For the Love of Knitting
I’m so excited about all the milestones we get to celebrate this year at Solmate Socks. This is the 20th anniversary of when my mother, Marianne Wakerlin, founded her small, mismatched sock company that we have all come to love. Marianne retired in 2015, handing over the reins to my wife, Lisa, and me to steward her vision of beautiful, responsibly-made, eco-friendly products.
Pictured from left: Lisa Flood, Marianne Wakerlin, Randy Wakerlin
As a part of the 20th anniversary celebration this year we’ll release a series of short stories written by Marianne herself about her experiences as the Sock Lady. I’m so excited to share these stories with you. As her son, it has been inspiring for me to watch her nurture her hand-made passion for funky mismatched socks into a multi-national company with millions of pairs sold around the world. As with any origin story, there were challenges and pitfalls, mentors and adversaries, huge windfalls and harrowing points of no return. The journey took decades, and required a huge amount of grit and entrepreneurial risk on her part. But first, before getting into all of that, I want to share with you an intimate story about love, because at the very heart of it all is Marianne’s love of knitting. That’s how it all began.
Solmate Socks is named after my Grandmother, Sunny Davis, an inspired textile artist in her own right. Sunny taught my mother to knit at the young age of 9 while the family lived abroad in Spain, the same age as my daughter in the story below. The Spanish word for “sun” is “sol”; hence Solmate Socks was named after my Grandmother Sunny, who also makes an appearance in the story I’m sharing with you today.
Here’s a short story about Marianne teaching my daughter to knit. Enjoy!
-Randy Wakerlin, Co-Owner of Solmate Socks
I helped the two-and-a-half-year-old try on the sweater by guiding his arms down the sleeves and sliding my hands across his narrow shoulders to smooth out the bulk. Before I could point out the buttons, he said, “too big,” yanked it off and threw it on the floor.
The sweater I had knitted for my grandson was indeed too big for him. The baseball starter jacket complete with white raglan sleeves, red body, standup collar and cuffs in blue and white stripes was a clever design, a challenge to knit, and as cute as the little baseball buttons down the front.
My son arrived just in time to hear the proclamation and see his child dart off to the playroom. Randy was embarrassed and searched for something soothing to say that would set the situation right. I stopped his sentence short. There was no obligation for my grandson to be thrilled about receiving a hand knit starter jacket that was too big.
“The joy is in the knitting,” I proclaimed as I folded the discarded garment to put back in my suitcase.
The following year when he had grown enough to fill out the sleeves, I re-purposed the jacket as a Christmas sweater. It had the same white sleeves as Grandma’s sweater with the red-caped St. Nicholas on the back. This time the baseball starter jacket stayed on his body and we wore our almost-matching Christmas sweaters a lot that holiday.
For my granddaughter I have knitted sweaters, hats, mittens, a cabled mini skirt and a dress with green and fuchsia balloons floating over orange and magenta stripes. I have also sewn skirts and dresses for her in vivid mismatched fabrics. But unless I embroidered a pocket or embellished a pattern, I didn’t feel as attached to the sewn garments as I did to the knitted.
When I hunch over my sewing machine, my back to the room, intently following a line of stitches, I feel detached. Sewing requires careful attention to the project, the machine makes noise and work cannot be stopped in the middle of a seam. I love sewing, but it does not provide an intimate experience.
Knitting, by contrast, is a quiet, contemplative activity. The hands are busy while the mind wanders. The act of knitting can be social or serve as a sanctuary. The entire knitting project, or just one segment, is easily transported out of the home to school board meetings, airport terminals and hospital waiting rooms. Knitting becomes a shared experience in social settings.
The small delicate motions seem loving gestures. The yarn is wrapped sensuously around fingers that alternately hug and release the yarn to control the tension. The rounded ends of knitting needles guide one loop through the next and give direction to the yarn. The newly created fabric is held on the needle in a welcoming, gathering gesture in the receiving hand. As the fabric grows, it lays against your body or folds in your lap and stays connected to the creator as it evolves. It becomes a compatible friend.
From the origin of a cast-on row, generations of knitted rows emerge. In true lineage, generations of knitters are connected, forming a memory blanket. Previous generations passed down knitting to subsequent generations. By reaching back and extending forward, the knitted blanket flourishes with each consecutive row.
Enclosed in a warm fold in my memory blanket, I retain the afternoon I taught my granddaughter how to knit. Other than the sleeping dog, we had the house to ourselves.
As we looked through our yarn selections, I explained, “Your Great-Great Grandmother Dorothy taught my mother, your Great Grandmother Sunny how to knit, and she taught me.”
“And you taught my dad,” she added, concluding the chain of events up until that afternoon.
As we selected a ball of thick red yarn, she pondered, “Why isn’t my dad teaching me to knit?”
“I think some day he would have gotten around to it,” I replied. “But I think you have to be a grandparent to fully appreciate the importance of teaching next generations things you learned from previous generations.”
Her perplexed look told me that was too heavy a response. I replaced it with a simple explanation.
“You’re the same age I was when I learned to knit. I thought it would be fun for us to share.”
With no further questions, she nodded her head, sat close to me on the couch and watched as I cast loose stitches onto double pointed knitting needles. She looked quizzically at the unusual pair of needles without capped ends. I assured her they were only for passing stitches on and off, not for her to use. We were going to start with finger knitting.
When I completed the ten-stitch cast-on, I slid the yarn off the needles onto the pointing finger of her left hand. She giggled at the strange feeling of soft yarn forming loose rings on her finger. I explained that I was going to teach her what knitting was before we worked on the coordination of handling knitting needles. Her playful nature and curiosity would allow the divergence.
“OK,” she chirped, and lifted the cast-on row to the level of her eyes for closer inspection. I enclosed her left hand with mine to secure the vulnerable stitches and pointed to the space at the bottom of the outer loop.
“Knitting is a way to attach a row of loops to a previous row of loops, like the ones on your finger,” I offered. The meaning would become clear in the next minute. “Let’s start by sticking this finger right through this space.”
I guided the pointing finger from her right hand through the space at the bottom of the first cast-on loop, nudging the yarn to go along with the plan. Over the tip of her right finger that pointed out of the hole, I looped a strand of yarn. She wiggled her newly decorated fingertip with delight and waited for my next instruction.
“I’m going to help you pull this loop of yarn back through the hole. Can you feel the little tug I’m making on it?”
She nodded and slowly retracted her finger as I reached in to secure it.
“Good. Now hold still while I slide this other loop off.”
I pinched the loop that remained on her left finger and slid it off to cling to the base of the newly created one. Then she touched the two tips of her fingers together and stared at them, mentally retracing the sequence.
“Nice work,” I said proudly. “You’ve just knit your first stitch.” I tried to keep the full thrill of the event out of my voice. I didn’t want to overwhelm her with the importance of what was happening. In that moment we locked in a chain of events that connected us to a long line of knitters. With that first stitch she became part. Maybe in sixty years she would appreciate the family knitting connection.
“Ready to put another one on right next to it?” I asked, breaking her gaze.
Together, we advanced down the row of cast-on stitches. My verbal instructions diminished. Words of praise swelled. The foundation of knitting grew with each successive attempt. Eventually, all the original stitches were gone from her left hand. Drooping from the pointing finger of her right hand was a new row of large loopy red stitches which we inspected closely and remarked on with admiration.
In a playful manner I said, “Close your eyes and hold up your left pointing finger please. I’m going to perform a quick trick and have all the stitches magically appear back on your left hand.” She kept her eyes shut and pretended not to notice the little wrestling match I had with the yarn and her left hand. When she opened her eyes, she faked being surprised at all the red loops of yarn back on her finger, ready for another sequence of pointing and poking and looping and slipping.
With increased confidence on the next row, she poked her right finger through the hole, I looped yarn around her fingertip and she withdrew it without losing the yarn. I added more instructions and key language to identify the four steps in the sequence.
“Did you just say ‘Loopidy’? Is that a real knitting word?” she said slyly.
“Yes,” I replied firmly, matching her at her own game. “Loopidy is the universal term to describe the direction of the needle as it enters a loop from the front.” She caught my smile.
We expanded cue words to include “scoop.” We thought of plunging a spoon into a carton of ice cream. If the spoon came straight out, there wouldn’t be much ice cream on it. She had to scoop the yarn out of the hole.
After the second row she learned as much as she was going to with finger knitting. As she unraveled the stitches, observing knitting in reverse, I cast a dozen stitches onto short, white size five knitting needles.
She took two quick butt jumps on the edge of the couch and slid off to the floor, looking up at me eagerly from a kid’s conventional learning position. I sat on the coffee table and held the knitting needle out for her left hand. I adjusted her grip over the cast-on stitches, she picked up the empty needle and settled her elbows on the table ready to begin.
She mouthed the new word “Loopidy,” guided the point of the right needle under the left and waited for me to wrap the yarn around it. With dexterity, she scooped the right needle back out of the hole and popped off the loop to secure its place in line. She examined the result and dove back into the next stitch.
In the following row I added more skills and word cues for the sequences. I showed her how to keep the tip of the right needle next to the left as she released her grip to grab the yarn and loop it over the end. My hands hovered over hers, moving in supportively in the tricky parts. Soon, her hands worked independently. She had it.
My hands were not involved, but my heart was immersed. I folded the sound of her voice and the earnestness in her eyes following the tiny movements of the needles into my memory blanket. Her lips formed the cue words like sweet kisses. “Loopidy, loop, scoop and pop.”
My blanket grew warm and lush that afternoon. A new row had been linked. In some relatives’ hands, the first row had been cast on and from more generations than I knew, and for more generations than I would know, knitting connections had been made.
I reached back one row in my newly expanded memory blanket to my own mother. My warmest memory of her was in the last summer we were together before strokes and dementia diminished her ability to connect.
We were talking and knitting on the back deck of her summer home in Maine. We watched as massive storm clouds rolled toward us down the wide Sheepscot River. By ourselves with cups of tea, we talked and knit and watched the surface of the water churn and grow dark. As heavy rainclouds surged steadily forward, I unfurled more yarn from the blue and white bag she had quilted for me. Neither of us made a move to leave the exposed deck in the path of impending rain. We talked and knit and heard the yowl of wind from tall pines on the back of the island. The storm was almost on top of us. We’d go inside when we had to, but for those last few minutes we stayed in the moment, savoring our link, talking and knitting.