Elizabeth Zimmermann, Of Course

If ever there were a time to lean on her wisdom, this is it.

Last week I wrote about a feeling that seems to be a very common one among crafters these days: a generalized lack of energy or desire to make anything at all. Even as I recognize that making things helps me feel better when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed or untethered.

After I wrote to you, I decided I’d try to start the kind of project I think of as therapy knitting. I did this last spring, in the early days of the crushing uncertainty and stress of the pandemic, when I cast on a garter-stitch shawl.

That shawl got me through those months, and into the summer, and at some point I finished it and gave it to my dearest friend. Though I hadn’t started out intending to make the shawl a gift, it seemed fitting to have taken the comfort in making those stitches, and then to pass the comfort of wearing the shawl on to someone I love.

After that, I’ve made a few things, but nothing in the category of therapy knitting. Nothing big, with lots of simple stitching and very little thought involved. Nothing involving mindless, rhythmic stitches that form a meditation. Nothing soothing of heart and mind.

So last week, when I was feeling a total absence of desire to make anything at all, I decided that maybe some therapy knitting would help with my overall sense of melancholy.

Which is how I found myself scrolling through images of Pi Shawls made from Elizabeth Zimmermann’s “pithy directions” from her 1974 book Knitter’s Almanac.

Elizabeth Zimmermann was and remains, if you’ve not encountered her yet, the grande sage of knitting. As my business partner Kate reminded me by text this morning, she is famous for advising all to “knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises.”

Her Pi Shawl is a giant circle knitted in the round from the centre out in stockinette stitch, and her pithy directions take up about half a page of her small book. She goes on to provide a sentence or two on how to add in some eyelets for simple lace decoration, or a more involved lace pattern.

It became immediately obvious that a Pi Shawl is exactly what I need right now, in this particular ongoing crisis. Miles and miles of knit stitches in the round, with occasional rounds of eyelets to keep things mildly interesting.

More than that, EZ’s particular sensibility is exactly what I need to guide me right now. The Knitter’s Almanac comprises twelve projects, one for each month of the year. The shawl, titled “Shawl: Good Travel-Knitting” is July’s project, and though it’s certainly ironic that the ideal project in travel-prohibited pandemic times is her ideal travel-knitting project, the reasons for its relevance are unchanged:

Something has to keep you sane in face of the possibly quite ferocious situations you will be up against… A round shawl, in fine wool, on a circular needle, is my invariable companion when space is limited, waiting-around probable, and events uncertain.”

Last weekend, I pulled out several skeins of yarn I’ve had for well over a decade. I do not love it, but I haven’t been able to part with it. It’s shades of green, where I prefer… almost any yarn colour that isn’t green.

But something convinced me this yarn would be perfect for this project, and I learned long ago to trust that instinct. The worst that could happen is that I’d cast on and hate it, rip it out and start again using something else.

My instinct was right, though, as I knew it would be.

I used a crochet start, which I’ll write up at some point. It’s better, I think, than the one EZ recommends.

The reason the shawl is referred to as “Pi” is that it relies on the simple math of circles. Every certain-multiple of three rows, you double the number of stitches. Starting with nine, you go up to 18, then 36, then 72, etc. A week into my knitting, I’m now working on 48 rows of 288 stitches each. Rhythmically in the round, simply and calmly.

And where last Friday I was feeling unmoored and melancholy, this Friday I am at least anchored by this project. I feel like I am accomplishing something, not only in making stitches but also in giving myself the gift of the making of those stitches.

Whether through ferocity or uncertainty or boredom or waiting-around, I will knit this shawl. As EZ sums it up:

“Towards the end, by the time your state of mind has become more and more frayed, and your need of mindless comfort greater and greater, your knitting will be nothing but almost endless rounds of hundreds of stitches, with no thinking required, at all.”

Turns out what this home-bound knitter needs is some travel knitting.


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Items of Note

What I’m making: A July most-certainly-not-travel Pi Shawl.

What I’m watching: The finale of Schitt’s Creek, which was incredibly feel-good, and Chernobyl, which was not. The latter is an absolute masterpiece that reminds us why Jared Harris is magnificent.

What I’m reading: In addition to beginning my shawl last weekend, I also picked up a book I’d been saving since it came out to tremendous buzz late last spring: Beach Read, by Emily Henry. I’m often underwhelmed by books that get a ton of buzz, but this one delivered. I loved the characters and the setting (on the shores of Lake Michigan, so somehow less fantastical than the shores of a tropical beach that’s an impossible flight away). I’ve since started reading The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt, which I’ve had for years. I’m not a big Western fan (with the exception of Deadwood, which is television and not a book and which also starred Ian McShane need I say more), but I like the wry writing of this one. The kid and I are still enjoying the quiet pace of the third Anne book: Anne of the Island.

What are you enjoying (or hating) reading these days? Head over to the book discussion thread!

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