[A blog post that took me two years to finish, hence the outdated reference to a class crammed into a tiny room: remember those days?]
I signed up for a color-knitting class, failing to realize that color-knitting was the same topic as the disastrous first knitting workshop I took three months after first taking up needles.
You might be thinking, “Isn’t all knitting color-knitting?” Unless your yarn is, um, white?
As if knitting with two needles and one strand of yarn isn’t challenging enough for someone who can’t even get the damn dog poop bags to open and who can’t change the lightbulbs in the fixture she chose for her office, in Stranded color-knitting—also called Fair Isle or Jacquard—you knit with two (or more) different strands of yarn and five needles at the same time to create color designs.
I’d flunked out of that first advanced class and left early, long-tail cast-on tucked between the pouches of my keepsake conference bag. I had not taken a single knitting class for the next year and a half. Library books and the School of YouTube were less humiliating and expensive.
It was time to take another stab at a class with a living, breathing, and hopefully patient teacher this time, because color-knitting was too complicated to learn on my own.
One rainy Sunday evening, five of us and the teacher—with the magical name Jule—squeezed into the cozy back room of my local yarn store, well-named The Tea Cozy.
“You were my nurse,” one student said to another before class started. “You probably don’t recognize me with hair.” She was an alarmingly young breast cancer survivor who had knit her way through her treatments and was known among the nurses for her knitting.
At one point in class, Martha, the nurse, bemoaned that her color stitches were disappearing.
“That’s a problem with Color Dominance and Tension,” Jule said.
Welcome to the Red, White, and Blue, I thought. At that moment, my cousin, a National Forest Service Ranger, was unable to work because of the government shutdown over a ridiculous border wall. This border policy would go on to separate migrant and refugee families and imprison the children.
I learned that if you hold the two strands of yarn one way, the Contrast Color melts into the background of the Main Color and largely disappears. If you hold the two strands another way, the Contrast Color stands out as a vibrant accent, enhancing the overall color design.
By swapping the yarn positions in our grip, the exact same color design looks completely different. One color doesn’t dominate another and make it hard to see.
Knitting with two different strands of yarn at the same time proved to be awkward, but manageable. It just takes getting used to.
I didn’t flunk out, but, as usual, I messed up. The pattern called for alternating the colors on every other stitch: A, B, A, B. Next row B, A, B, A. By my third row, I was mistakenly stacking the same colors on top of each other rather than alternating back and forth.
“So,” I explained to the Man I Married when I got home, “rather than unraveling three rows and correcting it, I just went with it as a new pattern.”
“Do it once and it’s a mistake,” MIM said. “Do it twice, and it’s jazz.”
I don’t know much about jazz, except that it was yet another art form created by a subjugated culture and then coopted by the more dominant culture. The coopted form gave rise to Free Jazz, which MIM and I joke should always be free because it’s not worth paying for.
I dubbed my project The Jazz Hat and went totally freeform on the design, with alternating lengths of stripes rather than a simple back-and-forth alternating of colors, ignoring the pattern altogether.
While I continued knitting my Jazz Hat at home the next evening, I listened to The Caravan on KBCS. Along with the likes of Tom Petty and Dire Straits and Donny Hathaway that night, the host played an assortment of music selections from around the world, many not on the Western music scale and not in English. It’s not music that I gravitate to naturally or would seek out on my own, but I like that the diverse selections get me out of my comfort zone, even in this small way, challenging me to bring another palette forward into my predictable life’s pattern.
The music can be as uncomfortable to me as awkwardly knitting simultaneously with two strands of yarn, but the show’s overall mix is a pleasing whole, with unexpected layers that enhance the central, bland-on-its-own, cake. An hour of Tom Petty (RIP)? Not so much. But as the background to the surprise textures of other cultures highlighting the familiar? A pleasing and interesting whole.
Traditional Fair Isle colorwork knitting originated hundreds of years ago on Scotland’s Fair Isle. “The exact origins of the designs are unknown, but legend holds that seafarers brought patterned textiles from abroad that inspired the women knitters on Fair Isle to create their own designs.” [Source: Orvis News] Other cultural designs influenced Scottish women, intermingling with Scandinavian and Sami designs.
By taking what we know and allowing ourselves to be inspired and guided, rather that offended and outraged, by outside influences, vibrant art results.
I continued to wrestle with knitting simultaneously with two, and then, courageously, three, separate strands of different-colored yarn. I needed a “spacer” to keep the strands from creeping together and tangling, eventually empowering themselves to join together as one strand, like protesters locking their hands together inside of pipes.
In my jewelry box I found a ring, set with blue and white Chinese porcelain. Shards of porcelain smashed during Mao’s cultural revolution were now supposedly being made into jewelry. I’d bought the ring nearly two decades ago, but its high-set nipple shape got caught on things, so I never wore it.
The ring, when worn on my left forefinger, perfectly kept the yarn strands from commingling as I knitted happily away. And so this fragmented piece of artwork from another culture, transported across oceans and fashioned into another art form, I now use to guide my own weaving together of dominant and contrasting colors—not divided and conflicting, but juxtaposed and complementary.