I have a ball of yarn the size of a newborn’s head that is ready to be knit. Once I have knit a swatch to figure out what size I need to knit, I cast 70 loops on my needles and start the sweater. The yarn is lovely to work with. Soft and supple, each stitch is clearly defined like a spider’s web in the rain.

Shelves filled with books and yarn.

Backstory Books & Yarn in Portland, Oregon.

After fits and starts and several weeks, I’m almost done with the back of the sweater. I hold it up to myself and grimace. Even accounting for the stretch, it simply looks too small. I put it aside to deal with it later. Every knitter is familiar with “frogging,” which means ripping back your work — you “rip it, rip it,” like the “ribbit” of a frog. And as accustomed as we are to frogging, it does not mean we dislike it any less. You can just see weeks of your time circling down the drain. But knitting is a wonderful craft because, as in life, you can almost always go back and fix your mistakes (except for mohair, but we will not speak of that).

I could ignore the mistake and try to convince myself that, “Oh, it will fit with some stretching and blocking,” but I know that I’ll be even more devastated to have finished the entire sweater and not have it fit. I tear the stitches off the needles and begin the process of undoing the rows, leaving a wave of crinkled wool in my wake. Knitting teaches us about falling and getting back up minus the bruises and scrapes, leaving just the toll it takes on our patience.

Then COVID-19 strikes in March. One day my knitting friends and I are huddled together in a car for 10 hours as we zigzag across the Portland area to participate in the annual Rose City Yarn Crawl. Then the next week, seemingly everything is shut down. Instead of seeing each other as people, all we see is potential virus vectors. The days blur into one giant loop. We are stuck in Groundhog Day with only slight variations letting us know that time has passed.

I simply cannot see the point in continuing with the sweater. Where would I wear it? There is nowhere to go. And how would I wash it? A handknit wool sweater is not meant to hold up to endless rounds of sanitizing in hot water and bleach. And who would see it to admire the handiwork? My knitting friends are huddled in their houses and not stirring, not even for yarn. My sweater is at a standstill, the needles silent, much like the outer world. I have trouble looking at either.

“Put the sweater down and start another project,” a friend advises. “Let it hibernate.”

I take half her advice, but have trouble figuring out what to do next. Numerous articles and studies have listed the physical and mental health benefits of knitting — it induces an enhanced sense of calm, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and boosts serotonin levels. That is great when all is said and done, but it does not solve the problem when you can’t even get motivated to start that first stitch.

A dog wears a teal sweater.

April’s dog, Nandi, shows off an FO.

I’m doomscrolling when I get a text from a friend from high school.

“Sorry, this week has been kind of crazy. We actually just had our kid yesterday. Delivered a healthy baby girl. 8.6lb, 21 inches…”

Accompanying the text is a photo of my friend wearing a mask and cradling a newborn to her chest. I shoot off a text of congratulations and then immediately start browsing patterns for baby sweaters. I may not have anywhere to wear a handknit sweater, but this baby clearly needs a wool sweater to keep her warm. COVID-19 may reign, but new life continues. And human connections are so fraught right now, I grab at any strand that resembles hope.

I dive into my stash of yarn, stored under my bed in plastic bins, to discover that I have absolutely no yarn that is suitable. No sensible parent wants to carefully hand wash a delicate baby sweater every single time the baby throws up or drools. So, I make a rare trip into the outside world for yarn. I’m equipped with a handmade mask and hand sanitizer and mentally calculate how far 6 feet is from any person I see.

As I walk down Alberta Street, it’s a ghost town. Dark windows look forlornly out onto the street, and passersby walk by briskly with their heads down and masks on. But when I step inside Close Knit to look for the right yarn, it’s like stepping back into the past. Piles of brightly colored yarn dot the walls, and that slight hush you get from a space overly insulated with fiber prevails. Then I look again and see a jumbo-sized container of hand sanitizer and a giant sign at the entrance declaring the COVID-19 protocols. A plexiglass shield guards the staff from customers.

I debate between two vividly colored hanks of worsted and ultimately go with the coral. The shade, Malabrigo’s Living Coral, evokes eye-popping colored macaroons, which is fitting as the sweater pattern, by The Noble Thread, is named French Macaroon and I met the new mom in our high school French class.

It’s almost exactly the shade of the 2019 Pantone color of the year, living coral. The color was declared to be an “animating and life-affirming coral hue with a golden undertone that energizes and enlivens with a softer edge.” Babies also affirm life while anchoring us to the future. Stepping back into time is a futile endeavor. But it reminds me that this too shall pass and one day we will gather together once more.

Hands knit a coral sweater.

The bright coral stitches fly smoothly across the needles, leaving behind a gentle click-clack sound. It feels strangely foreign to be knitting again, but my hands remember what to do. Unlike the monotony of COVID-19 life, I can see visible progress as the sweater steadily grows, inch by inch. With each stitch, I knit in my thoughts and hopes for the future. As the ball of yarn dwindles, so do my troubled thoughts. The knitting blogger A Friend to Knit With once calculated the number of stitches in a sweater she was knitting: 70,532. If we were to think about that sheer number, we would never knit a sweater. We take it one stitch at a time. Like each stitch, we trudge forward to the next, waiting until the day when we are whole.

As I knit, I can feel the invisible threads connecting me to women of the past who used knitting to cope with the troubling times of their era. Knitting teacher and designer Elizabeth Zimmermann wrote, “Knit on with confidence and hope through all crises.” Women knitted through the two World Wars and the Spanish Flu and countless other crises and elections. And they likely will again in the future. Knitting leaves us with a tangible memory of time and helps us cope with our fears and anxieties. It reminds us that life goes on. There will always be a baby who needs warmth. And one day I will finish that gray sweater.

Knitting in the time of COVID-19

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A rust and cream colorwork sweater.

Amira’s latest WIP is Ghost Horses by Caitlin Hunter, using Malabrigo Worsted.

Ed.’s note: I’m excited to welcome a new contributor to Indie Untangled, Amira Umphres! Amira’s first blog post was set to debut next month as part of another project, but I thought in this period of social distancing, there was an opportunity to “widen the circle” and introduce a new perspective to our virtual community.

It’s no secret that our worlds were turned upside down seemingly overnight. Lives have been disrupted, some of us working from home, working overtime — or out of work entirely.

My partner works at a grocery store and we’re never quite sure when he’ll be going to work or coming home now. His shifts have gone from eight hours to anywhere between 10 and 12.

Like so many others, I suddenly live in a world where my kids are no longer in school. And I’m faced with the reality of attempting to provide childcare and at-home schooling, all while still trying to generate an income.

With so little in the scope of our control, I’ve been searching in and out for things I can do to cope.

It might feel a bit ludicrous, but one small thing I’ve decided to do for myself? Keep knitting (and crocheting).

There are several reasons why. And I’ve got a few tips and ideas for staying crafty if you’ve also found yourself suddenly in the company of kids who are normally in school during the day.

Purple, aqua and orange crocheted squares.

One of Amira’s latest WIPs. “I’ve been crocheting more, which is a brand new skill for me.”

The Importance of Knitting for Well-Being

Anxiety skyrocketed for me this week. Facing a global pandemic has left me feeling entirely out of control.

Luckily, knitting can function as a coping mechanism while adjusting to the temporary “new normal.” Not only has research shown that knitting contributes to stress relief and feelings of calm, knitting also fuels our sense of community.

And if knitting is a part of your routine and something you look forward to, don’t let it go.

Participate in virtual knitting groups if you can. My favorite LYS, West 7th Wool in Fort Worth, Texas, is closed to the public until further notice, but they’ve shifted their weekly Thursday knit nights to a virtual meeting room in Zoom. The first one is tonight, and I’ll be attending like always.

Knitting with Little Ones Around

Many of us are perfectly aware of the benefits of knitting (and definitely want to keep doing it while we’re navigating tough feelings and disrupted lifestyles). But… once I got word that my kids would be home for the foreseeable future, I found myself in a bit of a pickle.

How can I possibly keep knitting with kids at home, and little to no help or childcare?

I homeschooled my daughters for a few years and routine was the one thing that kept us sane. Building predictability into my day not only helps my kids feel less anxious about the state of things, it also gives me the opportunity to carve out some time for self-care and crafting.

I tend to knit while my kids play in the yard, watch a movie, or play a video game. And I accept that when they’re awake, I won’t get as much knitting done as I’d like. I might be able to do a few rows, but interruptions are inevitable. I really dig into a project, and save things that take more focus, for when they’re asleep.

I’ve also started to learn to finger knit alongside my oldest daughter, who’s 8. I’ve made good use out of my scrap yarn this way. And it’s an activity that holds her attention for 10 to 15 minutes. I’ve been surprised by how many projects we’ve made: bracelets, flowers, and headbands, to name a few.

A girl holds a felted duck in green, blue and red.

My kids and I also enjoy wet felting together. It’s warm here in Texas, so we do this outdoors with wool roving and a bucket of soapy water. You can collect rocks to cover with felt, make felt eggs, felt bowls, and felt balls to turn into jewelry or anything you can dream up.

And since hand washing is at the top of everyone’s minds, one of my favorite felting projects to do with my kids is to make felted soap. It’s super fun — and a simple way I’ve been able to get my girls to wash their hands regularly.

Stay safe everyone, and happy knitting!

Whipping your WIPs into shape

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I’ll admit that I’ve never been a truly monogamous knitter. But, since moving, rearranging my stash and dedicating a box just to WIPs (I’m an optimist, so I don’t like referring to them as UFOs) I’ve realized that I have more than a couple. These were projects I plunged into headfirst and then another shiny pattern caught my eye, or I got to a point where the project became a little more complex. So, in an effort to get them back on track and the box under control — my stash has already migrated into another bin and I don’t want my WIPs to — I’ve decided to create a little strategy that I hope will also help you.

Getting realistic

First, I got realistic about what I was going to finish. That Rock Island I started a few years ago in Spirit Trail lace, only getting through seven repeats of the beginning edging? Frogged, getting a much-loved project bag back in return. I know that mostly lacy shawls, especially in dark, laceweight yarn, are just not for me. I wasn’t far enough in that frogging was painful, and I figured if I wasn’t getting joy from the project right from the beginning, it wasn’t worth continuing. Maybe one day I’ll knit it, but not now.

Something mindless

Then, I found a project that was still in the mindless garter stage — my Marrakesh shawl pictured above — and designated it as a subway/knit night project. Until I get to the lace egding, it is forbidden to be a knit-at-home project. I’m limiting those to my latest sweater, Mary Annarella’s You Wear It Well, which is up to the sleeves and no longer very portable, and Anne Hanson’s Shared Rib cabled infinity scarf. Both make for good TV knitting, ensuring I’ll finish them soon-ish.

Prioritize

I’ve decided to prioritize finishing one languishing WIP before casting on another project. When I finish Marrakesh, my plan is to cast on a 3 Color Cashmere Cowl with my Vintage No. 1 from Middle Brook Fiberworks.

Create deadlines

I’m also creating general deadlines — ideally, finishing one WIP every month or two months, depending how far along I am. I plan to actually write these deadlines down in a fancy journal, so I can hold myself to them and not keep changing them in my head.

Ideally, I will end up in a place where I have a good mix of mindless, complicated and/or non-portable projects so that there’s an ideal WIP for every activity. Because we all know that knitting — and FOs — make everything better.