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To knit or not to knit: Mills staff talk the art of yarn

There seems to me to be something uniquely life-affirming about working with yarn. This has evidently occurred to many others before me; indeed, Greek mythology tells of the fates, personified as wise women who measure, distribute and cut the “thread” of life.

While the act of knitting and other related crafts go back for centuries, working with yarn is still relevant and important to many. This activity is quiet and often happens away from the spotlight, so it seems fitting that several Mills staff members who help support the backbone of this institution behind the scenes are deeply involved in the craft. 

For Lucia Scriven, the coordinator of the Writing and Tutoring Center at Mills, knitting is a mechanism for mindfulness and a vehicle for delivering a state of calm.

“Once I began knitting, it became more about the process [than the end result]. The constant quiet movement is very pleasant to me,” Scriven said, adding that knitting can be a way of stimming, or self-soothing. 

This process-oriented approach takes an organic route within Scriven’s practice of the craft. 

“Knitting kind of ebbs and flows for me,” Scriven explained. “There are some times when I just need to be knitting all the time. And then I haven’t knitted in months and I dive back into it and when I’m at those points when I’m deep into knitting, then it’s absolutely a daily thing.”

The act of knitting becomes the most rewarding for Scriven when she puts an improvisational spin onto her projects. 

“I just like to make things up as I go,” Scriven said. “As a beginner, I kind of like to just do my own thing. And then once I feel like I’ve got a hang of [a technique], then I find out, how do I actually increase or decrease? And what exactly is the difference between knit and purl? What happens when you combine them?”

Mills librarian Lawral Wornek also shares a love of working with yarn. It has been a dependable activity that has marked various stages in her life. 

“I learned to knit when I was really little, and I knit mostly Barbie clothes and washcloths, until probably middle school when I made everybody legwarmers because it was the early 90s,” Wornek remembered. 

Knitting became a group activity for Wornek when she was writing her thesis her senior year of college with other students. The activity served as a collective remedy for stress, helping keep their hands busy with projects.

“We needed a night where we wouldn’t do homework and we wouldn’t do anything that’s bad for us,” she said. “And so we all knit twin-sized blankets to go with our theses.” 

Mills library specialist Corinna Burrell infuses her knitting with her interest in the past, and contextualizes it within the broader scope of history. 

“My Master’s degree is in Medieval English, which is kind of wrapped up with history and manuscripts,” she explained. “And I can kind of see the connective tissue in between that and knitting because it’s the history of manual work, and doing the sorts of things that get people through life.” 

Burrell brings these historical implications of the craft to bear on our current moment, citing the pandemic as an example of the kind of event that necessitates tactile and practical things to get us through challenging times.

“Sewing, cooking, and knitting are some of these things, which are traditionally women’s work,” she said. “It’s not about being hyper-masculine and it’s not about being violent. It’s about being sustainable and useful and comforting.” 

For both Wornek and Burrell, knitting has political meaning and allows them to create something of the lasting value of their own outside of the consumerist, capitalist framework of modern life. This brings them a unique satisfaction and joy.

“Even working within an educational system, it still is fundamentally capitalist and having creative outlets outside of that is something that is just for me,” Burrell explained. “[My knitting] doesn’t have to belong to my employer or to the greater world. It is something that I do for love and care and just pure enjoyment.”

Knitting, along with sewing, provides a method of self-expression for Wornek that she also uses to address the culture of fast fashion. By making many of her own clothes, Wornek creates her own personal solution to part of a bigger problem. 

“Thinking about where our clothes come from, who is getting paid or not paid to make our clothes, and how you can make your clothes last longer and leave less of a dent in the world, these are really basic things,” Wornek said. “And I think it’s really easy to say that fashion is frivolous and clothes are frivolous. But everybody needs them, right?” 

One of Burrell’s most memorable knitting moments was helping a friend decipher a vintage pattern that contained a typo. 

“She couldn’t figure out how to do it and sent me the instructions. And I was able to rewrite them and it worked,” Burrell said excitedly. “That was enormously satisfying because it meant that I understood what was going on and wasn’t just following a pattern.” 

Finding joy in the process and reveling in the small and quiet is something that knitters frequently do well. For Scriven, Wornek and Burrell, these qualities have made all the difference.