Saturday, February 23, 2019

Warmth, Up Close and Personal (published in the Hindu 24/2/19 url -

Just when you are feeling all eyes on yourself and are gloating on the pullover you are wearing for its unique design, you suddenly see another person wearing a similar one. It’s such a big letdown; in fact downright embarrassing! How painstakingly you had searched for it, foraging through innumerable stores and finally settling for this! It was ‘like’ at first sight. But then, what else can one expect in this assembly line, mass production age.

It was another time when all sweaters had their own distinct patterns. They were like our fingerprints, or those stripes on coats of Zebras and tigers, each unique. Our moms took pains to ensure that the design on the sweater of their loved ones didn’t resemble any other sweater on earth.

Women’s magazines devoted their winter editions to sweater designs. Market places acquired a colourful hue as shops after shops converted themselves temporarily to selling wool-yarns. They made an ostentatious display of their stock, kept as wool- balls or hung in loops of yarn in innumerable tints. Sarojini Naidu’s description of colours, expressed in another context though, could have been so apt here - ‘Silver and blue as the mountain mist,/ … Some are like fields of sunlit corn / Some, like the flame of her marriage fire,/ Or, rich with the hue of her heart's desire/… Some are purple and gold flecked grey/ For she who has journeyed through life midway…’.
Sweaters were not knitted, they were created. Magazines were consulted, designs were mulled upon, and improvisations explored on old patterns. As the ladies gathered after their household chores for a chitter-chatter in the winter Sun, the nimble fingers engaged with the knitting needles and the yarn. The woolen canvas grew and enchanting motifs surfaced out of nowhere on them. The magic, they said, lay in the requisite ‘gauge’ or phandaa which was ensured with an engineer’s precision. For those uninitiated in the art, ‘gauge’ is a measurement of the number of stitches and rows per inch of knitting.

As it acquired shape, the likely wearer was called time and again to ensure the correct measurement of the torso and the sleeves. Since these summons made clear as for whom the particular piece was being knitted, our moms used a deceptive trick when they were to surprise us with a gift. Instead of trying it on us, the sweater, as it got knitted, was tried on a similar bodied child! And wasn’t it a moment of pride when some lady stopped one to admire the pattern on one’s sweater and examine it to try to understand how the particular design was made!

Knitting has been a prominent feature in literature as well. Whether it be the lady characters in Jane Austen classics or the elderly lady sleuth Miss Marple in crime thrillers of Agatha Christie, knitting was perhaps a kind of metaphor both for a woman’s struggles with daily life and also her creativity, of her innate ability to make something beautiful from nothing .

It seems, in retrospect, that our sweaters had an unending life. They underwent a reincarnation when they became too old to be worn any longer. Unlike the machine made, these hand knitted sweaters were unreeled then, and the yarn was used to knit newer ones.

The hand knitted sweaters made you feel warm not merely because they were made of wool. They contained something far more valuable- the warmth of relations and affection. We are fortunate to have experienced this warmth.