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For the past five years, I've been traveling annually to Ladakh, a mountainous, high-altitude region of North India. I go there to spend time at a charity boarding school amidst a rambunctious group of boys with whom I am hopelessly smitten. How did I get there, meet these children, and start this long-distance love affair with several dozen little kids? It's a long story. What you really want to hear about is the knitting.

I learned to knit on one of my visits to the boys. I'm a quilter and fiber enthusiast, and finding myself surrounded by women who know how to knit at lightening speed and boys who need warm clothing, it seemed only natural to take the plunge and learn. Knitting never held any appeal for me in the past -- none. But with long, unscheduled days away from my own projects, I finally reminded myself that knitting is a fiber art, after all, so it wouldn't hurt me to know how to do it. (Go ahead, mock my naivete, anyone who has witnessed me of late, unable to pry my fingers from the needles except, perhaps, to sleep.)

And so it happened that I learned knitting from women who don't speak any English, who don't follow written patterns, and who have a very hard time slowing down enough to demonstrate for a beginner.

What is the world of knitting like, up there in Ladakh? Bear in mind that I frequent an urban center of sorts, a town of 30,000 people in a region of merely 130,000. There are yarn shops. One kind of yarn is offered there, produced in the mills of Ludhiana, Punjab, and trucked over the mountains via Kashmir. Everyone knits on the same size needles, equivalent to a US#1. They come in straight and double-points (known as "sock needles"), they don't have circulars. Even large projects, if round, are executed on DPN's -- I once saw a woman walking down the street, knitting a full-size sweater on 12 inch DPN's (and it wasn't even plain stockinette!) They sell needles in other sizes, but they're not popular. I knit one vest last year on Indian 8's (roughly a US#5), and the boys commented that the needles were "fat."

There's only one kind of yarn, but it comes in so many luscious, saturated colors that it's hardly a limitation. Merely a simplification: no one ever has to worry about gauge. Entering a yarn shop in Ladakh is an assault on the senses. Pure color sings out from every shelf, veritable bushels of it spilling along every inch of wall space. Indian shops are generally cramped and dim, but the yarns are plentiful and bright enough to draw me in off the street. I look around like I'm the proverbial child in a candy shop, wondering where to dive in. I shop by touch -- the yarn is largely acrylic, and the softness variable, so I feel for the softest ones and then go for the best colors within that soft realm. Again, this is not limiting: I'm easily able to buy more than I can conceive of using in the near future (isn't that the normal amount?) I hoard colors until I land on a stripe scheme and plunge into the next project.

In the beginning, it was all about stripe schemes. My first vest was fuchsia & blue, fuchsia & blue, two rows of each, and finished off with a purple neckline. It was exactly like my favorite crayola colors that all my childhood princesses wore -- colors I could happily hang with for the duration of the vest. And the women taught me to knit the vest flat, in two pieces, so it's kind of like making socks: once you've finished one, you have to start over and do it again. I learned to do shoulders (triple needle bind-off, unbeknownst to me until months later when I heard it explained at my Stateside LYS,) and a ribbed v-neck with a double decrease in the center. I could never repeat the double decrease, and had to be shown anew every time.

Doing one's earliest projects on needles the size of US#1 with a gauge of 6 stitches per inch takes a lot of concentration. My teacher Tsetan kept saying "tight ma chos," and I understood what she meant, don't make it tight, but how to not knit tight eluded me. My stitches were so tight I remember wedging the point of the needle between yarn and needle and twisting, worrying it in until the body of it penetrated -- then the problem was, how to wrap yarn around and pull back through the unyielding, forced hole I'd created. Many a false attempt, until I'd hand it back to my teacher who'd say "tight ma chos" and knit a few looser stitches, baffling me. This method of learning requires abject humility: despite the temptation to question or explain, it's obvious that no words are going to demonstrate why Tsetan can knit loose and I can't.

I kept at it, wrestling each stitch through with determination, and wrenching the whole fabric along the needle. You know what comes next - the fateful tug that yanks a good half dozen stitches off the needle. This only happened when I was surrounded by boys, and I'd duck my head and clear out an arm's length around me and say "whoa, hang on,waitwaitwait" and frantically poke back through the little diminishing holes that threatened to vanish with the least jog of my elbow.

Imagine knitting on size 1 needles before you learned to loosen up, sitting on the floor of a carpeted room with forty-some boys, watching a Hindi movie on TV. The light is barely good enough to knit by, but I'm knitting a few stitches a minute anyway, interrupted when the boys point out particularly cool heroes, fights, or motorcycles. Knitting, knitting, pulling the stitches along, looking up, pulling stitches -- yikes! -- off the needle, looking down and POOF -- no power. Pitch black. Silence. The boys don't scream like American kids do when things go black. Failed electricity is so normal they hardly react, apart from some sighs and "Light song..." ("Light is gone.") But there I sit, dropped stitches hanging off my needle, no light, and bodies beginning to mill around me. Often, the light comes back after a minute or two. If not, I gather my yarn and get up, pinching the dropped stitches firmly, and make my way into the hall where there may be ambient twilight at least. I don't think the boys had ever seen a woman so tense about knitting. No one in their culture would begin to learn at my advanced age (i.e., over 30).

Now that I'm going back with some serious knitting experience under my belt (witness: the first year I made four vests; the second year four vests and one full sweater; this year I'm carrying seven sweaters, three vests (one hooded), and a vest and mini-poncho for me) I plan to experiment with colorwork, beyond stripes. I love stripes, but all those colors beg for fair isle designs. The only catch to this plan is the environment: more than 80 boys live there now, aged 3 to 14. The best knitting under such circumstances is that which can be dropped at a moment's notice, to catch a ball or help with homework or break up a fight. If I need to pay attention, I may have to wait until they're gone to school. Okay, so I'll knit some stripes for the social hours, and play with colorwork during school time. These days it's normal for me to have multiple projects going.

The greatest thing about knitting for 80 boys between the ages of 3-14 is it will always fit somebody! I use these vests and sweaters as a training ground, to see what I can do, and then it ultimately wraps around the little body of someone I adore, and I get to see my work running around the most beautiful landscape in the world.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

When she is not with her boys in Ladakh, Tracy currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas and knits constantly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

<The author in context at the boys' hostel, working on the fair isle. (photo by Dawa Tsering)