Sprites, Fairies, and Fiber
“It’s like when people used to believe that fairies or sprites steal babies,” a student in my junior English class pipes in, when we are discussing The Scarlet Letter and the strange nature of the elfish child, Pearl. The class is sitting in a circle, having a Socratic seminar. At the moment this student begins to speak, a photographer, accompanied by our vice-principal, opens to the door to my classroom. This is an unexpected visit and I’m a bit surprised when the photographer says nothing and begins shooting pictures of my students.
|I've never made something from a kit before, as I usually like to pick my own colors or use alternate fibers than those suggested in a pattern, but I loved this airy creation.|
The man with the camera is from our “central office,” a place with a top-down, bureaucratic operating style, one that in the minds of many teachers in my school system uncannily resembles the operations of the party in Orwell’s 1984. Our central office is even located in an ugly postmodern building built in the 1960s, a structure whose architecture resembles that of Stalin-era behemoth blocks. The building is located a small fraying southern town, one like so many others whose vitality was sapped by strip malls and discount stores. It towers above the 19th century courthouse and charming downtown that has been in the process of “economic revitalization” for the last 20 years or so.
I digress, however, as the topic of this blog post is neither architecture nor my school system. Rather, the visit from the photographer and the timing of his entrance into my classroom made me wonder what impression the student’s comments had on the photographer. Was he just mechanistically going through his duties, oblivious to what is actually going on in the classrooms he visited or did it strike him as odd that high school students were sitting in an intimate circle discussing changelings, fairies, and sprites? His visit also made me consider how much I enjoyed this particular student’s contribution and the fact that our classroom talk had veered a little off track. Years ago, when I taught British literature, I loved to teach the romantic poets because analyzing the poetry of Byron, Keats, Shelley, etc. and discussing their unconventional lives literally transported me from my cinder block classroom to a world of nature and romance and the supernatural. The Byronic Hero who traipsed across Italy lamenting his past spoke to my soul in a way and my yearnings for passion and adventure. Funny how I spent thirteen years teaching in the same classroom at one school and, yet, in the space of those four walls, could experience so much intense feeling and connection with other times and places.
What, one might ask, does all of this rambling about teaching and Byron have to do with knitting? In a sense, I have come to realize that knitting, like literature (and its teaching) has provided me with a kind of romantic escape from reality. I don’t live in a charming thatched cottage on the edge of some Celtic seacoast, a place where I toss on a chunky cabled sweater, pull on my Wellies, and go hike winding lanes bordered by heather or craggy ocean walks. I can’t look out my window to see wooly Icelandic sheep, nor can I sit and knit by some roaring fire near a fjord and then brave the icy cold to then soak my bones in a Scandinavian sauna. Yet, in some strange way, knitting with its meditative quality and tactile stimulation, is not just a craft or a practical pastime for me. The act of knitting and of choosing fibers and patterns provides a kind of mystical avoidance of reality and a transport to other times and places.
When I peruse a knitting store, without any particular plan for a project in mind, I am, obviously, first attracted to a yarn by its color and overall appearance. Then, of course, a yarn’s texture and its tactile qualities appeal to my senses and are usually the next things to both draw me and determine whether I make a purchase. I also always like to look a yarn’s source. When I read that fine mohair comes from Italy or the nubby tweed that I like so much is manufactured in Ireland, a slew of images and associations comes to mind. It is as if I can take home those fibers that are from places that are exotic to me, a person who lives in a nondescript vinyl-sided house in a subdivision in a suburb in North Carolina, and, for a little while, while I plan, and knit, and handle those materials, a little bit of the mystery, romance, and legend I associate with the fiber rubs off. Sometimes I imagine women hundreds of years ago, in snug cottages on dark shores, plying their craft or, at other times, more glamorous images come to mind, of elegant silk fibers and fine shawls draped over evening gowns.
While some simple projects aren’t highly connotative and don’t evoke all kinds of imaginative musings, others seem imbued with the exotic, historical, or romantic. One such project I recently completed is the Guinevere scarf, offered by Knit One, Purl Two. The airy concoction that includes a silk/mohair blend yarn has a frothy appearance and a fairytale quality, a concoction worthy of sprites and fairies. When I worked on this at a center where I take my son for math tutoring, whose waiting room was filled with parents from all over the world, I attracted a small crowd of excited women and found myself writing down information about where to purchase the kit for a woman from India and another from Nigeria. While not articulated by them, it seemed that for those women, too, the appeal of knitting went far beyond any practical desire to create necessary objects and was linked with other associations and hidden desires.