Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gray Silhouette

This year I'm all about sweaters, it seems, which hasn't been what I've been about, knitting-wise, for quite a while.

I first learned to knit while I was living in Dublin on a 3-month work visa in early 1986, when I was half the age I am now. I had three flatmates: Winnie (short for Winnifred) from County Roscommon, who was engaged to a boy back home, and two sisters from County Meath, Catherine and Anne, whose parents owned a shoe store. Winnie was training to be a cook, which with her accent sounded like "kook." Catherine was a nurse, and Anne worked as a secretary. I met them all when I called John, a guy I had met on a beach in Greece, on the island of Thira (aka Santorini). He and his brother were there making a video for their travel company in Dublin. I was there on holiday, taking a break from living and working in London. I had plans to get a visa to work in Dublin when my British work visa expired. They gave me their business card and told me to call when I got to Dublin. So I did. Anne was their secretary and they knew the fourth girl in her flat had just moved out, so they arranged for me to stay with her for a few days until I found a place to live. Before I had a chance to find a flat, the girls invited me to live with them for the duration of my work visa.

Our flat in Dublin comprised the entire first floor of a house. A couple of other young women lived upstairs, and our landlady, Franny, lived across the street. We had no central heat, just a coal fireplace in the sitting room. All the electricity was metered. One meter kept the lights and outlets running and the other was for the small water heater in the shower. When I say "small," I mean just a gallon or two of water. There were no long, leisurely showers. If you turned on the water just long enough to get wet, then soaped up and shampooed your hair, you'd have barely enough warm water to rinse off. If you had to shave your legs, you could either stand in the shower shivering for 10 minutes while the tank heated up again, or you could stand in the shower shivering while cold water rinsed off the soap from your legs.

We didn't actually use real coal for the fireplace. It was some sort of coal replacement, but it was delivered by a coal man in a horse drawn cart, just the same. There were several coal men who delivered on our street, and each one had a unique call he'd shout out that identified him, kind of like an ice cream truck, so you had to listen for him as he came down the street when you were low on coal.

In the evenings, we'd all sit together in the closed-off sitting room watching television and eating our respective dinners. Catherine and Anne usually cooked together, and it was Catherine's duty as the sister who made it home from work first to put potatoes in the oven to bake. The first thing Anne would ask was, "And did you put spuds in, Catherine?" Only she pronounced her sister's name "CAH-trin." Also, she complained about the way I pronounced her name, with my Midwestern nasal intonation. "My name's Anne, not 'AY-ann," she'd say. So we'd all be sitting there, eating, watching the telly, Catherine would light up a cigarette, Anne would bum one off her, and then the everything would go black. One of us, usually Catherine, would have a 50p coin ready and would run down the hall to the closet where the electric meter was. In went the coin, and back on came the lights.

I shared a bedroom with Catherine. I envied her electric blanket, because the bedrooms were cold (see: no central heat, above), but the girls dug up a spare hot water bottle for me, something I'd read about but had never seen, and I learned to put on the kettle a half hour before bedtime so I could slide into warm sheets at night.

My wages were heavily taxed while I was there, so I didn't have money to travel around the countryside on weekends. My flatmates would go to their parents' houses in County Meath and County Roscommon, leaving me alone in the cold, damp flat. I would spend Saturday and Sunday in the sitting room, tossing fake coal on the fire and watching television (there was no cable or satellite TV, and it was daytime weekend programming, so you can imagine how interesting that was). There was a large water tank behind the fireplace, and I learned that if I ran the fire all day long, by the end of the day I'd have tepid running water available from the taps rather than ice-cold water.

One Sunday evening, Catherine came back from County Meath with a knitting project. She was using a nubbly cotton yarn to make a V-neck pullover with dolman sleeves. Always a crafty person, I was immediately smitten with the idea of knitting in the evenings while we watched the telly and waited for the room to go dark. I worked not far from St. Stephen's Green and Trinity College, so a couple days later on my lunch hour, after picked up my check from Kelly Girl, I walked to a department store downtown which had a knitting department, picked out a pattern, needles and yarn, and took my supplies back to the flat.

I didn't know how to cast on, so my flatmates showed me how to do that, and then I tried to remember how to knit, which I had learned one afternoon in 5th grade and then never did again. They corrected the direction I was wrapping the yarn around the needle, but they hesitated to correct anything else, because they didn't want to traumatize me. Apparently, the nuns used to whack them on the knuckles if they held their yarn and needles wrong (knitting in school, can you believe it?). I spent the rest of the week hunched over my needles and yarn, practicing. Then it was the weekend again and they all left town, so I was left to my own devices to figure out how to purl. "It's just the opposite of knitting!" they called out as the door slammed behind them. I couldn't work it out, and I didn't have money to buy a knitting how-to book, so I spent several hours at a bookstore studying the pictures in knitting books until I could figure it out.

From that time on, I was a knitter. That first project was a sleeveless V-neck top, made with the same nubbly cotton yarn Catherine was using for her sweater, but I jazzed mine up with a red cotton yarn for the ribbing. (Big mistake. Turns out that red cotton yarn will bleed all over white cotton yarn once the combination hits a sink full of cold water. First sad knitting lesson learned.)

I knit nothing but sweaters for years. The pattern books I bought, including all those great Kaffe Fasset coffee table knitting books of the 1980's, were full of sweaters. I just never thought to knit anything else.

When I came back into knitting about five years ago, I had no thought of knitting sweaters. I knit things I'd never thought of knitting before: beaded shawls, afghans, socks, scarves, mittens, gloves, hats, even a few toys. I hadn't completely abandoned sweater knitting. About 4 years ago I started an Aran sweater, which took me a couple of winters to finish. I wear it all the time and it's probably one of my favorite items of clothing. Soon after that, I knit an entire cardigan in about a week and a half, then spent 2 years trying to sew a zipper into it before I gave up and sewed a clasp at the neck.

In December 2007 I started knitting a cardigan while we were at Disney World. I got about 75% of the way done before it went into hibernation.

In December 2008 I started knitting a cardigan shortly before winter break. I got about 70% done before I realized I was using the wrong needles. I ripped it out and re-knit it up to that point before it went into hibernation.

In October 2009 I started knitting a bulky knit pullover. I finished it a month or so later.

Then I pulled out the Dec. '08 cardigan and finished that one.

A couple of weeks ago, I pulled out the Dec. '07 cardigan and finished up the knitting on that one. I sewed the sleeves in today. There are a few ends to weave in, and buttons to find, but other than that it's finished. (More photos when it's finished finished.)

I have one more sweater in hibernation. You might guess that it's from December 2006, but you'd be wrong. It's from 1990, and I still like it.

I'm fairly certain all the knitting is finished on that one. Just need to sew a few more seams, weave in some ends, and find some buttons. It's a Louisa Harding design from Rowan 6. It's practically vintage and I've never even worn it.

In the meantime, I've started something new.

Yes, it's a sweater. A cardigan, actually.

It seems my love affair with sweaters is back.

And it's all because 24 years ago I met an Irish boy on a topless beach on the island of Santorini. Fancy that.


Sinéad said...

What a lovely story about your time in my home city. Although back then things weren't so good, such as no central heating etc. But I think that made the time all the more memorable?
What store did you get your knitting supplies in? Just out of curiosity. It was probably Arnotts or Clerys?
Anyway, so glad you enjoyed your time here and that we re-introduced you to knitting!

Rox said...

I looked at a map of Dublin while I was writing this to see if I could remember the name. It was a tall department store, and I seem to remember the knitting supplies were up a floor from the ground floor. I loved that place. You could buy single patterns printed in color on cardstock. There were a couple of other yarn shops within walking distance from where I worked, too. I think one of them was along the river. If I had to choose between the two options you gave me, I'd say Arnotts, but I don't know for sure. Am I remembering a movie theatre across the street from it?

Mag said...

Loved this post Rox. I intend to actually make a sweater this year. I haven't knit a full sized garment in a few years.