My inner 80-year-old awakened when I first learned how to knit. I was in grade school, sitting on the couch gripping the needles too tight, dropping stitches all over the place and thinking too hard about every loop and how little progress I’d made when my grandma sat down next to me with just another crochet masterpiece in the making. Learning is hard, but at some point it clicks inside and then needles click, click, click and you’re off on a path.
Eventually your hands understand what you want them to do, something like a physical memory takes over. In the way you never forget how to ride a bike or the steps to dance routines you learned when you were little, knitting comes back as if you were born knowing how to do it. Then you finish and, as if you haven’t already gotten enough out of it, there’s this thing you’ve created that’s imbued with the time and thought and care you’ve poured into it.
Finding Susan Gordon Lydon’s The Knitting Sutra on the street last summer was felicitous. At the time, my nephew was just starting chemo instead of packing for his first year at college. Blue skies and warm days felt all wrong and I kept bumping into cancer stories with sad endings. I put The Knitting Sutra aside to save it for winter when the chemo would be done and hopefully things would feel a little less gloomy. And they do. He’s going home in a few days after his last round of chemo. The weather may be cold and grey, but everything seems lighter.
Not quite a memoir, The Knitting Sutra is a slim book, a selective tour through the connections between crafts and the spiritual practices in a handful of cultures.
Though knitting, embroidery and other handcrafts had always been a part of Susan’s life (we’re on a first name basis because she gets to join my Authors Who Are My Best Friends and Don’t Know It club), it wasn’t until a hummingbird led her to take a flying leap off the world’s highest back deck that she began to see her craft as more than a hobby. Sounds like a sailor meets mermaid story, but she credits this accident and the major arm and hand injuries it caused as the turning point in her life. Health is easy to take for granted until it’s gone. Not having full use of one arm made her realize knitting was an essential part of who she was.
There’s a flow to this slim book that gives it the tone of an effortless conversation. Susan writes about knitting the way Buddhists write about the world. She begins by pointing out how full the silence is that comes when you knit, how necessary silence is when it’s so hard to find.
Then she goes into her craft, particularly translations of traditional Native American embroidery and beading. In traveling with a friend to reservations, she comes across several recurring ideas. One of these is the power of stitching an image or symbol. As she mentions when knitting a complex sweater with dragons on it, the image brands itself in you; it visits your dreams and influences your perception. Things pour out of your mind that you didn’t know were there and reveal themselves in what you make. When thinking of the slow loop by loop process this way, how can it not be a spiritual act unless you’re cranking up the distractions?
Though the author takes a few detours into specific projects along her way to becoming a master knitter, she focuses mostly on the craft process as it corresponds to her efforts to deepen her own spirituality. I love that she sought to do this by learning from practitioners of other cultures. I had a new-agey teacher who once said “The magic of realization happens through doing.” By “doing” he was referring to writing, but you can replace it with any other verb because “magic of realization” isn’t about what’s wrong with a scene, but what’s blocking you.
My favorite parts were the brief anecdotes and curious tidbits from Susan’s wanderings. For instance, Navajo blankets all have one thing in common: a thin line, an imperfection for the weaver to travel out.
Without it, her spirit might become trapped in the body.
Isn’t that lovely? I felt so awful when I dropped one stitch in my niece’s blanket. This thing took me three years to knit and right near the end I lost a stitch. Then Susan shares a story about Persian carpet weavers. Apparently they make at least one intentional mistake “because only Allah is perfect“. I felt so much better reading this. The idea of mistakes being a important part of the craft is very freeing. No more anxiety. Swiss cheese blankets forever!
Later, a curator and basket weaver at New York’s National Museum of the American Indian also commented on irregularities. He says they are “the spirit door that allows spirits to move freely within the basket“. By including irregularities, bad feelings can’t get trapped and good ones have a way in.
Like the “lovely hula hands” of the sacred Hawaiian dancer, the hands of knitters and craftspeople spin tales of creation, life, death, geneology and history: they connect us to the heavens, the ages and the earth itself at once.
I love that quote and adored this book. My only complaint is that it only skimmed the surface of so many intriguing connections. I wanted more but I guess that’s a good thing. It’s a good primer, a gateway book much that way that first skein is. And finally a cancer story with a happy ending. She doesn’t spend more than a few pages on her diagnosis and preparation for surgery, but it’s enough.