The days are shorter, the air cooler, and although my pelt is a lovely, cosy, velvety thing there are some crisp mornings I hanker after an extra layer. It is jumper time.
I love woollies; not just for their snugness. Each jumper tells its own tale. Each one’s providence extends the sum of my internal experience. It is an enriching membrane that both grounds and delights.
I first learnt how to knit from Uncle Ratty. I had been fiddling with a loose thread in the hearth rug, and Great Uncle Mole made some comment about devils and idle paws as he grunted himself into his armchair for his after-lunch nap. Uncle Ratty winked at me, and told me to fetch his duffle bag.
It was a grubby old thing, a sort of oily indigo, and had H.M.S. PH X stencilled on it in peeling white paint, but to my young mind it was a cornucopia. He told me to sit on the Egyptian hassock while he rummaged. I fidgeted. He pulled out a ball of string, or rather strings. It was made up of lots of shorter bits all knotted together, different browns, some red, some green, thick and rough, and soft and slimy, the odd bit of wool, too, and even lawyers’ tape. His paw plunged back into the bag again and hovered there until Great Uncle Mole’s snores signalled that it was safe to talk about the sea adventures that made his earthy body queasy. Uncle Ratty drew out a pair of white sticks. ‘Whale-bone’, he whispered. ‘When I was a cabin-boy….’ And he taught me to knit. They were uneven squares with dropped and erratic stitches, because once he had taught me the basics, I didn’t want to interrupt his stories.
Later Mathilde, Tante Mole’s companion, made me unlearn Uncle Ratty’s clumsy style. She knitted the Continental way, wool wound around her foreclaw, faster, tighter. She was a demon knitter. Casting on at tea-time, an entire stocking would be cast off before supper. Mathilde was a stickler, too. I had to undo rows and rows if I absentmindedly purled a stitch instead of plaining it. When I protested to Tante Mole, she told me that Mathilde had won prizes for knitting while still at school in her home town of Mulhouse. And she had been given medal for bravery in the Great War. ‘What did she do?’, I’d asked. ‘Knitted’, said Tante Mole. ‘She sat on the railway sidings and knitted codes into jumpers, different stitches to represent enemy armament and troop movements.’ Speed and accuracy still represented life and death to Mathilde.
Later, I became a knitter, too, – always had something between my paws. I still salivate over colours and their names: heather, moss, dusky woodswallow, periwinkle, spinifex and tawny owl. I still stroke wool samples with longing. I knitted until a decade or so ago when my poor sore paws could knit no more.
But I still love wearing woolly jumpers, one in particular. When nobody is around I hunt out a disreputable old rag of a thing. Its colour is indeterminate. There are stains – port, I suspect, and engine grease. It is a mass of dropped stitches, holes, patches and loose threads. I found it in Uncle Ratty’s duffle bag a week or so after he’d breathed his last.