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Entangled: One Man's Introduction to Orenberg Lace
Franklin Habit

For an American man to knit is eccentricity. For an American man to knit lace is an open rebellion.

If an American male creates an object of beauty, there is an unspoken rule that the beauty must be rugged or powerful. He may sculpt in stone,. He may build large buildings. He may paint, if his canvasses are large and his brushwork is violent.

It need hardly be stated that "rugged" and "powerful" are not adjectives commonly associated with lace. It is delicate. Impractical. Unmanly.

And for this man, irresistible.

I was a rank novice when I signed up for my first fiber festival, but some instinct led me to pass over courses in sweater finishing; fair isle techniques; buttonholes without breakdowns. Instead, I signed up for fifteen hours of classes, twelve of them devoted to lace.

Eight of those twelve hours were spent taking baby steps into Orenberg lace under the matchless tutelage of Galina Khmeleva, co-author (with Carol Noble) of Gossamer Webs. She was humorous, commanding, demanding, unflinching. The normally chatty students were virtually silent for most of the day. Galina talked, we knit. And knit. And knit. At the end of hour eight, I had four inches of wobbly basic patterns in brightly colored zephyr, and a thirst for more.

At the festival market, I bought Gossamer Webs, which my teacher graciously autographed in a bold Cyrllic script. I brought it home, I read it through twice. I contemplated the prospect of a full-scale Orenberg shawl, five feet square. I calculated the cost of that much gossamer yarn. I put the book on the shelf between Joelle Hoverson and Montse Stanley, and there it began to collect dust.

More than half a year passed before Stephanie Pearl-McPhee issued her Knitting Olympics challenge. She asked me to design the gold medal. Once having accepted that offer, I felt I ought to participate in the great undertaking myself.

I contemplated lace. I'd idled away hours making stitch swatches, and edged a baby bonnet with a very simple Shetland edging. However, I'd not yet finished and blocked an object made entirely of lace. Pulling Galina's book off the shelf, I flipped through the pages and settled on her instructions for the "sample shawl," a diminutive square encompassing all the techniques of the genuine article.

I could do that. I would do that.

Following the first rule of the Knitting Olympics, I cast on during the opening ceremonies. My tools were an old ball of sock yarn that had fallen from grace, and a pair of needles that once belonged to my great-grandmother. I expected to work only a token dozen rows during the first session, but I was quickly too spellbound to halt until I'd finished the entire bottom.

In my blog, I wrote:

"Pure genius. The little shawl begins with a mere seven stitches, and the first thing to be knitted is the lower center border. Then, you modify what you're doing at the edge of that border slightly, and whammo, you've turned the lower right corner. You knit back across the piece....knit a slightly modified version of the border in the other direction and whammo, you've turned the lower left corner."

It was first of many such moments, all contained in the making of square no larger than a dinner napkin.

To prevent the finished object bearing too much resemblance to a dinner napkin (or, as I jokingly described it, an Orenberg warshcloth), I decided to put lace patterns where Galina's recipe called for plain garter stitch. In class, we'd worked samples of many of the basic patterns (cat's paw, peas, mouse prints, honeycomb), but never connected them together.

Now, as I planned what to fit into my sample shawl, it struck me that these basic patterns were the whole of the alphabet with which the Orenberg knitters had written their epic works. All that dazzling complexity grew from the clever and elegant arrangement of yo and k2tog.

The mind boggled.

As I doggedly rounded the third corner, I began to question my hand for lace knitting. The shawl crumpled and lumped, assuming a shape one could charitably call amoeboid. It looked like the product of a demented knitter confined to a dark attic.

At this point, my knitting blog became as vital a tool as my needles.

I'd periodically logged my progress in words and pictures literally from the first row, and found myself unequal to admitting defeat in a public forum. My finished shawl might be a disaster, a farce, and an insult to real lace knitters past, present, and to come; but it would be completed. How could I fail to earn the medal I had designed?

So I trudged on toward the finish line, rallying as I turned the final corner using the same clever method.

And then came the grafting. I'd somehow not realized that the Orenberg knitters had one last surprise for me: a grafting method in which the final stitches slipped from one needle to the next until suddenly the finished piece sprang off the needles.

Unblocked, it was frumpy and bedraggled. But I still admit to taking it for a celebratory waltz around the living room.

As an Orenberg-style blocker, I am a washout.

Galina's book references (all too briefly) a method of blocking with a small number of pins and a length of nylon cord. She demonstrated it to us in class, and made it look as easy as folding clean underpants.

After nearly ripping my shawl to bits trying to do it myself, I retreated to Plan B: no nylon cord, and several dozen pins. Points off from the Russian judge for form, but the important thing was to be standing at the finish line.

I expected, as I think all first-time lace blockers must, that once unpinned my shawl would snap back into an amoeba. But it didn't. Instead, the lumpy swatch had opened into something closer to a snowflake.

I toasted it with a "Na zdorove" and a sip of schnapps. Not for the first time in the course of the project, I paused to (as I wrote at the time):

"...bless the memory of the generations of women, knitting by oil lamps or candlelight in tiny cottages, who were clever enough to work this out. What a gift to those of us who have come after."

Franklin Habit is a knitter, writer, and artist living in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of the blog The Panopticon from which some of the material for this essay was drawn.