My origin story as a knitter

I started feeling bad after I published my last post. I thought, “Oh no, now all my readers think I am a conceited first-world visitor, looking down all snobbily at the village people in China.” I hope I didn’t come across that way. The small town where I lived was actually relatively prosperous. We were in a special economic zone which was freed from many of the economic controls that governed the rest of the country, and so there was a lot of entrepreneurship where I lived. Though, of course, many, if not most, of the residents had less disposable income than the average American, as evidenced by the fact that my Chinese friends only owned several outfits, versus my wasteful and large American wardrobe here in America. (I don’t think I actually have such a large wardrobe by American standards, but I do have a closetful of clothes, which after you’ve lived in China, you realize is truly unnecessary.) But I don’t think the all-pajama-all-the-time style in my town was driven by economic need, but rather by the casualness of small town life, not unlike a college campus.

I remember eating at a local restaurant once, and I was being high-maintence (as usual) about the choices of vegetable dishes they had on the menu, and the waitress, very nicely said, “Well, what do you want? The vegetable stall is just out the back door–we can buy whatever they have and make it for you.” Or, the post office manager lived in the back of the post office, so you could stroll by at midnight, poke your head into her apartment and ask to get some stamps. It was just a casual town, where most people knew each other, and so if you were going from your house to eat something or buy something, I don’t think people felt a need to get dressed. Most people lived behind or above their stores or restaurants, so there was a high possibility the person helping you might be in their pajamas too. I lived far enough from the main part of town that I never really felt comfortable wandering around in my pajamas, but I understood why people did it. As for my claim that I was “the best-dressed,” that was me and my flamboyant hyperbole. But I do feel that between the pajama-wearing townspeople, and the nouveau-riche factory-owners and their wives, who would only hang out in the ritzy part of town, wearing weird Versace knock-offs*, I was one of the more normally dressed people in my town.

*The townspeople and I were united in our dislike of these people–many of who were from Hong Kong, where my parents grew up, sorry Mom and Dad–in that they were always swanning around, demaning special treatment at local restaurants, and doing incredibly obnoxious things like throwing money at waitresses to pay their bill, instead of handing it over nicely, at the counter. If Mao had risen from his grave and come around to enlist me to join his campaign against the capitalist roaders, I probably would have joined up, even if my family was persecuted the first time around. (We were bourgeois back then. My paternal great-grandfather was a doctor, and a kung fu expert!)

Anyway, since I had a lot of free time at my job (teaching small children English at a private school) I knew my town rather well, from all of my exploring. And one day, I decided I should take up knitting. Here, I should pause to explain that the womenfolk of my town were crazy about knitting. Since many of townspeople owned their small businesses (bodegas, restaurants, hardware stores, tailors, stuff like that), they had a ton of free time. Service was very casual, and people watched their kids, television, or ate lunch, while hanging out in their stores. So, if you were into knitting, you basically could knit all day, while occasionally helping a customer. I’ve never been great about taking photos (and my China photos are neither digital nor here in New York) but I found some beautiful examples in Flickr of this phenomenon–do click through to see examples of women knitting in their village, next to their fruit stall,  and at the garden, (this photo is in Shanxi, one of the more beautiful towns in China that I visited–they’ve retained a lot of that old-fashioned architecture).

In fact, knitting was so popular, that our town had an entire alley of yarn. It was kind of like the farmer’s market here, but instead of stalls of vegetables, it was stalls of yarn. (You have to click through to this vivid photo of a yarn stall on flickr–this is in Guanxi, one province over from Guangdong, where I lived.) One of the yarn sellers taught me the basics, though due to my poor Mandarin skills, combined with her decision to teach me a knitted cast-on with fingerling-weight yarn on two very long size 1 or 2 DPNs, I didn’t immediately get it. (I had convinced her through some pantomime / rudimentary Mandarin to teach me in exchange for me buying some yarn.)

I then bought a book (in the book alley, of course) that helped me a bit more (it was diagrams and charts, so I figured it out, even though I am Chinese-illiterate. And now I’m kicking myself because it was actually a stitch dictionary, probably filled with rare stitches, that I gave away when I moved.) And I knit a bit of a cabled scarf, with help from random Chinese women all over the country, who would correct how I was holding the yarn when I knit on the train. (They’re very insistent on everyone knitting Continental.)

But I never really caught the knitting fever in China. I think this was because (a) I never really got HOW to knit–probably due to my decision to start with a cabled scarf, instead of practicing stockinette–and couldn’t figure out how to feed the yarn through my hand; (b) my ignorance of the huge knitting community on the Internet, which probably would have helped me a lot; and (c) I had no one to knit with. It wasn’t until my former job here in New York, which had a work knitting club, that I really got into the whole stitching thing.

Posted in foreign knitting, personal, Uncategorized at January 5th, 2008. Trackback URI: trackback

5 Responses to “My origin story as a knitter”

  1. January 5th, 2008 at 9:20 pm #Adam

    “…(b) my ignorance of the huge knitting community on the Internet, which probably would have helped me a lot;…”

    I’m guessing your time in China may have preceded the boom in the web knitting community, since blogs and such caught on in a big way after you got back.

  2. January 7th, 2008 at 1:03 pm #Grace

    I’ve travelled a little and I assumed you weren’t being conceited. People live differently in other countries…. even other areas of THIS country. I’m from a small town in Florida where people are very casual most of the time. It’s interesting to read about people’s experiences living in other cultures. Thanks for sharing!

    I decided I should learn to knit when I moved to NYC 4 years ago. I didn’t have internet access for the 1st year and I too was largely unaware of the blog phenomenon so I taught myself mainly from books. I think I googled free knitting patterns at work one day and came across That was like finding a magic key.

  3. January 8th, 2008 at 8:14 am #Sarah

    What Grace says about different parts of *this* country is so true.

    Also, Gossip Girl. Love It. Perhaps we need a shopping trip one day soon so I can purchase some of those cute Blair Waldorf-esque get ups.

  4. January 8th, 2008 at 8:14 am #Sarah

    oh, and what you said about Atonement was hilarious!

  5. January 8th, 2008 at 1:18 pm #Grace

    Oh yeah… I’m reading Atonement now… I can’t wait to see the movie. There was a mention in the book of a women knitting in a car as it headed towards Dunkirk. Imagine that…. knitting in the middle of a war zone.