Essay: Stitching a Community; A Newcomer Finds a Place, and Knitters Make a Statement

Monday, April 08, 2013

Spring has come to the Lebanon Green.

That’s where a group of more than 20 people gathered yesterday morning to attach bright knitted rectangles onto a crab apple tree in recognition of the AVA Gallery and Art Center’s 40th anniversary.

They started arriving around 11, many decked out in knit hats, scarves and gloves (handmade of course) to guard against the unseasonable April chill. Equipped with blunt needles, chunky yarn and stepladders, the group approached the awkwardly-angled tree to begin attaching the 27 sections that would become Lebanon’s first “yarn bomb” display.

I struggle with numb fingers to thread the yarn through the needle for sewing my assigned section. Even though I have to reach my arms above my head, the memory that was ingrained into my hands more than 10 years ago by my grandmother kicks in and I am able to sew the sides together, my crooked stitches becoming part of the community’s effort.

A boy who looks to be about 5 years old walks around the green with his mother and stops for a moment to survey the scene with a puzzled gaze. “Oh,” he says. “They’re knitting a tree.”

And I guess from the outside the process does look strange: a group of mostly women attaching clashing-colored yarn blocks to barren branches. But as I’ve come to learn, we knitters are our own kind and dressing a tree in a five-armed sweater is merely an extension of our craft.

Nearly an hour and a half later, when the last segment is fastened, I stand back and look in awe upon what I had a small role creating.

“I think if you’re creative you seek out the opportunities in these types of places,” Allegra Kuhn, of Woodstock, said to me before when I asked what brought her here. “Like-minded people find one another.”

Kuhn couldn’t be more right.

It was only nine months ago that I sat in a parking space in White River Junction, trying to muster the courage to open the car door. I’d been put in more than my share of new situations recently. Graduating from college. Moving out of my childhood home to a place where I didn’t know anyone. Installing my own Internet. Starting a new job. It had been a big month.

But I was thrilled to be independent finally, and making my own way.

And as much as I had told my family and friends that I was fine, really, enjoying the time by myself, catching up on reading, rediscovering Netflix and rearranging the boxes and bins in my apartment into furniture (I had none at that point).

Still, I was lonely.

After another weekend of driving the back roads to sightsee around the Upper Valley and explore the box stores West Lebanon has to offer, I had reached my limit.

My cousin, Emily, two years my senior, had left home the year before to take a teaching job in another state. I had spoken to her earlier that week for advice on how to meet people, despite the unusual night hours I worked for my job.

Try going to a yarn shop, Emily suggested. Have a project you’re working on? Bring it with you to break the ice. As a lifelong knitter, it sounded like a good idea.

The nearest yarn shop was White River Yarns in White River Junction. And that was where I found myself a few days later, sitting in my car, trying to convince myself to open the door and go in because people in the Upper Valley seemed much more friendly than in New Jersey where I grew up and really, did I want to spend another afternoon browsing the aisles of Walmart?

So I walked into the shop.

From that moment, things changed. Over the next nine months the women I would meet there would be become my minor-crisis counselors, surrogate mothers and, most important, friends.

We often take for granted the ready-built communities we have that are waiting for us: high school peers, college dorm mates who become close friends, neighbors, or the people we meet at church.

Now I was in a new place where those communities were no longer in place ... and it was really, really, hard.

But companionship that draws people together from shared interest is what I’ve found through weekends at White River Yarns, sitting in a circle of mismatched rocking chairs with Geri and Jane and Mary and Kitty and Linda and Tina and Karen, our “project bags” overflowing with yarn and half-finished or nearly-completed knitting work as we discuss, well, everything.

“A good yarn shop is a real community gathering place,” explained Susan Nugent, a Meriden resident who I spoke to as she was quickly knitting the last small rectangle to go on the crab apple tree in Lebanon.

Later at the park I approached Lucy Mclellan, a lifelong knitter, as she busily snapped photos of the completed tree. What draws you to knitting? I asked her, wanting to know. Why have you devoted yourself to the craft for so long?

“My grandmother taught me to knit and I taught my daughters to knit,” Mclellan, a Lebanon resident, said. “Knitting is one of the original ways to socialize.”

And it makes me wonder: what else could make 20 people to show up in Colburn Park on chilly and gray Sunday morning?

There’s a need for human connection through a common purpose, of taking a ball of yarn and a pair of sharpened sticks and turning it into an art that might not be perfect; its missed stitches and small mistakes that come about because you were too engrossed in a story about Tina’s kids or pictures of Kitty’s grandchildren or Geri’s days as a school principal.

Every sock heel that Mary helped me turn, the buttonhole that Jane taught me to make, the pom-pom that Karen sewed onto my hat ... those gestures were about more than learning a new skill.

But it’s not why I devote a part of nearly every weekend at the yarn shop.

Because the truth I have come to realize is you’re never too old to need guidance or encouragement — or to ask a silly question like what cleans a shower best and really, how long before opened cheese goes bad and is it safe to go hiking alone (“No!”).

It’s important to have people who want you to succeed at knitting your first pair of socks or to ask if you’ve finally done that load of laundry you kept putting off or to check in to see if you’re finally — at last! — feeling settled enough to call your new abode — and community — home.

“We wanted to do something community oriented,” said Debbe Callaghan, an AVA employee who works in grants and developments, last month when I asked her why AVA chose a yarn bomb as one of the ways to mark its anniversary in the community.

In the summer the children participating in AVA’s art camps will sit under the crab apple tree to eat lunch and socialize, forming new friendships based on a common purpose.

There’s no timetable for how long the yarn bomb will stay up, Adam Blue, education director at AVA, said, and there’s already talk of plans to cover the two crabtrees next to their decked-out peer.

The interest is there. The community is present. All there needs to be is a purpose to bring people together.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3305.

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