Words and Wool

 Words and Wool

Last week, I finished knitting my first ever human-sized sweater! YES! Two years ago, I knitted a sweater for Stanley Bear from a pattern which I made up as I went.

Then I started knitting a multi-colored human-sized sweater from spare yarn, but I faltered on the final sleeve. My forays into knitting community chats have revealed that faltering on the final sleeve is a common problem. In fact, I found a vintage hand-knit Aran sweater at a car boot (flea market) and the right sleeve is a good five inches longer and much wider than the left. For now, I just roll up the right sleeve and look forward to the day when I feel confident enough to unravel it and knit it to match the left sleeve!

Over the last year, I have been chivvied along by uplifting daily newsletters from the folks at Modern Daily Knitting. So, I decided to wade into those tangled waters of knitting sweaters for humans again. I entered these terms into YouTube: “Knit a sweater in real time.” I scanned through the offerings and saw the Fall Bluff sweater and found the wonderful knitting teacher Ashley Lillis. Three weeks later, knitting in my spare time, I had made this red sweater which I love. Thank you, Ashley.

But while I was knitting – which I’ve been doing off and on for twenty years – I’ve also been thinking about songwriting which I’ve been doing full on for twenty years. It’s a simple metaphor, but one that pleases me: a word is like a ball of wool. You unravel the wool and manipulate it with some sticks or a stick or a loom and you get a sweater or a hat or a blanket. You unravel a word and you get a song, a poem, a novel . . .

I’m thinking about my song “Friendship (Tin Can and String).” There was a time a few years ago when I was having trouble getting in touch with a friend. Turns out she was going through a really terrible time and just had to put out the fires around her. When you live thousands of miles away from a friend, sometimes, because you’re not on the ground when it really counts, you lose touch with a friend. Eventually, we caught up again in a beautiful way, but before that happened I wrote my friendship song.

There are so many terrific songs about friendship – I’m looking at you, Bob Dylan, with your Positively 4th StreetFriendship is a big ball of wool, isn’t it? In my song, I started thinking about obsolete (or nearly obsolete) communication methods – tin can and string, seashells, the US mail, fax machines, seances, singing telegrams, and automatic writing — things which we folks of the now might not choose as our first and best means of staying in touch. My verses unravel all of these telephonic devices while my chorus sings like a nursery rhyme:

Friendship, like a see-saw,

up and down until we fall.

Friendship, put to the test –

oh, your heart, if you love the best.

That last line takes what seems like a quirky playful song into a moment of poignancy and it was inspired by Carson McCuller’s novella The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. I read that story more than twenty years ago and not only did it inspire my bluegrass song “Sweetness Keen As Pain,” but it presented a philosophical dilemma which I’ve wondered about for the rest of my life – is it better to be the lover or the beloved? That goes for friendship, in my mind, just as much as romantic love.

My Great-grandmother Mawmaw Narcie Smith, on the far left, with her best friends. Elsie Brown, second from the right, used to come to Mawmaw’s house nearly every day in the summers. I would sit in the floor and stare in wonder at Elsie’s knee-high hose rolled down because of the heat and bobbing like donuts around her ankles. 

It’s quite a long passage, so I won’t quote it in full here, but I hope you will read McCullers’ novella and see what you think. The passage is about the tension that exists in so many relationships between loving someone and/or being loved by them. McCullers writes, “[The lover] feels in his soul that his love is a solitary thing. He comes to know a new, strange loneliness and it is this knowledge which makes him suffer. So there is only one thing for the lover to do. He must house his love within himself as best he can . . .” This idea which pressed on me so powerfully twenty years ago found its way into the last line of my song a few years ago.

So, the word “friendship” was a ball of wool – just an untethered word –until I unraveled it and knitted it into verses, a chorus, and a melody, and it became a song. And that’s the other thing I want to say. I/we have to do the thing. I love looking at balls of wool or uncut fabric or my guitars. They are so beautiful in themselves. But they are also objects of unrealized energy, potential, and creation. They are frisson grown by a sheep, sheared by a shepherd, spun, dyed, twisted, plied, and sitting in a basket or on shelf waiting to burst into being something else – that something else which requires us.

Modern Daily Knitting publishes “Field Guides” which feature the work of particular designers or which highlight particular colors, yarns, or techniques. This is my swatch (I invented the little pattern for test purposes) for the Glow Field Guidewhere Arne & Carlos designed many Norwegian stranded color work garments. This will be a hat. The red ball of wool is new Rowan Norwegian wool as called for in the pattern. but I found the rest of the balls of yarn in my stash. I pick up yarn at charity shops because wool, silk, and alpaca yarn is expensive. I am so excited to be able to recycle this charity shop yarn into my hat! Arne & Carlos bring so much joy! I recommend their Sit and Knit for a Bit Youtube episodes.

And it doesn’t matter if the song is bad or the sweater is wonky. Because I do think you have to write through the bum songs and knit through the suspiciously small sleeve to get to the fine song and the lace shawl.

Lately, I’ve also been sewing rabbits. My brain has been on fire with rabbits. I saw this odd metal rabbit on a weather vane from the 1800s and I just had to sew it up as a fabric animal. I made some little ones, a slightly bigger one, and then I made a rather big one (more than three feet high). I love making something in multiples. It’s a lot like writing a new song about a familiar thing. During lockdown, I wrote a new song about friendship called “I’m Letting Go of You” because a friendship that was very important to me seemed to end or drift away unexpectedly and it’s never come back into harbor. I realized that hanging onto that friendship was causing me a lot of heartache and that perhaps I, too, should let go of my end of the string. I’ve made a home recording of that song and you can hear it for free in my music shop on Bandcamp.

Mama Rabbit and three little rabbits. 

When I made my big rabbit, so many of the proportions seemed to change from my eight inch rabbit (a lot like that pesky second sleeve in knitting). My childhood self might have cried over this because my big rabbit wasn’t a perfect copy of my little rabbit. But the me of right now seems to be ok with unexpected shifts in outcomes. I love my big rabbit, but I also want to make another giant rabbit to see if I can carry my idea from eight inches to six feet. I think this is why I wanted to knit something else as soon as I finished my red sweater. By the end of knitting my sweater, I’d learned so many things that I just wanted to keep going.

And that’s the thing I said to myself at the end of last year. It’s one thing to dream of making dozens of rabbits just to see them all together (maybe in an exhibition), but I do actually have to make the rabbits. And it’s one thing to see my balls of yarn like giant sweets all nestled in their baskets. But, if I want to see them become something, then I have to risk knitting and risk getting it all wrong. I’ve unraveled so much knitting in the last month. But it was worth it to feel that something was happening, something was becoming something else.

I think this is important for me – to do the actual thing instead of always dreaming about it. Dreaming about it is GOOD. It’s a great place to start, but then sew the rabbit, knit the sweater, and write the song – even if the rabbit’s ears turn out wonky, one sleeve is weirdly small, and the song isn’t quite what I hoped. There’s another rabbit, another sleeve, and another song just around the corner.

Sewing the Big Rabbit. I LOVED these days of being focused on seeing this through and discovering what might happen.

I want to close with a few recommendations (no ads or kickbacks here, just things and people I like). If you’re interested in textiles or just history through a different lens and you haven’t listened to the podcast Haptic & Hue, you are in for a revelation. The most recent episode is about the phenomenal cultural power of string and how it may be just as vital as fire in the journey of humankind! If you haven’t heard my song about string from my children’s album, then please enjoy, you can hear it here.

If you’d like to make a rabbit of your own, I have my basic pattern for sale at a minimal cost. There are no instructions per se, but if you’ve made a pillow or cushion, then this is just a rabbit-shaped one.

If you know how to knit and purl and you'd like to knit a sweater, then I highly recommend Ashley Lillis’ Fall Bluff pattern. You can follow her knitting in real time on YouTube and download the instructions (look in the description of the video) so that you can start your journey of understanding that runic code which all knitting patterns use.

And if you’d like to see the wonderful work of an artist who makes things in multiples, visit the instagram page or website of Emma Carlow. She’s one of my favorite makers and, last year, she made at least one clay whistle every day for 365 days.

When Aunt Bonnie saw a photo of my rainbow wool sweater experiment on Facebook, she wrote: “So happy for you that you found supplies to keep you occupied during the cold winter.  I crocheted a couple of stockings and it makes one happy to see the finished product.  Hard to believe what one can do with a string!!

Time to work on my knitted hat, make the next rabbit, and write the next song. Time to work the yarn, thread, and strings.

I am glad that we are friends. Thank you for staying in touch with me. I try my utmost to reply to everyone who writes to me here and if I miss replying to you, feel free to remind me.

Good luck with all you are doing. And don’t forget that sometimes a nap is the way forward.

Your friend,

Jeni Hankins

P.S. The Englishman says that I use the word “dream” in many of my songs. I could probably make a long playlist of all of my songs that do. But here’s another connection and another unraveling ball of wool: “Friendship (Tin Can and String)” to “I’m Letting Go of You” (also about friendship) to “Golden Thread” which has a chorus which says “I let it go.” It’s like seeing the same piece of fabric turn up in several patchwork cushions and a dress and a quilt. And like seeing that red sweater yarn turn up in a hat and a scarf and a blanket!

Treat me to a ball of yarn

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