My life as Noni started years ago during a lonely stretch of time when I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland and living in Baltimore City–in Charles Village and later Bolton Hill for those of you who are local to me here in Maryland.
My father and stepmother still lived in Maryland then and invited me to spend the weekend with them. Our adventure: a trip to the Mannings, a destination knitting and weaving store for generations that has since then sadly closed. As most of us know, the sample sells . . . I walked into the shop and saw a Dale of Norway colorwork sweater on the mannequin. Arranged below were balls and balls of Dale of Norway yarn.
I made the sweater exactly as you see it above. To practice – I had not knit anything of any consequence since I was about 13! – I made the hat on the way home. I am a continental knitter and had no experience with color work. I just (to this day I do this) knit with one color, dropped that strand, picked the other up, knit with that, and so on. I’m slow but my knitting stays nice and flat.
I worked on that sweater as a sort of solace. This was before smart phones, before the days of social media and constant interruption. I didn’t even have a TV. I would knit in the quiet of my Baltimore row house, the sound of the clock ticking, the radiator clancking periodically. It was the sweetest meditation.
When the sweater was finally finished, I took it to the local knit shop, Woolworks on Falls Road. It, sadly, closed last year, but it was a veritable institution for generations of knitters. I took it there, laid it on the counter and said, “I need to finish the plackets and cuffs with embroidery. Do you have Dale of Norway yarns?”
Two ladies crowded around the sweater and started inspecting it, running their fingers over the stitches, looking at the pattern created by the carries on the inside of the sweater, turning it over, inside out, looking at every inch, fingers delicately following the purl row that allows a flat turn at the collar and cuffs . . .
“Did YOU knit this?” said W, a pretty, petite woman with a slight New York accent. She had dark, unruly wavy hair cut close in an almost pixie. She wore an oversized hand-knit sweater with slim grey jeans, ballet flats. Her face was narrow and intent. She was warm, and inquisitive.
“Are you married?” said R, the other woman, a tall, elegant,handsome person. She wore jeans that had been pressed to creases. Her fitted t-shirt also looked pressed and was tucked in. She, too, was wearing a hand-knit sweater with classic lines, small buttons, all fitted with lovely details. Her hair was combed into perfect waves and kept that way, no doubt, with a cloud of hair spray. I wondered what she looked like without make-up.
“Do you want a job?” they both said, nearly in unison. I laughed. The two of them eyed me intently, both still leaning forward, their hands still brushing absently over the sweater on the counter in the middle of our little circle.
In fact, I did want a job. “Yes, yes I want a job. Yes, I knit this . . .” I told them the story of finding it at Mannings, the weeks knitting. They listened as they led me back to the left side back recesses of the store where the bins of Dale of Norway were and we stood and discussed color combinations. They took turns asking me personal questions until other ladies entered the shop and their help was needed elsewhere.
They were serious about the job. And I took that job. Thus began my part-time-while-a-graduate-student-job and a crash course in everything knitting that I had never known or paid attention to in the past: swatching, gauge, yarn weight, fiber content, making mistakes, fixing mistakes, altering patterns, writing patterns . . . I learned by making my own mistakes, figuring out how to fix them, and by helping other people fix their mistakes. This was central to my own philosophy of knitting and teaching: mistakes are the treasure trove of knowledge. Don’t be afraid of making them, even though it’s stressful sometimes . . . mistakes are worth their weight in gold nuggets.
I was mostly contented to make sweaters from the pattern books in the shop until one day when the two owners came back from the big knitting trade show (TNNA . . . sadly this pandemic has forced its demise only last year, too). They had seen a felted bag at the show and had both made small ones at night after the show when they were in the hotel room. Now, these little bags sat on the counter by the register. I had never seen anything like them. They were adorable, captivating. I had to make one.
“HOW did you do this?” I asked W. It was furry, a small creature in my hands. I didn’t want to put it down. A bag that was like carrying a small, obedient puppy. W handed me a very simple hand-written pattern photocopied on a half-sheet of white paper. I bought some feltable yarn in a bunch of fun colors and added some hot pink mohair that I had from a sweater I had recently knit and made the little bag below. It is, truly, the first Nonibag. I was absolutely in love with it. I carried it everywhere even though it is so small it can hold nearly nothing except for wallet, car and house keys, pen, maybe a small paperback book. . . I think I did carry a copy of Othello around since I was teaching Shakespeare at the University of Maryland at the time.
I started experimenting immediately. Questions, theories, and mistakes were my teachers. What if I wanted to . . . What if I did this? What would happen if I . . .
I made lots of little bags. I made enormous bags that became yarn baskets. I made bags shaped like tubes. And I used stripes, a lot. I used mohair to create color complexity and a lovely halo that I, to this day, find quite fetching sometimes. You can see this in several of the Vintage Nonibags, such as The Garden Party Bag with its grass-green, textured body.
My purses started attracting a lot of attention. Ladies stopped me on the street. The ladies at the shop asked me to make bags for them, too. The red and red striped medium carpet bag was my first commissions. M wanted a red bag with big red flowers. “Can you do it?” She asked me. “Of course!” I said, feeling just a little queasy because I was not too sure about the flowers part. I started picking different feltable reds from the shelf. I think I pulled about 15 different reds down and used all of them in a bag that came out AMAZING but rather odd. I carried it around for years . . . it has since been retired. Design work often means taking an idea through several iterations. I tried again. The second bag I made was the Medium Carpet Bag. That first flower was The Camellia Flower.
Another customer wanted a smaller sized after she saw M’s bag. That became the Small Carpet Bag.
And then someone wanted a briefcase-sized version of the Carpet Bag with big red flowers. The Rather Huge Carpet Bag was born. She’s amazing. Striking. Classic. Fun. Unapologetic. She still stops traffic.
And for 24 hours . . . starting with tomorrow’s blog post . . . you can download this classic Nonibag pattern for free.
In tomorrow’s blog entry itself, I will include the written instructions for the medium sized carpet bag as well as my tips and techniques for excellent finishing. I will also introduce a new finishing package that includes a beautiful new JUL Leather handle and gorgeous metal hardware–handle brackets, a beautiful snap closure, bag feet, and cabochon rivet details. A stunning hardware update for an unforgettable bag. See you tomorrow on the Noni Blog!