An Engineering Problem

Crochet is an interesting beast.  I eschewed this art for many years because it smacked of femininity, and because my great aunt used to make these gods-awful crocheted toilet paper-cozies in shades of honey mustard and vomit, with a plastic cheapo doll body protruding from the top.  See, the cozy was supposed to be her dress skirt.  As a child it disturbed me, “What happened to her legs?!”  Nightmares of dismembered women in vomit colored dresses were soon to follow.

My grandmother knitted some.  Not much, but some.  Enough to gift me some knitting needles, to teach me to knit and purl, and set me about the task of making headbands in solid shades of scratchy acrylic.  Everything was red or ecru.  I came to loathe these colors.

Knitting and crocheting seemed time wasters for old ladies who had nothing better to do than make ugly doilies.  Most of the patterns I’d find in the yarn sections of craft stores confirmed this: bulky monstrosities in Christmas green rife with pompons and stupid ducks.  Who in their right mind would ever make these things?  Give them as gifts?  Be caught wearing them?

But stroll by the windows of any boutique clothing store, and there were sheer lace vests in rust or teal or sunflower, sweater coats of mohair in the same soft grey of a baby bird.  I’d go in knowing the price tag was absurd.  I’d look at the interlocking patterns of yarn, and wonder.  Someone designed this.  It was made.  I’d run my fingers over the material, knowing it was knit, knowing how the sleeves were stitched on, but marveling at the drape of the cloth, the absence of any other seams.

I grabbed a crochet hook one day, this clunky size Q, in order to make some plastic bags into a thing other than landfill stuffing.  I think hard about materials, about how to minimize waste.  My grandmother lived through the Great Depression, you know.  I’m a New Englander, after all.  I’m GREEN, dammit, look at the color of my hair!  After looking up a basic single crochet stitch and turning all the bags in the house into a series of strips tied in loops end to end, I managed to knot out a number of garden mats to save my knees while digging in the dirt.  So that’s crochet.  And I began thinking about mohair sweater coats vs. toilet paper cozies.

There are actually quite a few yarn shops in Tallahassee, it turns out.  The first one I crept into, I felt rather small and mouse-like.  This is not my usual thing, you see.  I tend to feel more comfy in a wood shop, even just dicking around.  It’s the drill press, the wood lathe, the table saw, you see.  I’ve known them intimately since childhood.  Yarn smacks of girliness.  And newness.  I hate being new and foolish and girly about things.  But when I started looking, I realized this was nothing like the yarn baskets my grandmother and great aunt kept.  The walls here were dominated by natural fibers in bold gashes of fuchsia, dandelion, aqua, and a thousand gorgeous shades of green.  I talked a while with the owner, learned the shop was closing permanently, and skittered out bearing three skeins of worsted wool yarn that meandered through the shade of spring’s best new leaves to royal purple and ended in magenta.  I had no idea what I was going to make with this.

Even still, I grew my collection: fragile airy crochet thread of unforgiving cotton, smooth balls of bamboo/silk mix, and ever more hanks of bright wool: sock weight, fingering, sport yarn, and abundant loose bulkies.  It was in my third shop, Wooly Bully, that I was able to pick up, feel and begin to identify yarns: this is mohair, this angora, here’s a cotton/acrylic blend.  It took a bit of help, but I was starting to understand it with both eyes and fingers.  It was in this shop, with the proprietor’s mother, that I was able to finally feel like myself, wondering aloud about tensile strength, bulk of finished product, asking questions about how to match texture to application.  I began thinking of these things in terms of engineering and materials science.  It became a beautiful question of geometry and the physical properties of my material.  All that fear of so-called girliness— which is actually a fear of perceived irrelevance and disdain from others— had evaporated.

After we’d discussed the use of odd fibers, raffia, hemp cord, stripped computer wire, she encouraged me to continue doing what seemed most natural: build the stash, play with textures, increase my knowledge that way.  Savage my test swatches.  Stress test them.  I can’t say it hurt that we started discussing yarn bombing and science fiction.

And I realized as I walked out of the shop that the last time I’d felt so at home with learning a skill was when I watched my father turn wood into cabinetry, wood into work benches, wood into objects I recognized day in and day out.  My father, who approached these things as an engineer.  I was suddenly interested in this beast.

But there’s one loose end still to attend to. I needed yarn the color of honey mustard and vomit.  To make a bag.  You know.  In case I ever find the missing legs of those TP cozy dolls.

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