Monday, June 23, 2008

Practical Magic

I took another journey this week, the flight scuttling from city to city up the East coast between thunderstorms. My outward flight was delayed for hours waiting for the weather to clear once so the inbound plane could arrive and again so we could depart. After boarding, we sat another couple of hours at the gate. But I know by now how to arm myself for the airport. I didn't fret. I had fortifying snacks. I had a book. And I had the Mockery socks.

I clicked away while some passengers fumed and watched the clock. Oh, I was anxious to be on our way too; I had a late night and an early meeting. But worrying wouldn't get us there any sooner, so I concentrated on the knitting.

Here's how the Mockery socks are looking. If you just look at the surface and tune out the colors, you can see the undulating stitch pattern that gives the merest pen-and-ink suggestion of a cable.

I like those rhythmic waves. One day maybe I'll use the same stitch pattern in something solid-colored that will show it off to better advantage. But the eye-of-partridge stitch on the heel flap certainly suits the yarn well, doesn't it? It gives the color changes a beautiful mosaic-like effect.

On the return trip, thankfully, there were no more delays, just a packed-full flight. As the plane loaded and the passengers got themselves and their belongings stowed, I settled into my middle seat and got back to the knitting. The aisle seat next to me was still unoccupied. After a while, its owner, a large and vigorous young man, came bearing down the aisle. He spotted me, with my double-point needles bristling, and boomed out to everyone nearby, with faintly alarming bonhomie, "oh, we don't want to make her mad, huh?" Then with slightly more suspect jocularity, he added, "is that even legal any more?" TSA's website being clear on the matter, I parried, and he subsided good-naturedly.

A chatty seatmate, he returned to the subject later, asking what I was making, seeming interested in a you-don't-say kind of way, asking about who they're for and how you make sure the socks are the right size. He wasn't sure why he was fascinated, he said, since it's probably a pretty straightforward skill. True enough, I agreed, though some people seem to feel it's black magic.

He then jokingly mentioned Arthur C. Clarke's well-known Third Law stating that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I laughed, but thought about it afterwards. It turns out there's a variation to Clarke's law put forward by science fiction writer Charles Sheffield, saying that "any sufficiently antique technology is indistinguishable from magic." That, I think, is very apt.

Though knitting is having a resurgence, and sock knitting in particular is reemerging, it is as a boutique pursuit, a luxury, a form of expression for people already well fed, housed, and shod, not a way to clothe the population in hardwearing garments for daily use. In a society in which for a hundred years or more we've been provided with socks by far-away industrialized factories, cheaply and on a mass scale, is it any wonder that the antique and little-taught skill of making them by hand would come to seem as impenetrable as magic?

It seems to me there are quite a few once-basic skills that are the same way. While we take for granted our facility with once-unimaginable machines and sophisticated concepts, we are far removed from the production of simple things. If we had to fend for ourselves, we might be flummoxed. You mean people get fresh water by digging a hole in the ground? That sounds like magic. How do we make metal? Magic. We get our bread by grinding up the heads of dried grasses? Magic. We get sourdough from invisible yeasts that drift in on the air? Uh-huh. Spinning yarn from the coats of animals? Making clothes from the yarn? Definitely magic.

I'm pleased that knitting and spinning have gained converts recently. We need to know how things are made. I'm happy to be one of the new keepers of some ancient skills.

Practical magic.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Nice socks!!!

(Let me know the next time you're up our way, eh?)