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Or, Thanks for the Torture

A Scandinavian woman in see-through shirts and a dare from a taunting sister are responsible for my insatiable need to knit.

It began at the tender age of ten, when my family moved to Helsinki. I was thrust into the Finnish public school system without a clue how to speak the language beyond a few phrases (“Where’s the bathroom?” and “How are you?”), plus a couple of crucial words thrown into the mix (“ice cream,” and, more importantly, “chocolate”).

Grade school students had to pick between shop and handwork classes. I figured that since I wouldn’t understand a word of what the instructors would be saying unless it had to do with the rest room or a candy bar, I would be safer going the handwork route: it’s far less likely you’ll chop off a finger with a crochet hook than a circular saw.

For the first few months of class, I had no trouble. We sewed and crocheted. We dabbled in simple embroidery. Then . . . well, then we tried our hand at knitting.

And the nightmare began.

Our first project was slippers, starting with what I now know was garter stitch. My hands fought with the yarn and the needles, and had I not been so young, curses would have been flying from my mouth at an alarming rate. As it was my head felt ready to explode, and my fingers were so stiff a simple tap would have shattered them.

During class, the teacher would make rounds, and each time fixing my mistakes—which consisted of a good half of my stitches made incorrectly and picking up several I had dropped without knowing it. I still remember the scent of coffee on her breath and the sheer blouses she wore to show off her black and scarlet bras. Her mouth would concentrate on my errors as her dark lipstick pursed into a tight rosebud, looking as if she couldn’t figure out how this dunce of an American couldn’t get it.

By the time I reached the ribbing that was the toe half of the slipper, I was convinced my teacher was a sadist. My first slipper looked like a mutated rodent. The second at least resembled a slipper, but with one huge and misshapen and the other three sizes smaller, good luck wearing the pair. The fluffy pink balls on the tops were almost the same size as each other. Did that count, even though they weren’t knitted?

Over the following months, we probably moved on to other skills, but all I remember was the next knitting project: mittens made with five needles. Let’s just say that by the time I finished, I was ready to poke out someone’s eyes with the double-ended sticks.

What I hadn’t counted on was being challenged by my little sister. She took one look at my mittens—which I felt a perverse sense of pride over completing—and declared that I couldn’t have made them. “Or if you did, I bet you can’t make another pair.”

“Yes, I can,” I said in my best snotty big-sister voice, not to be cowed by someone a full two years—almost two and a half years—younger than myself.

“Oh, yeah? Bet you can’t make a pair for me.

Okay, so I didn’t recognize a self-serving dare standing in front of me. I took the bait, used my allowance on her favorite color of yarn (peach) and a brand new set of double-pointed needles. Then I spent what felt like the next few millennia working on her blasted mittens. At least I knew she could use them almost whenever I finished them, since the Finnish winter lasts just short of forever.
I’ll show her, I thought, knuckles turning white as I gripped the needles.

But the reality was that by the time those mittens were done, I had discovered a few things. The first was that my hands could relax, holding yarn and needles in something less than a death grip. The others? That this knitting thing is fun. Plus, I’m pretty good at it—look; I actually created something myself!

I was officially addicted. Pretty soon I gravitated to the yarn section of any department store to drool. I could spot a yarn store from ten blocks away. Upon constant pleading from yours truly, my mother ordered a subscription to a knitting magazine. Day in and day out, you could find me on my bed, knitting away on my latest project or pouring over patterns. My best Christmas present ever was a complete set of circular needles with their own case. Heaven!
I began knitting for my family. First was the vest for my mother’s birthday. Looking back, I realize how ugly the thing was, yet she wore it several times, humiliating herself in public to make me feel good. After that I made my father a pair of slippers. In Halloween colors. To his credit, Dad wore the black and orange atrocities until they had holes—but at least he got to show his appreciation in the privacy of our home.

Over two decades later, I’m still addicted, and I have no desire to kick the habit. I especially love knitting for my kids. They argue over whose turn it is to pick out something for me to make just for them, and I never know if the creation will have cables, ducks, a checkerboard, Superman colors (done all of those) or something else. Currently it’s one daughter’s first initial, a giant-sized letter in lavender on the back.

The only downside to the way I was introduced to knitting was that for several years after returning to the United States, I couldn’t decipher any pattern written in English

Knit. Purl. Cast on. Gauge.

Huh?

I had to look up several terms and mentally translate everything. (Oh! Gauge means tiheys!) For a time I relied entirely on my stockpile of Finnish magazines. Out of necessity, I eventually learned to read a pattern in English. But today as I cuddle on the couch, yarn in my lap and needles clicking as I work ribbing, you can still hear me muttering, oikea, nurja, oikea, nurja.

And each time I pick up my needles, I’m thankful for that sadistic, transparent-blouse-wearing-Scandinavian and my cheeky little sister for leading me to a world of magic I never would have found on my own.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Annette Lyon’s three greatest addictions are knitting, writing, and chocolate. Her life has been run by all three for most of her life, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

In addition to her freelance writing and editing work, she writes novels and couldn’t resist working a character knitting socks into one of them.