I am knitting a scarf for my husband. I’ve chosen a deep green, hand-dyed yarn, with a wonderful springy heft; I’m working in two-by-two rib with pleasure and absorption. The scarf is like a magic thread connecting me to him. Now and then, as I measure its length, I envision him wearing it.
These weeks when I secretly knit the scarf are a precious time for both of us. They create the best of possible worlds. I have the pleasure of feeling my affection, of touching it with two hands, of fashioning an object that will warm and hold him. He is also lucky. Because he does not yet know about his gift, he need not yet pretend to like it. Soon, he will receive the scarf, wrapped carefully in tissue. He may be pleased or he may not be, but on certain winter mornings, he will feel obliged to wear it. If he doesn’t like the scarf—if the color or texture or length is somehow wrong—he will wrap it like a leash around his neck.
Knitting a gift for a loved one is akin to creating a special meal. Imagine making a hearty stew for family and friends on a cold night. Cheerfully you add the spices, perhaps following a recipe or perhaps inventing from scratch, a pinch of this, a pinch of that. You hover near the stove as the stew bubbles away, feeling warm with the anticipation of feeding your loved ones, of satisfying this primal need. They gather at the table, chatting comfortably, lured by the promising smells coming from the kitchen. There is a suspenseful moment when you place the steaming dish upon the table to oohs and and ladle it plate by plate. Then everyone takes a bite. The meat is hard and stringy, the sauce thin and poor, the dish inedible. There is a prolonged period when you imagine everyone struggling with the question of whether or not to say the truth. But they need not say a word: the disappointment on their faces, the puckering of their lips, tells everything. There is a silence as they steel themselves to keep on eating.
Of course, it’s possible to feel wretched over failed presents that are not homemade: a poorly chosen restaurant meal, a scarf in the wrong shade of blue, purchased, unreturnably, on a trip to Paris. But there is something especially fraught in the presentation of a knitted gift. If it’s the thought that counts, then knitters are among the most righteous of all gift-givers. If the recipient dislikes the gift, is he, in essence, damning the effort that went into it? Yes, he is.
Years ago, I knitted a scarf for a man who seemed to wear only brown. His two coats, his trousers, his hat and gloves and socks and shoes, were all in that color. I chose a gorgeous, soft yarn the color of coffee beans. I presented the scarf as we left town for our respective winter vacations.
Three weeks later, when he returned, he had a new winter jacket—blue. It had been a Christmas present from his mother. “But the scarf—” I blurted. “I’ll wear it,” he promised me. Loyally, he wore the scarf, every day that winter. Did he pray to move to a warmer climate, or for one of us to leave town so he might put the scarf aside? Luckily, one of us did.
I’ve heard plenty about the pleasure and creativity and even the ecstasy of the knitting process. What I hear less about, but have experienced more times than I care to count, is an awkward gap between the fulfillment to be found in the process and the satisfaction taken in the product. I know that I am not alone. I remember reading an article before the Christmas holidays in which those polled revealed the nation’s most unwanted gift: a hand-knit sweater.
All people who make things face the question of whether the world will accept what they have made. And all people who make things, if they are to keep on, must feel that it is the making itself that matters, more than the product or its reception. We knitters love the reassuring, meditative pleasure of making things, but do others love the things we make? Is it possible that we need and like to knit so badly that we don’t really care if the recipients of our knitted goods find them aesthetically pleasing or even bearable?
Why, you may ask, did I not involve my husband in the creation of his gift? Why not let him choose the yarn, the pattern? The sad, but true answer is that even if I were to show him, even if he were to choose the pattern and the yarn, something might well happen to it while I made it so that it might, or might not, turn out as he expected. I think of a friend who for some time now has been knitting a blanket with materials chosen by her granddaughter. It is a thick, square blanket made from bright red worsted. Most of it is worked in garter stitch, with turned corners. My friend has labored with innocent doggedness for many seasons, and the blanket, still unfinished, is now about four years old. Like any four-year-old knitted object, it rather worse for wear. It has been tossed repeatedly into a basket, its stitches caught and pulled on the wicker edges. It has been left there over the summers to gather dust. It has been knit and reknit, so many mistakes pulled out that in places it has taken on a ravaged aspect. By the time my friend is finished—and I suspect that this will likely happen when her granddaughter has fallen into the most unforgiving throes of puberty—how will the blanket be received?
I learned to knit as a child, from my own grandmother, but I forgot about it as a young adult, only to pick it up again in my forties, knitting baby sweaters after my daughter was born. My grandmother, born in Shanghai, knit brioche turtlenecks for the harsh winters of Wisconsin. She knit mohair cardigans in pale blues and in peach shades with matching buttons. My mother, sisters, and I wore and loved the things she made. Our family was short on money and purchased clothes so rarely that any breath of newness and prettiness in our lives was a treasure. She was a wonderful knitter. She never used patterns, but she had an eye for fashion; she studied the catalogues and newspapers for trends in collars and sleeves. We all knew that she spent every penny she had on yarn for us.
My mother loved my grandmother’s sweaters. This is a testament to the knitting, or to my mother’s love, since she is notorious among her daughters for being absolutely incapable of pretending to appreciate a gift she doesn’t truly like. How many times have my Mother’s Day and Christmas presents been set aside with a shrug? How many times have I leaned closer as wrapping paper was torn off, only to be confronted with her severe and absolutely disinterested expression? I am not alone in my failure to please, or in the lengths I’m willing to go in order to try to please my mother. One Christmas, one of my sisters presented her with a brand-new, state-of-the-art desktop computer, and she has never opened the box.
A few years ago, I set out to make my mother the perfect sweater. I was inspired in a wonderful knitting shop in Sheridan, Wyoming. My daughter was a year and a half old, and I had only been knitting in earnest for six months. I glimpsed a pattern for a jacket with an intricate basket weave pattern and a collar, and I was seized by the bright certainty that it would be perfect for my mother. She loves clothes with some shape to them, but never anything tight. She always wears collared things because she believes her neck is too long. Although women of her age in China have traditionally worn dark colors, nothing warmer than lavender, my mother loves colors such as reds and pinks; she is particularly fond of a beautiful rosy coral shell-pink, and when I was in Wyoming, I found a few skeins of lovely yarn in this exact shade. The proprietor tried to help me. There weren’t enough skeins left to make the sweater and I was leaving Wyoming in a week. Wouldn’t I be satisfied with this scarlet yarn instead? No—I had a vision of my mother in the exact shade of that light bamboo silk merino. I asked the proprietor to order the shell-coral color and send it to me in Iowa. For sixteen skeins of sport-weight yarn at 14 dollars a skein, it would be the most expensive Mother’s Day gift I’d ever given her. More than a month later, the yarn arrived in the mail. At this point, I had never knit an adult sweater. I had never knit anything so complicated, never knit a fabric with a texture, and rarely ventured to a finer gauge than worsted. Buoyed by my bright certainty, I took a deep breath, and cast on 240 stitches.
I can still remember that casting on, unraveling, recasting, and recounting; but I have forgotten, I think, the worst parts of making that sweater in the same way that women often forget the worst parts of childbirth. To this day, I’m surprised I finished the sweater. I assume my determination had something to do with the hormonal upswing from breastfeeding. The exhausted tedium of new motherhood, the need for something to do while sitting still, had to do with it also. Or chalk it up to the gorgeous and expensive and unusually forgiving yarn, which kept its pretty sheen and delicate shade of pink despite my repeated mistakes and ripping out. My husband, a woodsy subdued-hue type, was no help at all. “Are you sure she’s going to like that color?” he asked skeptically, half a dozen times during the process. But I was determined to finish; through all my errors and unravelings, I barely paused, for I could not shake my vision of the sweater as the perfect gift for my mother. I grew tired of it, but I don’t believe I ever once hated it. The body, knitted in one piece, took months to complete. The sleeves were easy by comparison, and the collar—well, I knew that without the collar, my mother would never touch it, so I painstakingly counted out the short rows, and turned, again and again. When I was finished with the sweater, I took it to a local yarn shop with a workroom in the back, and patiently blocked and steamed my creation into shape. In another store, I found eight beautiful carved mother-of-pearl buttons. When I tried it on, I was certain beyond a doubt that my mother would love it.
She did love it. When one of my sisters answered our mother’s phone that Mother’s Day, I could hear her admiration, even envy, that I had given such a perfect gift. My mother’s thanks were light and musical. I could hear her pleasure in being given a gift no one had given her ever since her own mother had died. I could hear her pride in the fact that I would go through such hell for her. In the following years, she wore the sweater on Mother’s Day and on all special spring occasions.
Last winter, I made my mother a long, plum-colored cardigan. I was inspired by the softness of the yarn and by the complex pattern up the placket, yet it didn’t quite work out. She set the box aside disinterestedly. I had to remind her to even try it on. It was not the perfect sweater. But because I know that, just once, I’ve made the perfect gift, I will keep trying.
This piece appears in "Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting," edited by Ann Hood. Copyright 2013. W.W. Norton and Co. All rights reserved.