A Birthday Tribute for My Mother: Knitting Neck Warmers with Mom’s Stash

Knitting and cooking were two activities Mom and I enjoyed doing together. It had been that way since I was a child.

A birthday card for Mom in heaven:
In December, I discovered, by looking at the photos in my Instagram feed, that sometimes the colors in a knitted swatch looked very similar to the shots of food I had cooked or grown. I went through my photos and pulled out pictures of knitted fabric that matched up colorwise with pictures of food, and sent them to my son, Andrew. He created a slideshow. Since today is my mother’s birthday, this is my birthday card for her to let her know I’m carrying on her legacy.

 

Mom loved color and texture, and there were always plenty of both to be found in yarn and food. She could not resist a gorgeous hank of smooth, hand-dyed wool any more than she could resist a shiny, plump eggplant. Accordingly, her refrigerator was a palette of colorful vegetables and her art studio shelves were overflowing with skein after skein of yarn.

When she died, as the only daughter of her seven children, I inherited her yarn stash. It was an extraordinary stash, filled with gorgeous single balls of unlabeled wool as well as multiple skeins of labeled yarn. The possibilities were endless — a knitter’s dream — and a gift to her daughter. In her collection were ten knitted squares, part of a quilt I had started her on when she was in rehab after her brain tumor recurred. To say the squares were not uniform is being gracious. Had she not died within the year of knitting them, I would most certainly have unraveled them. Instead, they became a final memorial to her. Morose, I know, but it was the last thing she had knit before she died and I am sentimental and there’s a thing called a grief journey and I’ve been on it. Having said all that, my mother was a beautiful woman who never left the house without looking her best; she would never have wanted to be remembered by those tangled-up, messy squares.

Homebound, while recuperating from the flu in October, I went through Mom’s stash to look for yarn to knit a sweater for my grandson. I came across The Squares. I looked at them for a while trying to decide what to do with them. Thanksgiving, Christmas, her birthday in January — all food and family days she loved to celebrate — were around the corner. The last two holiday seasons without her had left me feeling blue by the time her birthday rolled around. Mom would have told me to move on. She was always my friend and coach.

I unraveled the squares. I ended up with a colorful ball of heavy worsted-weight cotton and wool blend called “Nobori” by Noro Yarns. I found the matching skeins in Mom’s stash.

I used them to knit a bright and chunky, double cowl. I cast on 32 stitches on size 9 needles and used about 300 yards. The finished cowl is 8″ wide and 58″ long. I decided to knit it in the basketweave pattern so the edges of the finished fabric would remain flat instead of curled inward as they would have had I used the stockinette stitch. I love the way the changes in stitch direction, with the basketweave pattern, reflect light in contrasting ways.

 

That’s my bestie cousin, Marion, on the left. Her Pumpkin Bread with Chocolate Chip is one of the most popular recipes on Judy’s Chickens.

Once I finished my cowl, I knit one for my dear friend, Wendy Martin. Can I just say here that it is a thrill to see people wearing stuff you make for them? Wendy’s cowl was knit with a light worsted weight superwash yarn called “Wild Flowers” by Lichen and Lace. I bought it from Mason-Dixon Knitting’s online shop. I cast on 40 stitches on size 7 needles. The finished fabric was 8″ wide and 52″ long. I used a knit 5, purl 5 basketweave pattern. This cowl was light enough to be worn as an indoor scarf, as opposed to my bulky, outdoor cowl.

 

When Thanksgiving vacation rolled around and my sons were home, I knit a “neck warmer” for each of them using yarn from Mom’s stash. I changed the name from cowl to neck warmer because cowl sounded like a feminine garment. I wasn’t sure the boys would like them, but to my surprise, they all wanted one. You can imagine my delight when this photo of my son was posted on Instagram the day after he returned to school —  he wore his neck warmer to work! He liked it. He really liked it.

 

That gave me an idea. I decided I was going to make neck warmers for all my brothers, their wives, girlfriends, and their children using yarn from our mother’s stash for this year’s holiday presents. The side benefit was that I would be able to reduce the size of Mom’s stash and find a use for all the singlet balls of yarns that are often hard to use up. It was similar to cleaning out the refrigerator. In a way.

I Got Into It & It Got Into Me

To make knitting so many neck warmers creatively challenging I made a rule: I had to use at least two strands of different yarns twisted together for each neck warmer. This was because Mom had so much sock and DK weight yarn that needed to be used up. But, oh, did it ever make the entire process so much more fun. Mom would have loved seeing the results. I definitely felt her presence knitting by the Christmas tree in the early morning and evening hours of December.

   
   

Because the yarn weights varied, I did a swatch of each intended combination to see how they looked together and to calculate their stitch per inch count (gauge) so I would know how many stitches to cast on. The count had to be a multiple of four for the basketweave pattern to work. All of the scarves were knit on size 10½ needles with a cast on of anywhere from 20-36 stitches depending on the thickness of the strands. My goal was a finished product that was somewhere between 6½ and 7½ inches wide with a somewhat stiff texture. I didn’t want the neck warmers to be floppy. The length was 21 to 23 inches depending on when the ball of yarn ran out. For the children’s sizes, I made them 6″ wide by 18″ long.

The Basketweave Knitting Pattern
-If the number of stitches is divisible by 8, such as 24 or 32 do the following:
Rows 1-4: knit 4, purl 4, repeat across row
Rows 5-8: purl 4, knit 4, repeat across row
Repeat rows 1-8 until the desired length is reached.

-If the number of stitches is 20 or 28 (an uneven number of blocks) do the following:
Rows 1 and 3: knit 4, purl 4, knit 4, repeat across row
Rows 2 and 4: purl 4, knit 4, purl 4, repeat across row
Rows 5 and 7: purl 4, knit 4, purl 4, repeat across row
Rows 6 and 8: knit 4, purl 4, knit 4, repeat across row
Repeat rows 1-8 until the desired length is reached.

This chart of yarn weights might help you choose yarns from your stash:

By the time Christmas and Hanukkah came around, I was finished.

I mailed the neck warmers to each of my brothers’ homes. My brother Charles sent me this photo when they arrived.

Using my gifts of knitting, cooking, and otherwise caring for my family, I had a beautiful holiday season filled with the love of family and friends. I learned that grief has its own timetable and ain’t nobody gonna rush it.

To end, here’s a picture of Mom knitting and smiling at her sons, Carl and Sam, who even as adults couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Mom laughed easily and my brothers loved to make her laugh.

Next year, I’m going to spiralize vegetables like this strand of zucchini and knit them into edible sweaters. Happy New Year, Readers!

A Few Stories About Mom
A Biography Tour with My Mom in Rochester, NY: A Remembrance
Judy’s Mom’s Meatloaf
Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie
Mom’s Roasted Lamb with Herb and Goat Cheese Topping
Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Little Meatballs
We Will Remember Them
Roasted Acorn Squash, Applesauce, and Cinnamon

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