At the start of this sequence Claire Crowther gives readers a glossary of the more specialist knitting vocabulary. Some words are new to me — ‘hap’ (a knitted cape) and ‘nalbinding’ (an ancient form of knitting) — but others are words I’d forgotten. I no longer knit so the words had slipped away, fading with neglect. So ‘dec.’ (meaning ‘decrease’) had vanished, as had PSSO, the abbreviation for ‘pass slipped stitch over’. Now, while I type, my fingers are also remembering those movements, the tug and angling of the needles. Crowther’s words are working.
One of poetry’s roles is to restore and keep alive what we knew, not as nostalgia but as part of life’s fabric, something with its own pattern. That’s a metaphor Crowther uses too. In ‘Learning the Pattern’ she begins
My terms are hard.
and ends in the mishearing and misreading of sounds and words (‘Purl?/ Pearl?’). Knitting, despite its precise instructions, is a place of ambiguity if we cease to pay attention, and each piece of knitting is the knitter’s responsibility. No one else shares the holding of the needles, or can take the blame for mistakes.
In ‘Handmade’ a Fair Isle knitter speaks to us —
I am quick but have to be perfect.
Not one mistake
though mistakes are proofmarks of makers.
My heart-side needle is fixed.
The right side needle flashes knives.
Being human means making mistakes; that’s our signature on the work, our individuality. Bringing the Fair Isle sweater into existence is a balancing act between the perfect pattern and the human, prone to error, who works with one needle clamped underarm while the other (right hand) flickers at speed. This poem reminds us, too, that Fair Isle knitters are only paid for perfection: it’s not a romantic idyll.
Nor is knitting an olde-worlde activity. In ‘Auction’ Crowther lets the modern world in: ‘I will win the wool, / bidding tonight on Ebay.’
When one of my friends died, the settling of her affairs included selling her stash of wool on Ebay. This poem reminds me of her, and her partner. Knitting is not just about wool; it holds potent memories, as do these poems.
D A Prince