by Barbara Pierce

Barbara Pierce is president of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio. She is a faculty wife, a mother of grown children, and a leader in her community. She has confidence in her own abilities. But it wasn't always that way. By tending to her knitting, her confidence grew—a stitch at a time. Here is how she tells it:

I have always suspected that someday scientists will identify the gene that controls the ability to sew and the enjoyment of doing so. I know that I don't carry the trait, and I come by my dislike naturally. My mother didn't enjoy sewing and left all the mending she could for my grandmother to do when she came to visit, so she never taught me to sew. Grandma was a wonderful seamstress, but she was not up to teaching a blind child to hem doll clothes or operate a sewing machine safely.

In fact, when I was a child, no one thought seriously of teaching me to sew. But since Mother taught me everything else about running a household, I am sure that her unwillingness to tackle this one had less to do with the widely held assumption that a blind child could not sew than with the fact that she was fundamentally uninterested in the activity.

As an adult I have met many blind women who enjoy sewing. One friend had been a fine seamstress all of her life and saw no reason to abandon her hobby when she lost her sight. She continued to sew for years after she became blind.

Another friend, who has been blind all of her life, made her maternity wardrobe and continues to sew whenever her busy schedule allows her the time to do it. I have always admired anyone who could turn a heap of cloth into something beautiful and useful, but I have never experienced the slightest twinge of envy or impulse to learn the art.

I managed to duck sewing almost completely when I hit the clothing and textiles unit in junior high school home economics. The teacher closely supervised my laborious construction of an oven mitt, but after that she suggested that for the rest of my home ec credit that quarter I have my mother teach me to knit.

Mom did so, and I struggled to create something that I optimistically called a scarf. It was actually a sort of pennant—wide at one end and narrow at the other, with interesting holes from dropped stitches scattered unpredictably from one edge to the other.

No one would have worn that scarf even if I had had the nerve to present it as a gift, but at least it fulfilled my textiles obligation, and when the term ended, I thankfully abandoned my knitting needles.

I might happily have remained in that needle-less state for the rest of my life if it had not been for my college roommate Judy, who was an inveterate knitter and who decided that I should take up the sport again. She pointed out that she knitted in movie theaters and while she read, so she saw no reason why I couldn't derive as much pleasure from knitting as she did. Besides, she wanted to see if she could explain the various stitches in words alone rather than demonstrating as she had always done in teaching people to knit.

She suggested that I make matching sweaters for my boyfriend and me and that the first sweater be his Christmas present. Judy maintained that an ambitious and attractive goal, and a friend to cope with the inevitable knitting crises, were the two keys to becoming a successful knitter. She was right.

I had never known anything like the satisfaction of completing that first sweater and presenting it at Christmas. By the time I had finished both sweaters, I could knit evenly and rapidly. I then began to master the more complex stitches. Mittens, a stole for homecoming, layette sets, and finally garments that had patterns of several colors followed. Judy still rescued me from time to time, but the summer after my junior year I decided to tackle an afghan as a wedding gift for a girlhood friend. Judy was hundreds of miles away, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that the pattern was fairly simple.

I used my commuting time on the streetcar to and from my summer job for my project. The hour of knitting in the morning was fairly easy because my home was far enough from the city to insure that I would have a seat for the entire trip. But in the evening I climbed aboard with standing-room only. There were people who would have been happy to offer their seats to a blind person, but I was twenty and perfectly capable of standing, so I always refused these offers politely, wrapped one arm around a pole, and pulled out my knitting. Gradually the trolley would empty, and I would take a seat, where there was less chance of dropping a stitch. As it happened, I finished that afghan during an afternoon trolley ride. But when I started to tuck the empty needles into my knitting bag and roll up the end of the afghan, a chorus of voices demanded to have the entire thing unrolled so that they could see it all for the first and last time.

I hadn't realized from the occasional questions I had answered about my ability to knit and the actual project through the weeks that my progress was being monitored by quite a little klatch of commuters.

I married straight out of college, and in the early years of juggling home, job, and then babies, I put away my knitting. But when my children were quite small, I began teaching childbirth education classes several nights a week. For part of that time I was the head instructor in the organization for which I worked, with responsibility for training new instructors and seeing that they were well trained and got a good start in teaching.

Sometime during this period I came across a clever idea for a teaching aid, which involved using a doll and a knitted bag with a ribbed top and a draw-string opening to demonstrate the effect of uterine contractions. The pattern for knitting the bag was simple, and I whipped one up for myself in a few hours. Of course, all the instructors wanted similar aids, but apparently I was the only one who could knit. Several of the instructors made arrangements to have them made, but the rest couldn't seem to find anyone to make a bag for them. As a result I found myself with the job of manufacturing these teaching aids fairly regularly.

One day I was invited to a neighborhood coffee, and I decided to take my latest knitting project with me. The new teacher needed it quite soon, and I hated to waste a single minute when I knew my hands would otherwise be idle. With three young children at home, I had very little time for knitting.

At the coffee I was knitting quietly and talking with a neighbor when a rather overbearing and formidable woman approached me. She had always treated me, a young faculty wife and a blind woman, with annoying condescension—an amusing child playing grown-up rather sweetly.

"And what's that you're making?" she boomed. "A dear, little purse for yourself?" The yarn was an uninteresting tan, and there was no pattern to the bag at all. It would have been an indescribably ugly purse, but it was just like her, I told myself, to presume the worst about my fashion sense and ability to knit.

Something snapped inside me, and I rebelled against all the admonitions to treat this rather powerful faculty wife in our small college town with deep and unvarying respect and meekness. I smiled up at her and said sweetly, but very clearly in the pause that followed her shouted question, "No, a uterus." For once in her career of intimidation, she was speechless.

Shortly thereafter our family moved to London for a year. Even though we didn't have a lot of money with which to enjoy the city, we had a wonderful sabbatical year. The children all needed sweaters as part of their school uniforms, and I decided to make them really warm, hand-knitted ones that they could use all winter long when their classrooms would be quite chilly.

This was a bold decision on my part. In all my past knitting projects I had had someone near me who was a better knitter than I and who could help when I got myself into trouble—and one always gets into trouble a time or two when knitting. Here I was, knowing no one in London and preparing to tackle my first fisherman knit sweaters. I could hardly believe my own courage.

I recognized clearly that until several years before I would never have tried it. The daring decision had been brought about directly by my discovery of the National Federation of the Blind. As a result of that experience I had recently met and become friends with hundreds of blind people who were confident in themselves and confident in me.

They were teaching me that I had always underestimated my own abilities. As I stretched myself to try things I had assumed blind people couldn't do, I learned that there is very little in life that a determined person cannot find a way to do if he or she really wants to get it done. And I really wanted to make those sweaters.

There in London I learned stitch by stitch a lesson that the Federation constantly teaches me and every other blind or sighted person who comes in contact with its positive philosophy: when you get right up to a problem and take a good, hard look at it, there is almost aways something practical you can do to solve it.

With a small house to take care of and no job outside our home, I had lots of time to knit. And at least once a week I fed the children, got them into their pajamas for the night, dressed for the theater, and raced to the tube so that I could meet my husband in town in time for the opening curtain of a theater production. By the time I sank into my train seat and pulled out my knitting, I was glad for forty-five minutes in which to knit quietly and collect my wits, making the transition from frazzled mother to intelligent theater companion. I was not the only knitter on the train during that year, but I was probably the only one in the theater.

Today I am still knitting. These days I do most of my work in airports and during meetings. I find that knitting helps me concentrate on what's happening in the group and keeps me from becoming frustrated when time is being wasted. After all, I remind myself, I always have a few inches of knitting to show for even the most unproductive meeting. By now I have been knitting for so many years that Brailling the patterns I use and the charts associated with the more complicated ones seem second nature. I have devised ways of marking the skeins or bobbins of the different colors I am using. And I can locate and correct errors I have made as easily by touch as most other knitters can by looking at the piece.

My roommate was right all those years ago. Knitting is wonderfully relaxing and satisfying. I am grateful to my mother for first teaching me to knit and purl. I am even more grateful to Judy for sticking with me until I learned the fine points of this lovely craft. But most of all I am grateful to the National Federation of the Blind for giving me the confidence to discover my own competence, not only in knitting, but in every other aspect of my life.