This past year I have been travelling almost continuously. I had planned to settle down with family in Italy, help take care of my aunt there who has Alzheimer’s, and do a bit of freelance work. But all that got screwed around because I haven’t been able to get a visa for residency in Italy. I can spend three months out of every six in the Schengen Zone (which includes most of the EU), so I have found myself bouncing in and out of continental Europe.
One thing that has kept me sane is knitting and crocheting. My aunt has little understanding of computers and tablets and gets annoyed if I spend too much time paying attention to them. But needlework is something she understands. Her mother made beautiful crocheted tablecloths and edged dishtowels (something that I did as a kid, too), so she is content if I sit with her while knitting. And if she needs me for something I can put it down at a moment’s notice.
Knitting also helps fill the time while I’m on public transport. I do enjoy watching the scenery out the window, but when I am waiting for things to get going, or there’s nothing but fog outside the window, knitting is a good way for me to spend time. I also read a lot, but there’s something about needlework that is satisfying. Studies have been done that show that simple handwork is therapeutic, in that the repetitive hand motions aid in the release of serotonin, which helps mitigate stress and depression*. Another benefit is that I have something to show for the time I spent waiting in airports.
Airports are always a question. I have googled knitting needles every time I book tickets for a flight. Crochet hooks were not a problem, but the big, long steel knitting needles raise flags when going through the carry-on x-ray machines. Fortunately I was never comfortable using those anyway, and I prefer to use circular needles. The problem was that I was accumulating a tangled collection of different sizes of needles and lengths of cord for different projects. That problem was finally solved when I discovered interchangeable knitting needles. I had imagined that it would be cool if something like that would be invented and was thinking of how I could cut the cords and needles apart and somehow duct tape them into different configurations. I know now that interchangeable needles been around for a while, but none of the places where I usually bought yarn carried anything like them. So I was very happy when I found needles that could be screwed onto different lengths of cord. I could have short cords for making a kid’s hat, or longer ones for scarves, along with an assortment of different size needles that could all be carried in a compact case. The brand I bought in Europe was Knit Pro, and I was happy to find that in the US Knit Pro products are sold as Knitter’s Pride. That meant that if I needed a different cord, or a needle breaks (yep, it did happen to a slender 3mm wooden needle), I can get a replacement pretty much anywhere.
Despite breaking one, wooden needles are still great for travelling. There are steel needles, and even gold plated ones, but to be on the safe side, I pack those in the check-in bag and use the wood needles while in airports or on planes. If I am really worried about airport security, I can unscrew the needles and put end caps on the cord so the knitting won’t come undone. The needles then go in with my pencils and pens and can be reattached after they go through the security scanner. If there are any problems, the worst is that the needles are confiscated and the work I’ve done isn’t lost. So far, no one in airport security has cared about the short knitting needles.
One of the joys of travelling is meeting other people who do needlework. Almost every city and town has a group that meets up to knit in a yarn store, café, or even in pubs. It can be a form of cultural exchange, and is a great way to learn different techniques and learn about different types of wool and yarn. In Italy I was introduced to a type of wool from south Tyrol that smells like freshly cut wood. In New Mexico I saw wool from a new variety of sheep that was naturally apricot coloured. Everywhere I go I get to exchange yarns and ideas with other craftspeople. Something that used to have the stereotype of a fusty craft done by older women at home has become a focus for social occasions, workshops, and entire fairs. Unlike reading a book, needlework can be a social activity. It allows people to interact in public places and can become a focus for starting a conversation without interrupting them as they work.
The things I make also become entwined with stories. A hat for a toddler in Missouri was made while riding a train in Yorkshire. A shawl could have its start in Italy and visited France and New York before having a home in Minnesota. Yarn that I bought in a market in England becomes a scarf for my cousin in Italy. Even a missed stitch or a small mistake in a pattern can hold a story about an unexpected gate change at an airport, or a sudden change of plans. It’s all an adventure and the whole world gets stitched together while travelling.
It looks as if I will continue to wander in 2017. I’ve been asked to participate in a workshop in Germany casting bronze at an open air Bronze Age museum in Germany and to speak at a conference on metalworking in Oslo. If you want to learn more, please visit my website, Ancient Tools and Crafts. I’ve also started a Patreon site to help fund the research that I have been doing in ancient metallurgy. I’d be thrilled if you could donate a dollar or two to help fund these projects. https://www.patreon.com/archaeology .
And if you’re interested in seeing some of the needlework I’ve done you can see it here.
* Betsan Corkhill, Jessica Hemmings, Angela Maddock & Jill Riley (2014) Knitting and Well-being, Textile, 12:1, 34-57 (openly accessible online). Note that the bibliography to this article has multiple references to psychological and physiological studies.