Outside my window, the snow hangs in great swags from the eaves. The bottom edge of the bunting dips into ruffles and finally, where gravity has exerted the most pressure, into a lacy frill. Sunlight shines through the intricate tracery – punto en aria.
Lace comes in many forms and dates back, they say, to the 1400s. There’s needle lace and bobbin lace, where threads are twisted into complicated patterns, there’s cut work or drawn thread work where threads are removed to reveal the design. But true lace – punto en aria (stitch in the air) stands alone, literally. It is its own unique manifestation of absence and presence. It is the yin and yang. It is light and shadow.
I believe the fundamental nature of lace goes much further back than Renaissance Venice, back to nets, which have been made for tens of thousands of years and are essential markers of our divided nature. We want some things to be contained, others to be set free; we want some things to be seen, other things to be hidden; we need silence between the notes.
In the early eighties, when I started knitting and writing in earnest, lace was for babies, old ladies and soft core porn. It was for old fashioned tablecloths and doilies stored in your grandmother’s cedar chest. It was for a certain kind of lingerie. It was not for feminists. It was silly, frilly, and frivolous.
Things have changed. Lace is now everywhere. As I write this in my chilly office, I am wearing fingerless mittens with lace cuffs and delicate picot edging. People are knitting lace scarves, lacy sweaters and vests, toques, and stockings. (Now that I think of it, perhaps lace has made a comeback because soft core porn has become mainstream. Cables are big too – probably for those interested in a little S&M).
Knitting lace is what I know, and it is very much like writing. Establishing a pattern out of single stitches strung on a needle or out of the single words strung together on a page can be daunting. It’s one after the other, again and again. Like writing phrases, lines, or sentences, knitting lace is a matter of ordering the components. Joining them, separating them, dropping them, picking them up again. Deciding what to put in, what to leave out. Often, while the work is in process, the fabric looks like a ratty old dishrag, rumpled, crumpled, rucked up and wrinkled. You just have to trust in the process and keep going.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get into a rhythm where the pattern begins to feel organic, something emerging from your heart. Your fingers fly and your mind is elsewhere. Other times you have to stop and count every stitch. Then there are the mistakes you notice much too late, mistakes that especially hard to fix in a lace pattern. As in writing – when you’re building something so interconnected, built word upon careful word to create a seamless whole – well, it’s both difficult and unnerving to have to go back and fix it. Sometimes you have to unravel the whole thing.
Lace is an especially apt metaphor for writing. When you’ve done the clunky work of putting a story or a poem together, you must step back and take a good look to be sure you’ve created openings in the fabric, openings through which your readers can enter, cracks where the light shines in.