Knitting with Nana

Who taught you to knit? For many of us, it was a beloved grandma or mother. What was it like for our grannies, and what kinds of yarn did they knit with? With Mother’s Day coming up, Merion looks back at the mothers, grandmothers, and mother figures who taught us to knit, sharing her own knitting story along the way.

As a little girl, I loved going yarn shopping with my grandma. It seemed so exotic at the time, but in reality it was a department store with multi-packs of wool but I still recall the excitement, seeing rows and rows of balls of color. There was a lot of DK and 4ply, and thinner – I don’t recall there being very much in the way of heavier yarns – aran weight perhaps, but certainly not the big chunkies and super chunkies we love today. Colors were limited to bright poster paint primary colors of red, green, royal blue, and garish yellows to everyday dark brown, navy and black, and a wall of pastels for baby knits.

It was mostly wool, with some acrylic. Acrylic yarns appeared in the 1950s and took the knitting nanas by storm – generations of laundry-by-hand ladies must have been ecstatic to have found a machine washable yarn! Practicality was the order of the day because the first washing machines were very basic – machine with a mangle attached, and then a twin tub machine which washed in one half and spun in the other. Very few people had automatic washing machines in their homes until the mid 1950s. Baby clothes in acrylic yarn must have been a dream to wash after load, after load of hand-wash wools.

All the ladies in my family knitted, and everybody was always knitting something, but it was utilitarian: socks, sweaters, baby clothes, blankets. My grandma knitted my mother a black and yellow striped swimming costume, using up left over wool and clearly tried to make it fun, like a little bee – but of course, as you’d imagine, it sagged horribly in the water and never dried!

This was still the era of make-do-and-mend, there simply wasn’t the money to buy clothes, and there were not very many clothes to buy! Yet, our passion for knitting began with our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, and I am sure we are enjoying it far more than they did! Garments and shaping were born of necessity – but the fabulous stitch patterns, cables and colorwork techniques came from the creativity of thousands of women trying to make their workload more interesting! We have a lot to thank them for!

This is just my story, but I am always keen to find out more about everyday knitting, and how we all learnt to knit. We've collected some wonderful knitting stories from our community of knitters - it makes for very familiar reading! I’m sure many of you will identify with these.

Effie from Greece

I’m from Greece and I was taught to knit by my maternal grandmother when I was 8. I was spending the summer with her, in a small village up in the mountains of northern Greece and I saw a little girl knitting a sock. I was amazed! I asked my grandma if she would teach me, she did and I haven’t stopped since. I am now 60 years old and I still remember the excitement as well as the beautiful soft grey yarn, with which I made my first project, a cowl. The yarn was made from scratch by my grandma from the wool of her own sheep. It was that well-made, supple and silky, that in my childish imagination I thought I was knitting with a cloud!

Mandy from the UK

I first learned to knit, crochet, and sew when I was about 5 years old. I lived with my grandmother, who never had idle hands, she was always making something. I started by making dolls clothes, then progressed to adult ones. My grandmother was a prolific crocheter, she made my aunty’s wedding dress and the bridesmaid dresses back in the 1970’s, it is now in a museum in Liverpool as an exhibit. She was an absolute inspiration to me. My only regret, that she isn’t alive today as I have recently started Tunisian crocheting, something which she would have loved. Each time I finish a project, I turn to her picture and show her what I have made and hopes that she approves of it’s quality.

Carol from NSW, Australia

I grew up in country NSW Australia in the 50's as the youngest child with much older siblings. My mother taught me to knit and crochet whilst listening to the radio. I knitted dolls clothes and graduated to knitting for nieces and a nephew. I knitted for myself in the train on the way to work in the late 60's. My own children and then grandchildren received hand knitted garments. Now I knit dolls, rugs, and vests for preemie babies, of whom there seem to be an increasing number. I now knit while watching TV instead of listening to the radio. It is very therapeutic and keeps these 70 year old hands nimble.

Sharyn from Tasmania, Australia

I grew up in Tasmania and learnt to knit at the age of 7. We were knitting squares to make a blanket for charity. I loved it so much I carried on knitting and I would take it in the car when I had to go and watch my brothers play football. I love anything to do with wool - from spinning it, to knitting it into something, and then gifting a handcrafted product. It is an extension of my dad who did sheep shearing for a living. For me just looking at wool is great to reduce blood pressure and anxiety.

Sally from Nowra, Australia

My Grandma, Nell started me off on a pale pink scarf during school holidays when I was 5. I'm not sure that I ever finished it, but I continued to knit with my mother as adviser and that special helper to unpick and re-knit. Throughout my childhood I knitted dolls clothes - I'm amazed at how creative I was. My first jumper was a pink angora sleeveless vest in 1970. I rarely stop knitting now - as someone else said: if I can't knit I'm not going! I especially like to knit during music concerts and capture some of the music in the piece of work. Likewise with travelling.

Natalie from Canada

I'm from Canada and my mom taught me to knit when I was 11. My niece had just been born and I wanted to knit her something. This was difficult as my mom is left-handed and I'm right. To this day I'm told I knit backwards!

Fran from the US

I was pregnant with my first child and decided to learn to knit to make a baby sweater. I went to a small branch library and checked out a few knitting books. The librarian asked me about my knitting and I told her I was just learning. She told me she was often not very busy around 1pm every day, and offered to help me if I needed it, which I did. So I would go over to the library and take my knitting and she helped me learn. She would share her own current project with me and she was so encouraging. This was some 60 years ago; I'm now a prolific knitter and have mastered just about every knitting technique there is, but I might never have been where I am had it not been for that very kind and supportive librarian!

Wendy from Tasmania, Australia

I'm 62 years old, I live in St Marys, Tasmania, Australia, and I suspect I was about 4 or 5 when I learnt to knit. My great grandmother lived with my grandparents in the same street as Mum and Dad so as the first born great grandchild I spent many hours with her. I recall knitting colored squares which were later sewn together to make a blanket. By about 7 or 8 I learnt to knit socks for my grandfather out of Patons grey 4 ply sock wool, my beloved Gran died the week I turned 10 at the great age of 98, and I still think of her each time I turn a heel. I figure I've got another 30+ years of knitting 4 ply socks in me and maybe even a blanket for the great niece due in June.

Lynn from Missouri, US

I'm from Missouri and my mom taught me, starting out with a long, long, long crochet chain of Coats & Clarks black/color variegated yarn when I was 4 or 5. I moved onto knitting when I was about 12 maybe, mostly teaching myself with ‘how to knit’ pamphlets. But Mom did teach me to knit continental style which I still do more than 50 years later. I knit and crochet for gifts and myself, but mostly for mental fitness and giving my otherwise idle hands something to do but pick up Oreos!

Heather from New Zealand

I live in New Zealand. I learnt to knit after an appeal was made for people to knit jumpers for little blue penguins after an oil spill off the NZ coast. I thought I'd do my bit for the penguins. Thank goodness for the internet and knitting books at the library! I bought a blue skein of yarn and learnt to knit, but kept dropping stitches and would hop over the fence to my neighbor, a prolific knitter, to help put it all right again. I thought at the time that she could make a hundred jumpers in the time it would take me to knit one.

I am a children's writer, and came up with a story idea about a lady who loves to knit. Long story short, last year my first picture book, 'Granny McFlitter the Champion Knitter' was published. And just a couple of weeks ago, 'Granny McFlitter: A Country Yarn' was published. So I've now knitted lots of penguin jumpers to use for props at school visits (pictured below), and I've been knitting vegetables as props (pictured below) for the second book (in which Granny McFlitter knits veggies as an entry to the local country show).

I learnt to knit because of the penguins, but now I knit because it's such a relaxing thing to do. I concentrate better when my hands are busy, and I love knitting while waiting for the kids at sports practices - it's great to produce something rather than just scrolling through social media! Now I've even knitted my first socks!

Joy from New Zealand

My mother taught me to knit and over the years I have knitted for my children, my grandchildren, and now my great grandchildren. I had always watched my grandmother knitting, her fingers used to move so fast. She knitted for a wool shop in Auckland and one time when she came to stay with us, she was knitting a cardigan for Queen Salote of Tonga. Over the years she made several garments for Queen Salote and one time she asked to meet the lady who knitted her cardigans. A proud moment for my Grandma to have Tongan royalty in her house. When my grandmother died, I inherited her bag of knitting needles, all colors and sizes plus a row counter.

Vintage-inspired knitting patterns