This essay is part of Fashion in Isolation, a special issue on the intimate, contradictory, and ultimately inescapable relationship we have to what we wear.

Winter evening.

Six-year-old me did my homework at the dinner table; my grandmother sat next to me, knitting a sweater. The yarn, thick and green, appeared almost black in the glow of the lone 40-watt incandescent lightbulb. My grandmother squinted as she struggled to manipulate the bamboo needles with her arthritis-gnarled fingers, the skin cracked in countless places from the arid, frosty air.

“Do your hands hurt, Nainai?”

“They do.”

“Why are you still working, then?”

“I don’t want you to be cold.”

She made almost all my sweaters. They were bulky and thick to keep out the frigid winds of Northwestern China; they hung loose so I could grow into them and make them last; they were stained and darned repeatedly, because that was what happened to clothes worn by a child running wild with his friends, tumbling across frozen ponds, climbing ginkgoes and pines, scrambling over iron fences, fighting with fists and snowballs.

The sweaters worked great; they were beautiful.

I liked watching my grandmother knit. She never used a pattern, but drafted the design in her head, feeling her way toward the final product much like writers who refuse to outline. With only two basic stitches—the knit and the purl—she could weave a single string into a garment, transform a line into a plane, uplift one dimension into two. The tension between the different stitches gave the surface yet another dimension of texture, forming natural pleats, folds, soft ruffled rings that hugged wrists and collars. Years later, when I studied advanced mathematics, I would imagine the various curves on my graphing calculator as the yarn in my grandmother’s hands, looping, twisting, knotting toward a solution in space.

I didn’t learn to knit until decades later, after it was no longer possible to tell her everything I wanted to say. As my clumsy fingers grew used to the repetitive movements, I allowed my mind to drift, each stitch bringing to mind a memory of my grandmother: pushing me around in a stroller, teaching me the times tables, listening to pingshu storytellers on the radio, laughing at my first story…

“I don’t want you to be cold.”

A person’s story is knitted together from the single dimension of inexorably passing time, twisting, looping, knotting, winding through memory and experience and grief and hope and regret until it becomes something with a shape, with texture and tension and strength.

Some things could never be said, and if we’re lucky, they needn’t be.

Ken Liu

A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, Ken Liu is the author of The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as the short fiction collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories.

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