‘The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting’ by Alanna Okun ****

I am a keen crafter, and have had my eye on Alanna Okun’s essay collection, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, for quite some time. I was grateful to be able to purchase a copy with some Christmas money, and settled down to read about another woman who shares similar enthusiasms to myself. I was in two minds as to whether I should review this essay collection, as it is rather a niche topic, but I do not feel as though Okun’s thoroughly entertaining book has received anywhere near the amount of attention which it deserves, especially in the UK.

Let me begin by writing about the so-called ‘curse of the boyfriend sweater’ of the book’s title. It is a superstition within the crafting community that soon after you begin knitting your significant other an item of clothing – usually a jumper, or sweater – they will end your relationship. I have knitted my boyfriend several things throughout the years we’ve been together, and we’re still very much an item, so I can’t say I believe in the ‘curse’ myself. However, I do find it interesting that it has become such a widespread view amongst knitters, crocheters, and the like. Okun includes an entire chapter detailing different things she has knitted, crocheted, or embroidered, for previous boyfriends.

Okun is honest throughout, talking about her experiences with mental health. Her crafting has helped her to make it through periods of ‘anxiety, grief, heartbreak, ecstatic joy, [and] total boredom.’ She writes that ‘even when we can’t control anything else, we can at least control the sticks, string, and fabric right in front of us.’ This is exactly the reason why so many of us turned to crafting during the many Covid lockdowns we faced globally in 2020 and 2021; making something is a comfort, and it does give us an element of power, however small and tentative, in such uncertain times. As Okun says: ‘Making anything feels like seizing control, like defiant reversal in the face of grief; this thing is yours, the way you would like it to be, and it exists where before there was nothing.’

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is largely based on knitting, my craft of choice, but Okun does dabble in other things throughout – crochet, embroidery, and dabbling in ‘most fibery pursuits’. In a lovely nod to the craft, the initial chapter is titled ‘Casting On’, and the final, ‘Casting Off’. The feelings which she captures in her opening chapter are so familiar to me: ‘You can’t really know what a project is going to be until it’s done,’ she says. ‘You could start it as a gift only to find you want to keep it for yourself, or the reverse. You could realize it looks nothing like what you intended and either despair or delight. Or, as so often happens, you could reach a place of peaceful ambivalence and decide to just keep pushing through, even though you’re not sure, even though you don’t know what it will be after you’ve invested all those hours and all that yarn. You can trust the project to reveal itself to you, outside of your control.’

I loved the way that Okun spoke about the skill needed to craft, something which I feel is still relatively underappreciated in the wider world. She writes: ‘The fact remains that knitting and its cousins aren’t innate skills. They’re taught and they’re learned and reinforced and passed down, in an interlocking series of leaps that builds and layers just like the crafts themselves.’ This legacy of crafting is so important to me; I was taught to knit by my grandmother and mother, and to sew by my mother. Yes, I have picked up skills in both crafts along the way, many of which have come from practice, or from watching many YouTube tutorials, but the foundations which I had sparked a lifelong interest. Both have been crafts which have ebbed and flowed in my life, but for the last three years, I have always had a knitting project on the go, however big – shawls, jumpers – or small – socks, reusable cotton washcloths. I identified so much with Okun when she described the period after her grandmother had taught her how to knit, and the way in which the craft has been a constant for her in adulthood: ‘I get better, I lose interest, I regain it, I improve. I get a boyfriend, I get into college, I get a job, I knit. I am anxious, I am joyful, I am lonely, I knit.’

Okun writes so honestly about crafting, and the fact that not every project embarked on is a success. Just like the author, I have done my fair share of frogging the initial wonky scarves, and projects where I had little knowledge, and selected a wildly inappropriate yarn for a pattern. As with everything though, confidence grows with skill; the more I have practiced left- and right-leaning increases, Icelandic bind-offs, and German short rows, the better I have become. Okun does not profess to be an expert in anything, which I found really refreshing. The author is the first to own up to mistakes which she has made, and points out things which she does differently to other crafters.

I was internally cheering when reading parts of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater; for instance, when Okun writes: ‘I want people to ask me about my sweaters and tank tops; I want them to know that’s the sort of person I am, that I have this extremely minor superpower even if they think it’s weird or dorky. This is how I choose to spend my time and my brain space, and I want my physical being to reflect that, at least every once in a while.’

Throughout, I felt as though I was having a conversation with a very like-minded crafty friend. Okun is unfailingly bright, and I appreciated the informal tone which she used throughout. She writes at length about friendships and relationships, to the extent that I think those without crafting backgrounds could still very much enjoy her writing and perspectives.

I shall end this review with a lovely piece of wisdom which Okun imparts in one of her essays. She writes: ‘Projects, even the kind that are not so emotionally loaded, always feel smaller when they’re done, when you’re not obsessing over individual components anymore. The same is true for spans of time: happy periods, mourning periods – all of them flatten when you can look back on them from arm’s length, when you can hold them in your hands and stick them to the wall, when you can look at them in the context of your life.’

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4 thoughts on “‘The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting’ by Alanna Okun ****

  1. Sounds absolutely lovely, Kirsty! I am more of a paper crafter than a fabric or fibre one, though I can do basic knitting – but I totally get the therapeutic nature of making anything, and how important it is to our wellbeing!

  2. Well, you have at least 2 readers who are interested in this niche topic, as you call it – the previous person leaving a comment and me. Reading your thoughtful review, I think I’d thoroughly enjoy The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, and it is now on my wishlist. As a knitter, crocheter, sewist and occasional quilter and embroiderer, I not only love making things, but also philosophizing about making things.

    • I’m absolutely with you on philosophising about making things! I’ve wanted to make a patchwork quilt for years and years; I did try to a few years back, but made it into a cushion instead as I was sewing it all by hand! I definitely must try and learn how to embroider properly, too; if only we crafters had more time…

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