The Curse Of The Boyfriend Sweater author Alanna Okun on her first book, a collection of essays on knitting and life.
BY LISA BUTTERWORTH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY WINNE AU
When I catch writer and editor Alanna Okun by phone, it’s the day before she’ll head from her studio apartment in Brooklyn, to upstate New York for Rhinebeck’s annual Sheep and Wool Festival, a pilgrimage the dedicated crafter has been making for the past nine years. “It’s like knitting prom, basically,” 28-year-old Okun says with a laugh. “Everyone goes up and just buys a ton of yarn and looks at sheep and wears their best knitting.” She’ll be making the journey with her mom who, after reading Okun’s book, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater (March 2018, Flatiron Books) I feel like I know. In fact, most of Okun’s nearest and dearest now feel familiar—her sailor-mouthed, embroidery-challenged best friend Aude; her sister Moriah, a crafter in her own right; her late grandmother who encouraged a six-year-old Okun to pick up knitting needles in the first place. In a publishing world rife with tomes of tutorials, Okun’s crafting book is different. Her collection of poignant essays explores the emotional, introspective side of knitting, crochet, and embroidery—the memories a stitch can hold, the grief a granny square can ease, the thread, both literal and figurative, that weaves a family together, connecting generation to generation. “I obviously love all the DIY and hands-on stuff, but this has been the side that I was always the most attracted to,” she says. “I wanted this to essentially be a crafting memoir, tracing joy and anxiety and grief and boredom through the lens of making stuff.”
In “The Tools of the Trade” Okun honors her grandmother by finishing a cabled sweater with the knitting needles she inherited after her death. “I loved looking down at the light-gray aluminum darting in and out of the yarn and imagining them in my grandma’s hands,” she writes. “Hands that played piano, that planted gardens, that rubbed my back and my sister’s and my mother’s and her sister’s. Hands whose leathery firmness I won’t ever feel again.” In “Bad Habits,” she draws a parallel between her anxious, compulsive habits (hair pulling, cuticle picking) and the part of her brain that crafting ignites: “It’s also a version of that desire to control my immediate surroundings—not through destruction, but through creation.” It’s a chapter that’s rankled some readers. “Especially older readers have said, ‘It’s too much self-mutilation. It’s really not something I want to read about in this pleasant book about knitting,’” she says. “And I totally get that. It’s gross to read about someone picking at their skin. It’s gross that I do it. But that was certainly one of those things where I was like, I want to hold this up to the light. I want to interrogate this the same way I do other things.”
Okun’s writing, however, is resonating with most readers in a very powerful way. In fact, when we speak she had just received “the loveliest email” from a reader who got a tattoo based on the book. “I was like, ‘Holy shit!’” she says. “Now I can’t screw up.” Unveiling this sense of kinship is perhaps what’s truly at the heart of The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater, and Okun’s crafting in general. Which, in our current culture, is a practice we’re particularly poised to benefit from—imbuing the act of knitting with a greater significance than the finished beanie, sock, or blanket.
“Something I’ve found, for me personally in this time, is that crafting is almost a way to refuel and to connect with people and to kind of center myself so I can get back out there,” she says. “It’s not like I’m necessarily sitting down on my couch in the evening, putting on [Japanese reality show] Terrace House, bringing out my sweater and thinking, This is me crushing the patriarchy. But there is this element of, I choose to do this. And I hope that I can help other people choose to do this and that us reclaiming this time and this space for ourselves and finding things that bring us joy, and that replenish us—that in itself is a very small but powerful act.”
Order Alanna’s book, “The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater” here.
Want to try a little more before you buy? Alanna has generously offered an exclusive excerpt from the book and (!) will host a Facebook Live reading/Q&A in the coming weeks. All you need to do for access to both is be a member of Knit Wit! Not a member? That’s an easy fix.