Sandra Cohen
Intelligent, funny, a bit weird

Finishing the Hat

A friend enjoying her knitted blanket
A friend and her knitted blanket

This past weekend, I learned to knit with double-pointed needles.

This may or may not sound like a big deal to you – but it was huge to me.  I have been knitting for years now, but there are still many things beyond my ken.  I make afghans and baby blankets, sweaters, scarfs, and mittens, but I have never even attempted socks; they seem like more trouble to knit than they are worth.  I have always demurred when friends called me a good knitter, knowing how much I do not know or cannot do.  This is one place where my imposter syndrome plays itself out: you may think that is a beautiful throw I knitted  for you, but I know that I don’t really know what I am doing.

But I have been making things for Hanukkah and birthdays, for my nephews, out of beautiful yarn left over from a “graduation” afghan, and this time, I decided to venture into new patterns and new techniques.  The scarfs came out beautifully, for each beloved nephew, as well as for the wonderful niece (whose scarf was in her beloved purple) living in Israel.  As for the hats, I decided to learn to knit in the round.  I have long loved my circular needles, and knitting in the round is the logical – and fun – next step.  As I reached the end of the hat (reducing stitches, for those following along at home), it became obvious that I would need “dbn,” as the pattern suggested:  double-pointed needless.  I was just 6 rows from finishing the hat.  I did not wish to wait for them to arrive by mail, nor did I think that I could learn to use them from a YouTube video.  I needed needles and instruction – now.

So, off to the yarn store I went.  My locally owned yarn store, The Wooden Spool, is incredible, filled with colors and textures of both yarn and quilting fabrics, with a remarkable supply of buttons, hooks, and, needles.  I pulled out my hat and explained my knitting emergency.  Rachel was ready to help; she gave me my choice of double-pointed needles (I like the metal, not bamboo), opened them for me, and, behind the safety of the plastic separating her from me at the counter, she showed me how to cast on to the dbn’s.  All at once, the mystery became clear: of course, that is how they work!!  No problem!  All these years that I have avoided dpn’s because they looked hard and scary – now I understood.

I keep hearing Sondheim in my head, the song from Sunday in the Park with George:  “Finishing the hat,” George Surat sings, “how you have to finish the hat. . . “   There is a certain compulsion, for me, with knitting, especially as I reach a point near the end of the project.  In the middle of a piece, I most just knit, almost as a physical mantra, if you will.  I patiently count stitches, and the counting and stitching soothes me.  Here I am, at the beginning of my mother’s sweater, with 14 more inches to go on the back, taking my time, knitting and setting the piece aside, as the day goes.  But once I come close to  finishing to piece, I feel pulled to complete it:  I do not wish to put it down until I am done.  There the hat was, in my hand, not yet a hat, but so close. . . All I needed were dpn’s and new knowledge and time and I could make a hat.

This is the wonder of knitting , of any craft.  To create something, not from nothing but from something less useful.  I begin with skeins of yarn and, after hours and hours of effort making loops on needles, I end up with a blanket or sweater, something someone can use and even cherish.  There is the earnest delight of the beginning of the project, the meditativeness of the middle, and the eager pull towards the end, all come together in the finished piece.  There is physical evidence of my love, woven into each stitch.  I am always surprised when final piece comes together.

Of course, it doesn’t always work.  This is where I confess my faults.  I recently tried to make my mother a sweater.  The yarn was beautiful, soft, black, prima cotton and we picked out black and brown carved buttons together.  Even as I was making it, however, it felt wrong, too big.  But I preserved, trusting the pattern over my own instinct, since it had been sometime since I have made a sweater for her.  It was not until I was sewing the pieces together that I found the problem:  I had misread the pattern, and the cardigan was indeed much too huge.  I was not just disappointed; I felt miserable and shamed.  See, this flop proclaimed, this woman is not a real knitter.  She is a failure, a mess, a fraud.

But after a few days, I got brave.  I asked a friend of mine who is larger than my mom to try on the sweater, hoping that someone would get use out of the lush fabric I had created with my own hands.  And look!  A minor nes, a small miracle:  it fit her perfectly, as though I had made it for her.  The moment was redemptive:  all my love in knitting it went to my friend, and all was not lost.

As for my mom, well, I went back to the store, and bought more yarn.  Her sweater is now on my needles, sitting next to me as I write, beckoning me:  soon, I, too, will become part of a large whole.  It is only at the beginning stage; there are hours, days of knitting left to go. But I have cast on, and that is the commitment to the project that I need.

I did take a brief break after the first sweater, however, to knit for my nephews  — and really, for myself.  I needed to reassure myself that I could knit “correctly,” that I could follow a pattern and produce a project according to plan.  It was not just about learning how to use those double-pointed needles; it was about setting out to make the hats according to the pattern, knitting in the round and using the dpn’s and all.  It was setting a new goal and achieving it.  It was bringing into life something new, something that had not been there before – and doing it soon, now, in real time.

“Look I made a hat,”  George continues, “ where there never was a hat!”

About the Author
Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.
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