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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater

Essays on Crafting

Alanna Okun

Flatiron Books


Casting On

You can’t really know what a project is going to be until it’s done. This is true of many things—books, recipes, relationships—and it is especially true of knitting.

Say you want to make a hat. You knit an inch, meant to be the brim, but it’s still only the suggestion of a brim; a brim isn’t a brim until it’s attached to a hat. This brim could just as easily become the neck opening for a sweater, if you decide to keep going and have enough yarn. Or you could call it a day and end it right there, making one of those stretchy headbands women in cleanser commercials are always wearing as they splash water on their already-perfect faces. You could decide you still want a hat, but it’s going to be ribbed all the way up, or cabled, or a completely different color from the one you started with.

You could plow through the whole project in a single afternoon, the vision of the end product firmly fixed in your mind, or you could set it aside for months at a time, only picking it up to knit a couple of rows when the spirit moves you. You could start it as a gift only to decide you want to keep it for yourself, or the reverse. You could realize it looks nothing like what you intended and either despair or delight. Or, as so often happens, you could reach a place of peaceful ambivalence and decide to just keep pushing through, even though you’re not sure, even though you don’t know what it will be after you’ve invested all those hours and all that yarn. You can trust the project to reveal itself to you, outside of your control.

* * *

I have always loved control. I like having it, and I also like giving it up in measured doses. This sounds like some sort of BDSM thing, but mostly it plays out for me in my crafting, that interplay of making something just how you want it to be but also allowing for mistakes and detours. I’m a knitter, a crocheter, an embroiderer, and a general dabbler in most fibery pursuits. I’ve been doing some combination of these things for about as long as I’ve been on the planet, and they’ve helped me get through and make sense of some of the hardest-to-control parts of being a person—anxiety, grief, heartbreak, ecstatic joy, total boredom. A craft project allows you to hold something concrete in your hands even when everything around you is swirling and illegible; it allows you to take tiny risks and solve tiny problems and achieve tiny victories. It reminds you that there are calm and good parts of your brain where you can retreat when the rest of it feels like a war zone, and that you can, in some small, brief way, save yourself. Also: you get a lifetime supply of hand-knit socks.

* * *

When I talk to people about crafting, nine times out of ten they have never held a needle or spent hours in a yarn store. They don’t know about stitch count or care about gauge swatches, the same way I have never really understood what a “fourth down” means. But we usually manage to find some common language, some point of connection where one person or the other goes, “Oh, you too? I thought I was the only one!”1

Because I think most people have their version of knitting, or spend their lives trying to find it—that small but constant motion that helps them metabolize the universe and comprises a corner of their identity. For my dad, it’s fishing; for my brother, it’s music. My mother makes homes and my sister makes art from forgotten objects. Some of my friends draw, some run marathons, some make Internet memes, and some have sat beside me on the couch as they struggle to insert the tip of a needle into a stitch for the first time.

Sometimes, weeks later, I’ll get a text message. Usually it’s a picture of a ragged but serviceable piece of fabric, inches longer than it had been that first day, the number of holes and mistakes reduced with each newly knitted row.

“Look!” these texts read, in some form or another. “I have no idea what it’s going to be, but look!”

I tell them that nobody does, at least not right away. The important thing is to start, even if it’s ugly, even if it’s hard. Even (especially) if you are the sort of person who is used to having everything exactly the way you want it, who worries that the world will end if one stitch is out of place. The nice thing about the world is that it rarely ends, and even when it does, you can always rip your stitches back and start from the beginning.

Copyright © 2018 by Alanna Okun