There’s a superstition among knitters, called the “sweater curse”, that giving a hand-knitted jumper to a sweetheart will lead to a breakup. But my grandmother and mother could argue that the opposite is true: knitting can help stitch people together.
The first present my grandmother gave my grandfather, which he received in the post for his seventeenth birthday, was two knitted vests and a knitted cardigan. “The first thing I thought was: how long does it take to make three? Three!” Grandad recalls. He’s almost as astonished now as he was then.
My Nanna tells me she didn’t plan to make so many. “I just kept on knitting them. I didn’t say: I’m going to make three.” She “just” started, then she “just” kept going. “In Guyra, what else do you do? You just keep knitting.”
If Theo had doubted Helen’s affection, the present would have given her away. But Grandad says he knew she was sweet on him from the day they met.
It was a Sunday in 1947 and he was passing through Guyra with his uncle. They stopped by a shop owned by some fellow immigrants and he wandered out the back. Upon seeing my 15-year-old grandad, my 14-year-old grandma fled the room. But then she reappeared. With her hair done and a favourite outfit on, she walked up to him and said two words: “I’m Helen”. The rest is history.
The knits, Nanna’s first attempts at anything so difficult, were a perfect fit, Grandad recalls. “A perfect fit.” What’s more, they arrived in a high-class, real leather suitcase. I know from Nanna that the wool was high-class too: bluebell crepe. What she can’t recall is how she saved enough, working in her parents’ shop, to pay for it.
I ask my grandfather how often he wore the knits. “Do you know how cold it was in Katoomba?” he asks. Often, I conclude.
They’d been writing to one another for about two years by that stage, but there’d been no grand declarations of love. I like to think of those three knits, of all the thought and time and care, woven through each one, as Helen’s first.
After that, she knit another cardigan, and then another. Full cardigans, my grandad notes. This wasn’t just some fling, this was serious.
Years later their eldest son, while a second-year doctor at Launceston Hospital, would meet a first-year girl who knitted too; a girl who, within months, would begin to knit for him.
I can’t ask my father how he felt when he first received a sweater from my mum; he passed away when I was five. But I know from our old photographs and slides that he wore them all the time.
When I ask Mum whether she started knitting for Dad before or after they started dating, she laughs. She remembers liking my loud, gregarious, practical-joke-loving dad well enough, but is adamant that she didn’t have feelings for him right away.“It takes a while to knit a sweater, so they might have developed over time,” she laughs.
While the state of the young doctor’s existing sweaters, which were wearing through at the elbows, might have provoked a powerful urge to knit replacements right away, Mum resisted. But one thing led to another, and within four months of meeting they were dating.
There was no stopping her now. Without delay she surreptitiously measured one of his old sweaters and chose a pattern. She remembers knitting on a break one day and admitting to a registrar the sweater was for Dad. “Entrapment syndrome,” he said. She insists that this wasn’t the plan. But by the time it was finished, they were engaged.
“I would have started maybe in March and got it done in six weeks,” she says. “I finished that one and pretty soon afterwards I started another one. His birthday wasn’t till September, there was no reason,” she says.
Later, after they were married, when they were working as flying doctors in the Northern Territory, she remembers knitting to distract herself in small rickety planes. Later still, she recalls knitting at a hospital while surgeons cut into my father’s brain, then stitched it closed again. My younger brother was there too, being knit together in her womb.
I ask my mum what my dad’s reaction to that first sweater was. “I think he was pretty pleased—he must have been, because then I started knitting him another one. The other one was ‘fair isle’, so it was tan and red and brown.
“Actually, he’s wearing it in photos the year that he died,” she notes. “They wear well.”
I want to know what brought more joy: the knitting—the anticipation—or seeing the sweaters worn.
“I think when I was knitting the first sweater, I would have been thinking a lot about the pleasure he would have in getting it, and the surprise,” Mum says. “It’s always fun to be planning a surprise for someone.” There was added pleasure knowing the gift would be useful and used.
“I’ve never been that interested in craft, where you just think: what do I do with it now?” she says. She’d much rather think: “what will they like, what colour would suit, what would be practical?”. The best part, however, wasn’t the lead-up. It was seeing them worn.
“Not just for the look of it—for the comfort; knowing they’re warm; because those sweaters are way warmer than what you’d actually buy.”
I love this. I think about the comfort knitting brought my mum, the literal warmth it brought my dad, and the outlet it provided for Dad’s mum, then for her, to channel love.
Wool is a material, needles are a tool, neither’s very special on its own. But in the hands of knitters they’re transformed. When you add time, skill and affection, treasures that can warm another’s body and their heart emerge; treasures that might last them their whole life.
Minute by minute, stitch by loving stitch. If this isn’t magic then what is?
Peppermint Magazine, May 2023