Susan Gladin: As a project unfolds, a life unfurls

Dec. 29, 2012 @ 10:23 AM

I learned how to knit at the knees of my friend’s great grandmother. I wasn’t yet 10 years old, and she was pushing 90. Her patience matched her decades, and perhaps my ability to focus exceeded my chronological age. “In through the front door, once around the back,” she chanted to help me remember the steps to making a stitch. “Peek through the window, and off jumps Jack!” I was fascinated with the way the yarn wound itself together around my needles, producing patterned nubs that fell this way or that, depending on the slant of my needle and the flow of the yarn. Somehow the lessons stuck.

Now I am in my sixth decade and still knitting. I suffered through an era or two of macramé and crochet, but am back to the pointy needles and, lately, the double pointed quad set that is necessary for items like socks and, a recent request, arm warmers for daughter No. 1.

The pattern I chose for this project was more difficult than any knitting I had tackled thus far. I had to count every stitch and every row, and follow a chart for every move I made. Typically I love to knit while watching a good movie, but with this pattern no distraction was possible. I could manage nothing more than counting and knitting, the complicated pattern twisting the stitches until I thought they might break.

“I am torturing them,” I kept thinking, and then, “They are torturing me.” The pattern called for knitting into back loops, stitch additions, and complicated maneuvers that raised a winding looped pattern against a nubby background. My muscles tensed and the stitches tightened, making them almost impossible to knit. Finally I learned that when I relaxed, the stitches did as well. Relaxed stitches are more pliable. They are more likely to do what you ask.

At one point, well past the thumb hole for the elbow-length arm warmers I realized that something had gone wrong. The thumb gusset had started too low and was thick and unsightly. The pattern wanted to continue well past the knuckles where daughter No. 1 wanted the mittens to stop. Slipped onto my arm, the first garment looked like the neck of a goose with skin far too loose.

I sighed, removed the needles, and tugged on the strand of yarn that was precariously looped through the other stitches, all of which easily disintegrated at my tugging. In my younger years I could not have done this. At 10 or even 20 I was far too wed to the outcome of my stitching -- to the project itself — to have been willing to tear it apart so recklessly.

Now, with age and a lot of projects behind me, I’ve come to realize that it is the process that matters. The intense focus required for this pattern became a meditation for me, and the rhythm of the knitting evolved into something like wordless prayer -- a surrender into a different quality of being with no other thought or purpose than the particular twist of the one stitch that was right in front of me in that single moment.

The good news is this is how you finish a project … one tortured stitch wound onto another, and then another. With the second attempt I relaxed and became more pliable in the process. Perhaps, in the end, I did what the stitches asked of me rather than the other way around. The first mitten is done and the second is following suit, and neither looks like a loose goose.

There are patterns that can be knitted mindlessly with a movie or conversation going on simultaneously, but this one required that I be mindful and focused in the moment. Either way, a project unfolds from the knitting -- a bit like a life unfurls from the minutes and hours that we string together during our time on earth. I don’t know how to unravel time, but I do know that there are many ways to start over when life gets goosey.


Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may email her at or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.