“Keep to the River”

Oh, my heart. Back in February, when our days were more ordinary than they are now, my friend and colleague, Sara, contacted me about a blanket for her dad’s June birthday as a gift from her sisters and her. I trimmed the binding last week, in the nick of time, and mourned when I sent it on its way, for I grew to love this blanket that took shape in a time of turmoil.

I began this project with trepidation, yet not because of world events. Sara’s is a blended family of interesting, accomplished people and makers, and Philip, the birthday honoree, is an artist. I admit I felt the weightiness of designing something for this creative man and his gifted offspring.

Phil’s story includes young love and marriage, the birth of two daughters, divorce, a second marriage and another daughter. The sisters—civil engineer, doctor, and speech language pathologist—have made it a point to pull together around their father.

Phil kept these sweaters carefully stored away. They came to him via his mother, father, and wife who all have now passed on. When one of Phil’s daughters attempted to quietly remove the sweaters from his house, he alertly took note and expressed concern about where they were going. And who wouldn’t? I can understand why they are meaningful to him.

Of the group of sweaters above, Phil’s mother Fern hand-knit three. She made the top left sweater for Phil. She made the bottom wide-striped sweater for an unknown recipient. And she knit the top right sweater for Phil’s dad, Bob. This sweater had the most character of all: instances of darning (which, according to Sara, often took place while the sweater was on Bob); very old elbow patches which I would’ve included but they didn’t come through the washing process well; and discoloration at the neck from cigar smoke. (Did this character make it into the blanket, you ask? Well, just sit tight…)

The other sweaters mostly belonged to Phil’s wife Cheryl. She, in fact, had felted several with plans to make something from them but did not ever get to it. In spite of the sweaters’ range of condition, age, and color scheme, they eventually sorted themselves out for me. I always experience a huge moment of relief when this happens! (And I was able to include all the sweaters except one which felted up too thickly.)

Once those sweaters sorted themselves into what became three color groupings, the outline in the photo below popped into my head and I sketched it down. I expected it to be just an idea to get the process rolling, but in the end this one simple picture guided me through the whole stage of blanket design.

So here is “Keep to the River.”  The blanket is part abstract, part concrete, and altogether influenced by the stories Sara told told me and by life going on around all of us since February.

There are two interrelated impressions I have about this river—

First, a river is like life itself: flowing immutably forward, sometimes swiftly, so there is barely enough time to react to one development before we are racing toward the next; and sometimes gently, and we can absorb, rest, reflect, and make (some) sense of things. Keep to the river! Live fully into the life you have been given!

And also: A river is a trustworthy guide, giving us our bearings, pointing out the route, sustaining us, joining us up with others and their routes. Keep to the river! You’ll find the way!

And so this river feels appropriate for a birthday marking many rich years of life and for a blanket representing full, rich lives of several interconnected family members.

For Philip:

May this blanket hold within it the fondness and love your three unique daughters have for you. May you also find in it wonderful and warm memories of Cheryl and your parents.

Happy birthday!

Blanket Details:

• Three daughters, three swaths of color in the blanket, three buttons—

• What were these two circles originally? To me, they looked like Scottish tams. Or maybe they were to be small pillows. “You don’t have to use them,” said Sara. “We don’t even know where they came from.” But aren’t they interesting? And fun! Yes, they belonged in there too. To me, they’re stepping stones. But what do you see? —

• The philodendron leaves represent a personal and tender expression of Philip for his wife Cheryl, a gardener, at her passing—

• These two pictures show Fern’s repair handiwork (in green) on the the backside of Bob’s sweater. At the lower edge you can see a bit of that (cleaned-up!) cigar discoloration—

• Pockets! —

• The back, as per usual, is simply unfinished seams, which tend to hold up very well due to the wool content and felting. Without a backing the wool maintains its unique drape—

• The bold stripes! I loved their colors! But I couldn’t figure out how to get them to play well with the rest of the blanket. They kept wanting to take over, be the squeaky wheel, grab all the attention. Finally, I separated them and they quieted down, at which point they earned an important job: They got to encircle the whole—

This is a custom order blanket and has already gone to a good home.

© Joan Olson
“Keep to the River” (56×72)
Felted wool sweaters

10 thoughts on ““Keep to the River”

  1. What a lovely blanket and lovely story, Joanie! But I have to say what I enjoyed most was seeing those folks I first met in 1984! 😊

    • You are definitely above average when it comes to productivity! (Is this a common characteristic for gardeners??) So I believe you will get there. But please be tender with yourself these days and rest as well :)

  2. The blanket tells a special story and you have used each sweater so well. What terrific craftsmanship. Thank you for sharing!

    Also, the picture of you and your husband as a young couple is darling. The current picture of the two of you is wonderful….you both have aged beautifully!

    • Thank you very much, Maureen! This blanket felt absolutely full of people, and I think that’s partly what got me so attched to it–working with those stories, those personalities (and one of them being a friend I’ve known for a long time).

      I’m glad you enjoyed the backpacking photos of us. It’s a treat for me to share them ;)

  3. A beautiful story and a beautiful blanket, Joan!

    Joe and I ended up in lockdown in New Zealand for a total stay of three months. When we returned to the US, I tended to my mother who died three days later.
    I have focused almost entirely on the garden and doing some necessary painting at the lake cottage since but this is inspiring me to at least begin to design a blanket to commemorate the wonderful experience we had in New Zealand.

    The country is one of kind, helpful, considerate, calm people who value the environment and the beautiful place they are fortunate to call home.

    I also have many sweaters of my mother’s but being knitted by hand on size 9 and 10 needles at 4 sts per inch, and most of them made of wool that is super wash, therefore non-feltable, I doubt that making a blanket from them would be a good idea. I will have to give that some more thought..

    I hope that you and your family are well and that your work is arranged so that you are well protected.

    I know that we have many kind, helpful, considerate and calm people in our country as well, you are indeed one of them, and I am also, I hope, but our voices are not heard right now!

    I say when you can’t change the world, we can make a difference one person at a time, one blanket at a time.

    Thank you, Joan, for posting this heartwarming tale!

    • Oh, Marina, please accept my condolences on the loss of your mother. Those circumstances sound very difficult emotionally. I am glad to know, for both of you, that you were able to come home to be with her.

      Perhaps you could test the felting of a couple of her more promising sweaters? To be honest, some of the handknit sweaters in this current blanket (above) did not felt well either, but I decided to keep them in due to their significance. With planning, it can be possible to help stabilize those less-felted sweaters with well-felted ones next to them.

      Whichever direction you go with sweaters, I would LOVE to see what you do in a blanket with the passionate feeling with which you’ve come home from New Zealand!

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