Son Clif has commissioned me to make a sweater for him.
The last time he asked me to make him a sweater was in 2007, when he was eight, and he wanted a dragon sweater. It has taken us both a dozen years to recover from that intarsia experience.
Now, Clif is 19. When I was in New York recently, he and I had a quick visit to a) our favorite seafood restaurant, b) CVS so I could buy lipstick, c) the lobby of his dorm (decor: turnstile chic), and d) the Whitney Museum of American Art.
We looked at paintings.
If you’re looking for a greatest-hits cavalcade of American painting, the exhibit “Where We Are” covers a lot of ground.
Clif spent most of his time with the abstract painters.
Out of the blue, he said he’d like a sweater based on The Promise, a 1949 painting by Barnett Newman.
From the Whitney’s website:
The Promise was one of Newman’s earliest “zip” paintings. Begun in 1949, these works were radically abstract, with subtly inflected monochromatic backgrounds partitioned by narrow vertical bands—or zips, as the artist called them—of contrasting colors. To make The Promise, Newman laid down two strips of masking tape to demarcate the zips, and painted the ground black. He then removed the tape and painted the blue-gray stripe at the right with a palette knife, producing a textured and irregular effect. When the black paint was dry, he filled in the stripe at the left, taping off the edges to create a precisely defined zip in off-white. The juxtaposition of the two zips causes visual tension, activating the surface of the canvas. Newman believed strongly in the power of abstraction to communicate the most dramatic and elemental aspects of human existence—the sense of alienation and vulnerability that followed in the wake of World War II, as well as an abiding faith in creation and new beginnings, as suggested by the title and composition of The Promise.
A Barnett Newman zip sweater. So many questions.
What shape? Clif, who knows a lot about menswear, instantly replied, “Set-in sleeve.” That’s my boy!
Weight? Not heavy, not “sweatery.” I translated that to mean: fingering weight.
Size? He sent me the measurements from a sweater he loves.
This commission, made on the day I was headed up to Rhinebeck, gave me a perfect mission for the weekend: locate solid black yarn.
It is harder than you might think to find perfectly black yarn, even at a fiber festival with hundreds of vendors. The dyer who made my day? The brilliant Amy Lee Serradell, whose Canon Hand Dyes are among our favorites. She had four skeins of inky dim black.
This will be a very simple pattern. I instantly thought of Ann Budd’s masterwork, The Knitter’s Handy Book of Sweater Patterns. I carbon dated my acquisition of this classic book to 2006, given that there’s a birth announcement for knitter pal Rachel’s baby Shelby.
The copying of pages for Adult Set-in Sleeve Sweater ensued.
I swatched my Canon Hand Dyes Charles Merino in Shades of Gray. More like Shades of Black Hole! I quickly saw that this was going to require excellent light.
After blocking, I hit 24 stitches/4″ with a size 4. ZANG!
The circling of stitch counts and measurements followed. I was off.
I went with a knitted hem for the bottom of this sweater. Barnett Newman would not make a sweater with a poofy ribbed mess—he’d want as sleek and minimal an edge as possible, so that his zips would zip all the way to the edge.
If you’ve never made a knitted hem, well, you need to get in on this. Here’s some Vogue Knitting wisdom for you. In stockinette, you knit an inch with a needle a size smaller than the body. Knit a purl row that creates a perfect folding edge. Switch to larger needle, knit another inch. Then, on the amazing row, you knit the bottom edge of the flap along with the next knit row, securing the flap as an interfacing and creating just the loveliest edge imaginable.
This most crucial component is going to take some thinking.
Clif and I are in consultation about what the stripes will look like. I did a duplicate stitch swatch, but honestly, the results are iffy.
Too knitterly? Zips require crispness, you know? And a ragged edge on the gray one.
I think Clif has an idea for the stripes. Stay tuned.
Knitting solid black right now is an excellent meditation for this moment.
I’m typing all this stuff—and I truly am thrilled to be making a sweater for the lad—but my heart is as heavy as lead with the news of the past week.
But look: I put my knitting down on the table where I take pictures, and the sunlight of the day put zips all over the stark black.
Sending love and light,
PS I’ll say it again: if you haven’t voted yet, please do not fail to cast your ballot.