Wandering through the Folk Art Museum of Innsbruck, Austria last year, I admired pieces of embroidery, lace, weaving and other needle arts. It occurred to me that I own a precious piece of folk art myself: a handknit sweater I bought about 35 years ago. In a tiny shop in one of the ski towns, maybe Kitzbuhel, a lady in the traditional dirndl skirt, fitted bodice and puff-sleeved blouse patiently pulled every sweater in my size off the neat shelves behind her. She spread a rainbow array of handknit sweaters across the worn wooden counter. Things have changed since then, but in those days most shops, at least in small towns, served customers personally; there was no such thing as browsing through the racks. Fine handknits should never be hung on hangers anyway. I probably spent at least an hour in the shop, trying on and debating the merits of each sweater before me. It appeared that each garment in the entire shop was one-of-a-kind.
In my wretchedly rudimentary German, I asked whether the sweaters spread before me were all really handknit. The saleslady had trouble understanding me. I mimicked hand-knitting motions. Another customer helpfully translated for me. The saleslady looked incredulous–and maybe a little insulted–that I would ask such a question. Yes, of course every sweater in the shop was knitted by hand.
I chose a worsted wool sweater, in a color I thought of as bluejay blue, with popcorn stitches and silver buttons. It was slim-fitting, with vertical ribbing around the midriff and down the sleeves. It looked great with jeans. Over the years, it’s become one of my prized possessions; whenever I wear it, people ask where I found it. Some can’t resist touching the popcorn stitches, still springy after all these years.
Knitting was a cottage industry in those days, before women in large numbers began to join the workforce outside the home. In country towns in the mountains of Tirol and Bavaria, it was fairly common to see women knitting, crocheting, or embroidering while sitting on their front porches, watching over children in a park, or riding a tram. Many women seemed to work without thinking or even looking at their work. They made it look easy. Later, when I tried to learn to knit, I realized how difficult it is–and how time-consuming. A simple scarf, knit with huge needles and loose stitches, is my limit.
Now I wish I had bought more than one sweater that day. My blue one still looks as new as the day I bought it. It never sags or stretches. It never gets pills on the sleeves. It never fades. It is always warm, but not too warm. It still fits perfectly, and it still looks great with jeans. Handknit sweaters are prohibitively expensive now, if they can be found at all. Still, every time I’m lucky enough to be in Austria or Germany, I’m looking for another perfect sweater. Of course, if I do find another one, I may not be able to afford it.
Still, I can always hope. A year ago, on a side street just as I was leaving Vienna, I spied a tiny shop that looked promising. Who knows, maybe I’ll find just the thing there next week!