Of Woods and Words: Knitting: Nature or Nurture?

Ada's knitting bag
Ada's knitting bag

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The other day I was in Duluth at one of the outdoor gear and apparel stores, poking through the selection of discounted wool socks when I overheard the conversation taking place at the checkout counter. As the clerk extolled the virtues of the article of winter clothing a woman had just purchased, the woman admitted she’d just moved to Minnesota from southern California. She seemed a little nervous about the whole thing.

“Get snow tires,” advised the clerk. “Wear layers.” The clerk paused for dramatic effect. “And,” she said. “Take up knitting.”

Over in the sock department, I nodded to myself. It sounded like good advice.

But the more the clerk talked with the woman at the counter, the more knitting started to sound like a coping mechanism. To hear the clerk tell it, knitting up scarves and mittens could be the maker or breaker of a Minnesota winter. The clerk kept using phrases like “that’s what gets us through,” and “it’s keeps us together.”

Oh dear, I thought to myself: what if the thread that keeps Minnesotans sane is as breakable as a strand of wool yarn?

In recent years the hip-ness of knitting has risen decidedly. As a young Minnesotan, I feel it’s safe to say that nearly all of my peers have some familiarity with either knitting or crocheting. I’d always assumed the high frequency of knitters among my friends was a reflection on the general nerdiness of the company I keep. As I listened to the clerk talk, I recognized knitting for what it truly was: a placebo to ward off feelings of insecurity and helplessness that would surely otherwise ensue in this northern climate.

All joking aside, Minnesotans are a pretty hardy bunch. I’m positive there’s something beyond knitting that keeps us in one piece all year. But as I consider the high ratio of knitters in our particular population, it seems there could be something instinctive about the fiber arts in these parts.

All knitters must begin knitting because something sparked their interest in it. My mother taught me to knit years ago and as time passed, knitting has become a significant hobby for me. Knitting may not be an inherent skill, but with a little nurture, knitting can start to feel like nature.

But what is it that makes us a region of ferocious knitters? From the time the leaves start to turn colors in the fall until the leaves bud out again in spring, knitting needles clack across the county. There seems to be an impulse to make warm things for ourselves and our loved ones. As our projects progress, there’s a satisfaction that comes from having something tangible growing in our hands, regardless of the season.

As the seasons shift towards summer, many people stick their knitting needles in a ball of yarn and tuck away their knitting basket until next fall. Vows are made to finish that sweater . . . next winter. But just because the days grow longer, I’m not sure that the knitting instinct goes away. Instead, I think it gets channeled into other things, like flower beds.

Because at its heart, I think the key to the knitting conundrum may be more than a desire to create warm garments in a cold climate. I think the root of our fascination with knitting could stem from a desire to turn something unremarkable, like a ball of yarn, into something spectacular, like a sweater. And it has something to do with watching patterns, designs and beauty unfold in our hands.

Regardless of whether or not you knit, you might share in the impulse that makes knitting nature for so many others. I think the impulse is transferable to other aspects of life. It could be why we knit and garden and farm and write and volunteer for community radio stations. Because even in the deepest snow or muckiest muck, Minnesotan sanity often hangs in helping things to grow.

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