I have recently taught myself a new way of knitting, the version I saw in Iceland where the yarn is always in the left hand. It’s much faster and more comfortable for me than the English way, and so I’ve been knitting a lot and feeling rather pleased with myself about it. I enjoy the colours and textures of yarn, the satisfaction of material growth which seems such a contrast to the invisible, intangible development of a novel-in-progress. I find endless writing-as-knitting metaphors, but the truth is that knitting is easier. There it is, on the needles, an inch bigger than it was half an hour ago.
I tend to feel defensive about knitting. I’ve been re-reading several nineteenth-century feminist writers over the last few months, many of whom regard handicrafts as a way of diverting women’s energies away from education, politics and professional achievement towards time-consuming and wholly unnecessary trivia. I keep remembering the scene in Sense and Sensibility where Lucy discloses the depth of her foolishness by spending all day contentedly adorning a paper box. The more Victorian history I read, the more I think the industrial revolution was in the end a Good Thing, at least for everyone except the male elite, and the more suspicious I become about the fetishizing of the ‘hand-made’ (labour-intensive – usually women’s labour -, expensive, exclusive). But I do like a nice hand-spun alpaca or silk in a subtle vegetable dye, and if I can buy it direct from the artisan, so much better… My knitting is hypocritical.
The other reason knitting makes me defensive is the time it takes. I have the time. I am not neglecting my work or my children in order to knit. But every time a woman who doesn’t knit – always, so far, a woman – sees me knitting, she says, ‘I’d never have the time to do anything like that’ or ‘I’d love to do something like that but I’m just too busy.’ Then I feel guilty. I’m not busy enough, plainly. I must be frivolous, unproductive, or perhaps neglecting all the crucial things with which serious people are so busy. I write, I protest to myself. I do my job, with energy and enthusiasm (a lot of the time when I’m knitting I’m thinking about writing or teaching). The perfect mother would doubtless devote more time and energy to her children than I do, but I accepted a while ago that the perfect mother will always be hanging around at the back of my mind and meanwhile the children seem to be all right. When I’m around, I talk to them at least as much as they want me to. I take them to places I think we might all like. I cook for them, help with homework, see that they get plenty of exercise and vegetables and clean clothes and table manners and all the other things parents supply. I even talk to my husband most days. So while I’m quite willing to believe that other people are more important and busier than I am – surgeons, perhaps, Sarah Lund – it’s not quite clear to me what else I ought to be doing. (Apart from housework. I am too busy for that. And keeping proper accounts with receipts and washing the car and taking anything to the dry-cleaner, ever.)
Some stages of life are truly busier than others. Somehow when our first child was born, it took me and Anthony 24 hours a day to feed, clean and change him and we didn’t have time to eat or shower. (I can’t remember why. When the second one came along, I could do those things and look after a four-year-old and the house all on my own and it was often dull but rarely challenging.) Of course there are people who really are too busy to knit, people doing intensive caring or working in jobs that require bursts of absolute devotion. But mostly, I think, we all find time for the things we want to do most. I haven’t always knitted but I have always read fiction, every day of my life since I was six – including taking Finals and giving birth and getting married as well as international relocations with small children. I don’t turn on the computer every day. I don’t own a television. I don’t use Facebook or Twitter. I don’t play or watch any kind of sport. I very rarely listen to music. Most of my friends are far away and I have little social life in Cornwall. I wouldn’t say I don’t have time for any of these things. There are the same hours in my days as in the days of people who go running, practice yoga, keep themselves educated about current affairs, learn new languages and file their paperwork as it comes in. I could make time, I just don’t want to. I’d rather knit.