In honor of Father's Day, today I share an essay that I wrote for the Kaleidoscope Yarns newsletter in 2005, a remembrance of my father and a sweater that I made for him.

My Father's Cardigan

I live out in the country. When my children were young, before they started school, I used to go into town one day a week to visit my parents. It gave them a chance to spend some quality time with their grandchildren, and it gave me an opportunity to be around some other adults. Often, my mother and I would go shopping, or I’d help my father in the garden. We’d always have tea and cookies in the afternoon. Sometimes I’d knit.

I had taught myself to knit a couple of years earlier. Though I’d always liked to play with yarn and needles, I’d never been very good at it. Then, when my son Loren was a year old, I realized I had to learn how to sit still. At that time, I was always in motion. Even at night, after he’d gone to bed, I’d try to do things ahead for the next day. I was exhausted. Well, I thought, perhaps if I were doing something useful, like making a sweater, I’d let myself sit down once in a while. So, I bought some cheap acrylic yarn, a pair of needles, and a book of basic sweater patterns, size 2 through adult huge, and went to work.

For a couple of years I only knit things that required little thought and no counting. Simple toddler raglan pullovers fit the bill nicely; I made many, for my own children and as baby presents. Eventually, though, I began to crave more of a challenge. I remember clearly standing in my parents’ front hall, gazing in amazement at my first mitten, hardly able to believe that I’d actually made it. It was pretty small—Loren was about 4 years old at the time. But I made him several pairs that winter, sitting in my parents’ living room while he played with his grandfather’s toy stone building blocks or looked at books.

An accidental double exposure: my father, about age 45, and one of his stone block buildings

My father loved to wear cardigans, so around that time I decided to challenge myself further and make him one for Christmas. I bought some fine charcoal gray wool, found a pattern for a shawl-collared cardigan, and began knitting. It was a pretty basic, stockinette stitch affair. The only shaping involved set-in sleeves, and therein lay the challenge. On the two cardigan fronts, the armhole shaping, V-neck shaping, and shawl collar were knit simultaneously, requiring multiple increases and decreases at specific points in the same row, and each, of course, occurring over different numbers of rows. No matter how hard or how many times I tried, I could not make those fronts come out with the number of stitches given in the pattern. Totally exasperated, I threw in a few extra decreases across the last couple of rows so that I would have the correct number of stitches to shape the shoulders. Miraculously, both fronts came out looking just fine.

I did much of the knitting at my parents’ house during those one-day-a-week visits, while one of my parents helped me watch Loren; at home, I rarely got a chance to knit except in that brief time after Loren had gone to bed and before I, too, fell asleep. At my parents’ house, my father would wander in and out of the room, oblivious to the knitting. On Christmas morning he opened the package containing the sweater, made some nice noises about it, and went on to something else. My kind husband whispered something to him, and my father came up to me, holding the sweater, a look of wonder on his face. He’d had no idea that I knitted it, much less that I’d knitted it over a period of three months right under his nose.

My father wearing the cardigan Christmas morning 1997

But there was one problem I had to address: the sweater had no pockets, and he needed a pocket, on the left-hand side, to hold a pack of cigarettes and his lighter. Reluctantly, I agreed to make a pocket. I had long since given up urging him to quit smoking, and as he was nearing his 80th birthday it seemed a moot point anyway. But I was concerned that a pocket holding cigarettes and a lighter would make the sweater hang unevenly, stretching the fine wool on one side. I also did not know how to knit a pocket, and so I took a black cashmere fabric swatch from my sewing supplies, folded it in half, sewed up the sides to form a pocket, and tacked it into the inside of the left front. He had his cigarette pocket.

The cigarette pocket, tacked inside the left front

My father loved the cardigan and saved it for special occasions, such as going out to dinner or a concert. He had always been something of a clotheshorse, and though he had enjoyed wearing expensive suits and fancy ties before he retired, he no longer cared for them. The cardigan’s dark wool and shawl collar looked elegant over a turtleneck and saved him from having to wear a suit jacket or sport coat.

Not long after that Christmas, Loren began kindergarten and the weekly trips to town came to an end. Now passionate about knitting, I made time for it despite the demands of mothering, with or without my parents to help watch Loren and his new baby brother. My father celebrated his 80th birthday by taking a glider ride with my sister while the rest of us watched from the ground, impressed with his spirit of adventure. The cardigan remained part of his formal wardrobe, gracing his shoulders as he and my mother toasted the dawning of the new millennium.

September 1996, waiting for his 80th birthday glider ride

It was perhaps the last time he wore the cardigan. My father died in 2000, of lung cancer. Later, my husband inherited the sweater. He doesn’t wear it much—my father was taller and had longer arms than my husband, and the cardigan is a little too dressy for him. And fortunately, he has no use for the cigarette pocket.