Original Post #553
Finding My Roots in Knitting
by Donna Druchunas
Originally published in Black Purl Magazine, Winter 2007
My grandmother taught me how to knit before I learned how to read. I’ve read voraciously for my whole life, but I didn’t keep knitting as I grew up. Every year, it seemed, I learned a new craft and left the others behind. Knitting came first, followed by crochet, embroidery, needlepoint, weaving, beading, decoupage, and candle making. When I was in third grade, I learned how to sew and I spent the next ten years making all of my own clothes. I took metal shop and wood shop in high school, instead of home economics, because I already knew how to sew. Finally, when I was in my twenties, I stopped doing crafts all together, because I’d started working in a department store and it was just as cheap to buy my clothes as it had been to make them in the past. And as we all know, today knitting is no bargain when you compare the cost of yarn to the prices of inexpensive imported clothing at Wal-Mart or Sears.
Our craft is not about frugality, but about creativity, charity, and meditation. We pick up our needles and seek out exotic yarns from around the world to experience the joy of making something from scratch. We snap up every opportunity to experiment with the colors and textures of new yarns. We make tiny caps for preemies, we stitch soft comfort shawls for women who have suffered violence or loss, and we knit millions of scarves, mittens, and socks to warm the homeless every winter. We escape from the hectic schedule of daily life and breathe deeply to the soft rhythm of wooden needles clicking as luxurious yarns slip through our fingers. For all these reasons, if not for parsimony, we find ourselves knitting.
Recently, I’ve found another reason to knit — to find my roots.
My grandparents were all born in the United States, but their mothers and fathers came here from Russia and Lithuania. Because I’m a third generation American, I didn’t hear Lithuanian, Russian, or Yiddish spoken around the house when I was growing up. I don’t remember much about the bedtime stories about life in the Pennsylvania coal mines that my grandmother told me whenever she came to visit. I never met the relatives who had come over to the US on ships at the turn of the century; they all died before I was born. Now my grandparents are gone, too. And my parents don’t like to talk about the past.
My grandmothers made me all kinds of things when I was growing up. Grandma Mary crocheted hats and scarves. Grandma Ruth knitted sweaters and crocheted toys and doll clothes. I started knitting and crocheting again when I was 35, a year or so after my grandmothers passed away—both in the same year. I don’t know why I suddenly became interested in these crafts, when I hadn’t picked up a hook or needles in 25 years. Maybe I needed a way to stay connected to them after they were gone.
Soon after I made my first sweater, I discovered knitting books! Pattern collections, new and familiar techniques, and stories about knitting and yarn! My voracious reading habit kicked in, and I started spending as much on books as I did on yarn. As I read through the various books I’d purchased, I discovered that historical and ethnic knitting techniques grabbed my attention most often. I came across a few choice tidbits about my own heritage, too: gloves from Lithuania in Mary Thomas’s Knitting Book, featherweight lace shawls from Russia in Gossamer Webs by Carol R. Noble and Galina Khmeleva, a pair of Lithuanian socks in Folk Socks by Nancy Bush. One day I did a Google search for “Lithuanian Knitting.” Only a few hits showed up. But one of them was for a whole book on Lithuanian gloves. (A whole book on Lithuanian anything is a rarity.) The text was in both Lithuanian and English. I wanted to buy a copy, but it took a year before I found one for sale on a website in a language I could read. I snapped it up right away. What a find! In addition to the gorgeous photos of mittens, Lietuvininku Pirstines: Kulturu Kryzkeleje (Gloves of Lithuania Minor at the Cross-Roads of Cultures) by Irena Regina Merkiene and Marija Pautieniute-Banioniene, includes a huge number of color knitting charts and fascinating information about the history and culture of the Lithuanian people.
I hadn’t thought much about the cultures or histories of my family before. I’m American, after all. My family had assimilated into the big melting pot and had become New Yorkers before I was born. But knitting found a way to draw me toward my roots and to awaken a passion for my family’s story. It may be too late to collect the details that have passed away with the older generations. But I believe that just like genes are passed down through the generations in our bodies, the soul of a culture can be passed down through its art and craft. We, as knitters, can be the guardians of these traditions, practicing them for our own fulfillment, and preserving them for future generations.
Today I’m listening to Lithuanian language tapes and I made a traditional Lithuanian Christmas dinner for my family last month. This summer, I’ll be visiting Lithuania for the first time. A more recent Google search put me in touch with the organizers of Woolfest, a fiber arts show held every year in England. Last year members of the Vilkija Folk Art School from Lithuania exhibited there. I’ll be teaching at the same event this summer, and then going to Lithuania to learn more about the traditional folk knitting techniques of my great-grandmother and the distant cousins that still live in the Old Country.
Who knows, maybe Russia will be next year…