When I was a girl, knitting was something Beatrix Potter’s bunny granny did, sitting in a rocking chair by the fireplace in her burrow, her ample figure wrapped in a shawl, a beatific smile on her face. I used to think it was an occupation for grannies who had nothing else to do. Perish the thought!
Grannies? Yes, a few, but they and all the others are very busy people who knit for the sheer joy of it. Amongst them are two globetrotting grannies, a hotelier, a landscape designer, an organic farmer, a librarian, a copy editor, two doctors, a fitness coach, a lawyer, a nutritionist, a political analyst, a baker and, once, even a naval commander (until he moved to America). Some of them like a pattern to follow, some enjoy the challenge of creating their own, some enjoy playing with colour; some like baby garments, some prefer shawls and blankets; some like fine yarn, some bulky; some knit whenever they can through the day, some in the afternoons, some in the evenings—whatever their preferences, the one thing they all have in common is the joy they experience whilst working with yarn.
‘Sometimes numbers and figures jump out of the pages of my hotel accounts book and clamour for attention in my head. I want to reach in and pull my brain out. Then I take out my knitting needles and take a deep breath. Calmness wraps me like a warm, safe blanket, and I go into a state of meditative enjoyment.’
‘I am super-efficient in the mornings, to productively fill the hours between waking and taking up my knitting in the afternoon. That’s my dedicated wool-and-needles time, and I don’t want work left undone to make me feel guilty about having fun.’
‘I wake up thinking of my knitting project.’
Busy Needles is the name of the Kodaikanal knitting and crochet group. A former resident, the late Margaret Sekhran, had the idea of knitters getting together to exchange knitting and crafting ideas while enjoying delicious food in a town where there were few places to eat out. Initially, they were all housewives, and they met every Friday at one of their homes. The group had six members. Each week, Margaret would hand out a recipe to each of them, and they would have to make it and bring their dish to the next get-together. As knitting became more popular, more people joined the group, some of whom worked full- or part-time. It became difficult to meet as regularly as before. Now they are a diverse mix of all age groups, occupations and lifestyles, and they meet once a month. Recipes are no longer handed out, and lunch is often potluck.
The group expands and contracts as people join and leave. Moving from a city to the hills and to a life of relative isolation in a small town like Kodaikanal is not easy. You’ve left behind the bustle of city life and your friends. Typically, in Kodai, people tend to work at home—there are no corporate jobs and offices. Trying to meet and make new friends takes time, and the opportunities were even fewer in the past than now. A chance meeting at the KMU Library, at a social event, at a round of golf or at the Sunday market can lead a relatively new resident to discover Busy Needles. An invitation to a get-together almost always leads to a long-term association. Busy Needles has provided newcomers to Kodai with an opportunity to meet people and develop a hobby and friendships.
People have said, ‘It saved me from going bonkers from loneliness’, or ‘It made me feel so welcome and a part of a lovely community’, or ‘I was contemplating going back to the city when I met one of the knitters and got invited to a meeting…and the rest is history.’
Another remarked, ‘I wondered how I would spend my time when my husband and I decided to move to the hills when we retired. Apart from going for long walks and experimenting in the kitchen, what else would I be able to do? What happened is that I discovered a new passion—knitting. I learnt the basics from Margaret and then began to design my own patterns. My brain, far from falling into disuse, sparkled!’
Get-togethers are fun afternoons. Animated conversation accompanies craft. A new yarn is sometimes discovered, and the most recent purchases are displayed. Stashed yarn or scraps are given away. Plans are made for the year’s annual Giving Project. Spouses sometimes wonder what all the excitement is about, and, on occasion, they are invited to join in the fun, making knit meets more enjoyable. Not all who join Busy Needles are knitters. Some like to bring whatever craft they are engaged in to the meetings. Sometimes, one of the members will tell the group in advance and share a new craft: covering Amazon boxes with fabric, making textile-covered photo frames, making hand-made paper, a cooking demonstration, trying applique and quilting, or crocheting little owls. There’s never a dull moment. At certain times of the year, busy needles click more purposefully and get-togethers buzz with planning. The birth of a grandchild, a wedding, a birthday…these are opportunities to make the gift a group project: a patchwork knitted or crocheted baby blanket, cushion covers, a throw. Then there is the annual, or sometimes more frequent, Giving Project. The Busy Needles made a commitment to the Giving Project in appreciation of the privilege of being able to knit for enjoyment, not for a living. Members make scarves and hats for the recipients: residents of CORSOCK’s Mercy Home for the elderly, volunteers in community projects who give of their time and energy and ask for nothing in return, newborns in Van Allen Hospital or the children in the several children’s homes in Kodaikanal.
There is a common misconception that when knitters get together, they gossip. After a meet, one knitter’s son asked her what the latest gossip was. With a straight face and in utter honesty, she responded, ‘X bought some fantastic new yarn from Yarn Addict. Y had to unravel her entire scarf and start over because she hadn’t cast on enough stitches. Z is annoyed because she hasn’t had time to knit.’
Get-togethers are characterised by animated discussions of techniques, patterns, knitting frustrations or advice. Members will discuss the pros and cons of bamboo vs stainless steel vs wood, or straight vs DPNs vs circular. It’s enough to put into a spin the head of a stranger to the fascinating world inhabited by knitters. Sharing is not just of ideas but also of yarn and knitting doodads. You will hear terms like frogging, cast on, cast off, yarn over, PSSO and SSK being bandied about as if they were common ingredients in a recipe, as indeed they are. A favourite and most affectionately used expression is ‘doing a Margaret’.
Margaret Sekhran’s name is synonymous with knitting. She was the group’s knitting expert. Her work was almost machine-like in its neatness. She meticulously executed even the most complex pattern or one with many colours. Generous and always ready to knit for a friend, she gave away most of what she made. She knitted with great speed when necessary—gloves for a friend who was travelling in a few days to Seattle in winter, a baby blanket for another friend whose grandson was born early, a coat for a shivery doggie who arrived in Kodai in November, hot water bottle covers as last-minute Christmas presents… The most precious of her gifts is the unfinished sleeping bag for a soon-to-arrive baby. Margaret was ill when she started it, but neither she nor her friends realised the end was near. The sleeping bag was converted into a cushion cover, just so that her knitting would remain intact. Baby was born and Margaret died a few weeks later.
Margaret’s name was just as synonymous with ‘un-knitting’, or unravelling her work. She would begin a project and be pleased with it until she began to grow dissatisfied. She would look at it with a critical eye and find a reason to unravel it, sometimes all the way. She would begin again and… ‘Oh dear. It’s not working.’ A third attempt would be made to follow the pattern extra carefully this time… ‘Oh no, Margaret, what happened?’ She would appear at a get-together with balls of yarn instead of a partly done or finished project. ‘Of course, there’s nothing wrong with my knitting; it’s the pattern that is not correct!’ Memories of Margaret’s battles with her own mistakes and with ‘incorrect’ patterns never fail to bring a smile to the faces of her knitting buddies. Frogging is the accepted knitters’ expression for unravelling a piece of knitting, but in the Busy Needles group it is referred to as ‘doing a Margaret’.
A walk in the woods is meditation; knitting has the same effect. Cryptic crosswords are a challenge; creating your own knitting pattern is no less of one. Five deep breaths can soothe an anxious mind; knitting does the same. Holding the first copy of a book you have written is a deeply satisfying experience; looking at a finished knitted project is as gratifying. Readers say that books are the best friends you can have; so are knitting needles and yarn. There are many ways in which you can discover the essence of life in the mountains. You can visit a waterfall, go for a hike in the sholas, drive down unexplored roads or go rowing on the lake. You can also sit by a window at home, knitting whilst you look out, soaking in the view. Find a knitter, learn to knit and enter a world of discovery.