Making an old skill new

Making an old skill new

Knitting Nana’s way has served me well – but trying Granny’s style is reconnecting me with the way it feels to learn  something from the ground up. As an unseasonably warm winter shifts into an unpredictable spring, I am taking comfort and inspiration from revisiting previous skills and passions, and making my old ways new.

My father used to laugh at what he called my “Kiwi knitting”. Mum’s mother – my nana – taught me, and all three of us would hold both needles in a loose fist and loop the wool round the left-hand needle in a motion Dad called “lassooing”. This was the normal mode of knitting as far as we were concerned. But for him, it was wildly flamboyant and uneconomical. He had grown up with the click of his mother’s needles in the dark at night, any light revealing that the only thing that seemed to move were her fingers.

My Irish grandmother was born in Donegal and learned to knit from infancy. By the time I met her, aged eleven, she had long since stopped doing it, her hands bent with arthritis, but her knitting skills were still legendary in our house. It was the 70s and handcrafts were the norm. Everyone’s mother could knit or crochet. Handmade jerseys and cardigans were still affordable options to mass-produced versions from the shops. They were probably cheaper.

Granny famously made everything for her family with her knitting needles, including socks. Traditional Aran designs were the norm. She never used a pattern. She usually used four needles and her work had no seams. We had a chance to test this story when she sent us some cardigans in the 70s (great big cream-coloured things with leather buttons) knitted by her and a friend. Just as we’d been told, Granny’s had no seams. Mum could not work out how she’d attached the sleeves.


I like to knit, though I don’t do it often – I get bored with plain knitting and can’t wear complex bulky patterns. But I often find myself breaking out needles and yarn at times of transition and stress. The feel of the wool and the needles, and the repetitive movements, are soothing. When I was made redundant in July this year, I fortunately managed to pick up a short-term contract right away, but the work was very different, and my working future remains a bit uncertain. It was no surprise, therefore, that I found myself wanting to knit over the winter. First I made a cushion (in Egyptian cotton – so gorgeous to work with), then a woollen throw, which is nearly finished. The pattern is simple, but has enough changes in it not to bore me. I pick it up and do a few rows on the bus or while watching TV. My mind drifts as I do it; I think about old school friends poking fun at their English mothers knitting with elbows tight by their sides, of the excitement of knitting with fashionable new yarns as a teen, of making baby clothes for family friends, of my late maternal aunt, who was a skilful and respected knitter in a “Kiwi” style. Memories of anything I’m watching get knitted into the fabric, too.

My dad is old and when we spend time together I often talk to him about his childhood. That, and the preponderance of tutorials on YouTube has sent me searching for Granny’s knitting style. It turns out there are a lot – but I think this is most likely to be the way she did it, based on Dad’s descriptions of her needles barely moving and being held high on the body. Periodically now I have tried to take up my needles this way. It’s hard. My knitting becomes slow and awkward. Usually I have to stop and return to my usual style, especially on a purl row. It’s too frustrating, relearning how to knit. But I think it’s good for my brain. Learning new things is something we can continue to do for life, even if it does become harder to learn quite so quickly as in the past.

When I first started knitting I used my left hand to throw the wool, confounding observers who dubbed what I was doing “Continental” (it wasn’t really). Over time I learned to use my right hand like everybody else. I can learn to hold my working needle like a pencil and tension my wool on my right hand, too. It just takes commitment.