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A Memoir from the Other: A Quick Analysis of the Evolution of Racism In the Knitting Community

Grandma Gloria taught me how to crochet when I was a child. She was visiting from her home in Brooklyn and at the age of 7, she thought it was about time I learned the art of crochet. She met my mom and I at my aunt's apartment in Sayreville New Jersey. She came prepared with bits of lace and shiny acrylic yarn and crochet hooks. And with my aunt's help, she very patiently taught me how to crochet.

After teaching children with learning disabilities (I hate that term, but that's an essay for another time) for a living, I now know that Grandma Gloria had the patience of a saint. Much, much later in life, I was diagnosed with ADD, and now I can't even imagine teaching a squirmy 7 year old how to make knots with a crochet hook, let alone how to attach lace to those knots.

Grandma Gloria learned how to crochet in Panama, where she was raised by her grandmother, who probably passed on fiber arts to her. As a child, Grandma Gloria used to say that soon, I would be able to crochet lace, but I never believed her. I couldn't imagine making something so intricate and beautiful with yarn. But even as a child that could barely focus in class, I was able to crochet for hours. I would safely stash my creations in my closet, my own special "secret" place that I was able to call my own.

The crochet stuck, and as I got older, I taught myself how to knit thanks to low resolution knitting videos on the internet. At this time I didn't know that I had ADD, but I knew enough about myself that I could learn anything if I could watch it on an infinite loop for hours. And so I spent $10 from my own allowance on Clover knitting needles, and using yarn that I already had, I practiced casting on, stopping frequently to rewind the video because this was way before a "replay" button.

Mother's Day that year, my mother told everyone that I had taught myself how to knit. I was sitting at the table, fumbling with a cast on when her mother, Grandma Shirley snatched the needles out of my hands and proceeded to teach me the quicker long-tail cast on. And later, when I dropped a stitch, she grabbed my needles once again, and taught me how to pick it up, without the need of a crochet hook.

It took years of me knitting in front of Grandma Shirley, until she finally opened up about her love for fiber arts.

I had just walked into the warm dining room, hearing the voices of all of the women on my mother's side cackle and kiki about love, work, their husbands and life. It was Mother's Day again and we all made our annual trek to Aunt Johnnie's historical home in Philadelphia. To anyone who have visited there, she would gladly show you the giant hole in her basement wall, an old fossil of a tunnel used by slaves traveling through the underground railroad.

That day, I sat on the large antique radiator, which was often used as a seat, and carefully cradled my "I Love Knitting" drawstring bag in my lap.

"Why do you have that bag with you?" I heard Grandma Shirley's voice ask. Without looking up, I carefully pulled out my Bello sweater by Joji, and lifted it up so she could see. Her eyes lit up immediately and she snatched it from my hands, a gesture that I have grown to love.

"I see you used some good yarn for this. Is this merino?" she asked, gently petting the project.

"Yep, it's an affordable washable merino, but still, it's soft!" I explained.

"I used to buy this too, years ago," said Grandma Shirley as she handed me back my work. Sensing a change in the mood, my aunts curiously came into the room. "I used to take the train from the Bronx, all the way to Manhattan so that I could take the good classes with the white women. They used to have beautiful yarn; expensive yarn. And I would sit in those classes and knit with them, and they were all too scared to say a thing to me. But I went for years. And I made sure that all of my girls wore handmade things. It's better you know. They last longer than the stuff at the store. But yeah I used to have to go knit with the white women because I wanted to learn more."

She paused, glancing up at the 3 out of her 5 daughters who visited that year. For a moment, it looked as if she was imagining them a children, wearing her hand knits.

"I still have that scarf set you made me mom," my own mother admitted. "I think I lost the mittens when I was a teenager, but I still wear the scarf!" I felt my own neck itch at the memory when my mom dressed me in warm clothes for school one day ages ago.

"Now, this is the scarf that my mother made for me, see?" I remember her telling me years ago, as she pointed to the satin sewn on label that read, "Made with Love by Mom". "So don't lose it!" She added emphasis to this last part by very tightly wrapping the scarf around my neck, as if she could permanently attach it to me. I felt the itch of the thick purple wool fiber, knit in some stitch that created a fabric that can only be described as "steel wool". Soft it was not. But warm, durable, and built to last? Well that proof was in the pudding as I, the second generation wearer of that scarf (Never owner, as mom has outright said many times that I would have to rip it out of her cold dead hands before I could ever own it. See where I get my humor from?) marched out the door with it on a snowy morning, the scarf still looking darn near new.

"They didn't think I belonged there," Grandma Shirley continued, breaking up my memory. "I was always the only black person there, and I was there all the time."

I felt my lips move into an involuntary frown as I remembered a recent encounter at a yarn shop in the ritzy side of Indianapolis. It was my first time there, and before being able to step a few feet into the store, the shop owner hurried to me, "Welcome!" she squealed, "Don't I know you? You've been here before right?" she asked excitedly.

"No, this is my first time," I said bluntly, fairly used to the "all black women look alike, right?" trope. The problem was that I ended up going to that same shop many times after that. I even sat a table with this woman, and I was often the only customer in the store, and she never, ever, ever took the effort to know who I was. I was just another faceless black body, suckered into buying from her, because it was the only option that I new of at the time.

I wish I could say that this encounter only happened with her. But no. If I was given a skein of yarn everytime a white woman claimed to have known me, I would have enough yarn to knit for a lifetime.

"The other women were so mad," I heard Grandma Shirley continue, "They just ignored me for years. But I kept going anyway."

I don't go to fiber outings much. Maybe I am just subconsciously tired of being grouped into the category of, "that one black woman that knits with us sometimes". I like to knit because it's meditative and creative. I don't quite enjoy being that one black girl that "spices" up your knitting night every now and then.

"They just ignored me for years, but I kept going anyway."

I know grandma, I know.

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5 comentarios

Audrea Burns
Audrea Burns
29 ago 2019

Thank you for sharing your story as it is such a

Blessing. I am a black woman that too has shared loss and have a love for knitting although I was never able to learn from my grand or great grandmother. I truly love your podcast although I’m a true beginner and probably understand every other word :-) I would love a set of understanding the basics videos 🤗 keep up the fantastic work!

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Thank you for sharing this story of your family and your experience with us.

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Caleisha Ryan
Caleisha Ryan
17 ene 2019

I love that your family has so much fiber history :) My mom can crochet and knit, I dont know about my grandma tho. I should find out. Thank you for sharing this story. The way your Grandma Shirley snatched things from you made me smile, remembering the mannerisms of my elders.

Much love! Caleisha

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What a beautiful story of your family.

Also, racism sucks. I am committed to doing better and hopefully getting other white people like me to do better.

Thank you for sharing your story.

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Wow ! Thank you for sharing this story of your Grandmother Shirley (interestingly, my parents are from Panama and my mother also moved to the Bronx) and I had a lot of handknits as a baby (a recent discovery). The tunnel - what a treasure in her home!!! I hope that we continue to create these memories for generations to come ❤️

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