Ghosts of Garments Past

I visited my parents in the  desert. My mother shared her wisdom on various things.

The efflorescing flora all around.

Mexican Golden Poppies

Family history, seen through a series of silver demitasse spoons.

silver spoon

They belonged to Lockie Hilllis Coats, my great grandmother, shown here in 1894.


The personalities of various seniors my mother lives with, who mingle and gossip like kids in a college dorm. She and my father have a charmed life at their retirement community. Though that sounds like almost too technical a name for a place with stretching gardens, a comfortable, well-thumbed library and big open doors onto a sun-flooded patio. They adore it.


I began to miss them even before I stepped on the plane back.

My mother shared something else with me. Her collection of hand-knitted sweaters. Some are the cherished work of matriarchs on both sides of my family. Each branch seems to have had a gene for needlework, or perhaps it was just in the water of their generation. To an avid novice knitter like me they gave great inspiration.

sweater 1

My great aunt, known to me as Auntie, produced a color blast of a harlequin-patterned cardigan for my mother. Auntie became a renowned home ec teacher in rural Tennessee and was the kind of adept who could knit and purl in a pitch-black movie theater without dropping a stitch. Tatting was her main thing, and carefully put away in storage I have the openwork pieces she wrought – in the dozens, if not hundreds.


For the triangle-themed sweater my mother laid out on her bed, Auntie took a different approach.

auntie's sweater

There was not only this one, it seems, but identical garments for two other women, my mother’s sister Sandra and her mother Virginia. Were they intended to wear them all at once? My mother pronounced the pattern gaudy if beautiful. Good for the circus, not for her.

On the other side of the family, the delicate crochet-work stole of my Aunt Gus, my grandfather’s sister, posed prettily here with Jack.

Gus and Jack

Yellowed now but preserved in one of my mother’s sensible moth-guarding plastic bags.

sweater 6 cu

And a knitted short-sleeved sweater decorated with appliqued circles like suns and tiny pearls. Perfect size and retro styling for Maud, who has it now at school.

gus sweater

Then, moving away from family, came the popcorn sweater from New Zealand.

popcorn 2

Each wool bubble intricately worked out of the body of the sweater.

popcorn 1

Also from New Zealand, this blue and brown beauty.

sweater 4

And a lacy pink number with ballooning sleeves that has appeared at various special occasions.

sweater 5 cu

Pink, also, but kind of crazy, the zig zags hailing from Holland, where my mother tells me she saw all the women sit out on their stoeps and ply their needles.

sweater 3

A loden from Germany with the kind of cables I long to make.

sweater 8

And the oldest one, from Italy, darkest blue and fuzzy yet almost scratchy.

sweater 7

Touching the handiwork of women from around the world, created so many years ago, is a rich experience, shared in a bedroom in the desert.

Then my mother brought out a wrap, teal ribs, with not-well-hidden knots where the yarn was joined. Amateur hour.

You made this for me, she said. In college or maybe in high school.

teal stole

Big question mark. I’ve only just learned to knit, in my 50s, I’m as sure of that as I am of anything in the world. When I was that young the notion of wielding pointy sticks was unfathomable. I was also too silly and distracted to sit still to knit.

Jean-High School

But my mother insisted. You did this, she said. You.

So was this actually knit? Was it crochet? Which I did have the patience for back then. Or woven out from some other material, or done in some secret life I have no memory of, or something that my mother in her wisdom invented? Or imagined?

It is teal, it is made by hand, and she has worn it many times. That’s what matters.


Filed under Fashion, History, Home, Knitting

9 responses to “Ghosts of Garments Past

  1. Pingback: The Algorithm of Curvy Passion | Jean Zimmerman

  2. Then it’s mine, complete with exposed knot ends. I used to crochet a lot.

  3. Lori

    You and I looked a lot alike at that age. We could have been cousins.

  4. Lori

    The teal thing mentioned last is crocheted, not knitted. Did you crochet then? Did you maybe buy it and tell your mother you made it, perhaps?
    My mother is 76 and sometimes mis-remembers things.
    People who are over the age of 65 often ‘remember’ things that they wish had happened.

  5. Yarn might have just been itchier in those days!

  6. When I was a child my grandmother ( who was wheelchair bound ) knitted EVERYTHING for my brother and me..your pics made me remember how loved ..and itchy ,,,we were Thanx for sharing, B


    Agreed. I think *it* was in the water. This is another interesting collection, and I’ll keep watch for an appearance of the Popcorn Sweater in Al Forno. Lucky Maud… to have a grandmother who has saved heirloom sweaters!

  8. M.

    Wonderful blog!!

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