Socks With a Story


I could feel her creeping closer to me, watching me. The subway car was almost deserted, and I had been entirely alone on a long bench before she boarded the train and sat down at the other end. But over the past minute, she’d slid closer and closer until I could feel her within a foot or two of me. I looked up for a second, met her eye, and smiled; that was the only invitation she needed to make her move.

The elderly woman pointed at the needles and yarn in my hands, then lifted the sleeve of her puffy red nylon jacket, raising her eyebrows in a mimed inquiry that I understood to be, “Are you making a sweater?”

“No,” I responded, speaking in Chinese and seeing a flash of surprise move across her weathered face. “I’m making socks.” I pointed to my feet.

With the lines of communication opened, the woman moved even closer on the molded plastic bench and inspected what I was doing. She nodded approvingly at first, but a second later frowned as she watched me knit. I knew what was coming.

“Why do you knit like that? It’s not convenient! You need to knit like we do.”

She wasn’t wrong. I knit in what’s known as English style, and I drop the yarn and pick it up every time I make a new stitch. If I’m settled into a comfortable sitting position and really get into a groove, I can work my way up to being moderately fast, but I’m normally something of a slow knitter.

I’m especially slow in comparison to Chinese women, who all knit in something close to what Western knitters call “Irish cottage style” (see video below) and are ridiculously fast. Irish cottage style aims for the maximum efficiency possible; the yarn never gets dropped, and only the right needle moves while the left remains stationary. While I can really only knit if I’m sitting down and paying close attention to my needles, I often see older Chinese women knitting as they walk along the sidewalk, dodging motor scooters and chatting with their friends, while never giving the work in their hands a second glance. They can feel what they’re doing, and they know that it’s right.

My subway companion was undoubtedly one of those women. Determined to speed up my productivity, she gently took the needles from my hands to demonstrate her way of doing things. Twining the yarn around her fingers, she began forming stitches rapidly, the needle flashing in and out of the multicolored sock I’d begun the night before.

“See? Understand? You do it.” I hadn’t had a prayer of absorbing everything she’d done in the seconds it took her to knit half a dozen stitches, but I gamely accepted my sock back and tried to sort things out. She carefully wound the yarn around the fingers of my right hand and showed me how to push the right needle forward and advance a bit of yarn around it, then bring the needle back toward me, lifting the new stitch off the left needle and getting into position for the next one.

I was hopeless. She tried explaining again, closing her hands over mine as we knit in clumsy unison.

“Forward. Over. Back. Up. See?” Not really.

“Forward. Over. Back. Up. Isn’t this more convenient?” I’m sure it would be, if my hands would cooperate.

Man man lai.” Take it slow.

We tried this a few more times. I wanted to learn—I wanted badly to pick up a new and faster knitting technique in the time it took our subway train to travel from Century Avenue to Guanglan Road. But I just couldn’t get it, possibly because I’m left-handed and Irish cottage knitting makes the right hand do everything while the left just holds the fabric steady. (I do knit right-handed—but in English-style, both hands are pretty equally involved and the left/right-handed distinction is less important, I think.)

The woman watched me struggle for another few minutes and then laughed and shook her head. “Maybe you should just use your own method.” She’d declared defeat.

I also laughed, and explained, “I’ve been doing it this way for so many years … it’s hard to change to something new.”  She nodded and watched me knit a few more rows the slow way before we reached the Guanglan Road station and had to change trains to continue farther out into the reaches of Pudong.

The woman patted my hand to say goodbye; I waved back and thanked her. And like all knitting, these socks will now have a story—not one I could have ever expected when I boarded that train. Somewhere in their thousands of stitches will be a few dozen knit by an elderly Chinese woman, whose name I never learned, while riding the Shanghai subway.

* * *

The Yarn Harlot, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, is my favorite knitting blogger and a fearsome Irish cottage knitter, as she demonstrates in this video (just watch the first minute and you’ll see):

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