Thursday, 20 February 2014


After the death of her daughter, Ann Hood was lost in grief. But knitting taught her how to live again…

Written by Katy Pearson

Jen Silverman, the young woman who taught me to knit, handed me a pair of knitting needles and a skein of yarn, took a long hard look at me, and took them back.

‘I was going to teach you how to cast on,’ she said, somehow looping and pulling the yarn so that it magically appeared on one needle, ‘but you won’t be able to do it. I can tell.’

Was it my trembling hands that gave me away? Or my sweaty palms? I was a 42-year-old woman who had come to Sakonnet Purls to learn to knit out of desperation. Grief was driving me crazy. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t read a book or write a simple paragraph. The loop in my life, unlike the ones that Jen expertly cast on, was like a DVD stuck on play, the movie of the 36 hours I spent at my five-year-old daughter Grace’s side as she lay dying in a hospital ICU. Whenever I closed my eyes, or found myself alone or still, the loop began. Friends had promised me that knitting would make it go away, at least while those needles were in my hands.

Jen gave me the needles again, now with 14 stitches curled around one of them. ‘I’ll keep casting on for you until you’re ready to learn how to do it yourself,' she said.

Casting on lays the foundation for knitting. It is the method by which stitches are formed. From there, you knit and purl your way to scarves and hats and all sorts of knitted wonders. I learnt on that autumn day, long ago, that sometimes – despite our desperation, our desire – we cannot cast on alone. It took many friends to lead me to Jen and learning to knit. It took me months of Jen carefully casting on my stitches for me. Then one day, she made a slipknot, and showed me how to begin on my own. I was ready to finally move on, to find my way back to wonder.


As a younger woman, when someone suggested climbing down a rocky cliff to a perfect beach below, I went along, even though my fear of heights inevitably left me clinging to the face of that cliff , waiting to get rescued.

But then I turned 40, which somehow gave me the freedom to say no. No, I don’t really like sushi. No, I don’t want to learn to surf in those giant, crushing waves. No, no, no.

Knitting, which seems to a novice a passive, easy way to spend your time, is actually full of hidden dangers. Sometimes, knitting makes me dizzy.

For some reason that I don’t remember, cable stitches seemed to me to be the hardest thing of all. I have found that on the evening I spent learning to knit cables, something in me changed. That is why I trekked into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to observe mountain gorillas, even though I was afraid. That is why I decided to write books for children, historical fiction, a television pilot. Because I’m not afraid to try, to knit the hardest thing.


One of my favourite things to knit is dishcloths. I know the pattern by heart. I like to knit dishcloths for hostesses, even though when I present them at dinner parties I’m often met with a really confused look. ‘It’s a dishcloth,’ I explain. ‘I knitted it for you.’

‘Um… thank you?’ is a common response. Some people love my dishcloths. My friend Kimberley even asks for more of them. My friend Matthew held it to his face to soothe his aching jaw after he had his wisdom teeth out. I have friends who couldn’t bear to use them as dishcloths. Too special, they say. Too pretty. You see, I’m an overachiever. As a child, I fretted over grades. I need to make cookbook-perfect dinners. I need to look good, be good, impress, do better than last time, and then better still. But when I knit dishcloths, all that goes away. Sometimes, it’s enough to just cast on four stitches and knit something really simple.


I have been known to obsess about what could have been, not just in love, but in life. Friends tolerate it for a while, indulge me until they want to scream. Let it go, they say eventually. Still, I keep myself awake playing out diff erent scenarios, better endings, better everything. Like doing an impossible jigsaw puzzle, grieving people keep rearranging the pieces, hoping something will fit.

It doesn’t, of course – it can’t. Still, we do it. When, after the death of my daughter, I first learnt to knit, I was weary from grief and from my constant reliving and questioning the events. That first day, it took me about a couple of hours to finally knit six rows and be sent on my way to finish my scarf.

The next morning, Jen found me waiting at the door. ‘I finished,’ I announced, holding out my lump of tangled yarn. ‘Finished?’ she said, laughing. ‘Why, it’s all wrong.’

And with that, she slid the stitches off the needle and gently pulled, sending all my hard work into the air, unravelling. I gasped. To me, a writer, that was like hitting the delete button without revising instead. But Jen just smiled at me. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘I’m just going to fix it.’

‘Fix it?’

‘In knitting,’ she said as she began to cast on again, ‘you can fix everything.’

In life, I know now, we can take that lover back or scream louder than anyone has ever screamed, but we can’t rearrange the pieces. Not so in knitting. Which is why when I fi nd myself trying to change the ending, I pick up my needles and yarn instead.


Once, my friend Mary and I went to a knitting retreat. Somewhere between the excitement of knitting together for an entire weekend, Mary and I missed that we weren’t going to be working on our own projects. Instead, we were going to do lace knitting, a delicate, complicated, nearly impossible method.

Friday night, I ended up taking out everything I’d done under the steely glare of a woman who asked me if I even knew how to knit at all. By Saturday afternoon, Mary and I cut class and went into town for dinner. On Sunday, I gave up and worked on the fingerless gloves I’d brought with me.

On the way home, I thought about all of the truly bad knitting I had done. But then I thought of all the beautiful things I’d knitted. And I thought of all the things that turned out fine after months of working on them. I remembered how when I took ballet for the first time in my 20s, I never moved out of the beginner’s class. I knew that I would never dance in Swan Lake. That I was taking ballet for fun, for the way it made me feel when the music swelled and I gracefully bent over the barre. What I was, was a very good beginner. So let it be with knitting, I decided. After 10 years, I am a very good beginner knitter. And that suits me just fine.


I am not a group person. I was thrown out of Girl Scouts because I refused to do what the group wanted, which was to earn a sewing merit badge by cutting a plastic bottle in half and sewing a piece of fabric to it to make a curler bag. Me, I wanted the reading merit badge. My troop leader, Mrs D, said it was sewing or nothing. I hung up my green uniform forever.

I tried book groups, writing groups, mummy groups, always with the same result. An enthusiastic beginning, an inability to behave, an abrupt departure. But when I first stepped into a knitting circle, all of that changed. I became a knitting-circle addict.

By now I have gone to many knitting circles. I have learnt that I have a lot to learn, that the people in the knitting circle can show me shortcuts, patterns, new yarn. And I have learnt that I don’t always have something to say, or something to add to a group. That sometimes, I just want the company of other people. I just want to sit in a circle and knit. So maybe I am learning how to be a group person after all.


It’s what you do when you finish knitting, you cast off the stitches. Some people call it binding off , but that sounds so final, so shut down. To me, you cast off . You send your knitted hat or mittens or socks away, on to your child’s hands, your husband’s head, your friend’s feet. I keep almost nothing that I knit for myself. I used to. I kept that scarf in case I bought a coat it would match. I kept a stack of headbands that I would never wear. But then one day, someone – a knitter – gave me a scarf and hat she’d knitted, gave it to me for no good reason except that she thought they matched my hair. ‘I feel good when I give my knitting away,’ she said. And ever since then, I give mine away. I cast it off into the world. Like good wishes, or love, I give it away.

Knitting Yarns, Writers On Knitting, edited by Ann Hood, is published by WW Norton & Company, priced £14.99.

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