It's Saturday afternoon, August 12th, 2017. I just spent most of Friday helping a friend work through some serious mental health issues. Then I got bombarded, as all of us did with images and stories from Charlottesville. I live just over an hour away from there. I take my daughter there for Saturday Enrichment classes, or Nerd School as she calls it. It's a great town. Between my friend and the hate being spewed in Charlottesville by Saturday afternoon, I am heartsick and furious, frustrated and fearful. I have to get out of the house.
Twenty minutes later I find myself standing in front of a huge bin in the space between the yarn aisles and the fabric thinking that yarn therapy might be just the thing I need. This is my favorite spot in the craft store. The mill ends. These are skeins of unknown yardage and unknown fiber content bagged by weight and sold at a deep discount. Mill ends happen at the end of a run of yarn when what's left over doesn't make a whole skein. They can also be made from a dye lot that's a little too far off the intended color, or the setting is off when plying and the yarn doesn't have enough twist. They're a way for manufacturers to recoup the loss of what would otherwise be waste.
I love them for a number of reasons. First, I'm cheap. Also I find mill ends to be inspiring. It's like a challenge to find an odd yarn that doesn't fit into the neat bins of pretty yarn on the shelves, choosing just the right pattern to show it off and diving into a project hoping that I have enough to finish. When I find one that looks good, I check around me to make sure there's no one looking and I tear open a corner. I probably shouldn't, but how else am I supposed to tell how soft it is? I poke my finger in and feel the yarn, and if it's soft enough and interesting enough, I'll take a chance on it. I've gotten pretty good at estimating the size of a project that I can make with a bag or two of mill ends. Probably because I've been using them ever since I learned how to crochet at the tender age of eleven. Truth is, I learned to crochet with mill ends. I don't remember seeing them in craft stores back then though. I got mine from my Granddad.
My grandfather, Lewis Davis, worked almost his whole life in a textile mill of one kind or another. And when I say all his life, I mean it. Somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen, my granddad dropped out of school and went to work in the Glen Royal Mill to support his mother and younger siblings. He worked his way up over the years learning to operate and maintain most of the machines in the mill. When the mill closed down, he went to another, and when that one closed down, he got a job working in the College of Textiles at N.C. State.
At State, students would experiment with different fibers and different settings. Sometimes they would spin yarn for practice. When they were done there would be cones of yarn; odd yarn that wouldn't likely sell. Maybe the fibers were a little rough or not enough twist. It wasn't something that most people would want to knit or crochet. But having grown up during the Depression, Granddad couldn't allow that kind of waste. So he brought it home. Cones and cones and cones of it. He gave it to anyone who thought they could use it, but most of it went to my grandmother's Aunt Matt who could and did crochet just about anything. He didn't limit his salvaging to yarn. My grandparents' garage and barn for years were full of shuttles, bobbins, a discarded loom, a table sized drum carder...Almost enough stuff to start our own mill.
Recently, I was reminded of another kind of my granddad's mill ends. Folks who might not have been in ideal situations, gaps that he could fill or find solutions for. At my grandmother's 100th birthday party, one of those folks, Roy, told the story of how his father worked hours that meant he couldn't spend time with him. My granddad saw that he needed some fatherly attention, and made time regularly to take him fishing on Saturday mornings. When Roy grew up to be a student studying textiles at N.C. State Granddad helped him find a job after he graduated.
Roy wasn't the only one. My grandmother tells the story of the time Granddad saw a neighbor's son in the mill village who couldn't afford shoes. Without waiting a day or even an hour, Granddad stopped what he was doing and took the boy to town and bought him a pair of shoes. There was the autistic cousin whose own father wouldn't make time for him. But Granddad did. It meant so much to my cousin that after my Granddad passed, he changed his name to Lewis.
It didn't always work out well. He once had to drive 40 miles out of his way at gun point after a hitchhiker decided he didn't want to wait for another driver to pick him up. And there was the time he loaned someone $10,000 for 'business opportunity'. He never saw that money again. But he didn't stop taking chances on people especially those who really needed someone to take a chance on them.
My great grandfather abused and then abandoned his family leaving my granddad to pick up the pieces. It would have been easy for my granddad to become cynical and closed off. But he didn't. He never gave up on goodness. He wasn't flashy about it. He didn't show off his generosity or ask for thanks. He just went about his life in his own quiet way, gathering up his community's mill ends and turning them into something beautiful.
So, exhausted and heartsick in the face of all the ugliness and hate today. It would be easy to throw up my hands and write certain people off as irredeemable. It would be easy to give up on goodness. I stand there in front of the discount bin wearily testing the hand of an odd bag of mill ends that caught my eye. The thickness is slubby, and the twist is uneven. The color is pretty plain. But there's a little bit of shine to it. I think it might a linen blend, so it'll soften nicely when it's worked and washed. I can make something beautiful out of this.
And after I've soothed my soul with a bit of knitting, I can get back to keeping an eye out for those other mill ends just like Granddad did.