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Of Raglans and Resilience

May 10, 2020

 

"As I inch my way around this glove's wrist, I am reminded that knitting is fundamentally about binding together. Not only binding wool to wool, but wool to sheep and sheep to place... wool can always tie us to a place."

                                                                         -Esther Rutter

 

When I knit I feel as if I give a little part of myself. Each stitch, each inch of thread wrapped around the needle is contributing to the creation of something new in the world. Each little movement of my hands builds on the fabric that I’m literally bringing into existence. 

 

 

Quarantine can be lonely. Sometimes I don’t see anybody all day. Sometimes I spend hours listening to voices coming through my speakers and all I want is something real, something tangible. 

 

 

Knitting connects me to a history, a long line of women (and men) wrapping threads and spinning a story of livelihood and growth, challenges and celebrations. I like to knit things for my friends. It feels comforting to make something that will nourish and comfort them. I think about them as I knit. 

 

Sheep grazing on the Isle of Arran, Scotland

 

Knitting has long played an important role in Scottish culture. Sheep have been raised and bred for hundreds of years, with different regional styles developing from Shetland to Harris, Arran to Fair Isle. Women raised sheep, sheared them, washed their wool, spun it into yarn, and knit the garments that clothed their families, a truly farm-to-body experience. 

 

A scarf made out of my hand-dyed wool 

 

These days, almost everything I do happens virtually - working, schmoozing, learning, listening. It’s as if every aspect of my life has been compiled into my laptop, which is really a blessing when you think about how quarantine might have been pre-technology. But sometimes I need something tangible, material. And as I go from socks to sweaters to blankets and back again, I think about the amazing experiences knitting has brought me. 

 

Me knitting on a ghat in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India 

 

My first time out exploring Scotland, I visited the Isle of Arran. Relatively close to Glasgow, Arran makes for an easy weekend getaway, making it easy to explore the beautiful Scottish wilderness. I stayed in a small hamlet called Lochranza, and spent my long weekend hiking over the hills and through the glens.

 

Sheep grazing on the Isle of Arran, Scotland

 

All over Arran, sheep roam free. Hillsides were dotted with white balls of fluff, grazing in fields and stumbling over rocks. They’re quite docile, but so so beautiful. After spending so many years with my hands constantly full of yarn, being surrounded by the source of it really felt like coming full circle. 

 

Wool caught in the fences on the Isle of Arran, Scotland

 

In busier areas, wire fences keep the sheep from the roads. Along the length of the fences, bits of wool cling to barbs, caught by the wind. I picked them up and carried them with me, keeping little bits of the sheep in my pockets. I felt a sort of kinship with them, like a farmer might greet his fields, or take in the bounty of his crop. 

 

Knitting while looking out over the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India 

 

Over the years knitting has become a constant activity, something I keep in my hands to keep them engaged. I knit during meetings, I knit on the bus. In quarantine I knit all day, working stitch after stitch and making my way through the weeks. It makes me feel alive. When my hands are empty, I feel like something is missing. 

 

Knitting with my mom in Roberts Creek, British Columbia, Canada

 

I came across a photo of Scottish women knitting in a coastal harbour. During the Highland clearances, many families were forced off their land and had to find work as labourers in the fishing villages. While the actual fishing was strict territory of the men, the women often did the dirty work, knotting and baiting the nets, sorting and drying the catch. In the photo, a dozen women are lined up, perched on the edges of lobster traps and fishing nets, all with their knitting at the ready. Knitting for them was a supplementary income, but was also a facilitator of social engagement. It was method for them to create community in the face of hardship and adversity. 

 

A knitting workshop I led for Jewish women at the Bene Israel Stree Mandal in Mumbai, India 

 

Knitting has also helped me build bridges. All across India people would stop and stare at the foreigner knitting in cafes and at train stations. In the women’s car of the Mumbai local, the ladies would gather around and inspect my circular needles, a knitting technology which hasn’t yet made its way to the subcontinent. 

 

The wool shop I visited in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India 

 

Every town I went to I had to seek out the local wool shop. Usually the results were high shelves of cheap acrylic wool, but sometimes I lucked out. In the Himalayan village of Manali, I sought refuge from the rain in a tiny second floor shop. I could hardly find it, let alone climb up the steep narrow staircase lit by a single dim bulb. But once I found it, it turned out to be a hidden gem.

 

A cardigan I made incorporating traditional Himalayan designs 

 

The woman inside spoke no English, but pulled out stacks and stacks of sweaters covered in intricate Himalayan designs, worked in bright colours. I copied them down and later worked them into my own sweater, using the yarn she sold me. Every time I wear it I think back to my time knitting my way across India, and all the connections it created. 

 

Buying wool by weight at Pradhan Embroidery in Mumbai, India

 

The knitting shop in Mumbai was a whole other experience. Pradhan Embroidery was on an overflowing lane across from Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, and battling the crowds at rush hour was often not worth the risk. Inside was tiny, with huge bags of yarn packed onto shelves rising to the ceiling. Further boxes were tucked into the rafters. You told one of the attendants what you wanted, and they would scoot past each other to retrieve it. If you wanted something high up, one of the boys would hop up onto the glass counter in his bare feet to pull it down. 

 

Drying freshly-dyed wool in my kitchen in Mumbai

 

Most of what they sold was cheap acrylic, but right at the back they had a few types of undyed wool. I would bring it home and steam it with the ritual pigments that I bought outside temples. I created vivid shades of pinks and oranges, blending colours with splashes of contrast. I would hang them to dry in my kitchen, pools of colour forming on the ground underneath. It was such a comforting experience, bringing colour to the blankness. It helped me process my experience, all the colours and occurrences happening all around me. I brought them into my kitchen and knit them into my shawls. 

 

Bulk marigold blossoms from the Dadar Flower Market in Mumbai, used for wool dyeing 

 

I tried experimenting with natural dyes, buying kilos of marigold blossoms in the Dadar Flower Market. The marigold is used in many Hindu rituals, being woven into the orange garlands which adorn idols and temple altars. The marigold is considered a holy flower, special in that it’s the only holy flower whose petals can’t be removed one by one. It symbolizes resilience. And as I sat, brewing marigold petals and onion skins, I built a new resilience, a way of encountering and existing within the world. 

 

An Arran sweater I made, incorporating traditional Scottish motifs

 

In Scotland I wanted to learn to spin wool. I’d seen the sheep in the fields, I’d knit their fibres into sweaters, and I wanted to do it myself. Spinning is difficult. Most hand-spinning is done on an expensive wheel, but I did mine with a drop spindle, dragging each fibre through my fingers as I twisted it over the metal hook. The wool I spun wasn’t uniform, but it was mine. I had made it myself. I had touched each bit of wool with my fingers, turning it into something new.

 

A scarf made out of my hand-dyed wool 

 

There’s something empowering about that. There’s so many things in the world these days that we have no control over. I don’t know when I’ll be able to leave the house, to go back to work, to see my friends. But I do know that I’m a resilient human being, and I have the power to take a sheep and turn it into a sweater, and really what more do I need than that?

 

A cardigan I made incorporating traditional Himalayan designs 

 

A scarf made out of my hand-dyed wool 

 

The finished skeins from my marigold dyeing, with colour variances from the adding of onion skins 

 

Me knitting with my dad outside the ISCKON Temple in Mumbai, India 

 

 

A scarf made out of my hand-dyed wool 

 

Marigolds ready for the dyepot in my kitchen in Mumbai

 

Knitting during a camel safari in the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India

 

Me knitting with family in Northern Israel 

 

Knitting with my hand-dyed wool on the beach in Dadar, Mumbai, India 

 

Wool soaking in preparation for dyeing in my kitchen in Mumbai

 

Knitting on the beach in Bandra, Mumbai, India

 

A scarf and blouse made out of my hand-dyed wool 

 

Knitting in the Himalayan foothills in Kalga, Himachal Pradesh, India

 

 

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