I’m writing an essay about DNA and sock techniques — how you can learn about history and culture from looking at the way a traditional sock has been made. I started this essay as an exploration of the history of cuff-down and toe-up socks and it has turned into so much more. It’s got bits about my family history, bits about travel, and all kinds of seemingly unrelated topics that all, amazingly, connect to socks.
Decrypting the stitches in an antique sock is like traveling around the world, using a transporter machine to instantly be in the place where women and men made knit stitches holding their yarn and needles in the same way your great grandmother did, or in a very different way. Whether the socks were begun at the tip or the toe or the top of the cuff tells a story, as does the choice of colorwork motifs and the patterning used on the sole of the foot. Where did people use wool for making socks, where did they use silk or cotton or linen? Who made socks out of lace instead of colorwork? And where did people sew socks instead of knitting them?
Decrypting census and immigration records is like traveling through time or looking through a magic mirror onto the past, only when you get there no one speaks your language or the glass is warped and everyone is out of focus. The past is there or is it? It was once now and now it is then. Anyway too philosophical but I just want to talk about my own ability to connect with the past. I also feel an affinity to the future which reveals itself in my love for science fiction and my worries about the planet and about the well being of future generations of humans and other species even though I have no children of my own. Who will be interested in me in the future? Will anyone look back and try to find out about me?
Decrypting the records is how stories are told. We have to decipher the details and facts and then make them into something that can allow others to see the fascinating stories hidden behind the boring facts. The love and intrigue behind the birth certificates and marriage licenses. The pain and sorrow behind the death records and grave locations. The sweat and aches behind the job titles and salaries. The shivers and meals and good and bad nights’ sleeps behind the addresses and the $17 a month rent payments that my grandparents made when they first got married.
Decrypting DNA is another way to discover stories. Inside the cells of our bodies is more information than I’d ever imagined. Where did my family come from and when did they get there? Centuries and millennia before there are census and immigration records, these facts exist in the cells of my body.
I started this journey in Stories In Stitches 3, where I wrote about socks that could have been made by my great-grandmother in Belarus before WWI, and I’m continuing with this topic for the foreseeable future. Like knitting itself, I think the study of our family histories and DNA will never get boring. There’s always more to learn.