Row 1: Double crochet in third loop from hook, and in each across (49dc total). Turn.
I learn to crochet at a time when Mom’s brain is too deteriorated to care, her eyes foggy and distant, a half smile permanently on her lips. Anytime previous to this last half year of her life she would have been excited for my newfound hobby, would have put in requests for cowls and hats and other accessories that she had too many of already. Upon receiving these gifts she would have ooh’d and awh’d at my handiwork. Even in adulthood a mother’s pride means so much, and her wearing them would have been the grown-up equivalent of magnetting my drawings to the fridge.
She was diagnosed with brain tumours seven months before Christmas, when I bring my first crocheted beret home. It is surprising that she has survived longer than three months since the diagnosis. But here she is, still enjoying life, just a little less present than normal.
* * *
The origins of crochet are difficult to pin down, as many different countries claim credit for its invention. Perhaps its roots are unknown because for so long it was practiced by spinsters, housewives and girls, unimportant and unmarked people in society. It was craft, not art. It was made and used in the most pedestrian of places, the home.
* * *
I learn to crochet from a YouTube video, and am immediately hooked. I need a stress relief from my masters, and from Mom’s dying. I am starting afresh; just after Mom’s diagnosis, I left a stable small town, small school teaching job and moved to the big city with the big school to get my degree, to pursue writing. Now, lonely and overwhelmed, I can’t bring myself to write. Meanwhile, my mother and closest confidant is fading away.
I crochet constantly, on the subway, watching sitcoms, on the phone, at parties. I crochet meticulously, often unravelling hours of work upon deciding I don’t like the shape or the fit, unimpressed with the way the strands are interlocking into something I had not envisioned. It’s an activity that allows me to exert total control, to undo what had been done without hurting anything, to give and then take away. There might be a flash of regret at pulling the loops of yarn out from one another, but the feeling is fleeting as I reminded myself it isn’t worth finishing if I don’t love it. “You’re a bulimic crocheter,” my sister-in-law says. But I don’t crochet so much for the production as much as the motion: the smooth, finicky choreography of fingers, the focus of my thoughts, the rhythm providing a metronome in the chaos of conversation and background noise.
Each time I think I can expect the product to turn out a certain way. But everyone’s tension is different. There are ways to check your tension by crocheting a gauge swatch and measuring its size against the pattern’s instructions, but I never bother with those. Who has the time to test everything before you try it? I’d rather figure it out as I go, and start over if need be.
* * *
Row 2: *Skip 2 stitches, 5 double crochet third stitch, skip 2 stitches*, repeat shell pattern until end of row (10 shells in total).
Unlike knitting, crochet has never been necessary. It isn’t the most efficient use of yarn: it’s holey and bulky rather than its tightly formed and economical cousin, or foremother, depending on how you read their histories. In its origins it was used as lace to adorn collars or sleeves, or to make doilies to decorate the home. It lends itself more to ornamentation than functionality. It highlights what is already there and needed—clothing, furniture—adding intricacy to everyday objects. Crochet has not exclusively belonged to women, but by and large it was developed and practiced within women’s circles, a means of enhancing value, of connecting things and people.
* * *
My mother was a stay-at-home mom. She got her degree in home economy, which I guess is as specialized as you can be in her job. Before I was born, and in the early years of my life, she had worked in a group home with victims of domestic abuse, and then in a home for teenage mothers. Once I came along, home management was her vocation; we were her creativity. But she also found many other creative outlets: the gardens that cropped up around the lawn of our farmhouse, the kitschy and sweet tole painted angels and outdoor scenes that decorated table tops, quilts draped across the backs of couches, benches and repurposed hacksaws hanging from the walls. Her crafts filled our home and the homes of her friends. They were crafts that required planning, forethought, and patterns.
Once the three of us kids were in school, mom started talking about going back to work as a social worker, maybe opening her own counseling practice. I knew she’d be great at it—everyone who met her would open up their life story to her within a few minutes of conversation. As a child it annoyed me that when I’d have a friend over, I’d leave for a minute to go to the bathroom and come back to find the friend pouring out her soul to my mother, having the kinds of juicy conversations my friends never had to me.
“But I’d have to go back to school and get my masters,” Mom said. “You should do that!” I said. I had my own ambitions of grad school, and my own sense of what a woman should do with her time, with her vocation. “I think I will,” she said. Every now and again I would bring it up, and she would say she was thinking about it. “I’m nervous about going back to school,” she said, “about starting over.” “You’ll be fine,” I’d say. “Not this year,” she would say.
Years later she found another social worker friend who looked to my mother as a mentor. They talked about doing their masters together, starting afresh. Then cancer came and Mom ran out of time.
* * *
Row 3: Continue the same as rows 1 and 2 until you’ve reached the desired length. Fasten off.
For the Irish during the potato famine, crocheted lace became an important means of income. The intricate netting connecting flowers and shamrocks and leaves composed wedding dresses and formal wear for well-to-do women around the world. As is the case with much of fashion today, those doing the hands-on labour didn’t wear their work, but would gain enough to live off by selling it to others whose time was considered not worth the work but whose bodies were considered worthy of the adornment.
* * *
As I start to seek more challenging patterns, my thread became thinner and thinner. I am drawn to projects that are intricate and ornate. I begin visiting the shop of the Portuguese lady in the neighbourhood, whose tiny store carries shelves of tightly wrapped coloured cotton. The windows and walls are draped with large lace table clothes like gargantuan snowflakes. It is heartbreaking and wonderful to see something that modern machines could make in the course of an hour, which has taken a retired woman the course of two years to make, and to know that few will ever give it the attention it deserves. But there they hang, to be admired by those of us who know the craft.
Sometimes her friend is there with her, sitting on a wooden chair behind the cash, where her fingers and hook fidget along a sprawling bedspread. “I just hope to finish it before I die,” the elderly woman says. “I doubt I can take it with me and finish it there.”
If we cannot crochet in the afterlife, I want to say, I don’t know what I’ll do. But of course it isn’t polite to confirm that a person is near death, especially one who looks to be in good health and whose hands still wiggle about unplagued by arthritis, and so I say, “I’m sure you’ll make many more beautiful things after this one is finished.”
* * *
Row 4-end: Look for mistakes in your work. Count them. Count them against the hours you’ve spent reaching your desired length. Weigh whether or not to unravel the whole thing. Start unraveling. Think better of it and stop. Too late now—might as well roll it all into a ball and start and new project.
In perusing crochet blogs and forums, I come across an unfamiliar neologism: frogging. Example: “This was way bigger than I intended, so I frogged it.” The meaning becomes evident in context—to undo the work one has done on a project in order to reuse the yarn for something else. Crocheters, knitters and needle-workers use this phrase, often attributing its origins to the repeated ripping out of stitches: the instruction to “rip it, rip it, rip it” is reminiscent of the frog’s croaking “ribbit.” Crochet is a forgiving craft: frogging is a simple process as stitches pull apart easily. Then you can start afresh.
* * *
In the early morning hours after Mom’s death, I am on the verge of hyperventilation until I pick up my yarn and hook. My breathing continues shallow and pulsing as my hands begin to work, but like breathing into a paper bag, the timing of the gestures and requirement of slight concentration bring my mind and body back into alignment. I make a too big toque, frog it. Make a too small toque, frog it. Make an uninspired scarf. Frog it.
I would take my crochet project to the funeral would it not make me look uncaring. There are expectations around the craft of mourning. The evening before the funeral, I sit in the living room with my sisters-in-law looking through old family photos. We are laughing when an aunt comes into the room to pay her respects. She sits down for a minute, bursts into tears, and then says, “I guess I just knew her longer than the rest of you.”
Funeral tears are meant to be shown and shared. When they do not come naturally, we fear our mourning will go unnoticed. Mourning often feels so unnecessary. At Mom’s funeral I cry, but feel dried out inside. The tears are ornamental. They are tears to be shown, tears to be shared.
* * *
Sit with the futility of your gestures. Recognize you needed to do it, even if nothing came of it all.
I begin dating someone a few months later, someone who doesn’t seem particularly interested in me. I tell him as much. In an attempt to prove me wrong, he informs me he has researched my obsessive hobby. He tells me about the origins of the craft of crochet, a bourgeois pass-time spawned by an over-abundance of cotton in America and a need to put it to good use. Upper and middle class women needed activities to fill their many hours of leisure and desired pretty things, and so began a trend towards making decorative trim and tablecloths. Or at least, this is what I understand him to be saying.
His description makes me defensive. To endow handicrafts with significance—I argue—to appreciate the legacy of women’s contribution to household items, is to appreciate women, whose roles have for so long been relegated to the domestic, their productions understood as trivial frippery rather than artistry.
“Maybe not so much for crochet,” I say, “but for much of history, women (at least those of the working class) participated in craft out of necessity, to provide clothing or bedding to their families. It was an act of love and provision.”
“Sure—I’m not discounting that,” he says. “I just thought I’d tell you about what I learned so that you knew I was interested.” He sighs as he realizes his research did not yield the desired outcome.
“I guess now,” I say, “craft is an indulgence. It’s not something we need, but something we do because we can.” But I want to see it as a feminist activity. It doesn’t seem sufficient reason to invest all this time simply for the sake of enjoyment, for the sake of my mental health.
* * *
I thought it a waste that Mom never went back to work, to unravel the life she had built and begin something afresh. Years later, in the days when I became fascinated with the concept of “calling,” I heard someone say, “I feel like I am called to be a friend.” I thought of Mom, of the hours spent on the phone or in our living room coaching friends through difficult marriages, the days devoted to crafts or gardens, the time spent mentoring women, the years taking care of her aging mother, the decades devoted to her children. I did not mourn the waste.
* * *
Start afresh. Chain 8. Connect in a loop to first chain. Double and single crochet intermittently to make a flower. Now make a starfish. Now make something unrecognizable. Experiment, play around, set your wrist and yarn free. Did you create something original, breathtaking, artistic? Probably not. Unravel again.
Some attribute the eventual popularity of crochet lace to Queen Victoria’s wearing it, having received a piece of Irish lace as a gift. Before this time it was viewed as a cheap substitute for traditional lace, but with her embracing it, it quickly became a fashionable statement. She was, in fact, influential in de-stigmatizing the craft itself as she took it up as a hobby. Some say it helped her cope with the death of her beloved Albert.
* * *
Unlike the ladies at the Portuguese yarn shop, I am less interested in crochet for household decor and rather inclined towards clothing and accessories. I spend a year making a grey lace dress with a leafy symmetrical pattern descending along the torso. I cobble it together from a variety of pictures found online without any clear instructions. This trial and error means of developing a pattern are a large source of the joy of it—it is like assembling the torn up sections of a treasure map. A row takes twenty-five minutes, if I’m fast. At a third of the way through I’ve done one hundred rows. I take it with me everywhere in a fabric thrift store bag with an owl on it.
One day, after nearly completing the torso, I return home from running errands and open my owl bag to find only my crochet hook. I tear apart my room looking for the half-completed dress, but cannot find it. In a panic, I run back into the evening air, retracing my steps, fearing I somehow dropped it on the subway tracks. When I finally arrive back at the station, I see it spread out along the floor beside the revolving door. Someone has broken the thread and taken the remaining grey ball, but has thoughtfully left the rest of the project in tact. I pick up the precious fabric, run my fingers across it, notice a few rows have been pulled away. This is why you always buy extra yarn, because someone might covet what you have not used of it and take it.
I take the final product to show the ladies at the Portuguese yarn shop. They ooh and awh and give me the attention my mother would have. “I could not make something like this,” they say. “Of course you could,” I say, gesturing to their pieces on the wall. The bell at the door dings and a man in scrappy clothing who walks with swaying steps saunters up to the counter beside us. “I was wondering if I could just leave you with a bit of literature about Jesus and his love,” he says, dropping some dirty tracts on the counter. “Of course,” says the lady. “Thanks, and God bless!” he says as he twists away and sways out the door. “We could all use a little more Jesus,” she says.
I think of Christ’s instructions not to “store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I think about the expansive tablecloths and dresses that take uncounted hours to make, and wonder, can something be both a treasure on earth and a treasure in heaven? I am afraid of indulgence, garnish, extravagance. It seems self-serving. But perhaps the expression of affection—the detailing displayed in the home or on the body—that brings sparks of joy, perhaps this is enough. Perhaps it is enough to have a conversation starter, an act of discipline, a handmade display of grief or joy.
Go back to making flowers. Spread them across your mother’s grave. Wonder if it’s better to have flowers that smell or flowers that last at least a season or three before the snow covers them and then, in the melt of spring, the birds may gather the tattered remains for their nests, their chicks warm and surrounded in lace, the way you once were.
Melissa was raised on a chicken farm in a small town in Southern Ontario. She has a Masters of English in the Field of Creative Writing from University of Toronto. She writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work has been published in literary journals such as The Puritan, Grain, Ryga, Qwerty, and Joyland. She was a finalist for the Rusty Toque Chapbook competition. Her first book, The Whole Beautiful World, is a collection of short stories, published by Brindle and Glass. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, with her husband, Mark, and son, Elliott.