Bad sweaters of Christmas past now a treasured family memory

Posted Dec. 21, 2009, at 5:32 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:25 a.m.

I remember the Christmas of 1959 as the one of the very bad sweater knit and given to me by my grandmother. Actually, it was three very bad sweaters because my mother and sister also got one.

That I labeled the sweaters bad was, I realized many years later, the predictable reaction of a teenage girl who hadn’t yet learned to tone down an urge to be critical.

My expectation of a sweater was one made of white mohair knit in Italy, or made of wool in a factory, bearing a Bobbie Brooks label and purchased at Stern’s or the Bell Shoppe in Skowhegan. In other words — what was fashionable at the time.

The sweater my grandmother made for my mother was done in a knit 2, purl 2 rib pattern in a weird shade of purple that wasn’t exactly grape and not really lilac. It had pockets, wide sleeves with cuffs and a collar that seemed like an afterthought. I thought it hopelessly old-fashioned, even for my mother.

“Dressy,” my mother said when she pulled the sweater out of the box. She wasn’t a dressy kind of woman. She favored slacks and one of my father’s flannel shirts pulled on over a sleeveless cotton blouse.

My sister’s sweater was knit in a very pale shade of green that definitely wasn’t mint. It featured narrow cables twining up the front. She took one look at it and said, “Oh, green.” Not her favorite color. She held it out to look at it, wondering, I was certain, how she was going to get out of wearing it. Ever.

After seeing my mother’s and sister’s sweaters, I figured I was pretty much doomed.

My sweater was red, a color I liked, but not a good red. “Tomato-y,” I said. My sweater had three-quarter-length sleeves, which I disliked, and was knit in a loose, loopy stockinette stitch. I learned later that day, from my grandmother, that she had knit the sweater in a new way, with one size 8 needle and one size 10 needle, ac-cording to instructions in a booklet in her knitting arsenal.

We tried our sweaters on, my mother, sister and I, not exactly happy to discover that they fit. No way we could we use the “doesn’t fit” excuse to decline to wear them.

“Good thing,” my mother said, “because we’re going to wear them when we go to see your grandparents later today.”

My sister and I glanced at each other and rolled our eyes. We were thinking the same thing — could we smuggle a “real” sweater into the car to change into after our visit? Not likely.

But we still had the “I’m too hot” excuse that would allow us to divest ourselves of the sweaters after we ha worn them an hour or so. Or so we hoped.

As a teenager who didn’t knit yet, I had no concept of the amount of work and planning my grandmother had done in order to make the three sweaters. She had knit each one knowing only our blouse size, but not our specific measurements. She had estimated size and she had been accurate. She had looked at my dark brown hair and decided that red was my color. She had observed my sister’s blond hair and thought pale green was a good color for her. She had noted the lack of lively color in my mother’s wardrobe and had picked purple to brighten my mother’s closet.

But on that Christmas Day, all I could see was three bad sweaters.

I don’t believe I wore my sweater more than a few times, but I couldn’t give it away or “accidentally” leave it where it never could be retrieved. That level of meanness just wasn’t in me. So the sweater stayed in my closet until I graduated from high school. It moved with me from Bingham to Portland to Patten. And one day when I was crocheting yet another granny afghan and was in desperate need of red yarn, I took the sweater apart to use in my project. I had no qualms about that.

Thus, the sweater is still with me, transformed into the centers of afghan squares. The afghan lives on the back of the rocking chair in my kitchen and every time I catch a glimpse of that still vivid red, I think of my grandmother knitting away a year of her life to fashion those three sweaters.

I remember the pleasure on my grandmother’s face as we modeled her creations on that long ago Christmas Day. I recall her story of that epic session of knitting — going to Skowhegan to buy the yarn, choosing the colors, consulting her trove of pattern books to select the styles, the afternoons of watching soap operas on TV as she knit row after row.

Having remnants of the sweater still with me is a cherished window into my past. It links me to my grandmother’s love and kindness, to myself and my sister as teenagers, and to my mother who taught us to accept what we did not like with good grace, good manners and a sensibility for the feelings of others.

Happy holidays. May your knitting be merry and bright.

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