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  • Writer's pictureJL Nash

ZEN and the Art of the Second Sock

I know of a woman who knits only one sock.

I’m no longer an absolute beginner, but the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. That’s life and no matter how old I am, there’s always someone who has more to offer than me. My mum has cancer, again. No amount of knowledge and experience can prepare me for the inevitable, at some point. I feel like someone has handed me yarn that has a thickness I think I am familiar with but it knits up a different size. Yes, there are sizes of yarn, fine to super chunky and worsted. There are different types of cancer. AML, Acute Myeloid Leukaemia is the demon living in my mother’s bones.

When you begin a pair of socks, it is essential to prepare your tools. Four or five double pointed needles (DPNs) from sizes 2-3.5mm (Australian sizes) or 2 circular needles either 9 or 12 inches. Then the yarn. Chosen for colour or design or both and of a very specific thickness depending on the sock to be knitted. Sock yarn is a good bet, although I am fond of light/fingering weight.

Relapsing with leukaemia is different from the initial diagnosis. You know the specs, the diagnosis and in most cases, the treatment. Mum’s chemotherapy is outpatient this time, the indignity of two thick injections on rotation into both arms, her stomach and both legs. It burns as it dissipates. Her back is in pain from where she had the last bone marrow biopsy done, a scrape of bone from her hip. She is silent as she receives the injections, focusing on a positive outcome.

I am silent as I cast on my stitches and arrange my needles for the second sock. The first was created with such enthusiasm for the shape, length, crazy patterns that reveal themselves with some of the yarn balls. acThe second takes dedication, patience and a belief that things can be repeated accurately. This is the first relapse after two years of clear health following a stem cell transplant. The transplant can’t be repeated. The sock yarn can’t be changed. The same outcome is desirable. To be whole, not to become unraveled and to be useful.

There are two ways of knitting socks — cuff down and toe up. I prefer cuff down as I can measure how it will fit the leg before I begin the more complicated features of the sock. Cuff down was taught to me by an 84 year old sock guru at my knitting group. Margaret. I like Margaret because she reminds me of my own grandmother who, although she is almost blind now, was once an awesome knitter. Awesome as she could knit to order, without a pattern, both simple and complex designs. I hope I have her genetic knowledge somewhere in me, as it is in my mother. I offer her a sock pattern and some wool/bamboo/polyamide yarn to knit in her tired moments, forgetting that the brain slows down, too. It’s like watching a tortoise slowing imperceptibly to a halt. A dropped stitch takes time to find, knit it back in and then continue — well, it does for me.

Once the cuff has been ribbed (two different types of stitch in a repeating pattern), the body of the sock is knitted. In my case, a simple stitch, no patterns but with a yarn so colourful and well-designed that it knits up and looks like a Fair Isle pattern — you know, like the Scandinavian jumpers and their intricate designs — well this yarn does it for you. I like working on the body as it’s simple and requires the thought of the stitch alone. I can’t worry about anything else. I am focused on the tension of the yarn in between my fingers and the two needles I am using at any one time. (Remember I’ve got five I’m working with). The juggling of yarn, needles and fingers requires patience and coordination, nothing with which I was endowed.

It’s my brother, this time, who will be coordinating hospital visits, biopsy appointments and the analysis of results. It takes careful handling when you are trying not to disempower the person who is suffering. It’s more of a craft than an art.

Body complete and marked with special stitch markers, one of mine looks like an owl. I look to the back and by dividing the stitches I can begin to create a heel flap, which does as it describes, it takes about nine rows with smartly finished edges ready for sewing into the gusset.

It has become too painful for the chemo to be given in her arms and legs anymore, so it’s into her stomach the thick liquid is creamily dumped twice a day. She had the weekend off from chemo, so I’m hoping that she will be more refreshed as she comes back to the clinic on Monday.

A good heel flap will have its own worked edge so that it can be sewed back into the body of the sock, enabling the instep to be crafted. Heel flaps are an inevitable part of the design of any sock, with the exception of a yoga sock (heel-less), it’s not possible to stand in a sock without the heel being turned at the end of the flap. A series of stitches in a particular order per row, simultaneously decreasing and strengthening the yarn.  I always pause after the turning of the heel, for it is only then I can see the finished product in my mind.

There are three days to wait for further results.

I don’t know why it is more difficult to create an identical heel on the second sock. In three more days the heel will have turned and I will be able to see the finished product more clearly, still with the gusset/instep to finish. It will require my attention and care and of course the toes, I enjoy the shape the yarn takes as it curls to tickle under toes. A chance to introduce a new colour or to match the heel flap. Signifying to its partner, waiting. I will complete this project.

For my mother, I will finish the second sock.

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