When I was first musing about this My First Sweater series, I started thinking about all the truly brilliant knitters I know and trying to imagine where they began — what was their first sweater, and how long ago? I knew instantly I would have to ask Mary Jane Mucklestone, because not only is she a truly astonishing knitter (and teacher — don’t miss out on any opportunity to take one of her classes) but she’s also one of the funniest and loveliest people in the trade. And she did not disappoint! MJM’s first sweater was long enough ago that she no longer has it — and certainly doesn’t have an old snap on her iPhone. In fact, the only surviving photos turned out to be in the possession of her old friend Barb, who very kindly mailed these to me so I could use them for this post! (Thank you, Barb! They’re on their way back!) Of course, you can’t see the sweater at all, but how darling is young Mary Jane? So she also graciously sent me this highly informative pencil sketch of how she remembers it! Below is the colorful tale of this imperiled ’80s drop-shouldered wonder.
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How long had you been knitting when you cast on your first sweater? What drove you to it?
I had a very spotty knitting past up until the point I made my first sweater. I’d learned when I was really young, kindergarten or before, from my super cool teenaged next-door neighbor, who had a flip hairdo. No one in my family knit. The thing was, she taught me how to knit and I quickly knit up a blanket for my troll doll, but she didn’t tell me how to get it off the needle. I had to wait for her to come home from school … then she admired my work but ripped it out.
Next time was after high school. My best friend had returned from a Folk School in Sweden knitting continental style, and I wanted to look as cool as her. The yarn shop (upstairs at Scandia Imports on the Ave in Seattle, the same store where we bought our clogs) suggested I knit a scarf. Big yawn. I didn’t really want to make a scarf, so I made it wider than they told me to in the handwritten instructions, which of course made the yarn run out before it was long enough, resulting in a rectangle too wide and short for a scarf and too small for a baby blanket. Besides, I didn’t know any babies.
That was all the knitting I did for years …
1984 (sound cue Bowie 1984) After art school in Brooklyn, I worked in the fashion and advertising industries in the city for a few years, mostly doing recurring gigs that would be seasonal in nature — like hand-painting caftans for the haute couture Oscar de la Renta spring and resort collections, for instance. Or working as a studio assistant to rug weaver Elizabeth Eakins. But I became homesick for the west coast. I moved to Santa Barbara for a year, for the sun! Next door to the boutique where I worked was a yarn shop, Woolies, where I used go just to stare at the wall of colored yarn — this gorgeous floor to ceiling visual wonder of color and texture. One day the owner Katie said, “For all the time you hang around in the store doing nothing you could’ve knit a sweater.”
How did you choose the pattern, if there was one?
I had no clue how to go about starting anything, let alone a sweater. I just said “fix me up.” Katie said “choose a color,” pointing to the huge array of Brown Sheep Top of the Lamb. I grabbed a bright true blue, and she picked out a complicated asymmetric-stitch patterned pullover, very oversized — this was the ’80s — from the French company Pingouin. They had the coolest pattern booklets at that time, and she knew I liked them and understood the power of the photograph — I wanted to be like those French women in the pictures — so it wouldn’t occur to me that the knitting might be challenging.
And was it? What were the challenges or hurdles or thrills?
I think the pattern was really pretty difficult, but since I didn’t know that I just went ahead and knit the thing … all wrong. I read the chart symbols backwards. When Katie noticed, said “never mind, just keep doing what you’re doing.” Since it was knit flat it didn’t matter — when I was done I could just flip the piece. My right side was actually the wrong side. At the time I didn’t really understand any of this; it’s only looking back that I get it.
I loved the physical activity of knitting. I could recognize some mistakes, like dropping a stitch. I dutifully returned to Woolies, where there was a little group of knitters sitting around knitting and chatting — the first time I’d encountered this phenomena. I explained my problem, and my sweater was handed off to an older woman who Katie said was a “knitting celebrity” — a preposterous idea in my mind. Yeah whatever, can she fix my knitting was my only thought. She scolded me for having such a long tail on my cast-on edge, telling me that it was wasteful.
And was it a success — did you wear it ever, a lot, for a long time?
It was a grand success! I was so proud of it and myself. It was comfy like a sweatshirt and I wore it all the time. In the New Mexico Salt Dam picture you can just see it under my suitably ’80s oversized indigo cotton jacket. That was a great trip — one of the best I’ve ever had. The sky at times was as blue as my sweater!
Tragedy struck, however, in the form of a devilish Weimaraner puppy who ate a hole in it. I was devastated. Beyond words. Fortunately my friend’s mom knew someone who could perform sweater surgery. I had the leftover yarn, and this amazing woman rebuilt the missing sections. She was so expert that you almost couldn’t see where it was mended. That really stayed with me, that you can always fix things.
I hope the puppy was cute. How long was it after that before you cast on your next sweater? And what was it?
Later that year I was with friends in Portland Oregon who were getting married and we decided I should make the bride a sweater as my wedding present. We went across the river to a yarn shop housed in an old Victorian home. Martha chose grey yarn and an amazing pattern, allover large cables and really oversized. This one I think was from Rebecca — the lively, fashion-forward, German pattern book. I followed the pattern carefully — even made a swatch, which I didn’t really understand. The finished sweater was not as successful as my first — too narrow and the cables were sqwunched — but you know what? I think it’s because I didn’t block it. Really block it, I mean. I only steamed it with an iron. I think if I had known to get it soaking wet and stretch it to the size I wanted before seaming it, it would have been perfect. I wish I could do it now.
PREVIOUSLY in My First Sweater: Marlee Grace