“Shōuzhēn”: Cantonese for “to cast on” a stitch. In knitting, to cast on stitches is to create the first row of stitches, to build the foundation. My grandmother demonstrates this in three fluid gestures. Knitting needles in hand, I attempt to mirror her delicate motions. As she loops the neon-colored yarn around her forefinger and thumb, she narrates her moves in the same tone she has used on her American grandchildren since we were little. Throw in some broken English and we’ve got a complete tutorial. 

My grandmother repeats the sequence, casting stitches upon stitches until there is no room left on the needle. She takes my hands in hers and does it again, moving my arms along like a puppet. From time to time, she corrects my posture and form. The needles are nearly the length of my forearm so holding the tools feels, frankly, lethal. My grandmother insists that the capped end of each needle must rest in the crook of my elbow. Every time they slip off my arm, she is there, angling my wrists just so.

I keep at it. In the darkness of an East Coast winter, I practice my stitches by the fireplace. The needles are cold and after a few hours, my hands are cramped and numb. The yarn ball, however, has been reduced to a limp skein. I examine my raggedy rectangle of inconsistent stitches and consider that progress.

In our house, the act of shōuzhēn transcends any language barrier. We can sit in silence, understanding the significance of this craft. I eventually try to teach my mother, showing her how to loop the yarn and load the needle. She never quite gets the hang of it, but it is her willingness to try that matters. Even as the yarn disappears, my memories of these joyful, learning times are woven into my creations.

I regard my earliest projects—a mouse-sized blanket, a pair of legwarmers and a headband—with pride. Despite the misshapen knots, missed stitches and flamboyant shades of neon, I remember my grandmother best by these products of perseverance, these labors of love.

Visual Credit: beep1o


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