Sometimes passions are handed down explicitly, like a mother teaching her son or daughter to sew, scrapbook, paint, read, or play the piano.  Technique is detailed, demonstrated, and practiced.  Other times it seems like it just catches.  Like when my niece exclaims, “I love to run!” at the playground, during the months that her mother trains for the marathon she completed this past weekend (congrats, Megan!).

Either way, there is something transcendent about sharing a pursuit or a pastime with someone you love.  Common quests can serve as conduits to a deep understanding of another person’s motivations, struggles, and pleasures, or create mutually edifying competition (i.e. training beyond the call of duty for a triathlon just to avoid your 50-year-old mother from crossing the finish line first/her celebratory screams as she passes me on her souped-up bicycle).  More poignant, they offer a connection to people who are more or less inaccessible.  This is true with my cousin who is an even more avid knitter than me, but who lives 500 miles north of KC.  We can’t get together on Saturdays and knit, but we can comment on each other’s blogs (Draw Four Designs) and collect a basket full of projects to show one another at family reunions.

Knitting Group

My grandmother’s knitting group. She is on the upper left in the red, white, and beige sweater.

Even more distant is my Grandma Jeanne, who passed away when I was fourteen.  I often cover up in the blanket she crocheted me while I spend afternoons in my knitting chair with her old knitting needles.  I think of her and attempt to “catch” whatever lingers of her motivations, struggles, and pleasures.

Just Another Stop at an Antique Mall

My Messy Knitting Corner

I accompany my mother because my legs need a stretch and because I want to avoid stewing in my melodramatic resentment for a lifetime of these kinds of “quick” stops. It is useless to complain. The best option is to surrender to her insistence and try to enjoy what I can during our pause.

I can only assume my mother attached herself to some rusted pulley system somewhere at the back of the antique store. She is out of sight by the time my father and I stepped in the entryway. We avoid the pulley and meander around the front of the store. This way, we figure, when she finally emerges, we will be accessible. No double-dipping required.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy antique stores. I really do. In fact, there are very few items in my home of which I am the first owner. Faded colors, chipped paint, reclaimed style – they make a house a home. But when we’re an hour away from our destination that has kept us in a car for nine hours, where family we see once a year are waiting for us, I am not in the mood to rummage. Mom promised ten minutes. We brace ourselves for 30.

Vintage Knitting Books

Relegated to the front, I distract myself by fiddling with displays. Luckily my “find” requires no search; it is sitting on a magazine rack just left of the door. Its front cover features a rosy-cheeked model in a white and triangle speckled sweater, bright blue pants, and a hat topped with an oversized pom-pom. I chuckle and pick it up. Someone, somewhere handmade this off-kilter ensemble. They expended great effort and took meticulous care to create this look, and then published it, expecting others to follow suit (quite literally). It’s like that train wreck from which everyone imagines they wouldn’t be able to avert their eyes.

Inside the magazine are pictures of even sillier items: an asymmetrical, double-breasted cardigan on a ten-year old girl, a hippy-colored rainbow doily, and mouse slippers. But then are other items: items with charm, detail, whimsy, items that stir nostalgia, sentiment, inspiration. Items that I want to investigate, accessorize, and snuggle. In the back, there are pages upon pages of complex and beautiful swathes of yarn. They are shades of grey, but such beautiful texture and design. Included are directions to achieve the pictured effect. The possibilities go well beyond the dated style, they promised. There is beauty here.

Underneath this magazine were two others, even older and even tackier. I buy them all for no good reason: extra cash, boredom, the train wreck. Maybe they’d be interesting coffee table pieces.

In the car, I shuffle through the projects, attempt to translate the abbreviations and charts, and my intrigue grows. At this point, making a sweater with two sticks and a bundle of wool is about as plausible as crafting a table with a chisel and tree stump. I am only dreaming when I lean over to my sister-in-law and ask, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to knit something like this?” She tries to hide her amusement, “I mean, not exactly like this, but, you know, just to create things that someone might cherish?” She is nice and demonstrates the appropriate amount of enthusiasm, but I can tell she fears having to wear a triangle blotched sweater in our next family picture.

The books sat dormant on my coffee table for about a year. Guests picked them up. They were the subject of laughter, mostly, but also nostalgia for a time when such care and talent were apparent in our possessions, when the creators of one’s attire might just share dinner with you, might consult you on color, size, taste. Each of these conversations seduced my creativity, fueled my excitement.

It was a gift from my mother (yes, she did eventually make it out of the store) that was the final impetus for my hobby turned obsession. I must have expressed to her the interest the books had sparked because one weekend she went down to the basement to retrieve my grandmother’s needle set. The needles are not just inserted into a plastic sleeve like the ones you might find at a crafts store today. They are accompanied by a cylindrical case covered in a mid-century green fabric, with custom-sized holes on the top for each needle.

My Grandma’s Needle Case

It’s charm hit the pitch-perfect note. It was compatible with my books, compatible with the warmth and wistfulness that accompanies my antiquated aesthetic, and compatible with my increasing passion for the handmade.  Furthermore, it was a perfectly appropriate gift from my mother, who taught me to search for inspiration and beauty and to appreciate the treasures of past generations (a lesson I have absorbed despite my many objections).