From Fleece to Fabulous: Taking It to the Limit

Diane Helentjaris
9 min readJul 27, 2022

Beth Smith shows us how childhood knitting opened the door to fiber art

Beth Smith’s Sunshine yarn. Photo by author.

For decades I’ve watched my friend Beth Smith’s nimble fingers pick up a board game piece, move it, and ruin my day. Yet only recently have I discovered the full panoply of amazing things those fingers and that mind can do — all within the world of fiber.

Beth with Kaylee.

Beth’s from Holland, Michigan. I spent ten years in Michigan’s lower peninsula getting overeducated, two of those in frosty Grand Rapids, not far from Holland. I came to appreciate the region’s unisex wardrobe of wooly hat and scarf, corduroy pants, flannel shirt, and boots. Hand-knit hats and scarves are cherished.

Like many women, Beth learned to knit in childhood. One summer, while her parents were absorbed by graduate school, her grandmother stepped in as babysitter. Beth was six and her sisters four and eight. Her grandmother gave each girl a wooden spool with nails driven in one end and taught them to knit on it. She showed them how to loop yarn over the nail heads and make a knit tube snake out the bottom of the spool. Beth’s grandmother then showed the trio how to coil the tubes, sew them together, and make mats.

Beth went on to quilt, knit, and crochet with needles. She whipped up clothes for her doll and, by high school, could knit a stocking cap. Impressed a friend’s speed with the continental method of holding the yarn and needles, she switched over. “Show me that. It was like a light bulb went off…so much faster!” In a college summer job at Mackinac Island, she watched as a coworker knit a Fair Isle sweater. She then taught herself to do that as well as cable knitting.

Gandhi at a spinning wheel during a demonstration in Mirzapur, Utar Pradesh, June 9, 1925. Wikimedia Commons.

Beth studied political science at Hope College in her hometown. Mahatma Gandhi, the champion of nonviolent resistance in India’s quest for independence, would be an expected topic in her classes, but given the conservative bent to the region, maybe not. Either way, Beth certainly could not have anticipated…

Diane Helentjaris

Writer with a love of the overlooked. Author of the new historical fiction novel The Indenture of Ivy O’Neill,