The heirloom blanket epitomizes so much of what endears me to the fiber arts. From Double Wedding Ring quilts to baby blankets to zigzag afghans, it seems we all have one of these bedding items that was gifted to us or passed down to us.
Blankets are a last bastion against “fast fashion”. Sure, polyester fleece blankets will always have a place in washable warmth, but they can never replace the weight and durability of a handmade item. Blankets outlive us and don’t go out of style as quickly as a sweater, and even if they do, they’re often easier to repair than to replace. The large amount of labor invested in their creation means we are less likely to write off a hole as unforgivable damage.
Blankets protect us from outside forces: they keep us warm against wind and cold; they are our barrier against dirt and dew when we lay them out on the grass to watch an early morning children’s soccer game. And for all this, blankets see some of our messiest moments–spilled food and drink, cats kneading a nest for themselves, bodily fluids of all kinds from youngsters. The fibers hold these memories of our past mishaps and offer us the forgiveness we may not always be able to offer ourselves.
Six months ago I found myself caught in a tsunami of a debilitating major depressive episode that put me on leave from work. A generally “hyperfunctional” person who thrives in logisticating, spreadsheets, event planning, and project management, I was instead struggling to get out of bed; to bathe; to remember things that happened last month, week, or even yesterday. I would forget to feed myself and was perpetually dehydrated as my body had stopped giving me signals for hunger and thirst. I had trouble falling asleep and felt groggy all day. I cried oceans of tears with no apparent reason or focus as feelings of hopelessness consumed me.
Amongst all my deficits, one thing I could still do was move yarn through knitting needles and crochet hooks. Manifold writeups and articles herald the benefits of yarncrafts for mental illness. There is something about repetitious movement that gets people out of their pre-frontal cortex and into a flow state. I hail from a long lineage of fiberworkers and domestic artists, and so it is only natural that in a state of distress, I returned to this ancestral knowledge.
I didn’t have the executive function to make complex decisions or perform tasks that entailed tracking multiple threads of information in my head. So I took stock of my yarn stash and collected all the bits and pieces of project leftovers, dragged them to the bedroom, and started hooking. I found a pattern in my queue that prescribed specific frequencies of different sized granny squares in a tasteful arrangement, and I began to follow along. All it required was some occasional counting.
As I worked, I reminisced about each yarn that passed through my fingers. Within these two decades of accumulated scraps lay sweaters, socks, hats, gloves, scarves, all made for loved ones. I recalled the socks knit for a friend’s 25th birthday; the first, second, and third sweaters I made for my partner; yarn gifts from friends on their trips to Iceland; the Fuck Cancer hat that warmed a friend’s head through a time that feels as surreal now as it did then; the first yarn I dyed by myself; the linen shirt of so much stockinette that got me through the first weeks after my brother’s death; and so much more. I was forced to remember how much love I carry and how much love supports me even when I struggle.
One yard at a time, my hands folded and twisted that love into a blanket of protection.
I took breaks from the blanket at times. I worked on other yarn projects when I found I had the mental endurance for more complexity. I went periods without touching yarn at all, and during these windows I instead stitched together a more whole version of myself. With the help of a kitchen sink of mental health supports, I regained the ability to feed myself, make plans, exercise regularly, spend time in nature, and go back to work part-time. I decided to try to find work more suited to my current abilities, and I drafted a resume and even interviewed some. I moved forward.
And when I found myself backsliding a little and struggling to keep up with work, the blanket called to me again. I discovered I didn’t care for the prescribed arrangement of these myriad granny squares, and the pattern author had recently published a new variation that I now preferred. In a tidy poetry, I also reconciled that the life I had been attempting to rebuild and the jobs I had been applying to were not what I wanted. A blanket lasts a long time; a life, much less. In neither case is there much sense in pursuing a version that is knowingly unsatisfactory.
I put in my two weeks’ notice at work, and then I began to rip out blanket squares in order to reconfigure the sizes and colors. I transferred ownership of projects at work, and I dug deeper into the bottom of my stash for more yarn. I researched health insurance for the self-employed and called upon friends for help. I undid old sizing swatches, coaxed even shorter scraps into fractions of squares, made multi-colored squares with oh-so-many rogue ends to weave in later.
At a total of 98 squares, I joyously arranged the pieces on my bed, and emotions welled up in me to see this physical symbol of both my darkest and strongest moments laid bare. My partner humored me with confused praise as he assessed the spread of floppy, lopsided, raggedy-looking raw squares.
The last stage involved stitching a final round on each square to join all the pieces together. For this, I chose a rustic sheep-to-sweater yarn that had been 18 months in the making, starting with me hand-skirting and bagging 70 lbs of fleeces from a friend’s friend’s flock in Feb/March 2019, to carting those bags of fleece to the Vally Oak Wool Mill, to patiently waiting my turn in line until July 2020 when the first lot of yarn came back fully processed. With an intention to sell this yarn at craft fairs, I literally connected these pieces of my blanket, my life, with a new side-hustle business venture.
It took me roughly 14 hours alone to stitch the squares together, and another 4 hours to weave in and trim all those loose ends. The lopsided squares each straightened out as the tensegrity of secure attachment to neighboring squares kept them aligned and well-supported. I washed the blanket and finished blocking it out on the very bed I could barely leave 6 months ago, all just minutes before leaving to turn in my laptop and badge on my last day of work.
So this is my Blues Blanket, my Depression Blanket. Through it, I have fashioned a safety rope connected to my loved ones and my heritage to pull myself back up onto the ledge of the functionally living. It will warm me and protect me for years to come, starting today as I step into a new life chapter. May it serve as a daily reminder to all that I can achieve with patience and love and self-compassion.