I learned to knit as an adult, maybe around 2003. My mother taught me to do it, although I know my Gigi used to knit, so maybe there is a little genetic piece to it. I made my first non-scarf garment in 2004. I still have it.
The yarn I used for my first garment was handspun by monks at a monastery in a tiny little village in Southeastern France. While this sounds hoity-toity, I can assure you that it was the very most humble of enterprises. I had seen their animals, which they sheared themselves. They dyed the wool themselves. How such humble, earthy men could create something so delicate and transcendent is a mystery to me. These men, who were truly set apart from any kind of luxury or desire for things…they sheared and dyed and spun as an act of worship.
The result was the finest, most delicate, most ethereal mohair I have or will ever touch. This was a far cry from the yarn I learned to knit on, the acrylic kind that comes in one pound skeins at Joanne Fabrics.
Shortly thereafter, they stopped raising the goats needed for the mohair, and their production ended. My MIL bought all the wool that was left. I still have sweaters made from their natural colored billygoat yarn.
As I have previously mentioned, that first little blue sweater I made was the reason I began my Lily Fields Challenge, long before I actually made it official. It was, by far, the most exquisite piece of clothing I owned until I finished my Peacock Bliss wrap sweater last week.
Part of what makes these garments such treasures is that I designed and knitted them myself. Part of what makes them so precious is that in both instances, the wool was gifted to me by people I love. Part of what makes them so invaluable is that they transcended my expectations in every possible way.
My first raw fleece
When I moved to France in 2007, I made a wonderful friend who has an enormous family. Both she and her mother are knitters. Back in the day, one of my friend’s aunts, Marinette, would spin the wool shorn from one of their friend’s sheep on her spinning wheel. My friend’s mother, Beatrice, would knit up sweaters for the family.
You can only imagine how this sparked my inner creative wannabe Laura Ingalls. Beatrice encouraged me to learn how to spin. She said she was sure Marinette would love to teach me.
I lodged this in my heart as a definite possibility. I wanted to learn, but I also had my little career and then my little family and then Marinette became unwell and I began to regret not having taken advantage of the opportunity when I could have learned from her.
In the meantime, when the scalawags were both very little, I happened to mention to those friends-with-sheep, who had since become my friends, too that I would still love to learn to spin, and they offered me the wool shorn from their sheep that spring.
That initial fleece felt like a gift from heaven. My boys and I bought a pair of dog brushes which we used as carders, and we learned how to wash, card and spin wool by hand. My eldest was my assistant. We made a mess and it was a fabulous mess.
I felt like I was living in harmony with the universe. I knitted an amazing Jackie-O inspired winter jacket from that wool my boys and I spun together. It remains my go-to spring and fall jacket.
In September of last year, I received a rather unexpected phone call. It was Beatrice, the mother of my friend, asking me if I would like to receive a very valuable inheritance.
Okay, okay, she didn’t quite say it like that. Marinette had passed away. With her went all of that generational knowledge and skill at spinning wool. This broke my heart. Why did I not learn while I could?
Beatrice was calling to tell me that Marinette’s daughter was emptying out the house, and Beatrice was helping as she could. She asked me if I would be interested in having Marinette’s spinning wheel. No one in the family wanted it, and if I didn’t want it, they would just donate it to the Salvation Army.
Obviously I did want it. I was at the house the next day to pick it up. Along with the spinning wheel was a pair of ancient carders and a bag full of carded fleece, just waiting to be spun.
Immediately, my boys and I set about trying to figure out how the spinning wheel worked. It’s not easy. It was not nearly as easy as spinning by hand, something so simple even those little boys could do it.
The gestures of a spinning wheel require coordination similar to that of driving a manual car or riding a bicycle, but the fingers must also be constantly working. Feet pedaling, fingers stretching, pinching, releasing. Constant readjusting.
The sounds of the spinning wheel were ancient, as if the sounds themselves were connecting us to generations past. My friend Caroline told me that she remembered that sound from her childhood: Marinette sitting in the living room spinning while they had conversation after dinner.
That gentle whirring pedaling sound. Pinch. Release. Pinch. Release.