The subway delays were making my neck hot. I unzipped my jacket and pressed a coldish hand against my throat. We’d been underground, immobile, for what was now 10 minutes and my toe was tapping fast—a nervous tic—on the inside of my snow boot. Next to me a woman sighed deep and looked at her watch for what felt like the fifth time in a minute. It was rush hour and the thing about rush hour is that you really are rushing: to home, away from work, to family, or friends, or a couch. To leave behind the stress of a day before you have to return to it tomorrow. I cursed the conductor and the train system and New York City. I shook a fist in the air, but only in my head. Spite can feel nice, momentarily, but it doesn’t do much. So, instead, I pulled out my knitting needles.
I began knitting only a month prior and I was halfway through an oatmeal-colored scarf. I wasn’t very good and the scarf—or what bit of scarf existed—was pockmarked with gaps where I’d missed stitches. Some sections were wider than others and the whole thing was starting to take on a kind of hourglass shape. Like untucked chairs or off-kilter blinds, these types of avoidable imperfections usually bother me, cause me some inexplicable internal stomach knot. But this scarf was different. It felt so soft and I’d logged the time to get it this far, how could I not keep going, mistakes and all?
It all began on the subway (another time), when I witnessed an older couple knitting in tandem across the car. The woman was working on what looked like a blanket. I approached them, wading into their manufactured idyll to puncture it with my curiosity. I barraged them with questions: What are you making? How long did this take? Could I learn? No, like would I even be able to learn? Was it easy? Was it hard? Should I learn? They answered so patiently, so earnestly, and with such placid smiles on their faces that I was instantly convinced knitting had to be some type of mood stabilizer. I exited and stood clear of the closing doors as they sped away on an A train towards the Upper West Side.
A week later, I had a two knitting needles and two balls of yarn. It was winter in New York and I was scarfless, so I figured that type of built-in goal would be useful to get and keep me going. In 2018, hobbies are hard to come by. I work on the weekdays and catch up on TV on the weeknights. The weekends are for sleeping and the occasional outing, spending time with friends. I’ll read a book or a magazine during my time in transit, and I spend a lot of my free time cooking or eating. But when was the last time I learned a new skill? Something tactile, something that made my joints crick in a I’m doing something new kind of way. 2018 was to be the year of the hobby, I declared to my roommates.
Like any good millennial, I learned on my phone. I FaceTimed my younger sister (who taught herself to knit last summer and was, I'd say, a scarf and a half better than me) and watched YouTube tutorials, and in a couple of hours, I was casting on, knitting parlance for getting started. I had to restart three separate times—one time my string felt too taut, another time too loose. Unwinding my progress was annoying, but it was also OK. Had I wasted my time? No, because I was constantly getting better. But I had nothing to show yet. So what? Each successive beginning was but a reminder that the work I had put in was for improving a skill, and skills aren’t always so visible. By the third iteration, my stitches came easier, my hands moved with ease around each other. I didn’t have to hyperfocus on my fingers, whispering ”twist, through, over, pull” narrating each action. I could knit and converse, or knit and watch TV. A pro, I was not, but I was becoming proficient.
What’s that phrase about idle hands? They make a dull boy? Not sure. But I’ve never been one for sitting around with nothing to do. Call me anxious, call me antsy. I’m both! Be it cards, a book, a charged phone, I’m always one for some on-hand or hands-on entertainment, and knitting was quite literally that. I began carrying my needles around with me. All the time. I whipped out my needles in the waiting room of my doctor’s office or snuck in a few stitches before bed. The subway was now my mobile studio.
Knitting became a crafty respite, a safe dissociation. There’s very little cognitive heavy-lifting required, and to connect with your hands in such an intimate way feels like a privilege, an afternoon treat. You can listen to music or eavesdrop conversations or sit in self-manufactured silence. Also, in a world so structured by consumption—the banana I buy for breakfast, the Instagram stories I tap through in line for said banana—there’s something special about creating, watching something manifest before you, by you. As our subway ground to a halt somewhere under the East River, I opened my backpack and pulled out my needles. I was an hour from home, stuck on a crowded and slowly overheating subway car, but I was, at least for the moment, pleasantly distracted.
Do you knit? Share your story in the comments below.