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The best $42 I ever spent: A single ball of yarn

Dana Rodriguez for Vox

Knitting has always brought me comfort when I can’t see what’s ahead.

It usually takes me a lot of time to buy something. I like to deliberate, to consider, to compare options and see if a fleeting desire is just that. I like to wait for sales and refresh my banking app and ask myself again and again if I really need the item in question. Partly this is because I have a low retail flinch point (the dollar amount at which it becomes physically painful to pull the trigger on a purchase, hovering somewhere around $25 for me) and partly it’s because I don’t like clutter. This is why it was highly uncharacteristic for me to pay $35, plus $7 in tax and shipping, for a single ball of yarn.

I spotted it on my Instagram Explore page during a sleepless night over a year ago. I’ve been knitting since I was 6 years old, and so I follow a whole bunch of knitting-related accounts; as such, the algorithm constantly serves me cozy pictures of half-knitted sweaters arranged next to cups of tea, or of smiling, shiny-haired girls nestled in their latest creations. I tend to appreciate these images the same way I like looking in the windows of strangers’ apartments as I walk around my city: snippets of lives that have very little to do with mine and so I keep on going.

On this particular night (or morning, hard to tell), I was so struck by one picture that I had to stop and stalk. It featured the beginnings of a sock, knitted from the toe upward, in an absolute riot of colors: blues and greens and reds and grays, at least a dozen, striping up so neatly it was as though they’d been produced by a machine. The yarn, though, was clearly the result of an expert dyer’s handiwork, with just enough variation to showcase the love and labor poured into it.

Even as a knitter who tends to stick to the “50 shades of taupe” side of things, I instantly clicked over to the yarn maker’s Etsy shop, and had paid for my own ball of the yarn — named, aptly, “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Jellybean” — in five minutes flat. I hadn’t even stopped to put on my glasses or turn on my bedside lamp. I must have fallen back asleep, and in a little over a month’s time, once the yarn had been dyed to order and just long enough that I’d begun to forget I’d ordered it, it arrived in my mailbox.

To be sure, I’ve spent far more than $35 on yarn in one sitting before. In the 20-odd years I’ve been knitting, I’ve mostly graduated from the synthetic $4 balls you can find at big craft chains like Michaels or Joann to skeins and hanks made from merino wool, alpaca, and sometimes even silk or cashmere. Those can run the gamut from $10 to $20 to $50 apiece, depending on how precious the fibers and how generous the yardage. Not to mention that in order to make much of anything larger than a hat or a single sock, you’ll probably need more than one of whatever you’re buying. Knitting can be an expensive hobby, and it isn’t out of the question for me to drop $100 or more on a single project. Still, the vast majority of my yarn-buying is closer to the $12-a-ball end of the spectrum, and it’s almost always (fairly) carefully thought out.

The Jellybean yarn was different. This is the hippie-dippiest thing I will probably ever say in my life, but I didn’t feel like I chose to buy it so much as it chose me. I needed something neat and small and bright. I needed a project that would do much of the work of being beautiful for me; all I would have to do was put one stitch in front of the other. I’ve often turned to knitting when I’m going through it, and I’d had a hard summer, which gave way to a hard fall.

I didn’t even really know how to name the difficulty, not to my satisfaction. I knew it had to do with the fact that the world’s unkindness swelled to a cacophony at the same time that both my personal and professional lives underwent abrupt, unexpected upheaval. I knew that I went on medication, and then off again, and finally back on for the foreseeable future. I knew that I gained weight, and that drinking to help quell the anxiety helped nothing.

I began to feel like the me that is my body and the me that is my brain were separate, uncommunicative entities, and that the job of the me that is ME, the ineffable control center of it all, became only to try and force the two to look at each other, to agree on some course of action. I felt like I’d been in survival mode for so long that I didn’t quite remember what it was like to not be drawing from stores of reserve energy, to not have to triage each day or hour rather than looking ahead to the future.

This yarn, though, let me look ahead just enough. I started knitting a pair of socks with it the second I’d freed it from its packaging, putting aside the sweater and scarf I’d been working on as the weather zigzagged from summer straight into winter. The yarn fulfilled its promise and then some: Its stripes came out perfectly, effortlessly, asking only that I knit in the simplest possible pattern to show off its spectacularity. Here, now, is blue; then will come yellow; a run of green, a stint of pink, a flash of gray. All the same length, all with a defined beginning and end. All, eventually, adding up to a thing, which exists because I wanted it to, because my brain and my body agreed to make it happen, because sometimes, in some very small way, a cause can have an equal effect. Knitting, meditative and rhythmic and soft and good, is such a relief. It brings me such pure and quiet joy.

That feeling is at a premium right now. So many friends have asked me how to start knitting in the past few months that I wrote up a Google Doc of tips; it’s not lost on me that now, more than ever, I’d like to be there beside them as they cast on their first crooked rows, but that they’re just going to have to trust that they can muddle through on their own and that I will be there on the other side (and on Zoom) to help with dropped stitches and wonky tension.

I’m under no illusion that crafting solves anything outside of itself. Knitting, for all that it does, can’t eradicate dread or sadness, can’t instill global empathy, can’t leave you with anything besides the object you set out to make. But it gives me, at least, a legible roadmap that gets me from one hour to the next without panic. It’s a place where I can go to come back to myself and replenish my reserves and serve as a reminder that this is one action I can perform completely and well, even when everything else feels so out of my control.

I have just enough left from that original ball to make another small project — a tiny pair of socks, maybe for my landlords’ daughter, or my friend’s newborn, or a child I don’t know who could use something neat and small and bright right now, too. And then, who knows? I might just drop $35, plus tax and shipping, to buy another.

Alanna Okun is a deputy editor at The Goods and the author of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting as well as the forthcoming Knit a Hat: A Beginner’s Guide to Knitting.


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