I am not a maker of things — I do not sew, or knit, or weave, or mold, or bake, or build, or paint. I have a half-dozen adult coloring books with the first third of the first page of each colored in. My refrigerator currently harbors a yeast starter (“The Yeast Pet”, affectionately) that I haven’t fed in exactly 13 months. The things I do attempt to create, on occasion, could not be worn, or hung, or eaten, or slept under, or used to carry things in. If I am in need of a thing, I head to Amazon Prime or Etsy, depending on my mood and the specific thing that is needed. And yet, since reading The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun, I have suddenly found myself compulsively drawn to hundreds of skeins of butter-soft, rainbow-hued yarn (and yes, skein is word I learned from The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater.)
Out March 20 from Flatiron Books, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater is Okun’s hilariously quirky and heartwarming essay collection about a life spent in crafting — knitting, crocheting, sewing, decoupage, and more. In her essays she opens up a little-known (at least to me) world for readers: one of yarn stores, and crafting fairs, and the people who frequent them. She speaks of fibers with the reverence one might hold for a freshly-birthed kitten; all while sharing the relatable intimacies of her life, and maintaining a sense of humor that will keep readers laughing out loud from beginning to end. But readers, be warned: you will suddenly find yourself inspired to buy yarn (lots of it) and chances are you will have no idea what to actually do with it, once you have it.
Each of the essays in The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater starts from a specific space of creation — or with a focus on one of Okun’s beloved items — as a way of diving into deeper understandings of the writer’s life and the people in it. It’s a life organized around creation (as, sure, all lives are in some way. Okun’s just has a smidge more yarn in it than most everyone else’s.)
“It’s sort of chicken or egg, I think,” Okun tells me, when I ask her whether or not she uses crafting as a way of organizing or understanding the events of her life. “I’ve been crafting for my entire cognizant life, since I was at least six-years-old, so I don’t really have a memory of experiencing anything without that lens of making things. I don’t exactly sit down now with the conscious aim of working through something emotional through my knitting, per se, but I do know that I reach for it more during anxious, sad, or otherwise heightened times. It’s somehow both soft and forgiving as well as something concrete I can grab onto when everything else feels out of control, and that’s been a constant as far back as I can remember.”
Throughout the collection, Okun describes the act of creation as both controlled and uncontrollable — she finds the repetition involved in fiber-work both soothing and exhausting, both satisfying and tedious. She writes of the non-crafting events of her life in the same way: friendships, relationships, and major life transitions are both exhilarating and tiring, both creative and destructive.
“What I love about crafting is how it’s a series of tiny problems you can solve — you only have to think as far as the next row or stitch or what have you, and even if you screw up, you have the means to go back and fix it,” says Okun. “You can make something that looks exactly how you want it to even when the rest of the world most likely does not, and I’ve found that the repetition of these minuscule motions helps me find a little bit more power, or at least a little bit more centeredness, when I do put down my crafting. If I can solve those small problems, the thinking goes, maybe I’m actually capable of solving the bigger ones too, whether that’s getting through grief or processing anxiety or just alleviating boredom.”
Throughout the collection, Okun takes readers through the spaces she exists in — spaces filled with fibers and fabrics, an incomprehensible number of needles of different shapes, sizes, and very specific uses; completed projects and half-completed projects and a handful of forever-discarded projects that may or may not ever see the light of day again.
“If someone were to visit my apartment they would immediately have me arrested because of the ungodly amount of yarn on full display. A long-held dream of mine came true last year when Apartment Therapy came to do a tour of my place, but I panicked right before the photographer arrived and put like a third of my craft supplies in the bathtub, because it looked frankly insane," she says. "Still, I do love it, the sense of all this beauty and potential and coziness surrounding me; I’m almost more drawn to the materials than the finished products at this point, which is definitely an evolution from when I was younger and first starting out. It could also be that now I can just afford nicer yarn. Yarn is so expensive!”
Of course, in the face of a bathtub filled with crafting supplies, I have to ask a hypothetical question: were Okun given exactly 60 seconds to grab as much as she could carry before leaving her apartment forever, what would she take? And, more importantly, why?
“I just finished my second-ever blanket — I mailed the first one to my little sister, so she’d keep that one safe in this hypothetical emergency — and it’s the first project where as I was making it, I was envisioning it having a life beyond myself," she says. "Not to get super cheesy nor ahead of myself (I am both things, always), but it’s the kind of item I’d want to give to my kids, or my siblings’ kids — the next generation of important people enter my life, if I’m so lucky as all that. Also, the yarn I used was insanely expensive, so just on a dollar-for-dollar level it would be the natural thing to save.”
Okun, who, in addition to having an avid life of crafting, is also the senior editor at Racked and whose writing can be found everywhere from BuzzFeed to Brooklyn Magazine, says that writing definitely requires more vulnerability ("10,000,000 percent," in her words) than crafting. “Anyone who remotely knows me will confirm that I spent the last year or so before publication freaking out over putting myself out there like this, even though I’ve been writing about personal topics for my whole career and knew exactly what I wanted this book to be when I started it," she says. "But, scary as it is, this sort of sharing has always been worth it to me — which is not to say it’s the right route for everyone, nor that I’ll keep it up forever. I think I am someone who feels out loud, who needs to get things down on paper or in conversation to my friends and mother and therapist before I can really make sense of them myself. And I’m constantly trying to mold my experiences into the shape of something legible and useful, with the hope that maybe they’ll make somebody else feel seen as well. In that way, writing is quite a bit like crafting for me; I think they live right next to each other, and each one makes the other better.”
Oh, and in regards to the question all readers will want answered — how many boyfriend sweaters (the "curse" being that the minute you start knitting your significant other a sweater, the relationship will be over before you're done) has Okun actually made and gifted over the years? “I’ve technically only made one, which I write about in the book as something of a loophole to the dreaded curse because I “crocheted” it rather than knitted. (For the uninitiated, knitting is done with two needles while crochet is done with a single hook, which matters very much to us crafters and seemingly not at all to anyone else.) I gave that sweater to my college boyfriend, who I actually saw recently and who told me he still has it! This was nice of him to say because it’s not actually that good and also probably weighs like eight pounds.”