How My Mother Learned to Knit

One cool winter morning in 1932, my mother, Helen, arrived at her fourth-grade class at the Marks Street School in Orlando, Florida, wearing a bright red kimono jacket with wide seed-stitch bands around the edges.
Helen at age nine

One cool winter morning in 1932, my mother, Helen, arrived at her fourth-grade class at the Marks Street School in Orlando, Florida, wearing a bright red kimono jacket with wide seed-stitch bands around the edges. As she glowed in the warmth of classmates’ admiration, she told everyone that she had knit it herself. This was not the entire truth, because her grandmother May Gratz had designed the jacket and allowed Helen to knit some stockinette rows. Grandma May had finished the harder parts, but she kept quiet. She wasn’t willing to ruin the magic of the sweater for Helen at a time when Helen and the rest of her family needed all the magic they could get.

This story came from Helen’s knitting memoir, which she wrote a half century later. In it she stated, “There was always knitting in my life.” She had two great knitting teachers, her grandmother May, who raised her during the Great Depression, and Elizabeth Zimmermann, who was our neighbor on East Wood Place in Shorewood, Wisconsin, during the 1950s. May taught Helen how to knit, purl, read a pattern, recognize the properties of different yarns, and combine knitting techniques to create attractive styles. More importantly, her grandmother taught her how to use knitting to express caring and love, and she taught Helen how to knit to comfort herself and others during difficult times. Decades later, Elizabeth Zimmermann brought greater sophistication and a “big-picture” approach to my mother’s knitting, inspiring confidence and imagination that would sustain her for a lifetime.

May Gratz

Grandma May had an encyclopedic knowledge of needlework that she shared with Helen, starting when Helen was very young. May herself had learned to knit as a child growing up on a New Jersey farm, where she acquired skills that were passed down to generations of farm youngsters without patterns, sketches, or notes. These included the practical techniques required to turn out socks, sweaters, jackets, skirts, petticoats, and blankets—all necessities in a rural household. May also knew a great deal about dressmaking before the advent of women’s ready-to-wear, when the production of a single dress required meticulous sizing along with numerous fabric and design choices. Finally, during the 1930s and 1940s, boom years for the hand knitting industry, May kept up with the glamorous, sophisticated, high-fashion design and new materials. May utilized all these sources of to knit for her family and to teach my mother to knit.

Helen would encounter her second great knitting mentor, Elizabeth Zimmermann, in adulthood, decades later. But in 1932, my mother, a bright-eyed little girl with a quick smile and a dark, glossy Buster Brown haircut, was knitting her very first projects. In school, Helen was eager to make friends but a little shy. She was younger than her classmates and acutely aware of the things that made her different: her Jersey twang, for example, contrasted with the Southern drawl she heard all around her. Although Floridian friends treated the Gratzes with great warmth and kindness, Helen often sensed that her family was different.

Helen and her younger brother, Stuart, had been born during the Great Florida Land Rush to young, adventurous parents who had come to Florida as speculators at Crystal River. When the boom turned to bust, the marriage ended, leaving their mother, Marion, alone and penniless, with two small children to care for. In 1926, Helen’s grandparents Lawrence Lincoln (LL) and May left their lifelong New Jersey home to rescue Marion and care for their grandchildren. LL, a retired schoolteacher, set up a realty business in Orlando. Marion went to Gainesville to earn her Florida teaching certificate. While she taught school, LL bought and sold houses and Grandmother May kept his books, managed the household, and raised the grandchildren.

My mother described her grandmother as the “rock that I thrived on.” Helen wrote, “She was the one always there while Mother was teaching … and always there after school, often with apple crisp.” “I [still] see her knitting … through the ever-present thunder and lightning which scared her so, setting a calm example for our all too wide eyes.” There was always knitting or crochet work within May’s reach, and Helen probably knit her first stitches in May’s lap.

By the time my mother graduated from high school in 1940, she was a skilled knitter, who knit under the covers “obsessively into the night,” at first propping a flashlight under her chin and later knitting in the dark. She was ready and able when the US entered World War II (1939-1945), and hand knitting for the war effort became a patriotic act. “Remember Pearl Harbor. Purl harder,” exhorted an award-winning WPA poster silk-screened in lemon yellow. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt initiated the Red Cross knitting program and was proclaimed the official “First Knitter.” Oversized knitting bags, like the one Mrs. Roosevelt carried, became a badge of honor.

Millions of Americans were listening to the radio on VJ Day when my father, Charles, sailed into Tokyo Harbor on the first American ship to come to port, the USS San Diego. Both Helen and Charles returned to school after the War where they met and married in Princeton NJ. Within a few years, they lived in Puerto Rico, then to Arizona, Alabama, Texas, and Louisiana, as they followed my father’s job as a government consultant. By the time they settled in Shorewood, Wisconsin, in 1954, they had two small children and a third on the way.

When my mother took up her knitting needles again in Shorewood, she made a deeply fortunate discovery: she had an extraordinary neighbor on East Wood Place named Betty Zimmermann, who quickly became her knitting mentor. “Betty” was Elizabeth Zimmermann would inspire hundreds of thousands of knitters worldwide through her Schoolhouse Press publications, her public television shows, and her revolutionary approach to knitting design. When my mother met her, Elizabeth was knitting the first Aran sweater patterns to appear in American magazines, and writing the first copies of her newsletter. In the following years, Elizabeth would buy two old schoolhouses in rural Wisconsin, where she would eventually locate Schoolhouse Press.

Knitting with Ms. Zimmermann

Geographically separated from longtime friends and family, my mother was somewhat rootless at this time. Elizabeth fostered a different sense of connection by helping Helen to recognize the deep cultural and historical roots of handknitting. In Elizabeth, my mother found a mentor who brought intellect, artistry, great originality, initiative, and an international flavor to handknitting.

Elizabeth strengthened my mother’s belief in herself. Helen wrote that “Betty changed my approach to knitting forever … she scorned dependence on books.” Elizabeth’s slogan was “Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises.” And though my mother had some failures, notably a set of knit swimsuits for me and my sisters that immediately unraveled in the cold waters of the Wisconsin Dells, her many knitting successes – hats, mittens, cable and fair-isle sweaters – were due in part to Elizabeth’s influence. Helen’s sense of humor and penchant for storytelling transformed these failures into a different kind of success.

Helen had one particular bonnet that she knitted to welcome new babies into the world, as well as for new little friends, to welcome them into our lives. This Norwegian-like bonnet had a special history for my mother. In 1954, when my third sibling was born, Elizabeth had knitted “three of those caps for the three little heads.” When Helen’s third child was born “[Betty] knit three of those caps for the three little heads.” My mother copied these bonnets and went on to knit many more, along with ski caps using the same bold color pattern. (Elizabeth’s original design was a bonnet with strings; in the 1970’s, Helen designed a ski-cap variation.)

The two-color knitting in the cap produced warm, cheerful-looking garments well-suited to Wisconsin’s dark, frigid winters. By 1960 I had a new baby brother, and two more babies followed. My mother picked up her needles periodically to produce bonnets and caps and knit us sweaters. Then breast cancer struck, and she found herself fighting for her life.

During this difficult time, she worked on a gray wool cable sweater. After treatment, when her doctor told her that she would survive, she put her knitting aside for more than a decade, as if to banish the terror and pain of this time period. She took up scuba diving, which brought back memories of her childhood in Florida; she also became a photographer, a college English teacher, and a world traveler. Later, she said regretted the lost knitting time in spite of all her other explorations.

In the 1980s, when Helen’s first grandchildren arrived, she picked up her needles again, knitting bonnets and ski caps for a new generation of babies. She also began to design and knit afghans for my father and all her adult children, carefully selecting colors from yarns she had been collecting. The blankets were made up of four-inch (10.2 cm) squares that were sewn together in designs that she planned as if the afghans were canvasses, meditations on Paul Klee’s “Magic Squares” series and Frank Stella’s bands of color, among other images. She wrote that “the colors themselves became almost vibrant for me … made me feel like singing.”

However, when she began her “first design of diagonal bands of four-inch squares of varying muted shades … bands of smoky, heathery maroons and teal,” she was already quite ill again. She wrote that the small squares “despite all the sewing to put them together, were almost a necessity. Still trembling a bit from all the medication and weakness, I couldn’t hold much more at the time.” On the anatomical level, she believed she “needed the meshing of nerves and muscle necessary to pull off physical process of knitting,” which restored “tracks of purpose temporarily devastated by medication and weakness.” Maybe she remembered Elizabeth Zimmermann’s directive to “knit on.”

Before my mother Helen’s death in 1991, she completed a number of afghans, still feeling “energy stream in my fingers” in spite of her weakness. She left us a memoir recounting lessons from her great knitting teachers, lessons about the magic of knitting and its power to inspire confidence and imagination. The memoir also reflects a lifetime of imaginative ideas and happy memories that, along with her afghans and her heart-and-zigzag hat, are a cherished part of the knitting legacy Helen bequeathed to her family and the world.

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