Birte's Irish Fabric: A Short Story

Truth: Write a fictional style story based on your dream knitting project.

I was a perplexed when I first read this prompt about how to begin to go about even identifying a dream knitting project. To me, it seems that a "dream project" of any kind has some kind of perfection or distant attainability, and this isn't really how I think of knitting. If I see a pattern I like, I make it, and if I have an idea, I follow it. Those patterns and ideas change from day to day, satisfying the moment rather than a long-held or deeply felt dream.

For this reason, I realized fairly quickly that the knitting project I wrote about would need to be transient in some way, which inspired the simple story below. The story takes place in Ireland, where I visited several years ago. This story intends to honor the knitting tradition, its impact on communities and individuals, knitting as art, knitting as business, and ultimately the act of knitting transcending a finished piece.

This is a Crafter's "Truth or Dare" post!  what's that?


Birte's Irish Fabric


Tucked away in the mountains of Ireland lived the villagers of Mittsville, well-known for their trade: knitting.

The people of Mittsville were very proud of their craft. All year long, they would spin yarn and knit warm winterwear that would then be sent out to shops throughout Great Britain. One family, the Brennans, had a particularly long history of needlecraft. As some of the first settlers to come to Mittsville, they lived in a house near the center of the village with a neighboring stable and paddock for their sheep. Six generations of Brennans had lived in that house and followed the family trade.


The Brennans had three children – two girls and a boy – and all were excellent knitters, including the youngest, Birte. Much to her parents’ joy, Birte had taken to knitting as easily as a sheep to clover. She had created finger-knit chains before she could write, and by the time she reached her tenth birthday, she knit cabled Celtic knots on scarves from memory.


But then, shortly after Birte’s twelfth birthday, Mrs. Brennan noticed a change in Birte’s knitting. She began to knit a project of her own creation. It was a wild, moody piece, creating a long, wide fabric that was neither scarf nor shawl or afghan. The piece was decorated with a mixture of stitches in many colors. It was oddly attractive, even beautiful if admiring the handiwork, but it did not resemble any pattern Mrs. Brennan had seen, and she was perplexed by it.


“What are yeh workin’ on, Birte?” she asked one evening as the family sat in their living room knitting.


Birte looked up from her work, the fabric now long enough to cover her lap and reach toward the floor. “It’s th’ yarn fresh dyed from Tuesday, Mam. ‘minds me of th’ air when th’ fog’s in.” She smiled wide and held out the skein of gray yarn for her mother to see.


Mrs. Brennan smiled and hinted gently, “Would make a warm pair ‘o socks, woun’t it?”


Birte nodded and returned the yarn to her lap. She understood the meaning in her mother’s questions, as clearly as she knew the honor and purpose of the family trade, but she stubbornly continued her stitches as if she had not. Mrs. Brennan decided that Birte’s strange knitting did little harm, and she did not mention it again.


Birte continued to knit her colorful fabric until her fourteenth summer. That year, the village schoolhouse suffered from an accidental fire. By the time the fire was put out, the frame of the building was mostly intact, but the interior was no longer recognizable. School books and materials were also lost or damaged beyond repair.


The villagers of Mittsville gathered for an emergency meeting to determine what to do. The village treasury was not large enough to finance a new building and school supplies immediately, but by the end of the meeting, the villagers had reached a consensus: families would donate a percentage of their fall and winter sales to rebuilding the school.


This, of course, meant that the knitters depended on a successful year in order to support their homes and rebuild the school for their children. The night following the town meeting, Mr. and Mrs. Brennan called their children to the living room to share the news. “We ‘ave hard work ahead,” said Mrs. Brennan. “We’re lucky to ‘ave a family of knitters, but tha’ jes means we ought to put in a fair share to th’ school.”


Birte took her mother’s words to heart. That night, she emptied the large box where she kept her yarn in her room. Then she folded her knitting – now several yards long – and set it into the box, needles and all. She lowered the box lid and pushed it into the shadows beneath the bed.


There it stayed for many months while the Brennans and other villagers of Mittsville worked busily to knit winterwear. Birte followed the traditional patterns her family had used for generations, finishing piece after piece. But Mrs. Brennan could see her daughter’s heart was not in it.


“What are yeh startin’ there?” she asked as Birte cast on stitches to a straight needle.


“A scarf,” Birte said simply. She said nothing of the yarn or the pattern itself.


By December, families had sent shops the last of their winter knitwear. Some had received small payments for the profit they made in the fall, but it was no secret that everyone depended on winter sales for their own expenses and the school.


About this time, visitors trickled through from Great Britain during their winter holiday. This was not unusual; Mittsville was well-known as the village of knitters, attracting other knitters and dedicated shoppers who had purchased and worn their winterwear for years. It was unusual, however, when a dark sports car parked at the village inn. Rumor spread quickly that the car belonged to a Ms. Judith Clarke who had taken the ferry from England where she was a successful businesswoman. Her ancestors were Irish, and her great-grandmother had written warmly of Mittsville near her hometown in her childhood journal. Ms. Clarke wished to purchase knitting to honor her great-grandmother’s memory and her heritage. “Something that captures Ireland,” she said, “and its knitting tradition.”


The village buzzed with excitement at the prospect of selling their knitwear to their guest. Families had sent most of their knits to stores, but they gathered what remained to bring to the inn. Like the other villagers, the Brennans set to work gathering what knitwear they had left. As they were preparing to leave, Birte looked thoughtfully in the direction of her room.


“Les go,” Mr. Brennan said, carrying a basket of knitwear to the door.


Following her impulse, Birte hurried to her room and slid to her knees beside her bed. Reaching beneath it, she retrieved the box hidden there. Then she joined her family at the door, and they left together for the inn.


Arriving at the inn, the Brennans joined the other families in the inn’s large dining room and found space to lay out their knitwear. Ms. Clarke watched the assembly with amazement, thanking families as they arrived for surprising her this way. Then, as families finished arranging their knits, she began to walk along the tables. She admired each family’s work, complementing the handiwork and sweetness of each piece. Although she ran her fingers over the pieces, she did not pick anything up, and she did not linger over any item for too long. She continued her way along the tables and reached the back of the room. The Brennans were among the families stationed at the last table.


When Ms. Clarke paused to appreciate the Brennan’s knits, they watched her face with the same hopeful eagerness that the other families had. Yet she moved past to the last family’s knits. Birte continued to watch her face and recognized something in her expression: an appreciation and admiration for what she saw, but also a seeking expression, as if looking for something that would not only impress but also make an impression.


“Miss Clarke?” A flush rushed to Birte’s face when the families around her turned to look at her. Ms. Clarke smiled and move to stand across the table from Birte, her face kind and patient. Birte, uncertain whether to describe what she had seen on Ms. Clarke’s face or to introduce the box in her hand, held out the box to Ms. Clarke.


Ms. Clarke took it with a questioning smile. Then she gently lifted the lid and stared down at Birte’s colorful folded fabric. She lifted it from the box and turned over each fold as if reading the pages of a book. “Magnificent,” she breathed.


Mrs. Brennan put her arm around Birte’s shoulder, and Birte felt the flush leave her face as she gained confidence. “Thas th’ Irish moun’ins, how they blend wi’ th’ sky in th’ rain,” said Birte, pointing to the dark green and gray fold Ms. Clarke was admiring. “An’ here,” Birte adjusted the fabric to show a lower dark gray section with lines of black and orange, knit in a block stitch, “th’ rock face down th’ road ‘rom home.”


Ms. Clarke shook her head in awe and looked up at Birte. “What’s your name?”


“Birte.”


“And you made all of this?”


Birte nodded.


Ms. Clarke arranged the folds in place again so that it would fit in the box, handling it as gently as if it would tear. She paused when she saw the needles at the end. Birte had not finished the row she had stopped on, and a small skein on red yarn dangled from the needles. “It is unfinished?” Ms. Clarke asked.


Birte shook her head. “Ne’re meant to be finished.”


Ms. Clarke set the fabric into the box. “This is absolutely beautiful. You are extremely talented, and I am so impressed by the thought and feeling you devoted to this.” She paused and then asked earnestly, “May I buy this from you, Birte?”


Mrs. Brennan could not hold back her smile, seeing the broad smile on her daughter’s face. “Yes,” said Birte.


At the start of the following spring, Mittsville opened the doors of its new school. The villagers dedicated the building to its most generous patron, Birte Brennan, displaying her name and the engraved outline of knitting needles on a plaque beside the school’s entrance. While Mittsville continued to create the traditional winterwear it was known and loved for, its knitters began to also branch out and knit less traditional pieces of their own designs. When Birte turned fifteen, she agreed to teach knitting workshops at the school, using her new creative knit fabric to demonstrate unique stitches and share inspiration.


In the summer, Birte received a letter from England. Inside was a kind letter from Ms. Clarke and a photograph, showing Birte’s knitting displayed across the long hallway of Ms. Clarke’s office building. Several people in the picture had stopped to look at it. In the corner, Birte could squint to read the text printed on the wall below the knitting: “Birte’s Irish Fabric.”


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