Of Women Knitting

ALL the women I know knit: for husbands or for children, for nephews, occasionally for themselves, or for money, or for the poor. Once I was a knitter. Sweaters and mittens, scarves, bonnets, dresses, and shawls budded, grew, and dropped from my assiduous fingers as leaves from a tree. One day, quite unexpectedly, I found that knitting exasperated me. Perhaps, just as everyone has an allotted number of words to speak during the course of his life, every woman has a quota of stitches she can knit. Evidently I had reached mine.

The clean-smelling wool, fresh-dyed, washed, and coiled in virgin hanks, did not entice me. The glossy pages of the pattern books lured me no more. I gave away my collection of needles — the ivory ones with long points polished by use, ends blunted in flat ebony knobs; the double-pointed needles of aluminum bent into flexible hoops for knitting around and around in an endless circle; my beloved set of tiny tricolored needles, red, blue, and white; a dozen fine stiff steel needles, sharp as Spanish stilettos at both ends. I gave away my knitting bags, the green burlap one wdth wooden handles for the beach, the trim tapestry bag I took out to dinner with me, the capacious cotton damask, the newly fashionable gay cardboard cylinders.

Then I settled back to enjoy the quiet of my idle hands or the relaxation of fixing my gaze on nothing more substantial than the gauzy unfolding of my cigarette smoke. Of course I could not escape entirely from knitting. But I found in myself a keen and ever-developing sympathy for the dislike men have for women knitting. Sometimes this objection is unconscious, often it is merely unspoken, but nearly always it exists in a gamut of intensity from pale disapproval to a thoroughgoing, passionate reprobation. It is their vanity, you say, that is wounded; they crave the knitter’s attention which is withdrawn from them and concentrated on her work. That is true, but vanity is only a fickle iridescence on the surface of a personality; let us look below.

When a man watches a woman knitting he feels shut out. She is absorbed in an occupation he cannot share. She is in sanctuary where he cannot follow. And her knitting folds her in solidarity with other women; the whole character of a group changes when after dinner the women fetch their big bags, pregnant with colored wools, like squaws bringing out their papooses. What was a gathering of human beings becomes women and — definitely divided from them — men.

However, it is not only a sense of uselessness and exclusion that oppresses a man in the presence of women knitting. The clicking of the needles fills him with another, a devastating emotion. By the way, knitting needles do not click; that expression is a writer’s rubber stamp. The process of knitting is silent as the slow accretion of flesh on bone. And in that silence he is profoundly afraid.

Knitting, weaving, spinning — all symbolize woman’s ability to create. Out of a formless mass she makes a product shapely and her own. Man can sow, but he cannot bring forth. Sowing is a brief, unsatisfying adventure, whereas the slow, elemental process of bringing forth unites the woman with the rhythmic fecundity of the earth itself. She is invulnerable thus, and remote. He is a blunt brave man indeed who will even touch her. It was her weaving that held the hungry suitors from Penelope so that her lord found her and his house intact when he returned. And thereafter it was her weaving that bound him to her, invested him with homeliness and quieted his traveler blood. Odysseus roamed no more.

Madame Defarge, because she was knitting, could defy the cruel Marquis staring arrogantly from his carriage window. The pattern of her knitting was a register of names. For every name save one a head rolled from under the guillotine.

In former times woman’s spinning and weaving wrought the twisting thread and patterned web of man’s very life. Spells were inevitably woven and binding; the distaff, more than the sceptre, was feared. Delilah wove the seven locks of Samson’s hair into a web, hoping to rob him of his strength, and in a far-off, gigantic twilight the Norns twisted their mystic rope while they sang the ruin of the Volsung race.

Always the motion of a woman’s hands as she lays down her needles and pulls more wool loose from the ball recalls Catullus’s picture of the Fates presiding over the marriage of Peleus and Thetis: —

Aeternumque manus carpebant rite laborem.

And the soft white wool was piled in wicker baskets beside their feet.

Women knitting are the modern Fates. They knit the stuff of human life into their pattern, incorporate it in their handiwork. That is their power, greater than wars or law or words — the power of eventual silence over noise, stillness enveloping activity.