The year I learned to knit mittens, I got a bit carried away and decided to knit mittens for everyone. As the months passed, mittens were produced from many corners of my life: lazy and leisurely rows knitted from the comfort of home; stolen stitches in spare moments during a wonderful week on Orkney; three weeks of knitting my way round India, needles clacking quietly in time with the sound of trains on tracks as we meandered round the country via the vast Indian Railway network; and last minute rows knitted in a cosy London pub on the bank of the Thames in the days leading up to Christmas.
By the time Christmas arrived, I had seven pairs of mittens (plus two hats, and a Chihuahua jumper), each with their own story and eagerly waiting to warm the cold hands of friends and family members in the midst of the Scottish winter.
Of the seven, one pair of mittens – one of the first pairs I knitted – went to my best friend of 15 years, Ruth.
Ruth and I met, aged 11, at the start of high school. We were both swiftly placed in the ‘loser’ category of the class, but we didn’t seem to mind and we bonded over our mutual ignorance of the fact; too busy roller skating in the street and going to Chef’s Club to figure out why we were a prime target for name-calling. Six years of high school, two university degrees, two mortgages, one wedding, a Chihuahua, two cats, countless drunken nights and lots of laughs later, we remain close friends; despite now living in different cities 130 miles apart.
Her mittens started with a ball of mustard yellow yarn, discovered in the depths of my yarn stash. My husband tells me it is an ‘old lady colour’, but I am really quite taken by mustard yellow. I know Ruth is too, so my thoughts went immediately to her when I came across the yarn; a soft glow shining from beneath balls of chunky acrylic in a forgotten corner. I selected a more low key charcoal grey and cream to compliment the outspoken yellow, and cast on Robin Hansen’s Fleur-de-Lis Mittens (from her book, ‘Knit Mittens!’ which I love, largely because it’s shaped like a mitten…)
Mittens are one of my favourite things to work on because they knit up so quickly, and before I knew it, I had a finished pair; warm and woolly, the mustard yellow diamonds bright and cheerful against the charcoal grey.
Over Christmas Ruth and I head back to our home town to visit family. It’s a rare moment of stillness in both our lives when we are together in the same place for a few days. Every year, we mark the occasion by drinking in our local pub on Boxing Day. It’s nothing more than a Wetherspoons, inhabited by the town’s dregs; but for us it has an air of nostalgia – memories of underage drinking and summer school holiday partying – and so we feel at home there. It was here that Ruth received her mittens: an exchange of Christmas gifts over a table sticky with beer and already littered with empty bottles and glasses.
The mittens were well received; in fact, they were worn in the pub that night, and then whisked off on a trip to New York with Ruth before the year was out. After that, things went well for a few months; but then on a long weekend to Amsterdam, the mittens were lost. Ruth was upset, so her boyfriend offered his gloves in a bid to cheer her up. She then proceeded to lose those five minutes later as well.
Ruth is good at misplacing things; she has been for as long as I’ve known her. When I think about it, I can reel off numerous situations she’s found herself in: the time she managed to lose a return train ticket and only realised when the rest of us were already on the other side of the ticket barrier; or the time when, having only recently passed my driving test, I drove Ruth nervously through the winding streets of Edinburgh’s bustling city centre, pulling up at her flat with a sigh of relief only for her to announce that she must have left the key to her flat back where we’d started.
Needless to say, the mittens were never found. I like to think that someone else came across them and took them in: perhaps a resident of Amsterdam whose day was brightened up by the discovery of these bright, woolly mittens.
The good thing about being a knitter, though, is that they’re not really gone forever. You can lose as many pairs of mittens as you like; but if you have the skill (or, in this case, if you happen to have a friend who has the skill…) to make them for yourself, you’ll never be without. As the Chinese proverb goes:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
That’s not to say that these knitted items are worthless, or that there are some knitted possessions that wouldn’t be devastating to lose: in fact, I recently read a story in Pom Pom magazine about a lost cat sweater – an ultimate knitted labour of love – that actually made me want to cry a little bit. But there is some comfort in knowing that, however hard you may have worked to create something and however sad you may be to have lost it, you have the ability to create something just as – if not more – beautiful again and again.
In Ruth’s case I learnt my lesson: last Christmas she received another pair of mittens from me; same pattern, different colours (you’ve got to move on from what’s lost and mix it up a bit – I always think no two projects should be the same because that’s the beauty of handmade). Aside from the colour, the key difference was a string: a thin i-cord joining one mitten to the other, so that they now remain together as a pair, firmly threaded through the sleeves of Ruth’s coat, never to be lost again.
We’ve made it to June and, so far, these mittens seem to be faring well: with the exception of one incident at Hogmanay in which Ruth narrowly avoided throwing up on them, they remain unscathed, intact and inside Ruth’s coat where they belong.
What am I going to give Ruth next Christmas?