There are many satisfactions, but one of the rarest, in an age of near-instant gratification where anything from anywhere is available to anyone with the money to buy it, is making something with your own hands. Particularly something beautiful, complex, and requiring both what my husband calls “cow patience” and an aesthetic attention to detail. Creating something by hand tells you a great deal about yourself and your world.
In November 2010, I began knitting my first Shetland lace shawl. This involved knitting some 125,000 stitches on a pair of 3 mm needles with 1975 meters (1.22 miles) of yarn that weighed 150 grams. The first step in this project was to knit 84 points of edging, each 360 stitches for a total of 30,240 stitches. After the first ten points, when I understood the pattern, I began saying, I hate this! When I finished the points, I took a deep breath and said, 95,000 stitches to go! I hate doing this! But I persevered, and as the beautiful deep border of the shawl began to emerge from my needles, I stopped hating it. Knitting the beautiful center onto the top of the lower border and up the border stitches as I went—the traditional construction is to sew each side of the center to the border; no thank you—was addictive and I was torn between wanting the project to end so I could wear my shawl and never wanting the project to end for the sheer satisfaction of making something so delicate and complex with nothing more than two pointed sticks and some pretty string. When I blocked my shawl on 2 July, which is to say, washed it, wetting it thoroughly, then pinned it out to dry under tension, I saw each and every tiny error, everything I could have done better and will do better the next time, because knitting this shawl has been one of the most challenging and worthwhile things I have ever done. Wearing it in public—it feels like feathers—is very strange. It feels as ostentatious as wearing Buccellatti on the bus. Except that I made this, I did not buy it.
Pattern: Granny Cheyne’s Shetland Shawl The true color
When I began knitting in the summer of 2006, I had shopped at consignment and thrift stores for years as a statement of principle. I wanted to buy American, which was increasingly difficult to do, so I did the next best thing and bought second-hand. Since I had taught myself to knit a decade before, making my own clothing was a logical next step. I was soon bitten by the lace bug and in the summer of 2009, I began deliberately working my way towards an exceedingly complex pattern, Sharon Miller’s Princess Shawl; it will be the next pattern I buy.
In short, I have had the satisfaction of doing what I set out to do five years ago this summer, just as I had the satisfaction of writing Women in the Line of Fire and my first novel (I am now at work on my third). Just as I became a writer, I have become a craftswoman: if it can be knit, I can make it. And in the process, I have learned a great deal about civilization, which is not the hot air being spouted in many a university, whether it is about art or literature in the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, war in the Departments of Military Science and Aerospace Studies, or a modern economy in the Departments of Economics and the Schools of Businesses. What I have learned about civilization is the infinite capacity for taking pains, as well as the sense of beauty, required to learn a skill, master it, and soon, I think, begin adding to it with my own patterns. (I have one in mind.) And not once, amongst these satisfactions, have I hurt my country or my culture, despite the fact that the surest way for Americans to make money has been, for decades now, to hurt our country and our culture.
The bitterness of that knowledge haunts and stalks America now and there is no easy, short-term cure for it. The only cure for the harm itself is for each of us who can—I am not speaking of those trying to cobble together a living on three part-time jobs, or barely surviving on unemployment or disability or Social Security—to master a craft.
Obviously, it is both emotionally and intellectually important for a human being to be able to look at something beautiful and useful and think, I made that! But mastering the ability to make something that is both beautiful and useful is also moral and economic statement. That statement says to the marketers and manufacturers of the mountains of cheap, imported goods that choke us: What do I need you for? Most importantly, mastering a craft says to our ruling—I cannot even call it governing—imperium: I create.
I invite you to take a break from all the garbage, especially the material and intellectual garbage, that now chokes America for about the next year and a half—I pick that time frame only because I plan to finish the Princess Shawl by about December 2012—and with that time and money, commit yourself to making something useful and beautiful for yourself or for someone you love. If, at the end of that year, you wish to reject craftsmanship for garbage, the garbage will be waiting for you.