The Legacy of Mary (Sam) Vance, Knitter
by Linda C Butler
Traditional skills, such as knitting, connect us to past generations. I never knew my great grandmother Mary Vance, but she was an expert knitter and I feel that when I knit, I share in her legacy, although we have no direct knitting connection. I recently took knitting lessons, and as I click my needles, I am reminded of her contribution to family and community.
Grandma broke an ankle as a child and she walked with two canes or a crutch. Many activities were difficult, but knitting became her passion and she knit for six grandchildren and the family adults.
Prairie winters were cold and everyone bundled in woolens to keep warm. Grandma made toques, mittens, scarves, socks, sweaters and even undershirts. She used wooden needles, probably from prairie hardwood. Sweaters were knit flat and joined with seams but toques and socks were knit in the round with four pointed needles. Her yarn was probably obtained from a local farmer who raised sheep and after carding and weaving, she dyed it using natural plant dyes.
I recently saw the expression: Knit Fast, Stay Warm and I thought of Grandma sitting for hours with her knitting needles clicking. In addition to knitting for her family she contributed to church bazaars and to neighbors.
Today there is renewed interest in knitting and I enjoy the variety of yarns in the local wool shop with an endless selection of colors, textures and blends. There are circular needles for round knitting, and nickel-plated brass and bamboo for speed. A grandchild would have wound balls of yarn from skeins on a chair back for Grandma, but today most yarn is sold in balls and there are ball winders if we need them.
I knit toques, mostly from thrift-store yarn, and I marvel at the combination of patterns and colors that result from partial balls of yarn. Grandma Vance also made toques and mitts from leftover yarn and I feel the connection to the past as I create my designs.
As knitted garments aged, Grandma darned them to keep them in good repair. Older kids passed their usable garments onto the younger ones. Finally, when the garments were unusable, they were pieced together for quilt batting. Quilt tops, made from sewing scraps made a decorative cover for the recycled batting.
Grandma’s creativity with her knitting needles was born of necessity, and today I am glad to carry on her tradition. In learning to knit, I feel that I am connected to her, and to the prairie women of her generation whose thrift and resourcefulness settled the Canadian Prairies.