"Is it OK if I can't knit at all? I mean I've never even knitted a stitch before."
"Oh yes, that's absolutely fine. See you on Sunday morning."
I smile inwardly, and wonder whether I've given it away with a cheeky twinkle.
The Absolute Beginner knitting classes in my wool shop are promoted on the website with a bulleted list of what you will learn: "Cast on, knit, purl, cast off, sew up". It's the knitting ABC, where new knitters can learn the basics.
What the web page doesn't tell you is that something much more extraordinary than all of that will also take place, and that there's every chance that nothing will ever be quite the same again. It can't be explained as a class outcome or learning objective. Frankly until now, I've thought it probably couldn't be put into words at all.
The students take their seats around the shop table, each with a ball of wool and a pair of knitting needles. Tea is poured, names shared, self-deprecating comments made, stories of past failures told. I try and jolly things along with an introduction to the little hand warmer that everyone's going to make. Nervous glances are exchanged.
And so we begin, carefully inserting the right needle tip, wrapping the yarn around, catching the strand, pushing the old stitch off.
"Yes, you've made a stitch—well done."
Around the table, brows are furrowed and the odd tongue pokes out in concentration. The cups of tea go cold.
"Yes, catching the stitch can be tricky. Look at where the yarn wraps through—that's the bit you want to catch."
"Like this? Why doesn't mine look like yours?"
"Nearly.. just make sure the tip goes into the loop of the stitch, and try and pull the yarn down a little before catching it—yes, you're knitting!"
"Yes, look at the fabric, it wasn't there half an hour ago. It was just a ball of wool. You made that."
That's when it starts. The student gazes, slightly awestruck, at the first few rows of garter stitch bumps that she's created. I leave her to enjoy the moment in privacy and make a fresh pot of tea.
This time the tea is drunk hot, and smiles are starting to replace wrinkled brows.
And then the stories begin to unfold—about last week's night-shift in the hospital; about the baby left with in-laws for the first time to enable coming to the class; about why the head scarf, and how much more treatment there is to go; of the loneliness and also relief of getting out of an unhappy relationship; of the grandchild who is going off to university, the first in the family ever to do so; of the blanket his granny knitted that tragically got left behind on a train.
Gently, and littered with interruptions, we learn about each others' lives, and their hands learn the comforting repetition of inserting the tip, wrapping the yarn, and catching the stitch.
"Oh mine looks terrible, there's a great big hole down there". I rescue the dropped loop, carry it back up its ladder and avert the crisis. The stories can continue and the fabric grows. Needles are clicking around the table, each holding a different coloured rectangle of garter-edged stocking stitch.
"22.. 23.. 24 rows. Yes, it looks like you're ready to cast off now.. work as loosely as you can.. and lift the first stitch over the second... can you pass those scissors over. You need to cut the yarn, and pull it through the final loop".
But first pause. Actually I never say to pause first, I only ever think it. The final stitch is a special one, with it's own delicious feeling of accomplishment and completion, and I want to say: just pause and enjoy it. But it turns out that you really don't need to say anything. Because the magic happens without saying it and you can feel it all around the table. It doesn't need a drum roll or a popping cork or applause. There's a joy that bubbles and ripples around the table—as though they'd all had a draft of a magic potion to drink. But all they did was learn to knit.
Of course there is more to it than that. They were no longer thinking of the washing up waiting at home, the essays to write, the buses to catch, the people to call, the emails to read.
They'd learned and mastered a sequence of new instructions that they didn't know or understand before, which forms the foundation of knitting whatever they'll ever want to make. They have a new skill which can shape some space for themselves, as well as join them together with other knitters. They can retreat into its reassuring repeating rhythms, or dive deep into complex new stitches.
One by one, they pack away their wool and needles to leave. One pauses in the doorway.
"But what happens if I drop a stitch again and you're not there to pick it up?"
"It will be fine. You're a knitter now, and apart from this shop, there's a wool shop in just about every town and city, and each one has a shop keeper who knows how to pick them up. They will help you with dropped stitches...and more besides."