Projects unfinished

When Laura Belle stopped knitting

One year ago this week, Aaron’s 94-year-old grandmother passed away. Laura Belle was one of my favorite people. In addition to being spry and fiesty, she had a wonderfully sunny disposition that always seemed to draw crowds. Laura Belle was an accomplished quilter and many of the bed coverings in our house bear the marks of remnant fabrics she scavenged from textile mills near her home in rural Alabama. Her quilts demand another post entirely, one that may come before too long; this post needs to be about her knitting. When she moved to an apartment and stopped quilting, Laura Belle turned to knitting and crochet to keep her hands in shape. Her most recent project was to knit full size afghans for each of her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. When she was dying, she expressed regret over not finishing the last afghan. As the only knitter in the family, I promised her I would complete it. This is where you and I begin.

Laura Belle's afghan for Lisa

Laura Belle had finished just about three of seven or eight pattern repeats when she died, although her last few rows were pretty rocky. I could tell she had really tried to finish but her mind was not in it. Knowing how she would have scowled at aberrant cables and mistakenly purled stitches, I considered ripping out her last few rows and re-knitting them. I let them alone only because I knew how hard they had been for her to knit. Some family members wanted me to put a line of contrasting yarn where her work ended and mine began, a task that struck me as too morose. I began knitting where she left off, which is what I think she would have preferred.

Only three repeats in...

The pattern itself was cobbled together from a collection of cabled stitch patterns she liked. To my horror, Laura Belle had written the pattern out line by line with no cable chart.

Tens of pages of handwritten instructions, line by line

Leafing through tens of pages of handwritten instructions, I found some interesting margin notes that filled out what else was happening in the background as Laura Belle knit. Sometimes, she jotted down a word with its definition, as if she had learned its meaning in a book or in a conversation as she knit. Other times, she wrote down phone numbers or the ages of someone’s children. Here, she had written a blood pressure reading, dated a few weeks before she died.

Blood pressure

My favorite note is one I do not understand:

No no-no

“No no-no”. Does it refer to the pattern? Is she warning herself about a difficult section? Or something unrelated to knitting? I will never know but always wonder.

Unfinished work finished

I finished the afghan, although I stopped at five pattern repeats instead of the seven or eight that Laura Belle had planned. I would have liked to knit it to full size but for the sake of family peace and because non-knitters have different project timelines than knitters, I ended it early. I am sure she would be happy to know that her last afghan is currently in transit to its designated recipient.

Laura Belle's finished afghan for Lisa

This was a hard project to work on because the knitting made me sad. Casting off her last project seemed to be my duty as a fellow knitter, as if there were some unspoken code of ethics in the craft.  After all, who does not feel trapped in knitting purgatory as unfinished projects mount? As knitters, we should all have someone to complete our works in progress when we die. Even though I felt sad knitting this, the satisfaction of binding off was great. I know Laura Belle too would be relieved to know it was done.

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64 comments so far

  1. Mandy on

    Good job, Knitter, for finishing this one.

  2. jillian on

    An incredible story – thank you for sharing. That was a wonderful act, and brave too because I think I can start to imagine how sad it would be. It’s a gorgeous pattern too. An heirloom.

  3. Christie on

    That is so wonderful of you to finish it for her. It would make me sad to complete another knitter’s unfinished project, but it would make me happy in the knowledge that it would be what I would want.

    What about a Laura Belle Afghan pattern in her honor?

  4. Sarah on

    What an awesome story!

  5. Daniela on

    What a beautiful story and what better way to commemorate your relative! I feel sure that afghan will be treasured for generations.

  6. Viktoria on

    What a beautiful story…

  7. Glenna C on

    I think this is a wonderful, beautiful thing you have done, completing this one part of her life left unfinished. You’re right, I hope all of us knitters have someone to pick up when we leave off.

  8. earthchick on

    Wow – thank you for sharing Laura Belle with us. Such a beautiful post, such a beautiful afghan, and what a wonderful thing to finish what she could not.

  9. Michelle on

    I don’t know what more a knitter could possibly ask for, to have someone so lovingly complete their knitting.

  10. Holli on

    This is such an amazing post. The afghan is gorgeous and Laura Belle sounds like a truly unforgettable woman. Congratulations on completing her project.


  11. gleek on

    great story! you are an amazing knitter and friend :)

  12. grumperina on

    Now THAT’s a great story!

  13. Jacey on

    Thank you for sharing this with us all. It’s a beautiful concept to know that Laura Belle had someone like you to continue her legacy.

  14. Sharon on

    Beautiful story. I’m sure she’d be proud.

  15. Cara on

    What a monumental task! And a wonderful way to be especially close to Laura Belle. Thank you for sharing her story.

  16. Jen on

    This is a wonderful story. Your stylistic decisions seem perfect. It’s too bad you didn’t get to make it as large as she’d intended, but I hope that it will be treasured by the recipients, not just for Laura Belle’s work, but also for yours.

  17. Lara on

    Beautiful, both story and afghan.

    My grandma died a couple weeks ago, and the agreement among the family was that we would all take back what we had given her over the years. I had made her many things, but it was particularly sad bringing home the shawl I knitted her two years ago, shortly before her stroke. It’s tucked away in my closet for now. I’m unsure what to do with it.

    I really admire your fortitude in finishing it, and in leaving her work as it was.

  18. Kim on

    What a wonderful story with a beautiful ending. I also have three unfinished crocheting projects that my beloved Nana left a year ago. I haven’t brought myself to finish any of them yet but it is in my future. I want to do them just not quite ready.

  19. Kate on

    I know someone whose job it is to go to the houses of the newly-deceased and take all the UFOs and finish them, for charity. Depressing? Maybe. but it’s also really uplifting. I sometimes think that that whole ‘knitting our lives into the stitches’ goes a bit far, true as it is. But this is a situation where the truth of it shines out.

    I’m glad you didn’t do the contrasting yarn. Those who are in the know might be able to tell, but the afghan is a complete whole, not a half-mended symbol.

    I feel sad and happy at the same time, now. Sniff.

  20. Jennifer on

    What a beautiful and sad post. Boy, do I ever know what you mean about non-knitter timelines! That must have put a lot of pressure on you. Well done!

  21. Sue on

    The afghan turned out so beautifully, and I am sure your grandmother would be looking down on you extremely pleased with your effort to finishing it for her. I would get the pattern laminated and keep it aside as a family heirloom.

  22. Ann on

    It’s so great that you have finished off the afghan for your grandmother. It’s so lovely your story is so heart warming.

  23. kat on

    That is such a beautiful and amazing story. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Mintyfresh on

    You are VERY good to have finished that, and as fast as you did. I can’t believe it was all written out by hand–what a tedious undertaking! But the end result is great, and meaningful, and I hope its recipient appreciates it.

  25. stacey on

    Beautiful. The sentiment and the story, as well as the knitting……

  26. Stephy on

    Yes, very beautiful in so many ways. Thank you for sharing it.

  27. Smuddpie on

    What a beautiful tribute. As one who has received precious handmade gifts from my grandmas, I’m sure your work will not go unappreciated by the family.

    I’m late, but Asa’s sweater looks great and the buttons were worth the trouble. And I like it because I have an Asa – a pretty rare thing.

  28. marissa on

    Awesome! I love that you left her ‘rocky rows'; just as it should be. She is truly at peace now.

  29. mai on

    this is a beautiful story. i think it’s great that you were able to finish what she could not. i have no doubt that the recipient will love it, especially because it has so much meaning.

  30. Angie on

    What a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing.

  31. jennifer on

    Beautiful story, and what a wonderful thing to do for her.

  32. maryse on

    this is such a touching story.

  33. caro on

    What an amazing story and what an amazing thing you’ve done for one of our own. Others may not get the time that goes into something like this, but we sure do. There’s a lot of love in that afghan.

  34. diana on

    E, what an amazing job you did finishing that afghan. It’s gorgeous.

  35. seashoreknits on

    what a beautiful beautiful story. laura belle – so blessed to be a knitter – so blessed to have you, dear girl, to carry it on…a terrific act of love. the afghan is so beautiful.

  36. Cassy on

    I think that is a really sweet story. The afghan is beautiful and will help her memory to live on.

  37. Pat on

    Thank you for a beautiful story – I love that you took the photos of her notes – “No, no, no” – that still has me wondering…
    A very special afghan!

  38. Emily on

    I can’t imagine a better thing that to know your last project would finished. We should all be so blessed.

  39. Rita on

    My grandmother began knitted afghans for my older brothers when they married as a wedding gift. She did not live long enough to get to mine and what I wouldn’t give for the hug of her presence that I could have from her today from such an afghan. What a beautiful gift for that family member to have that remaining part of her. Your kindness will go far.

  40. Sigrun on

    Wonderful story about a beautiful afghan and a wonderful knitter. Laura Belle must be very proud of you :-)

  41. Carrie on

    what a beautiful post. The afghan is lovely, and it sounds like you did just what Laura Belle would have wanted. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

  42. Susan on

    Wow, what a story!

    Once at a LYS, an employee there showed me an unfinished project from an old lady. I can’t remember if she’d passed away or was just too infirm to finish it. Anyway, her five children – none of them knitters – had found the project in her attic and were going to throw it away (gasp!), but instead brought it to the yarn shop to see if anyone there could finish it. It was a queen size bedspread in fine cotton on size 1 needles and she’d been working on it for decades. It was gorgeous and just lacked a few pieces and the border. The woman who’d agreed to finish it didn’t have a pattern, but was trying to figure it out just by looking. Can you imagine?

  43. liz K on

    A true labor of love for sure. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful project.

  44. Chris on

    What a wonderful tribute to Laura Belle.

  45. weaverknits on

    Living to 94 and knitting to the end? Would that we were all so fortunate.

  46. Kristy on

    What a beautiful story and beautiful knitting.

  47. Mom on

    I’m so proud of you ,Ellie. I’m also really happy that I got to know Laura Belle a little bit and that you gave Beatrix her name.

  48. Michelle on

    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful and sad story. I just lost my mom a few weeks ago and I am finishing a Clapotis that she had started before she got sick. Your decision to leave the knitting alone in its original form is absolutely perfect; the love and tenderness still live in those stitches.

    Take care.

  49. LizKnits on

    That afghan is beautiful and I’m sure will be a family treasure forever. Such a great opportunity to continue on the work of someone you so clearly cared for.

  50. Jan on

    Well done! You honored Laura Belle (and, by the way – what a wonderful name!), placated the family, and closed the circle. Now go pour yourself a big glass of wine and cast on something lovely for yourself. Onward!

  51. [...] of being connected to people, I wanted to share someone else’s story with you.  Today I read this touching post that reminded me of things we do out of love and respect for those we care for and about.  I have [...]

  52. nova on

    I remember when you first mentioned the afghan on the blog a while ago; you, my friend, are a saint. I hope the recipient values the time, energy and effort you put into finishing the afghan…since you did it in all that free time you must have to throw around, right? But I have to say, the archivist in me smiles at all the random notes written into the pattern.

  53. caroline on

    If I live (and continue knitting) to the age of 94, I pity the poor soul who undertakes the monumental task of completing all my UFOs!

  54. Alicia on

    Great job Knitter. You did as she needed you to do, cast off her project for her. That was a very beautiful thing to do.

  55. kathy on

    what an intimate look into a knitter’s life; what an honor to be able to finish Laura Belle’s work and spend some time with her memory…

  56. Stella on

    Oh, man. We can only hope that somebody will do something like this for us one day, huh? I think you did just the right thing by picking up where she left off. I know I couldn’t have ripped out her last few rows, either.

  57. Peggy on

    I just hopped over from Tiennie’s blog. What a sweet story. I loved the handwritten notes. She’s my kind of girl. I have no idea how to read a chart…..give me words anyday. My father died 27 years ago tomorrow at the very too young age of 61. I don’t really have anything of his in my home, but I do have a chile recipe written in his hand in my recipe file. I just love seeing his handwriting. It makes me smile.

  58. Amy on

    That’s so beautiful, Elinor.

  59. Danielle on

    Oh, Elinor. What a beautiful and respectful way to honor Laura Belle.

  60. lanajoh on

    I, too, am finishing a project left behind by someone who died, a friend, who was just short of forty. She died suddenly, and she had been working for years on a grey wool cardigan that she knew would no longer fit her, but she intended to finish it for her sister anyhow. I asked for the unfinished sweater after her death. We had knit together, we had discussed the armhole shaping together… how could I not finish the remaining sleeves and sew it up for her sister?

    My friend suffered from schizophrenia, and she would often have to put her knitting aside for months, as she wouldn’t be able to believe that she had knit the last few rows… she would sometimes think that her knitting had been tampered with, especially if there was a mistake in the pattern…

  61. leslie on

    i am so late reading this! sorry.
    i love this story. just thinking about her makes me smile.

    love that you finished it, too. how special.

  62. Trish on

    I just discovered your blog and my heart is still beating fast thinking about this post. It is so wonderful how knitting can connect people. I really encourage you to write a piece for the “Ravelings” last page of Interweave Knits. This is truly an amazing story. I’m so glad you wrote it.

    I’ve been thinking about my own grandmother a lot as I used one of the brooches she left me to accessorize my first ever written pattern. I hope this honors her as much as you honored Laura Bell. Grandma was a state champion arm wrestler and a tough farm wife with six children – I don’t think she ever had time to knit but I know she would appreciate the work so much….

  63. frogginette on

    Thank you for this post, it brought tears to my eyes, made me think about my own grandma, who passed away in January. She taught me how to knit and it’s as if she is by my side every time I’m working on a project. This is truly a wonderful afghan, as well as a poignant story.

  64. Tami on

    Wow…what a story. What a legacy. The afghan is beautiful.

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