Knitting in a Time of Mass Upheaval: Remembering Madame Defarge

One of my favorite books is A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. In this novel, set during the turmoil of the French Revolution, my favorite scenes are those of Madame Defarge, sitting and knitting while all hell breaks out around her. Yes, she’s one of the villains, and yes she’s knitting the names of those on the revolutionaries’ death list into her work. But the whole idea of sitting and knitting in the midst of chaos has always spoken to me.

Here we are again. For those of us of a certain age, we’ve seen this film. We know this plot: evil dictator reigns down terror on innocent population. This time, we see it in real time on TV. Things will change and change quickly in coming days. So it’s time for self care (again). It’s time to just sit still and knit.

Knitting allows you to put worry aside, focus simply on the movement of your hands, and truly live in the moment. All you need to think about, just for a few moments, is whether you need to be knitting or purling at this specific second of your life. You might get a sweater or scarf out of it, but what it really gets you is a state of peace and calm amongst the madness of a world in turmoil.

Maybe you, like Madame Defarge, are knitting while you watch major world events unfold around you. Maybe, like Madame Defarge, you’re keeping score and thinking where you’d like to put one of those knitting needles. Or maybe you’re just knitting for a few minutes to find a little bit of peace, trying to get through the day without freaking out.

In any case, do take up those knitting needles and take a few minutes to breathe. Take a few minutes to calm down.

With prayers for peace, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

Legal Disclosures: I provide links to products (including books I have written), and as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases (which means I may get a very small fee if you click through the link and buy something).

Knitting and Praying for the Russian Soul

I’ve spent a lot of time knitting and fretting and praying over situations in Russia, and here we are again. 

For me, the act of knitting is oddly intertwined with Russian culture and its wildly volatile social fabric. My favorite story about knitting – and prayer – involves a Russian woman who went to her priest, feeling spiritually out of whack. The priest told her to sit in front of an icon for an hour a day and just silently knit. She did that, and soon enough, she was spiritually right as rain. I’ve followed that advice many times in the last twenty or so years, knitting and silently, wordlessly praying. 

For a time, I knitted and prayed for my soon-to-be-adopted son, a tiny, malnourished little boy abandoned by his birth parents and left in the custody of an orphanage on the Arctic Coast of Russia. While I waited for a date to leave on what would become the most momentous trip of my life, I knitted. I made hats and scarves for the children in this orphanage, one after the other, soaking up my stress and my hopes and my worries. Then, while I waited to leave on my second trip to bring my son home, I knitted again, this time making adult sized scarves for the orphanage staff, the kind souls caring for my son. I knitted and prayed that all would go well, that we would be able to bring home our little son without all the hassles and things-that-could-wrong. 

I had reason to knit and pray a lot during those trips. The government of Russia is not friendly to strangers. My husband and I were under constant surveillance while we were there. Moments after we checked into a hotel, the CNN broadcast froze on the TV screen (the better to hear you with, my dears). When we met our adoption facilitators, men suddenly appeared out of nowhere to intently listen in, finding out where we were going and where we were staying. The hotel in Moscow had a Red Army watching and listening post in the lobby. The hotel maid felt free to come in and check on us without knocking, without asking. 

On the way out to the airport to leave, we were stopped and asked for papers at 4:30 in the morning. After my husband and our new baby and I passed passport control at the airport, my ten-year-old children were held back as the officer took her sweet time checking data base after data base, making sure they weren’t Russian adoptees leaving illegally on American passports. Hundreds of people were held up behind us as we stood on the other side of the border, waiting and hoping our children would soon step over the border after us. I have never been so relieved as the moment the door to that big Lufthansa jet slammed shut and the plane pulled away from the gate, taking us to the safety of the West. 

But that wasn’t the end. When we visited a toy store in Times Square in New York, a man appeared out of the blue, snapped my son’s photo, then disappeared just as quickly. A friend and I were very obviously followed in the Washington, D.C. area. Several times in the last 17 years, I have felt under surveillance and followed here in Knoxville. 

But in juxtaposition to this harassment by the Russian government, I also have stories of pure Russian kindness and humanity. My adoption facilitators took wonderful care of us and gave my son gifts out of their own pockets. One of them asked me to explain the concept of Christian baptism as we stood on a street corner in St. Petersburg. She listened intently and earnestly. 

On the tarmac in Arkhangelsk, an Aeroflot flight attendant saw me holding a baby in the cold wind, at the back of the line, and whisked me up to the front and up the steps to the plane to keep him warm. As I stepped off the airport bus onto an icy tarmac in Moscow, a number of arms suddenly reached out to steady me, to make sure I didn’t slip and fall while holding my precious new baby against my chest. 

This is the Russian soul I now pray for as I sit and knit through the terror of the Ukrainian invasion. I pray for the Mother Russia who loves her babies and children and doesn’t want them to even get cold. I pray for the kind of Russian people who work in the orphanages at low pay and terrible hours and do the best they can with little resources. I pray for the boys aging out of the orphanages in Russia and sent straight into the Red Army, because that’s what happens to the little boys who don’t get adopted and are turned out with no job skills. 

I pray for the extraordinarily brave Russian people taking to the streets to protest their government’s completely unwarranted invasion of a neighboring country. Things do not go well for those who speak out against the Russian government. I pray for the Russia that could be, the Russia that just wants to live in peace and have enough money for food. 

As I sit and knit today, I pray that the evil yoke of oppression will soon be lifted, both from the shoulders of Russia and of Ukraine. I pray for the good that is in Russia to prevail. 

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

DIY Knitting Design – When You Can’t Find a Pattern That’s Just Right

You may have heard that knitted vests are all the rage these days. I’ve seen quite a number of knitted vests and armless tunics featured in fashion magazines, though I haven’t really seen many in the stores yet. 

Honestly, I haven’t worn a knitted vest since around 1987. Would I wear one again? I just might. If I could find a pattern I liked….

With plenty of yarn at my disposal (my yarn cabinet overflows), I have many yarn options available. The problem? I can’t find a pattern that works. I searched high and low on Ravelry for a free pattern. But everything on offer featured complicated details, the dreaded short rows, or intricate stitching that would ruin my eyesight. The few I liked called for fingerling yarn (too small) or bulky (too large). I just couldn’t find that Goldilocks “just right” pattern.

As I’ve found many times in my knitting life, sometimes it’s just easier to make up your own pattern that works for you. In fact, unless you have EXACTLY the yarn called for in a pattern – which is rare – you might save yourself a lot of time searching through the multitude of patterns on the web by scribbling out your own design.

It’s not that hard to come up with your own design. Here’s my process:

  • Identify a favorite sweater that fits just right. It can be store bought and manufactured.
  • Measure it. Write down the width and the length of the body, along with the dimensions of the arms and the neck.
  • Knit a swatch and determine the gauge. How many stitches to an inch? Multiply the dimensions of the favorite sweater by your gauge, subtracting stitches for neckline, armpits, and so forth. If you’re off, forgive yourself and carry on. 
  • Use your favorite stitches to give your garment some zing. I usually do this as I go.

Do you need pages-long instructions and umpteen books to do DIY Knit Design? Nope. What I find most helpful are bare bones charts for top-down sweaters (telling me how many stitches to increase on top and how many stitches to put on a lifeline for the arms) and a comprehensive stitch dictionary. Here are my current go-to sources:

As a knitter, you have skills. You have the ability to make precisely what you want. Go for it!

Blessings on your DIY Designs, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

How Do You Knit Socks?

When I knitted my first socks two years ago, the entire process of making socks was a mystery. What’s a gusset? What’s a heel turn or a heel flap, and are those two different things? What’s this Kitchener stitch everyone talks about with reverence and awe but can never seem to remember?

My first pair of socks found me, as I signed up for a subscription service that sent a sock kit as the new subscriber freebie. I had pondered trying to knit a pair of socks for some time, but even as an experienced knitter, I couldn’t figure out how in the world the process worked. But I gamely got myself an outrageously small set of circular needles and dove in.

This first pattern I tackled featured an “afterthought” heel. You make the body of the sock and go back and knit the heel afterwards. This process includes putting in a lifeline and the terrifying act of pulling the lifeline out on this project you’ve toiled over for a week, trying to get the thing back on your toothpick sized needles. I survived the experience, presented my husband with the cozy wool socks he had asked for years ago, but pondered whether I would have the nerve to knit another pair.

A month later, I gathered myself and tried another sock pattern. This time, mercifully, there were no afterthought heels or any other high wire acts involving life lines. As I got to the heel flap (whatever that was), I slavishly followed the instructions through a mystifying process of slip stitches, picked up stitches around a tiny rectangle, and a series of decreases that somehow looked like an increasingly larger triangle. But finally, I successfully rounded the corner of the heel and ended up with a piece of knitting that actually looked like the embryo of a sock. I even mastered the Kitchener stitch and sewed up the toe neat and pretty.

Was this steep learning curve worth the effort? Oh yes. Hand-knitted socks are a luxury on par with hot chocolate made with real cream and topped with high-end marshmallows. On a cold day, nothing compares.

I admit I have not tried any more afterthought heels. Life seems too short to deal with lifelines when you don’t have to. But who knows what the future holds? Live dangerously once in a while. I do like the color contrasts you get when you make the heel a different color, so I might give it another go one of these days.

Want to learn to make socks?

  • This is my go to resource for sock knitting – a classic, in my opinion: Getting Started Knitting Socks by Ann Budd. It includes everything you need to know about knitting socks. Invaluable is an extensive stitch dictionary for adding pizzaz to your socks. You can make them as plain or fancy as you want.
  • Want to try a new method? A new book with a new and innovative method is coming out soon, Knit 2 Socks in 1 by Safiyyah Talley. I’ve gotten a pre-publication peek at this book. You basically make one long tube, then make a cuff, a toe, and afterthought heels later.

Will I try afterthought heels and the dreaded lifelines again? Maybe. The beauty of trying and succeeding something challenging is that you gain both mastery and a new sense of confidence in your work. Worth it? Oh yes.

Blessing to those trying new knitting techniques! Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

Legal Disclosures: I provide links to products (including books I have written), and as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases (which means I may get a very small fee if you click through the link and buy something).

Knitted Socks – The New Luxury Accessories?

I’m always amused by what the New York City media discovers as new, hip, and exciting – pleasures the rest of have experienced for years. I’ve rolled my eyes in the recent past as the New York media has discovered Krispy Kreme doughnuts, heirloom tomatoes, the joys of shopping at Target, and the saintliness and cultural significance of Dolly Parton. 

So I shouldn’t have been a bit surprised when I opened the weekend edition of a major New York publication this past Saturday to see that “fancy socks” are the new fashion hot ticket. The subtitle of the article of the publication’s fashion page speaks of “fashion hosiery” as the next best thing which will – gasp – even rival your fab “five-figure handbag.” (What universe does this writer live in?)

I sighed, gazing at the lovely ankle socks featured on the newsprint in front of me. Those bright green socks on the end, I thought, look like a pair I knitted just a couple of months ago. I had no idea I was so hip, so fashion forward. 

Despite my eye rolls, I have to agree with the assessment of socks as high luxury. I knitted my first socks about two years ago. Socks are not easy, they take a while to knit, and do a number on your eyesight. But I decided right then and there that handknitted, custom made socks were the most luxurious things I had ever put on my body. As I slipped on my first pair of all-wool, handknit socks, I audibly groaned in pleasure. And they fit perfectly…because they were made to measure for my very own feet. 

But we knitters knew this all along, didn’t we? Bold, bright colors – we’ve already got that yarn in our stashes. Sparkles and intricate patterns – heck, we use those design elements as a matter of course. 

We’re just glad the New York media is finally getting a clue.

*Update! I tried to publish this blog post twice, but I found it “trashed” and blocked on my social media platforms. Hmmm…some really large publisher doesn’t like anything even close to criticism???

Happy Sock Knitting, Cindy

P. S. There’s a new sock knitting book coming out soon, Knit 2 Socks in 1, by Safiyyah Talley. Publication date is March 1. 

This method of knitting socks is an interesting concept is you’re a fairly accomplished knitter and want to try something new and different. The concept is to knit one long tube with some safety lines, then put a toe, a cuff, and “afterthought” heels onto your set of socks later. Highly recommended for hand knitted sock aficionados who grow weary of “second sock syndrome.”

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

Legal Disclosures: I provide links to products (including books I have written), and as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases (which means I may get a very small fee if you click through the link and buy something).

The Beautiful Simplicity of One Knitting Project At A Time

I’ve often had as many as four or five knitting projects going at a time. I’ve had my “main” knitting project (usually a sweater) and my “travel” knitting project (something simple and mindless – usually a dishcloth or place mat I can work on in the school pick-up line).  I might have another project or two that involve lots of counting or an intricate pattern that requires complete silence and absence of all distraction, something you can’t work on while maintaining any social skills at all. 

But lately, I’ve discovered the beautiful simplicity of only having one knitting project going at a time. Maybe it’s the revived pandemic scares. Maybe it’s the implosion of the schools (again). Maybe I’m just figuring out that focusing on one thing at a time is crucial to my emotional well-being during this stressful time.

Whatever the reason, I’ve quite enjoyed working on one knitting project, rather than have several knitting projects scattered all over the house and in my car. I seem to enjoy knitting more when I don’t feel like I’m struggling to get one project moving along, with six others in an unfinished state. And – duh! – I get projects finished much, much faster when I direct all my efforts towards one project. This gives me a sense of accomplishment, seeing a completed sweater, shawl, or cowl I can immediately wear and enjoy, and on a regular basis of every week or so.

We’ve all seen the memes online, ridiculing ourselves for having way too many knitting projects (or WIPs – works-in-progress). Maybe it’s time to listen to ourselves and realize that more is not always more. For every WIP that’s left languishing in a work basket, there are unfulfilled aspirations and a sense of giving up. You don’t need that, not when you have enough stress in other areas of your life.

Enjoy your knitting. Enjoy that one project you chose and for which you have high hopes. Feel good in a few short days or weeks about what a great job you did on that one sweater you worked on to the exclusion of all other crafting projects.

Appreciate the simplicity and quiet time of meditative crafting that knitting gives you.

Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

Knitting in Florida

After a long, long hiatus from blogging, I’m back! After some major upheavals in my life*, I’m now a proud parttime resident of Florida – and still knitting. My knitting projects have given me an hour or so of quiet, peaceful, solace every day during this past awful year, and for that, I’m profoundly grateful.

As I packed my car for the trip down to Florida this past week, I – of course – made sure I had enough knitting projects for my time here. I had just gotten two project kits, bulky weight yarn for a cowl and a scarf. Those would be good, easy, do-able projects for my time in Florida – or so I thought.

But when I arrived, knitting scarves and cowls in bulky weight yarns was the last thing I wanted to do. The temperature was in the high 70s here in Florida, with the sun shining and the beach waiting for me to take a nice long walk in my bathing suit. I didn’t even want to touch heavy wool, much less hold it in my lap while I knitted. Those projects got stuffed back in my suitcase within minutes.

But I still wanted to knit – just something light and at least somewhat “beachy.” I settled on some lightweight, DK weight wool yarn in a cream color with blue speckles. I started a shawl project, but really, I’m “knitting-just-to-knit” with this project. I want something that weighs next to nothing, can be tucked into a beach bag, and requires little or no thinking on my part. 

So I’ve happily worked on this small, lightweight project for a week…until this morning. The temperature dropped like a brick. As I walked along the beach this afternoon, hugging myself against the cold wind, the cold water licking at my bare feet, I thought, “maybe that scarf project with bulky weight yarn might not be such a bad idea.”

Stay warm and keep knitting, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

*My husband of 37 years was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in May of 2020 and died in December of 2020. I sold the family farm, moved, and had huge responsibilities to deal with. And…I suffered writer’s block for the first time ever. Back in the saddle, I hope!

So Have You Started Your Fall Knitting Yet?

It’s mid-August, when days are getting shorter, though temperatures still hover in the hot zone. With the first whisps of fall breezes that occasionally waft by in the evenings, I’ve started to think, “what’s my first knitting project of the fall season?” 

Here in the heat and humidity of the Tennessee Valley, I haven’t thought much about wool sweaters lately. Though I’ve ordered a few skeins of wool (on sale), the thought of even touching fuzzy wools gives me hot flashes. But the time has come to get busy if I want a new project on my knitting needles at the first sign of fall leaves. 

What do the fashion magazines say is going to be in style this year? We knitters can probably whip it out pronto.

  • Cropped sweaters and jackets. In looking at fashion websites, I have seen slews of “cropped” (i.e. short, stopping at the waistline) tops, sweaters, and jackets. No problem. Just knit shorter pullovers and cardigans than you usually make. Save yarn in the process.
  • Sweater vests. I’ll believe this when I see it. I’ve seen very few of these for sale on the websites. However, I’m game, having fond memories of a navy-blue sweater vest I wore often back in the late eighties and nineties. Again, these are easy-peasy to whip out; knit a front and a back of a sweater and you’re done. 

Of course, fashion is what we actually wear and feel comfortable in. Personally, I can’t wait to pull on one of the oversized, striped wool pullover sweaters I made at the end of the season last year, along with a couple of late spring cardigans I barely wore before the temps went up.

For knitters, we make and wear what we love. If it’s considered “fashionable,” more power to us!

Happy Knitting, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

How the Pandemic Ended My Yarn Snobbery

I was a “yarn snob” for about two years. After discovering the joys of buying high quality wool, alpaca, and even silk yarns online, I gleefully knitted cardigan sweaters, pullovers, shawls, and small blankets out of the finest yarns on the planet. Of course, I also had to discover hand washing of all these lovely fibers. My crafting budget took a hit, too.

Then came the pandemic. Within a couple of months, supply lines to all these wonderful all-natural yarns came to a screeching halt. Two companies from which I had previously bought wool yarns closed or sold out. Another subscription service supplying all kinds of wonderfully squishy yarns struggled to get products out of South America. I bought up lots of yarn on clearance or going-out-of-business sales, but my days of buying wooly goodness in the form of knitting yarn were clearly over.

But my knitting was still in high gear. With reduced schedules and lots of free time around the house, I imagine I wasn’t the only one doing more knitting than usual this past year. I imagine many people took up knitting as beginners, too.

My own demand for readily available yarn quickly veered off towards good old-fashioned acrylic. Frustrated with shipping delays for the so-called “luxury yarns,” I found that I could click a couple of buttons or swing by the big box craft stores and get all the synthetic yarn I wanted. 

And is acrylic so bad, after all? I think not. It’s affordable. It’s durable. Projects I made from acrylic yarn twenty years ago still look great. And I can throw them in the washing machine AND dryer without experiencing total disasters. Yes, acrylic yarn is a by-product of the oil industry, but at least it’s used for a good purpose. Right? 

I still love to wear my warm wooly sweaters, especially during these Dogwood and Blackberry Winters of our Appalachian Spring here in Tennessee. I don’t enjoy hand washing the things. But I sure do like going out to the mailbox and getting new acrylic yarn just days after I order it!

Happy Knitting, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe

Pandemic Knitting – How it’s Changed Us As Knitters

Hello Knitters! Yes, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted on this blog. When the pandemic hit, I took a break to relax and live a very quiet life in lockdown. Then, my beloved husband was diagnosed with a rare and advanced cancer in the spring of 2020 and passed away in December. My knitting kept me sane and relatively calm, but I found myself with writer’s block for the first time in my life. It’s time to get back to writing again, so here goes. 

It’s been quite a year. Just about everything we do has been affected by the pandemic, and knitting is no exception. Here’s just a few areas where the practice of knitting has changed:

Learn-to-Knit Opportunities

Have you recently taken up knitting? If so, you’re certainly not alone. Lots of folks have taken up new crafts or sought to improve their skills. At the beginning of the pandemic, I signed onto the online learning platform Bluprint and learned to pick up stitches neatly, make button bands for cardigans, and tackle the art of short rows. Sadly, Bluprint was sold in mid-2020 and re-emerged as a new version of Craftsy. Other online learn-to-knit platforms advertise heavily on the web, reaching out to new and intermediate knitters. I just signed up for a “learn new knitting stitches” kit with Annie’s Kit Clubs. It appears that learning to knit via video is here to stay, with readily available, affordable, high quality platforms.

The Yarn Supply

Even as we have more time than ever before to knit, our collective stash may be dwindling. Sources of high-quality, all-natural yarns have been moving targets. I previously bought several kits from Kitterly, but they seem to be scaling way down (what little they offer is on deep clearance). Bluprint offered wonderful yarns, but their stash didn’t transfer to Craftsy. Knitcrate, however, has managed to keep the luxury yarns coming, despite delays in shipments from Peru and challenges with the U.S. postal system. 

If you want acrylic or other synthetic yarns, however, the big box stores seem to have plenty on offer. From my own personal experiences, the “order and pick up at the curb” services did not work. One understaffed big box store left me waiting at the curb for a half hour and never did come out with my order. (I had to go inside and stand in line.) Another big box store cancelled my order, saying they didn’t have in stock what their website said they had. But if you actually go in the big box stores, they will have plenty to choose from. 

The End of Local Yarn Shops?

Once upon a time, I went to a tiny little knit shop in Knoxville called the Knit Wits, where two sweet elderly ladies taught me to purl and how to make a sweater. They carried lovely yarns from Europe. I remember them fondly. And I may remember more local yarn stores as something I “used to frequent” before this pandemic is over. The local yarn store in my community of Farragut closed early into the pandemic. Though I’m aware that other yarn stores in the greater Knoxville area have offered curbside services and online Zoom knitting circles, I haven’t participated or taken advantage of these offerings. To stay connected to the knitting community, I’ve veered more towards large online groups on Ravelry, where’s there’s always someone online, day or night, to chat about yarn, fuss about supply issues, dream together about planned projects, and show off your finished work.

While I do support the notion of local yarn stores, I wonder if they will be able to survive in the future. The online stores offer plenty of wonderful yarns, and they almost always have all you need to finish even the largest of projects. I’ve found local yarn stores in South Carolina and North Carolina that sell their inventory on Amazon. They sent my yarn quickly, beautifully packaged, and with free shipping. Perhaps this hybrid model of “local yarn store that ships all over” is the new model that will keep the locals in business? 

All in all, the craft of knitting is in great shape, with more enthusiastic knitters worldwide than ever before. With incredible opportunities to try new yarns and connect with knitters all over the world (and more time on our hands for many of us), there’s never been a better time to knit. 

Blessings to all my knitting friends, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of The Prayer Shawl Chronicles, a collection of interrelated short stories about knitters and those they meet through knitting and sharing prayer shawls. 

Copyright 2022 Cynthia Coe