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“This Is Not Your Grandma’s Knitting”

It’s coming around again, as it has probably for time immemorial — the thing where someone who doesn’t knit discovers that there are people who do knit, and some of them are apparently under the age of 90, and then the next thing we know, someone is writing articles or spouting this line on TV or social media or something:

“This is not your grandmother’s knitting.”

Every time someone says this, picture the knitters of the developed world all crying out in unison as they slam their heads into their keyboards, tablets, smartphones, countertops covered in a newspaper, airplane tray tables beneath a magazine… you get the picture. Seriously. Just imagine us all casting our eyes upwards and beseeching the heavens for some sort of answer as to why THIS of all things is the line we’re saddled with hearing from the news media and our non-yarnish friends.

So I just thought I’d take a moment to say this:

Actually, this IS my grandmother’s knitting.

And these are some of her knitting needles. My uncle was kind enough to give them to me right away when my grandmother passed on last year.

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My grandmother Rachel was a painter, potter, weaver, spinner, dyer, knitter, crocheter, sewer, embroiderer, cook, and countless other things. I cannot remember a time before she put yarn and yarn activities in my hands, and there was never a time growing up when I didn’t have plenty of clothes she made for me, in lots of ways. I have many of them to this day, and certainly, lots of household textiles that she made.

My grandmother was also a woman who spent most of her elder years living in Montana, part of the time fairly rurally. Letters from her often started with lines like “Today I saw a mountain lion and her cub out the kitchen window…” or “While I was gathering clay from the banks of the stream out in back of the house…” or “I had a few weaver friends over today, and we’ll spending next weekend at the mall demonstrating spinning and weaving! I hope we get to teach lots of new people!”

Right now, I’m also looking at what my mother told me had been my grandmother’s “summer house loom” — the small loom she kept for weaving with when spending summers on a remote island in the Great Lakes. She gave the loom to her new son-in-law, my father, in 1970, when he became interested in learning to weave. I should probably note the “small loom” is a floor loom with a 36″ weaving width.

Oh and by the way… the folded up pieces of paper in that photo? Among them are receipts for the interchangeable needle set and add-on parts ordered, and for $70 of yarn in 1983, with a note in her handwriting that says “Family heirloom.”

My grandmother and my mother, in my grandma's yard, wearing handknit hats
My grandmother and my mother, in my grandma’s yard, wearing handknit hats

So yeah. I’m pretty sure that what I do today IS my grandma’s knitting. In lots of ways, in fact. And of course, it’s also my mother’s knitting.

Chris

Lots of things may not be obvious in this photo of my mother holding a 16th century icon, but the only stuff I really want to point out is that my mother sewed that dress (and had me practice embroidery on part of it), and she spun the yarn for the cabled sweater draped around her neck, which of course she knit. So yeah, it looks like this is also my mother’s knitting.

And actually, it’s my father’s knitting, too. It’s too sad for me to take a picture, but I have a small bag that I sometimes open and look at, and think about the contents. It was the bag in which he carried around his last knitting project, which he didn’t finish. They were gloves he was making for me when he succumbed to the cancer that killed him — colorwork gloves with a reinterpretation of one of my favourite Chinchero weaving patterns.

You know what else? It’s lots of people’s knitting all over the world. They look all kinds of ways and might be anybody. Like these gentlemen knitting while watching a presentation at the 2010 Tinkuy de Tejedores in Urubamba, Peru:

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It’s also my great-grandmother’s knitting, by the way, as I was reminded when that same uncle passed on to me a pair of socks that were knit for him by my great-grandmother in the 1960s. And you know, that brings me to the next major point of peevishness about this whole “not your grandma’s knitting” shtick:

WHAT THE HECK IS THE MATTER WITH YOUR GRANDMA ANYWAY?

Seriously, I know a lot of grandmas, and lots of ’em are really quite cool. Some of my best friends are grandmas. And just yesterday I was thinking about my great-grandmother, who died while my mother was pregnant with me. I never met her, but I grew up on stories about her, and the ever-diminishing number of my relatives who did know her never seem to run out of those stories.

May Preston Jenkins, President, Women's Suffrage League
May Preston Jenkins, President, Women’s Suffrage League, 100 years ago

College educated, the eldest of 9 kids, a cigar-smoking, bloomer-wearing Suffragist, my great-grandmother is among the reasons I can do stuff today like “vote” and “own property and even a business in my own name,” things that she did AT THE SAME TIME AS SHE WAS KNITTING. Heck, you know what? My grandmother told me she remembered her mother taking her to see Red Sox games when she was a teenager… and both of them knitting on the T. That sure sounds like the knitting scene I know today.

So yeah. Not my grandma’s knitting? All I’ve got to say is, dude, you obviously know neither my grandma, nor her knitting. In fact, I’m willing to bet you don’t know anyone’s knitting, and the number one indicator that’s the case? It was when you said “this isn’t your grandma’s knitting.”

Next up, perhaps: I’m going to teach a yoga teacher to knit, so we can conclusively speak to the question of whether or not it’s “the new yoga.”

36 thoughts on ““This Is Not Your Grandma’s Knitting”

  1. The longer I know you the more impressive you family tree. Thank you May Preston Jenkins for your brave work and your genetic dispersal. And as knitter and a yogi, I especially hate the knitting is the new yoga schtick.

  2. You always hit the nail on the head!
    Part of what I love so much about having fiber in my hands is the sacred connection to both my family history and human history. Thank you!

  3. THAT is beautiful!
    Just Oh.Hell.Yes.!

  4. My grandmother didn’t knit…she crocheted, as did my great-grandmother, who taught me when I was just three years old. My great-grandmother made lovely lace bedspreads and tablecloths with tiny cotton thread — she also sewed her own clothes, raised and canned her own food, and made dozens of pieced quilts entirely by hand. Recently in a facebook forum, some knitters were knocking crochet, and making fun of granny squares. Someone pointed out that Irish immigrants crocheted, so the craft was associated with the lower classes. So I found the hook my great-grandmother bought for me when she taught me to crochet, and I’ve been making granny squares.

    1. The antipathy some have towards crochet has always upset me, and I absolutely think there’s a lot of classism wrapped up in it still today. That’s a rabbit hole I can spend a lot of time going down, man!

  5. My grandmother both knit and crocheted, and of course she learned from her mother. She taught her four daughters, of course. My mother knew how to do both but she absolutely detested to knit, so I learned from my Auntie Jan when I was six. And here I am today, knitting as stress relieve as well as for income (not much of course) and for family. I don’t have any of my grandmother’s doilies or tablecloths, but I have a few of my mom’s and more importantly I have the crochet book from 1945 that belonged to both of them.

    I’m happy to be compared with my grandmother, or my great grandmother. My great grandmother was arrested for indecent exposure right after a treasured photo of her was taken – her knees are showing out of her swim suit (longish sleeves, knee length). She was quite the rebel in many ways, but her home was lavishly decorated with hand made items. I am happy to carry on that legacy, though maybe not being arrested 🙂

  6. You are an inspiration to me, and I’m glad I found you again. I hope to meet you face to face some day.

    Your parents are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and I’m very sorry I never got to meet them.

    Your grandparents and great-grandmother also is on my sorry-I-didn’t list.

    Thank you very much for your reminiscences!

  7. My Mother and Aunties were all beautiful knitters. They made countles Aran sweaters with very little effort. I’ve been knitting for about 15 years. . Mostly scarves, cowls and baby hats to donate to the local hospitals. About 8 yrs ago, I discovered sock knitting and am now finishing up my 40th pair. Have given away half of them to very appreciative friends and store the rest in my sock drawer that I love to show off and look at. Recently , I taught my sis in law and friend to knit socks and they are so obsessed! All they want to do is go yarn shopping. They say that they can’t sit down now without wanting to knit.

    I loved your article. I just laugh when people comment about how knitting is for ‘old people’. . . then they watch me for awhile before asking if I’ll make them some socks.

  8. New yoga? When is knitting gonna be the new Scrapbooking? Am I in my 40’s or my new 20’s. I just can’t keep up. I’m gonna be over here spinning some Wensleydale.

  9. Not only is it my grandmother’s and mother’s knitting – it’s also the knitting in Ukraine , where the women on the block in the Bronx learned to knit, and taught the women who taught my mother and taught me. That heritage is one of the things that makes knitting such a joy for me! I’m thrilled with this article, Abby – thank you!

  10. My paternal grandfather came home from the first world war, having given up his apprenticeship as a chemist to sign up for the medical corps. During the war he lost an eye. There was no retraining for veterans in England then, and my enterprising grandmother knit and sold her knitting until they could open a small village shop. They put their two children through secondary and post secondary education, none of which was free. It all began with my grandmother’s knitting.

    My other grandmother knit sweaters for me all through my childhood and sent them in parcels to me in Canada. She also made costumes for the local theatre.

  11. F YEAH! Though neither of my grandmas knitted or did much of anything textile related…so all of my knitting is Great-grandma’s, apparently. I do wish the whole stigma about knitting would just diaf already. Especially when the usual course of stereotypical conversation goes from “hurr hurr are you a grandma” to “make me something”. :/

  12. Bravo!

  13. Beautiful..thank you! My one grandmother crocheted every bib I used as a baby, and must have used a very tiny hook, as the stitches are minute. My other grandmother did amazing petitpoint, Bargello, needlepoint pulled thread work. My poor mother missed the fiber gene, and so was constantly befuddled because I’ve consistently had knitting/crochet/embroidery in my hands if going somewhere, and spinning or weaving elsewhere, even toting wheel along on visits. My granddaughter now brags to her schoolmates that “my grandma MADE his, didn’t just buy it in a store” Shes 6, and I hope to pass on the addiction to her

  14. Abby,

    I loved reading this. Knitting bypassed three generations to get to me. I have a beautiful roll of knitted lace my great great grandma knit.

    I spent summers on a rural island in the Great Lakes and I can’t help but wonder if it’s the same one your grandmother was on.

    Every time I pick up my needles or hook, or touch my spindles or wheel, or set up my loom I feel like I’m holding hands with every woman who ever did the same.

    Thank you so much for writing this.

  15. this was my grandmother’s knitting. Unfortunately she died when I was only a month old, so I never learned to knit from her and didn’t learn until I was an adult. But I’ve spent the past 35 years indulging in something that links me to her and to my ancestors.

    thank you — I hate the way they use that term too

  16. I often find myself envious of your rich textile history! What an amazing life you’ve led so far!

  17. It’s my grandmother’s knitting too. My earliest memories of her are doing needlework of all kinds. But it’s not my mother’s knitting, because Mom is a lefty and Grandma couldn’t teach her.

    When I was married to a fighter pilot, living in England and expecting my first child, it was treasure to me to receive handknits for the baby from my grandmother Huff. Now, I’m knitting for my due-in-June third grandson, using some of her needles, and never do I feel closer to grandma, gone 23 years now, then when I think how things have come full circle. I’m moved to depths that I cannot begin to express.

  18. I love this. It is because of my grandma and her many talents – knitting, crochet, quilting, painting, sewing, embroidery – that I have my love of creating. Thanks to all the grandmas and grandpas and aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. that teach so we can learn, create, and teach in turn.

  19. Thanks, Abby. This needed saying. And you are eloquent as ever.

  20. Great post, right up there with waylaka.

    I still have a pair of mittens my Grandmother knit for me.

    Aren’t hand knit items warmer?

  21. As a yoga teacher who also loves to knit, so far my answer to the question of whether knitting is the new yoga is no. I love both, I wouldn’t give up either, and both make me incredibly happy. And, the need to make everything the new “something” is crazy making. I think we can just enjoy!

  22. Abby, that was awesome. My granny remains on of my main fiber-arts inspirations. And yeah, she would be the first one to say “Who you callin’ old lady?!” She used to watch MTV and Runnin’ Rebel basketball when I was in H.S. and College.

  23. I want to be your grandmother when I grow up! She sounds amazing!

  24. I’m now the grandmother teaching a granddaughter. Some of my most prized possessions are needle work items, some knitting, some tatting, some rug hooking, some crocheting created by long dead great grandmothers. Not a single item from a great grandfather – amazing.

  25. My favorite Grandma, Grandma Miller, taught me to knit when I was 6. I still have the booties I made for my brother who was 6 years younger than me. I also have some of her needles. They are aluminum, but I remember using them. I stopped knitting as a child and picked it up again when I was 20. I’ve been knitting since. My Grandma Miller was so special to me. She loved me in a way that I didn’t experience at home. I don’t care what people think of me knitting. Knitting has been with me through the very best of times and the very worst of times. Last week I taught my just-turned 5 year old granddaughter how to knit. She likes the purl stitch and is making her Momma a purl-stitch scarf. I am grateful for knitting.

  26. My grandmother crocheted many afghans that I still have and use. I gave my grandson a blanket that she crocheted for my son that still looks like new. That grandson is now 3 and sits and watches me knit, picks up needles and yarn and tries to ‘knit like Nonna’. I will teach him how in a few years.

  27. Love it! People always assume it was my mother or grandmother that were the makers of the family. Not really. It was my dad and his grandmother. My dad was the knitter (and sewer). I also had a bag of his unfinished knitting after he died. He is essentially who taught me to knit socks, because his unfinished knitting was a pair of socks for my mom that was 3/4 of the way done. He was at the heel turn on the second sock. So, I learned how to turn a heel so I could finish them for my mom. I knew when I could do this I too was turning a corner after his death. Thanks for reminding me why I do what I do. My goal with my spinning is to make the yarn he wanted to knit. He was forever complaining about not being able to find “good wool yarn.”

  28. What a nice article, Abby!!!
    My Nana taught me how to knit. During a trip home, to France, she gave me all her knitting needles as she is slowly losing her eye sight. Some are bent, old plastic, some of the pairs have a different gauge–I see her teeth mark on some and remember her biting on the end while trying to figure out patterns. Her knitting needles are a comfort during sad and difficult times. I treasure them.

    I hope to see you in Taos, NM again some day.
    Best,

    Monique

  29. one of my grandmas learned to crochet late in life, and she enjoyed it so much her scarves were never-endingly long. My mother died about a year ago. I was able to knit a shawlette for her that she started but could not finish, and I put the fringe on a blanket she knitted, her last project, so she could see it completed. It is a good feeling to have collaborated with her, and I know she appreciated it.

  30. Thanks for this article, Abby. It resonated with me because I am a grandmother who knits, and I was so offended several years ago by that sickening phrase you’ve quoted that I was moved to write an essay for Brenda Dayne’s podcast. Here’s a link in case you’re interested. The comments from other listeners are gratifying. http://cast-on.com/07/podcasts/in-search-of-our-grandmothers-rocking-chairs/

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that link! And, of course, for writing that essay!

  31. […] not the first one to come up with this.  There are some very good commentary on by this phrase on  Abby’s yarns blog and STC Craft, so, yeah, I know it’s been said […]

  32. […] Browsing…50 pieces of creative advice…turning snow & cold weather into a rainbow igloo…rethinking the word “busy” to describe life…a delightful celebration of knitting & grandmas… […]

  33. CurvyLou sent me your way with her blog post https://curvylouise.wordpress.com/2015/02/25/ …between the two of you, I am fascinated. Loved the post about your grandmother; I have similar memories of my grandmother (she did needlework of all kinds–rugs, counted cross stitch, crochet, you name it). Unfortunately, we moved cross-country when I was 4 and saw her only a couple times a year…then she passed away when I was 8, so I never had a chance to learn from her. We’ve been pretty busy the last four years (we adopted two children) but things are starting to settle a bit…perhaps it’s time to learn to knit. 🙂

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