Berkeley’s Orenstein shares lessons learned from knitting in latest book
By Lou Fancher
Especially during the pandemic’s first year, when wild rumors about COVID-19 raged, vaccines were distant specks on the horizon and lost in-person contact with work, school, friends and family sent anxiety and grief soaring, people held onto anything for comfort.
Often they turned to familiar or new hobbies. Denied access to human touch and loved ones, grabbing onto objects to make something real, useful or purposeful had to serve as substitutes.
Berkeley resident and New York Times best-selling author Peggy Orenstein turned to knitting, grabbing not only needles but a sheep named Martha and electric shearing clippers, tools used to scour raw fleece into cloud-like fluffs, a castle-style ladybug spindle to spin fleece into yarn and mordant leaves, flowers, bugs, bark, mushrooms and countless tubs of water used to dye the yarn.
Along the journey of crafting the materials and designs that eventually became a hand-knit sweater, Orenstein discovered knitting’s larger implications. Woven into the process were realizations about the loss of her mother in 2016, her 94-year-old father’s deepening dementia and the imminent departure of her daughter to college. Other realizations concerned her husband’s upcoming retirement; longstanding denigration and dismissal of “women’s work” throughout history; the dangers of California wildfires; fast fashion’s impact on the environment; her own body dysmorphia and issues around aging; and contemporary society’s disdain for the elderly.
As life slogged along and the sweater was completed, Orenstein continued writing. The result is her new memoir, “Unraveling: What I Learned About Life While Shearing Sheep, Dyeing Wool and Making the World’s Ugliest Sweater” (peggyorenstein.com/unraveling).
Orenstein is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and has written for Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and the Atlantic and New Yorker magazines, among others. She has offered expert commentary on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “The PBS News Hour,” often addressing topics relating to sex, feminism and families. Her award-winning books include “Boys & Sex,” “Girls & Sex,” “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” “Waiting for Daisy,” and others.
In an interview, Orenstein said society in general undervalues knitting; dismissing it as an activity performed only by “a bunch of little old ladies.” While researching the assumptions of who knits and why, her innate, voracious curiosity took off.
She found herself delving into unexpected territory: misconceptions about sheep (they’re highly intelligent and can recognize and remember more than 50 human faces, for example); the immense waste of fast fashion (5,787 pounds of discarded textiles are dumped or burned every second); the organic fleece she wore with pride to a farmers’ market actually shed tiny plastic filaments all over the organic produce (every time it was washed, up to 250,000 threads were rinsed down the drain and into waterways and oceans); and the precise physicality involved in shearing sheep that follows a syllabus of nine positions and 48 cuts or “blows.”
“I was jolted,” she said, about the enormity of the lessons learned. She came to believe that because sheep huddle together or run away when approached, “they get a bad rap.” She noticed she and most people in her circle scrupulously monitor the food they put in their bodies — organic, grown regeneratively, mindful of climate impact — but rarely think about the origins or impact of the clothing bought and worn.
“The amount of clothing people buy and what it’s made of has created a global environmental catastrophe. When I looked at the scope of the global fashion industry, I hit this place where I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my, god. I recycle, I’m composting, drive a Prius, don’t flush when it’s only pee, have solar power, but dang, I just want to buy a pair of pants.’ It’s so overwhelming. You have to take a deep breath and figure it’s better to know. We have to try to buy from places and people whose values align with ours when we can.”
Orenstein said learning wasn’t always grim or anxiety-producing, and her memoir isn’t a recipe book for guilt. She said finding humor or poking fun at herself as she writes helps her — and readers — be brave and get through life’s greatest challenges.
“Humor makes a book entertaining and allows difficult things to land,” Orenstein said.
Among the exhilarating parts of the book are her confidence and pride after imperfectly shearing three sheep and her obvious delight in the science behind color — highly valued nonchemical purple dye once came only from a mucus secreted by the anus of a specific sea snail; bugs make red colors have pop, blue is an optical illusion and has an intriguing history.
“I see the world differently now. Using natural dye makes me go through the world with psychedelic vision. Everything pulsates. I think about redwood buds that turn water Kool-Aid-red, mushrooms that make incredible colors. It’s a slightly witchy thing … like I have a cauldron with marigolds, dahlias, and those yellow flowers that grow everywhere in the Bay Area and make a great neon yellow.”
Most poignant are revelations about her parents. Orenstein admits her relationships with her mother and father, for different reasons, were sometimes difficult. Knitting was an activity she learned from her mother and something they could do together without conflict, but her deep love for her mother gets tangled with lingering body dysmorphia from comparisons her mother would make and frequent encouragement to go on weight-reduction diets. Reduced to FaceTime visits with her father during the pandemic, she found a certain peace with his dwindling mental state.
“He died in August last year. He left with sweetness and was such a little boy when he died,” she said. “I was able to give him unconditional love I couldn’t give him when he was more himself. That is so precious to me.”
Unraveling also offers a surprisingly rich sweep through textile history and the vital role women have played in commerce, industrial revolutions, labor relations and unions, the military, global security and more. Orenstein insists that knitting is partly political.
“That’s why I put in the parts about Greek mythology and about Sojourner Truth, who in photographs always had yarn and needles in her lap. She was signaling a woman feminist, self-sufficiency and not making things for forced labor but for your own use or sale. It was competence, confidence, agency — and wise.”
Ultimately, Orenstein returns to knitting’s transformative aspect.
“Knitting causes me to love process over product. It turns the vector of anxiety into a tactile, useful statement of love, especially when you give a garment you’ve made to someone else.”