Where It Begins

IT ALL STARTS with the weather. Comes a day when summer finally gives in to the faintest freshet of chill and a slim new light and just like that, you’re gone. Wild in love with the autumn proviso. You can see that the standing trees are all busy lighting themselves up ember-orange around the hemline, starting their ritual drama of slow self-immolation — oh, well, you see it all. The honkling chain gang of boastful geese overhead that are fleeing warmward-ho, chuckling over their big escape. But not you. One more time, here for the duration, you will stick it out. Through the famously appley wood-smoked season that opens all hearts’ doors into kitchen industry and soup on the stove, the signs wink at you from everywhere: sticks of kindling in the fire, long white brushstrokes of snow on the branches, this is the whole world calling you to take up your paired swords against the brace of the oncoming freeze. The two-plied strands of your chromosomes have been spun by all thin-skinned creatures for all of time, and now they offer you no more bottomless thrill than the point-nosed plow of preparedness. It begins on the morning you see your children’s bare feet swinging under the table while they eat their cereal cold and you shudder from stem to stern like a dog hauling up from the lake, but you can’t throw off the clammy pall of those little pink-palmy feet. You will swaddle your children in wool, in spite of themselves.

It starts with a craving to fill the long evening downslant. There will be whole wide days of watching winter drag her skirts across the mud-yard from east to west, going nowhere. You will want to nail down all these wadded handfuls of time, to stick-pin them to the blocking board, frame them on a twenty-four-stitch gauge. Ten to the inch, ten rows to the hour, straggling trellises of days held fast in the acreage of a shawl. Time by this means will be domesticated and cannot run away. You pick up sticks because time is just asking for it, already lost before it arrives, scattering trails of leavings. The frightful movie your family has chosen for Friday night, just for instance. They insist it will be watched, and so with just the one lamp turned on at the end of the sofa you can be there too, keeping your hands busy and your eyeshades half drawn. Yes, people will be murdered, cars will be wrecked, and you will come through in one piece, plus a pair of mittens. It’s all the same wherever you go — the river is rife with doldrums and eddies, the waiting room, the plane, the train, the learned lecture, the meeting. Oh, sweet mother of Christ, the meeting. The PTA the town council the school board the bored-board, the interminably haggled items of the agenda. Your feet want to run for their lives, but your fingers know to dig in the bag and unsheathe their handy stays against impatience, the smooth paired oars, the sturdy lifeboat of yarn. This giant unwieldy meeting may bottom-drag and list on its keel, stranded in the Sargasso Sea of Agenda, but you alone will sail away on your thrifty raft of unwasted time. You alone are swaddling the world in wool.

Strangely, it also begins with the opposite: a hankering to lose time and all sense of purpose. To banish all possibilities, the winter and the summer, the bare feet under the table, the shattered day undone and dregs of old regard and bitter unsettled tea leaves and the words forever jostling ahead of each other in line, queuing up to be written. Especially those. Words that drub, drub, drub at the skull’s concave inner wall. Words that are birds in a linear flock, pelting themselves in ruined fury all night long against the windowpane. Nothing can stop the words so well as the mute alphabet of knit and purl. The curl of your cupped hand scoops up long drinks of calm. The rhythm you find is from down inside, rocking cradle, heartbeat, ocean. Waves on a rockless shore.

Sometimes it starts terribly. With the injury or the accident or the wrecked life flung down like an armload of broken chair legs on your doorstep. Here lies the recuperation, whose miles you can’t even see across, let alone traverse. Devil chasm of woe uncrossable by any known bridge. And in comes the friend bearing needles of blond bamboo — twin shafts of light! — and ombre skeins in graded shades that march through the stages of grief, burnt umber to ochre to gold to dandelion. She is not in a listening mood, the friend. Today she commands you to make something of all this. And to your broken heart’s surprise, you do.

It begins with the circle of friends. There is always something beyond your beyond, the aged parents and teenager who crack up the family cars on the selfsame day, the bone-picked divorce, the winter of chemo, the gorgeous mistake, the long unraveling misery that needs company, reading glasses and glasses of wine and all the chairs pulled into the living room. Project bags bulge like sacks of oranges, ripe for beginning. Cast on, knit two together girlfriendwise. Rip it, pick up the pieces where you can, along the headless yoke or scandalously loose button placket, pick up and knit. Always, you will have to keep two projects going: first, the no-brainer stockinette that can run on cruise control when the talk is delicious. And the other one, the brainer, a maddening intarsia or fussy fair-isle you’ll save for the day when the chat gets less interesting, though really it never does. Knitting only makes the talk go softer, as long as it needs to be, fondly ribbed and yarned-over, loosely structured or not at all, with embellishment on every edge. Laughter makes dropped stitches.

It begins with a pattern. The arresting helical twist of a double cable, a gusset, a hexagon, a spiral, a fractal, an openwork ladder, an aran braid, a chevron and leaf, the eyes of the lynx, the traveling vines. The mimsy camisole you arguably could live without, the munificent cardigan you need. A mitten lost in childhood, returned to you in a dream. A pattern in a magazine, devised of course to tantalize. More embarrassing yet, the pattern hallooing from your neighbor’s sweater while you’re only trying for small talk, distracting you until finally you have to stop, apologize, and ask permission to stare and memorize the lay of her sweater’s land. And once it all starts, there’s no stopping. The frame of your four double-points is a sturdy raised bed from which you cultivate the lively apical stem of sock-sleeve-stocking-cap. It’s all in the growing. From the seed of pattern, the cotyledons of cast-on, everything rises: xylem and phloem of knit-purl ribs, a trunk of body and branches of sleeves, the skirt that bells downward daffodilwise. You with your needles are god of this wild botany. It begins the first time you take the familiar map in hand, scowling it over with all best intentions, then throw it over your shoulder and head out to uncharted waters where there be monsters. Only there will you ever discover the promised land of garments heretofore undevised. Gloves for the extra long of hand, or short, or the firecracker nephew with one digit missing in action. Sweaters for the short-waisted, the broad-shouldered, the precise petite. Soon they are lining up, friends and family all covetous of the bespoke, because your best beloveds are human after all, and not off-the-rack. You can envelop each of them in the bliss of a perfect fit.

And a perfect color. It starts there too. Every eye has hungers all its own. The particular green-silver of leaves overturned by the oncoming storm. An alkaline desert’s russet bronze, a mustard of Appalachian spring, some bright spectral intangible you find you long to possess. Colors are fertilized in-vitro with the careful spoon and the potent powder weighed to the iota, and born by baptism in the big dye kettle hauled onto the stove. Flaccid beige hanks backstroke listlessly in the boiling ink, waiting to be born again, until some perfect storm of chemical zeal moves them suddenly to awaken and drink down all the dye molecules in a trice. Like a miracle, the dark liquid goes clear as water before your very eyes. Afterward the damp yarn sings its good news from dripping loops in the laundry room, waiting to meet the pattern the wish the cool weather the living room the days-long patient fortune.

It starts with a texture. There are nowhere near enough words for this, but fingers can sing whole arpeggios at a touch. Textures have their family trees: cloud and thistledown are cousin to catpelt and earlobe and infantscalp. Petal is also a texture, and limepeel and nickelback and nettle and five-o’clock-shadow and sandstone and ash and soap and slither. Drape is the child of loft and crimp; wool is a stalwart crone who remembers everything, while emptyhead white-haired cotton forgets. And in spite of their various natures, all these strings can be lured to sit down together and play a fiber concerto whole in the cloth. The virgin fleece of an April lamb can be blended and spun with the fleece of a fat blue hare or a twist of flax, anything, you name it, silkworm floss or twiny bamboo. Creatures never known to converse in nature can be introduced and then married right on the spot. The spindle is your altar, you are the matchmaker, steady on the treadle, fingers plying the helices of a beast and its unlikely kin, animal and vegetable, devising your new and surprisingly peaceable kingdoms. Fingers can coax and read and speak, they have their own secret libraries and illicit affairs and conventions. Twined into the wool of a hearty ewe on shearing day, hands can read the history of her winter: how many snows, how barren or sweet her mangers. For best results, stand in the pasture and throw your arms around her.

Because, really, it does start there, in the barn on shearing day. The circle of friends again, assembled for shearing and skirting. One whole fleece, shorn all of a piece, is flung out on a table like a picnic blanket, surrounded by women. All hands point toward the center like an excessive, introverted clock, the better for combing the white fleece with all those fingers; combing the black, fingers can see in the dark to pull out twigs and manure tags and cockleburs. White fleeces shaken free of second cuts, rolled and bundled and stacked, ready for spinning, look for all the world like loaves of bread on a bakery shelf, or sheaves of grain or any other money in the bank. The universal currency of a planet where people grow cold. On shearing day all ledgers will be balanced, the sheep lined up in the gates are woolly by morning and naked by night, as the barrows fill and the spindles make ready and warmth is bankrolled in futures. Six women can skirt a fleece in ten minutes, just enough time to run and collect the next one, so long as the shearer is handy. It starts early, this day, and goes long.

It starts in the barn on other days too, every morning of the year, in fact. The sheep are both eager and wary at the sight of you, the bringer of hay, the reaper of wool, as you enter the barn for the daily accounts. You switch on the overhead bulb and inhale the florid scents of sweet feed and hay and mineral urine and there they stand all eyeing you with horizontal pupils, reliably here for every occasion, the blizzard nights and early spring mornings of lambing. You hurry out at dawn to find dumbfounded mothers of twins licking their wispy trembling slips of children, exhorting them to look alive in the guttural chortle that only comes into the throat of a ewe when she’s just given birth. The sloe-eyed flock mistrusts you fundamentally, but still they will all come running when you shake the exquisite bucket of grain, the money that talks to yearlings and chary wethers alike, and loudest of all to the ravenous barrel-round pregnant ewes. They gallop home with their udders tolling like church bells. In all weather you take their measure and send them out again to the pasture. And oh, how willingly they return to their posts, with their gentle gear-grinding jaws and slowly thickening wool under winter’s advance, beginning your sweater for you at the true starting gate.

Everything starts, of course, with the sheep and the grass. Beneath her greening scalp the earth frets and dreams, and knits herself wordless. Between her breasts, on all hillsides too steep for the plow, the sheep place little sharp feet on invisible paths and lead their curly-haired sons and daughters out onto the tart green blades of eternal breakfast. It starts on tumbled-up lambspring mornings when you slide open the heavy barn door and expel the pronking gambol of newborn wildhooray into daylight. And in summer haze when they scramble up onto boulders and scan the horizon with eyes made to fit it just-so, horizontal eyes, flattened to that shape by the legions of distant skulking predators avoided for all of time. And in the gloaming, when the ewes high up on the pasture suddenly raise their heads at the sight of you, conceding to come down as a throng in their rocking-horse gait, surrendering under dog-press to the barn-tendered mercy of nightfall. It starts where everything starts, with the weather. The muffleblind snows, the dingle springs, the singular pursuit of cud, the fibrous alchemy of the herd spinning grass into wool. This is all your business. Hands plunged into a froth of yarn are as helpless as hands thrust into a lover’s hair, for they are divining the grass-pelt life of everything: the world. The sunshine, heavenly photosynthetic host, sweet leaves of grass all singing the fingers electric that tingle to brace the coming winter, charged by the plied double helices of all creatures that have prepared and justly survived on the firmament of patience and swaddled children. It’s all of a piece. All one thing.

Barbara Kingsolver was born in 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, and grew up in rural Kentucky. She counts among her most important early influences: the Bookmobile, a large family vegetable garden, the surrounding fields and woods, and parents who were tolerant of nature study (anything but snakes and mice could be kept in the house), but intolerant of TV. Her most recent books include The Lacuna (2009), and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007). Her books have been translated into more than two dozen languages, and have been adopted into the core literature curriculum in high schools and colleges throughout the United States. She has contributed to more than fifty literary anthologies. Kingsolver was named one the most important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest. In 2000 she received the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor for service through the arts in the United States.


  1. I have always called Kingsolver one of my favourite authors and appreciate her ability to make nature sensual and beautiful. I should have realised she would be a knitter and now I fewl we have a special connection.

  2. This is such a beautiful description of the process of knitting and the associated arts that lead up to it that it almost brought me to tears. Oh, to be able to craft words as beautifully as one can yarn and garments!

  3. This really speaks to me, as a knitter and lover of the changing seasons.

  4. Anything that Barbara Kingsolver writes, I rush to read. I love her sensitivity, her craft with words, her appreciation and observations of Life, human beings and Nature in all of their bounty of opportunities, trials and tribulations. I also love art, textiles, color, yarn and, knit somewhat. I have wonderful friends who knit with passion and expertise; they will so enjoy this article when I share it with them…

    However, I have also been a dedicated Crafter of The Meeting, pouring my heart, soul and intellect into and joining with others in helping to create a positive, time-aware, content-rich and respectful interlude that addresses what needs to be addressed. I understand that, by their nature, many meetings often do go on…and on…with “everyone” needing to have her/his say or, at least to hear the sound of their own voice — saying something!

    But, for me and for many other people whom I know who work diligently to craft meetings with as much care as they do other wholehearted endeavors in their lives, it feels pretty darn disrespectful to the huge endeavors made, to have people doing other things during the meeting — even knitting! If knitting is dandy to take one’s mind into other areas/be able to stand the process of The Meeting, why not split attention to text a bit, listen to music via an earbud in one ear, crochet, do beadwork…to fill in the perceived blanks, lapses or faux pas of the group?

    Coming together to help make Community thrive and voices to be heard productively, sensitively and respectfully, is a worthwhile, noble, creative endeavor — at least, it can be.

    What if everyone attending a meeting decided that she/he is just too superior (or, whatever) to “waste” their time just sitting there? What sort of meeting might that look like — a group convened where nearly everyone has her/his eyes diverted to their own pursuits, not making eye-contact, giving half-hearted, half-minded attention?

    Instead of escaping the process by soothing ourselves with other interests, projecting an attitude of bored, barely tolerated necessity in being there, why not consider trying to be a positive, attentive part of it, a worthwhile participant, perhaps? Why not help to make The Meeting a Community endeavor that people can be proud of being a part; that they feel good about when they leave; that helps create better results for all?

    Meet now; knit/bead/text/do crossword puzzles…later, please.

  5. What a gorgeously lush piece of prose! I read this first thing in the morning, when each day I have to go ship my eBay packages and ready more collectibles for listing, one of the jobs at which I make a living, before I can spend the latter part of the day and evening writing, the job I love most but at which I don’t as yet make a living. How hard now, after reading such inspiring prose, to head away from it into the less creative part of the day.

    My mother was, among many other occupations, a knitter. Painfully shy, she often overcame her condition best when giving a gift that she oil-painted or knitted herself. The part of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay where she uses imagery to punctuate the individuality of each present is especially poignant. Nothing you could buy can compete with a hand-crafted, thoughtful gift of love.

    Enjoying the knitting as an escape from what the author has previously called “The One-Eyed Monster” is also an nourishing aspect of this essay. I don’t let him in either, and when I teach writing skills to college students two nights a week, I often use that anti-TV essay or an assignment inspired by it.

    Thank you once again, Barbara Kingsolver, for sharing how powerfully and positively the rural retreat is inspiring your arts.

  6. It is all a piece… knit 3, purl 3, listen too, think deep, drop judgement, cast off impatience.

    Aahh knitting, the spiritual practice that keeps me present through chaos, patient through the hoary hours necessary for conversations to arrive at new insights and solutions.

    Aaah knitting, my response to the seasons.. when autumn turns to winter, when youth turns to aging, when aging becomes saging. Stitch by stitch, each stitch an opportunity to focus on and love from afar this daughter or that friend. Each shawl a prayer for their warmth or beauty, for their healing, or growing or knowing they’re loved every day, all year, through all the ages and stages of their lives.
    Like words on paper, or meetings in drafty halls, knitting is also for me, something I can do in hope of crafting a future that knows, by even a millimetre more, we’re all one piece.

    Thank you Barbara for one more reflection that makes sense of our world and reminds us from weathers, to grass to sheep to wool to comb and wheel and needle, to scarf – it’s all a piece. Thank you for knowing how to pay attention to the whole.

  7. Thank you, Barbara Kingsolver, for a beautiful piece. You are one of my very favorite writers because your lovely words elicit wonderful feelings in me, whether I have directly experienced the activity described (working with yarn as a crocheter) or not (raising and shearing sheep – maybe someday).

  8. Shear poetry! Those of us who engage in the fiber arts know all of this in our hearts, but few of us (if any) can express it the way Barbara does. I can only imagine how many of us will print this and place it where we can read it often. Thank you for this beautiful essay.

  9. Barbara Kingsolver is a magician, words are her magic wand.

  10. Thank you so much for this! As a reader, I love Kingsolver’s way with words. As a knitter, I love her description of knitting. I am going to print this to read and re-read.She wrote exactly what I feel about knitting, in a way which I could never do, but in a way which I always feel.

  11. Delighted to start my day with such a beautful, singing piece of writing. Hooked on crochet, I simply must learn to knit. It is now clear to me that B.K. isn’t knitting up any acrylic yarn! Loved this, thank you.

  12. Here in Northern California shearing is often in November. For us it was this past Sunday. I was one of the women at the skirting table of a friend’s Jacob sheep farm. I sit now with a cat on my lap and my swatch ready to proclaim itself into a sweater.

    Beautiful piece, celebrating the primal urge to warm ourselves and our own. Loved it.

  13. I am a spinner, knitter and long-time lover of the works of Barbara Kingsolver. Now I know why. Thank you, Barbara for this beautiful piece of writing.

  14. This very much speaks to me on so many levels as a knitter. And I was grateful that she understood the need for some of us to have our hands busy so that our minds can, in fact, focus on other things around us. I sit through many, many meetings in academic settings (I teach at college level) and I can really listen carefully, track ideas, participate, and enjoy the many meetings in my life if I have a simple scarf or a sock in my hands during at least some of them. I am less restless, less frustrated with the necessary process of a meetings, more able to understand the need of 3-4 people to say the same thing, more patient with announcements that we do need, which I do want to hear, but which do take a great deal of set up, fiddling with laptops, rearranging chairs, etc. Something in my hands to add to my contentment and offer a way to smile as life’s fussiness continues is really a good thing. I like me better because of it, and one could ask my Dean whether she thinks I am paying attention or not. If someone tells me that they think I am rude, I will certainly stop knitting. It is never the intent of any knitter I know to hurt someone who is working hard at crafting an excellent meeting. Not all meetings are created equal, just as not every knitter who knits during a meeting is attentive.

  15. Love you, Barbara Kingsolver. Love the hours of enjoyment and admiration and stimulation from your books and from this accolade to the knitters. It is perfectly placed on this November calendar with an arctic front arriving by Sunday.
    Flight Behavior was among the best reads last year– you do inspire.

  16. What a splendid piece of writing. I wish I’d written it myself, because it says everything I’d want to say about the sensuous pull of fiber on my fingers.

    To Suzanne-Marie, who is offended some by knitters at meetings, I would say that I use knitting thus not to distract myself or prevent time wasting. For me, listening and thinking works best when my hands are moving, either with pen, pencil, or needle. We don’t mean to be dismissive or rude.

  17. Lovely article by Kingsolver. Fantastic yarn bombing on tree. Problem is that the yarn on the tree was crocheted with a hook and not knitted with two sticks as described in the article. It’s comparable to misidentifying a plant or animal.

  18. I must also add, that I can concentrate and remember much more of a “meeting” when I knit. With my
    “monkey mind” I begin wool gathering after awhile. Something about an easy knit project helps my mind stay still – I listen, look, make eye contact, talk and attend the event with full involvement.

  19. This piece made me cry. So much said. Woven all the relations required to knit and live. I want to knit again!

  20. Thank you, Barbara. This is a true poem to knitters! Once again you have spoken to my heart.

  21. A piece on knitting? Surely it would be numbingly boring, but no. It spun so many lovely thoughts together, and moved so sensuously to the final paragraph where my eyes prickled with tearful pleasure at its beauty. Thanks, Barbara! I am in awe of your ability to craft these thoughts into such such a moving, colorful feast for the soul.

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