The Learning Curve: Stitches In Time
Skip Blaeser

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Art By: Jeff Westover
Art By: Jeff Westover
I was always interested in arts and crafts. I dabbled in oil painting as a child (a misshapen ochre peacock stands testament to that attempt), made string dolls, and even tried carving shrunken apple heads and dipping them in lemon juice for a while. My grandmother De Poy once told me I took after her in that respect, that I was a "creative" child just as she had once been. I know that at the time she said that, I was very pleased, but I also know that I didn't think very hard about what she was trying to tell me.

You see, like most kids, I must admit that I didn't much appreciate the rainbow-striped leg warmers and pom-pom duck mittens Grandma used to send me at Christmas and on my birthdays. I wanted Barbies and record albums, not tangerine cardigans with hand-sewn fruit buttons. But as I grew older, I did manage to vaguely appreciate the afghans that my grandmother could send sailing off her nimble crochet hook. They were, I admitted, soft and colorful and useful -- and they became something I associated with my grandmother and with warm evenings in front of the fire at home.

Once when I was nine years old, on a whim, while watching her working off a particularly intricate zig-zag afghan pattern, I piped up, "Grandma, why don't you teach me how to do that?" And she answered me calmly and logically, "Because you've never asked me to show you."

She sat me down the next day at her kitchen table with a hook and a ball of yarn. I remember I didn't much like the color -- black -- and would have preferred something more festive, like pink or purple. But I watched her show me how to hold my hook and what to do. Yet when I tried to copy her, all I did was tie a big knot -- and then drop the hook. "Try again," she told me. And I did, but at that age, an hour's attention to anything was about my limit, and when at the end of that time all I had produced for my efforts was a red face and a rat's nest of black yarn that even her old cat Tom wouldn't play with, I promptly asked if I could stop the lesson and go outside to play with my cousins. "You'll try it again another day," Grandma told me.

Sadly, however, another fifteen years went by without my ever giving that one day's inspiration a second thought. Grandma never mentioned it to me again, and I never brought the subject up either. In the back of my mind, I suppose I had convinced myself that I had given it a good try and had failed -- all of which let me off the hook (no pun intended). That I had been only nine at the time, and not very interested at that, was not something that ever qualified my assumption that I simply didn't have "what it took."

Only when my grandmother passed away in a nursing home some years ago at the age of 78 did I realize how blind and wrong I had been all that time. I had foolishly allowed my grandmother's skills to die with her -- and worse, a precious opportunity I might have had to know her better before she was gone.

Feeling even more guilty over not having been able to attend my grandmother's funeral (she had died halfway across the country, and I was four days away from taking my Massachusetts bar examination), the very evening after I'd finished the two-day exam, I headed with purpose to a local notions store. With about twenty dollars in hand I purchased a booklet on how to crochet, a package of different sized hooks, and a few skeins of pretty yarn.

With what was left over I purchased a bottle of Merlot at the corner market, and once home, set myself up on my big stuffed chair, book open at my side, hook in hand, and yarn rolled into neat balls at my feet. Toasting my grandmother with the first glass, I then set about the business I knew I should have attended to so many years earlier.

Predictably, I did not meet with immediate success. In truth, I sat there all that first evening just figuring out for myself how to hold the hook correctly, something which in the cobwebs of my mind I recalled my grandmother mentioning. The crux of learning to crochet is in the hook, you see. If you can't learn to hold the hook correctly, all you're going to do is either tie more knots than a sailor or end up with a uselessly slack loop of yarn that constantly slips through itself. But if you learn to hold and move the hook correctly, you can catch the yarn and rein it in with graceful regularity as you work -- loop, loop, loop. When you get it right, your wrist motions are seamless and soothing. Loop, loop, loop.

I tied a lot of knots for the first 24 hours. But when I became frustrated, I remembered my grandmother. She had done it, and I was her granddaughter. The skill had to be inside me somewhere, I told myself. And so I looped and unraveled, looped and unraveled again and again, until at some point in the weekend, I realized to my joy that I finally had the hang of how to make a decent single-stitch chain -- not too tight, not too loose, but just right. It was a small victory in the grand scheme of victories, but it was all mine - and that meant more to me than a great many things had for some time.

Soon I could make a second chain on top of my first, and then another on top of that. By the end of my first weekend I had crocheted a single-stitch square of pink yarn that, quite frankly, wasn't particularly fit for anything, not even as a potholder, but which I would have framed if I hadn't somehow heard the voice of my grandmother in the back of my head: "Keep going. Start again. Do better the next time."

True to what I knew was right, I kept at it. I practiced. I taught myself how to half-double stitch, double stitch, and then how to triple stitch and hook granny squares. I refused to let myself quit, and that very Christmas I presented to my in-laws a painstakingly hooked afghan that made me swell with pride. It was not so great a work of art - but I had worked hard on it, and I had done it all by myself.

Fairly soon it became easier to churn out the afghans and blankets. I was constantly working on one or another, and within the year I had an overflowing yarn basket next to my living room chair (which sent my three cats into ecstasy, and me scurrying for small balls of unraveled yarn all over my house).

Today I look back and feel so gratified by the fruits I have reaped from that one small effort I never thought of making until I thought it was too late. I have hooked afghans for wedding, Christmas and birthday gifts -- and feel a thrill whenever I visit my friends and see the colorful blankets that I made tossed across chairs and beds. I have hooked baby blankets by the dozens (a skill possibly surpassed only by silversmithing now that the majority of my friends are in the full throes of baby season), and have been told that three of my blankets were the first wraps used to carry little ones home from the hospital. I feel joy in making my gifts, and joy in giving them.

And yet possibly the best reward I could have known came only last year, when I took a long overdue trip out to Michigan and Ohio, where my two aunts (my grandmother's daughters) still live. While staying with my Michigan aunt, Aunt Judy insisted on taking me through a storage house she and my uncle kept up on the other side of their town.

Inside that house were, to my surprise, many of the things that came from my grandmother's house when she became too ill to live alone and the house was sold. There were old photographs and newspapers, pieces of costume jewelry and dishes -- and a knitting basket. My aunt pointed it out to me. "I didn't know what to do with it," she shrugged. "Your Aunt Sue and I never learned how to knit or crochet like your Grandma wanted us to. But since you know how -- would you like it?" It was a greater gift to me than anything else I could have wished for.

Once at home, I lovingly went through everything in that basket, and was shocked at how much my grandmother had done that I had never been aware of. There were not only knitting needles and crochet hooks of all types and sizes, but rainbows of embroidery floss and linen hoops, a rug hook, and even some half-tatted lace pieces. But what caught my eye -- and then caught my breath -- was a rolled-up treasure. A delicate, half-completed violet, rose and black granny square afghan, the right-sized hooks, and all the yarn I would need to complete the afghan myself. Nearly three years after my grandmother had passed away, I had finally been given the opportunity to create something together with her -- and to let Grandma show me how.

Is there something you've always wanted to learn how to do? Bake bread? Make a quilt? Build a bookshelf? Don't always assume that you've got to wait for the next adult education class to come to town to learn. Personal inspiration, determination and experience -- even mistakes -- have accomplished a great deal more in the world than you might think. Of course, I'm not advocating that anyone go out and teach themselves to fly a plane. But if there is a small hole burning somewhere in your heart telling you to sing, to paint, or to play the piano - just go for it. You'll never know if you don't try.

Skip Blaeser is a former attorney and recently converted stay-at-home mom who is enjoying her new opportunities to raise her lively two-year-old son, Kent, as well as pursue her longtime passion for writing historical fiction. She received her A.B. from Princeton University, and her J.D. from the Boston University School of Law.

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