In Falkland, on Sunday, I bought these yarns.
yarnsI’m not sure what I’ll do with them. I’m not really a knitter, though I made my granddaughter a blanket and I’ve knit a few scarves in my life. Once, a sweater, under the guidance of the really experienced knitters I worked with at the Butchart Gardens back in the early 1970s — they always knit over the lunch break and I guess it was catching. I bought Lopi wool and made a sweater, coached through each difficult moment by their skill and kindness. But I was drawn to these particular yarns. The smaller balls are wool and nettle fibre. As a little girl, I loved the Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Wild Swans. In it, a young princess is guided to reverse a spell put on her eleven brothers which turned them into swans. Elise is told by a fairy queen that she should gather stinging nettles from graveyards and spin the fibre into yarn which she must then knit into shirts which are thrown over the swans, allowing them to return to human form. There are difficulties along the way, of course, and one of the shirt-sleeves is left unfinished so that one brother retains a wing for the rest of his life. I remember Elise’s blistered hands as she knits the shirts and her silence — a requirement of the spell-reversal — as she worked. I wondered if I’d be able to do the same for my own three brothers but given the length of time it took me to knit a single lumpy sweater, I have to say probably not.
The larger skeins are a blend of wool, angora, and silk and they are impossibly soft and lovely in the hands. I can imagine making some beautiful garment, textured and intricate, but I don’t think I have the skill. Still, it might not be too late to learn a little more about the process of knitting to a pattern and the thought of plunging my hands into such lovely yarn is inviting.
It makes me think about origins. Origins of words. I’ve discovered a little about yarn and its roots in language. The online etymology dictionary tells me this:
Old English gearn “spun fiber, spun wool,” from Proto-Germanic *garnan (cognates: Old Norse, Old High German, German garn, Middle Dutch gaern, Dutch garen “yarn”), from PIE root *ghere- “intestine, gut, entrail” (cognates: Old Norse gorn “gut,” Sanskrit hira “vein; entrails,” Latin hernia “rupture,” Greek khorde “intestine, gut-string,” Lithuanian zarna “gut”). The phrase to spin a yarn “to tell a story” is first attested 1812, from a sailors’ expression, on notion of telling stories while engaged in sedentary work such as yarn-twisting.
The thing about sedentary work is that it relaxes the mind. Knitting or quilting, you can dream your way into stories (and if they’re good, you can tell them to others). The wool in your hands is the ball of string Ariadne gave Theseus so he could find his way out of the Minotaur’s maze. Or it’s the material of the three Fates who spin, measure, and cut the threads of life. It’s the long tangle of garden strings, apron strings, heart strings, basting threads, twine to train beans and peas, the untidy skeins of geese gabbling their way across the autumn skies, which will be in your mind as you cast on, count rows, run your thumbs along the rough and clumsy textures of your work. Choose colours that you love and keep your basket close for any stray moment and know that the tension will never be consistent. Think of Emily Dickinson, her slant rhymes, and all the hidden (knitted) drama in her punctuation.
Autumn – overlooked my Knitting –
Dyes – said He – have I –
Could disparage a Flamingo –
Show Me them – said I –
Cochineal – I chose – for deeming
It resemble Thee –
And the little Border – Dusker –
For resembling Me


I thought I’d missed the long farewell of the geese flying south over the coast — the snow geese passed overhead earlier in October apparently and the sight of them is one of joys of autumn. They stop on Westham Island for a few weeks and we’ve gone there to see them grazing in the shorn fields before they leave again for their winter refuge in the Great Central Valley of California. And the Canada geese, the Black Brants — looking at the maps of their flyways is like looking at a complicated knitting pattern, the lines passing and twisting and carrying one colour through the sky under or over another.

But the other day, driving with Angelica in Victoria, we saw a large skein flying high over Royal Oak where I spent my teen years. We both saw it at the same time and she said what I’ve always felt: “It makes me feel like crying when I see the geese flying south.” Our memories are knitted into the experience of seeing them. I remember riding over the vanished Broadmead meadows on my horse in autumn and seeing geese. I’d call to them, “Goodbye! Goodbye!”, and feel a kind of sorrow as I watched them disappear into cloud or distance. We often hear them when we are putting the garden to bed for winter, their calls bouncing off Mount Hallowell and echoing so that we can’t always tell where they are, and sometimes we miss seeing them completely, though we’ve heard the song of their passing. The other day, I couldn’t tell which geese we were seeing. They were too high and I was driving on the freeway. But I’m sure I could find out by looking at flyway maps and the annotations birders are famous for making.

Autumn brings with it all the ancient rituals, doesn’t it? The putting by of food, the stacking of cut logs in the woodshed, the airing of the winter quilts. Although I quilt (and am busy with the latest salmon quilt, stitching the spirals into the centre panel, and waiting for the moment when I can sew shell buttons onto the spines of the salmon I batiked, then dyed with indigo pigment), I find myself wanting to knit. I am hopeless with the patterns that look like math theorems: 2nd row P1A (5A, 1B, 9A, 6A) 4 times.

But I am slowly learning a little math, in part for an essay I’m working on called “Euclid’s Orchard”, which will have a quilt to accompany it, each piece — essay, quilt — documenting the other, and maybe it’s time to try to decode the knitting charts. I have the skeins to begin:

P1090168There might be a way to include the flyway maps in this essay, a way to bring geese into a discussion of genetics and orchards and Pascal’s triangles and a son who knows something about all these things.