The Penelope Stitch
Each day after arriving home from school I walk upstairs, following the trail of yarn snippets, sequins, cotton threads and pins marooned here and there in the carpet. As I approach the workroom in the attic, noise rushes towards me; the serrated sound of my mother Beth’s knitting machine as she pushes its carriage back and forth, or the quick tippity-tap of her sewing machine, or the sharp snip-snap of her scissors.
The shelves in the workroom are crowded with wool. Cones of Shetland two ply are crammed up against balls of the lightest and most expensive cashmere. Mohair, worsted, chunky chenille and bouclé jostle for space. Stored next to the wool is the leather, loosely rolled piles of animal skins dyed every colour from deepest navy to bright crimson. These skins have their own smell, a chemical sweetness that reminds me of new shoes bought at the start of each school year. In the corner of the room stand vertical rolls of stiff card and paper marked with a geometrical array of dots, like the graph paper I use in science lessons.
Much of the room is filled by an enormous table, and on it are heaped lengths of fabric, sketches, knitting instructions, order books, letters from suppliers and customers, coloured pens and pencils, scissors of various sizes, scribbled ‘to-do’ lists and Beth’s apocryphal notes to herself.
A knitting machine uses two separate strands of wool. The first strand is threaded through each of the many small needles set into the horizontal bed. The second is looped from the back of the machine up through a metal hoop and down into the carriage which is swept across the bed of needles, so that one thread twists around the other. It is this action that makes a stitch. Beth tries to teach me how to do it but I never get the hang of it.
When she uses the machine, it obeys the instructions on the punch cards to generate physical counterparts; row after row of stitches create knitted throats, chests, torsos, arms and even hands. Metal and wool are brought together in a complex dance that only she can choreograph.
Sometimes I sit on the floor of the workroom and read, the Greek myths are a particular favourite of mine. While Beth works I read about Odysseus, who goes off to fight in the Trojan war and afterwards takes his time coming home to his wife Penelope. She’s left behind on their island, having to fend off would-be suitors who hang around their palace trying to convince her that Odysseus was killed long ago.
Penelope spends her days weaving a large piece of cloth, and she tells the suitors that she won’t accept her husband is dead until this work is completed. As long as she is weaving she won’t marry any of them. So the act of weaving becomes linked to the act of keeping Odysseus alive, not just for her but in the minds of the suitors.
As long as the sun is shining, Penelope sits at the loom apparently making progress. At night she secretly slips from her bedroom back to the loom and undoes that day’s work. I picture her in the shadows of her workroom, lit only by the last embers of the fire, as she moves the shuttle backwards between the warp strings, unweaving each row and rewinding the used wool into balls for the following day.
Penelope is undoing the damage that each day has accumulated. This unmaking is a job as important as making, it must feel like reversing time itself back to the point where Odysseus was still, indisputably, alive. Her deception works for three years before the suitors discover her at her nocturnal deception. Fortunately for her, but not for the suitors, at this point Odysseus returns.
Each day after coming home from school and following the enticing trail upstairs, I lean against the door frame and watch Beth at work. The cat is snoozing in a patch of sun on the ironing board, periodically stirring and turning before settling again. The radio is broadcasting the local traffic report: cars at a standstill in the Dartford tunnel, mile-long tailbacks on the motorway, a lorry overturned on the bypass.
‘Don’t you have homework to do?’ Beth’s staring intently at the half-finished garment in front of her, and I sigh before turning round and retracing my steps downstairs into the dark afternoon of the house. ‘Could you peel some spuds?’ she shouts after me, and I sigh again.
Later, after dinner, the evening’s work starts. As she watches television, she spreads an expanse of knitting across her knees and starts to sew elaborate decorations onto the woollen surface. She occupies the entire sofa and organises the little pots of sequins and beads, the spools of thread, and the fragments of lace and leather on the coffee table in front of her.
All these decorative objects are small and fiddly to pick up, and this is when the sequins might spill onto the carpet, the pins drop down unobserved, the beads roll away. Or they might secrete themselves in the clothes she’s wearing, only to fall off in other parts of the house.
The workroom reminds me of my school’s chemistry lab, Beth’s an alchemist able to bring together different substances and alter them into a unified whole. I don’t yet have my own equivalent of the workroom, I can’t even imagine what that space might be but I know from an early age that I can’t spend my life with a knitting machine. Although I imitate her by doodling little drawings and sketches of clothes, I don’t have her ability to transform them from paper to wool and fabric.
Even when I’m very young, she makes me help. I have to hold my hands out wide while she slips skeins of wool over them and winds the loose yarn into balls. Later, I’m trusted to pack the parcels of completed clothes to be sent to the shops who have ordered them. I write the addresses on these parcels in careful letters, and tie string around their bulging, rustling forms. When I’m older, I’m allowed to cut out the simpler appliqué shapes in leather.
When it becomes obvious that my best subject in school is maths, Beth trains me to ‘do the books’. This activity consists of sifting through shoeboxes full of crumpled receipts and invoices, and deciphering matchbox-sized chequebook stubs to extract the relevant numbers before writing them down in a large square accounting book, one double page per month. Throughout my teenage years, at the end of each month, I perch on a stool in a corner of the workroom and I do the books. At these times, the knitting machine pauses and Beth is uncharacteristically quiet as she stands behind me to watch me write down the numbers. I’m following her instructions but I’m doing this better than she can. I’m not just her kid any more.
Because she is a maker, I decide I’m going to be a thinker and I choose something a long way away, both literally and figuratively, to think about. From our house in inner London, when I look up at the night sky all I can see is the orange glow of the car lights and street lights reflected back at me, and occasionally the moon. But nothing else is visible, I have to imagine the constellations and planets somewhere beyond.
Astronomy is the most ethereal of sciences, there’s no laboratory, no colourful test tubes of chemicals. Nothing you can touch or feel or hold, all you have is the light from distant objects. But there is machinery. Just like Beth and the knitting machine, an astronomer needs technology, a telescope, as an interface between her and the world she wants to study.
When I leave home and go to University to study physics and astronomy, I decide to do research on objects called quasars; peculiarly luminous and rare centres of galaxies thought to be powered by black holes. I visit an observatory in La Palma, on the rim of an extinct volcano and high above the clouds. Here I see the stars as they should be seen, the sky is so crammed full of them they light my way when I walk outside at night, and I’m able to cast a star-shadow on the ground.
But I have work to do. For my PhD I must learn how to use the telescope at this observatory as well as the camera connected to it. By today’s standards this digital camera is primitive, it only has a few thousand pixels and when I see the resulting image, each of these pixels is clearly distinct from its neighbours. I’m reminded of how a piece of knitting is made up of individual stitches. Beth’s ability to manipulate strands of wool seems similar to the way the astronomers here can bend a beam of light through the mechanism of the telescope and generate a two dimensional image.
My thesis is largely made up of tables of numbers, each row relating to a single object I’ve observed, each column relating to a shared property of all the different objects, such as brightness and distance. Apparently, ‘doing the books’ was training for this transformation of the night sky into numbers on a page.
After I get my PhD, Beth confesses she doesn’t even know what physics is. But she can convert a set of knitting instructions as precise and cryptic as computer code into a piece of knitwear. She can sketch out a pattern on a two-dimensional sheet of paper before altering it to fit a real person. She has an innate sense of the relationship between flat and curved surfaces that would put any theoretical physicist to shame.
Her mother was an expert hand knitter who thought nothing of dashing off a beanie hat with matching tasselled scarf. But Beth never knits like this, in her the skill has mutated from using two needles to instructing a machine.
When she’s in hospital receiving chemotherapy, we spend the days listening to the rhythmic chirp-click of the apparatus she’s hooked up to, and watching its thin thread of plastic deliver poison at regular intervals into her veins. Then I remember the Penelope stitch and I think about what the doctors are attempting to do, or rather to undo. To reverse the damage caused by the mutated gene, the instruction gone wrong. To unpick the stitch in her DNA that nevertheless can’t be unpicked, because no matter how hard they try, it remakes itself over and over again. We’re warned that the chemo might not work forever. In fact, it turns out to be effective for almost as long as Penelope’s secret unweaving, and Beth dies two years after she’s first diagnosed.
That was seventeen years ago. In a futile attempt to hold onto some essential aspect of her, I’ve kept the knitting machines, the cones of wool and even some of the pieces of leather with shapes cut out of them. I’ve also kept the samples although I can’t wear them, because most of them don’t fit me or they don’t suit me. I look like I’m ‘dressing up’, a child trying, and failing, to imitate her mother.
These samples are relics of the past that have somehow become trapped in my present, similar to the distant astronomical objects that I studied. These can only be understood as existing in the deep past, because the light from them has taken so long to travel to us and our telescopes. We see them as they were then and we can’t share our present with them. This is particularly true for the quasars which are observed as they existed billions of years ago, but it is also true of our sun which we only ever see as it was eight minutes ago. The Fair Isle coat hanging in my cupboard was knitted by Beth over forty years ago and to me it is as distant and brilliant as a star in the night sky.