June 25, 2018
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Knitting and existentialism

Ardeana Hamlin | BDN
Ardeana Hamlin | BDN
Ruth Carter (left) and Phyllis Nodine show off the baby hats they have knit for the NIC Unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. Terri Sleeper (not pictured) went to Phillips-Strickland House on Feb. 23 to pick up caps. Phillips-Strickland House has a Handiwork Club hosted by corporator Mary Turner and her friend and volunteer Trisha Bonness. They plan knitting projects for our residents to work on. They now are working on knitting socks.
By Ardeana Hamlin, BDN Staff

Recently, I came across a quotation in a little book where for years I have jotted down things I read or hear that make me laugh or think. It said, “Knitting — the great resource of unhappy women.” The quote is from “Those Without Shadows,” written in 1957 by French author Francoise Sagan, who also wrote “Bonjour Tristesse,” published in 1954. Hollywood adapted the book for the silver screen in 1957.

Sagan was a part of the literary and philosophical movement known as existentialism, defined in Webster’s New World College Dictionary as “based on the doctrine that concrete, individual existence takes precedence over abstract, conceptual essence and that human beings are totally free and responsible for their acts.”

A 1950s vintage Webster’s dictionary gave this definition of existentialism: “A literary-philosophical cult of nihilism and pessimism popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre — it holds that each man exists in a purposeless universe that he must oppose in his hostile environment through the exercise of his free will.” After reading that, who wouldn’t reach for the comfort of wool yarn? Well, apparently not Sagan.

But the quote got me thinking.

Of all the women I know who knit, not one has embraced unhappiness as a way of being — quite the opposite. Knitting is the means by which they spread the glitter of happiness to others. They create joy within themselves, too, by knitting something and giving it away. In the process, they share patterns with friends and get together with others to knit. They know the pleasure of planning to make a special gift for a beloved person. They make new friends and learn new skills.

I know of women who knit dozens of pairs of mittens every year and leave them at schools and town halls where anyone can take a pair for free. I know of women who belong to knitting guilds and groups who knit caps for premature babies and people going through chemotherapy. I know of women who knit blankets for children in crisis and for refugees made homeless by war.

Most recently, I know of hundreds of women, myself included, who knitted (or crocheted) scarves for the Special Olympics Scarf Project, which received 1,000 — maybe more — of them. Every one of those knitters understood that happiness is not something you deserve, it is something that comes to you when you forget about yourself and do something to please or to aid another. “We are most ourselves when we forget ourselves.” I believe that is a quote from Tolstoy.

If the universe is, indeed, devoid of purpose, knitters inhabit a galaxy in which purpose is created simply by casting stitches onto a knitting needle. With that simple motion, knitting becomes an act of love, not the resource of unhappy women.

Historically, knitting has provided comfort during national emergencies, such as world wars, and in the aftermath of hurricanes and earthquakes or other dire straits. Knitting has raised funds to erect monuments, to keep churches and civic groups going.

Women don’t knit because they are unhappy; they knit to make the world as they experience it a better place, to brighten a life — the knitter’s version of existentialism.


The public is invited to join Ashwood Waldorf School’s Knit-A-Thon committee in a viewing of “Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design,” a documentary by Faythe Levine based on the book she co-wrote with Cortney Heimerl of the same title. The film will be shown at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, at the school, 180 Park St., Rockport.

A simple supper will be served 5:30-6 p.m., followed by the 65-minute film. A $5 donation is encouraged for the supper, and reservations are suggested. Call  542-9895 or e-mail knit-a-thon@ashwoodwaldorf.org to reserve a space. Seating is limited.

According to committee member Jana Halwick, the film is “the craft version of slow food versus fast food. It is thinking small versus thinking big. It is bringing back what the in-between generation lost when many thought craft became uncool. It is making your granny proud, and what makes sites like ETSY so profoundly successful. What does this have to do with the Ashwood Waldorf School? Ashwood knits, and there are reasons for this that have less to do with small enterprise and the ‘coolness factor’ than brain development.”

Ashwood’s annual Knit-A-Thon contributes to local family support organizations by donating the hand-knit blankets that are created. Funds donated by sponsors support the school’s tuition assistance program and operating expenses.

For more information about the Knit-A Thon, e-mail knit-a-thon@ashwoodwaldorf.org.

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