Saturday, January 7, 2017

Sweater Weather

I don't have a digital thermometer that announces the outside temperature in increments of degree.
The white dial with its black numerals and slender red needle, mounted beyond the glass of the north-facing kitchen window, is one my father would have recognized. 
At 6:15 this morning the needle was firmly lodged at 8 F degrees above zero.
I eyed the gauge as I moved quietly about the kitchen, chunking wood into the glowing innards of the stove, thawing ice from the outdoor cats' water dish,  measuring coffee, warming a blueberry muffin.
By 8 A.M. the red needle had barely moved a degree upward.
Now, at 9:30, with the sun fully emerged, we have gained 5 degrees from the dawn reading.

Remembering our respective Vermont childhoods we chuckle gently at the idea of anything above zero F being considered frigid temperatures. 
We recall--from a benign distance--the days, weeks even, when daytime temperatures scarcely attained the zero mark before plummeting to nightly depths that threatened water pipes, defeated car batteries, taxed the endurance of even stalwart Yankees accustomed to long winters.

We made preparations. Most of the dignified clapboard farmhouses of New England had passed their centennial long before Jim and I were born. Upgrades seldom included double-paned windows or heavy insulation. 'Central heating,' laboriously installed, was a wood  or [rarely] coal-fired monster furnace such as the one which crouched in the dirt-floored cellar of Grampa Mac's house. The one heat duct rising from the furnace belched warmth through a 3 foot square metal 'register' set into the dining room floor. The Home Comfort range in the kitchen and a cabinet-clad chunk stove in the living room provided islands of warmth in the core of the old house, while rooms on the north side were shut up for the winter.

In mid October my uncle commenced the yearly ritual of preparing the farmhouse for impending winter.  Storm windows for the first floor of the house were lugged out of basement storage, wiped down, hoisted into place and the metal clips fastened.
Lengths of tarpaper were bandaged around the foundation of the main house on the north and west exposures and along the east where the kitchen ell adjoined. Dried leaves from the dooryard maples were barrowed to the house and tucked behind the tarpaper which was then secured with strips of lath. 
The door leading from the dining room to the back porch had its wood-framed screen covered in a length of heavy builders paper. The inner door was closed and latched, seldom to be opened save during a 'January thaw.'

Between milking and barn chores Grampa Mac and the hired man dealt with the winter wood supply. A circular saw, set up below the hay barn, was powered by a wide belt running between pulleys on the saw and a stationary tractor.  The whine of the saw biting through lengths of well-cured maple, beech and ash, greeted us on our walk home from the one room school house, the sound carrying on the bright and chilly October air.

Grampa Mac's woodshed was a model of organization: large chunks of wood waiting to be split were stacked to chest height along two walls. 'Limb wood' was ranged against the wall which divided the wood area from the back kitchen entry. A chopping block sat off center with well-sharpened ax and splitting hammer out of the way of those who shouldn't be messing with such implements.

Grampa Mac split wood each afternoon through the winter.  Stove lengths and kindling went into an ingenious cupboard with one door opening onto the shed hallway; a second door opened on the kitchen, so only a few steps were needed for the fire tender to reach the prepared wood.
The biggest chunks of wood, destined for the maw of the furnace, were placed on a trailer and trundled around to the east-facing cellar bulkhead. 

While the men of the household labored to barricade the house from arctic blasts, the women-folk unearthed winter gear from cedar chests and cupboards reeking of mothballs. Woolen blankets bounced on the front porch clothes lines. Men's shirts, jackets and caps in bold lumberjack checks of red, blue or green were hung in the back yard  to air on a bright blue October day.  Loose buttons were secured, a frayed elbow patched. 
My sisters and I tried on last winter's woolen skirts, standing rigidly while Mother 'let down' and repinned the hems. Sweaters, scarves and mittens emerged from the boxes which had hidden beneath our beds during summer's heat.
Our wardrobes weren't extensive--decent basics for 'every day,' something finer for 'Sunday best.'

Winter outerwear was cumbersome, heavy, mostly woolen.
Gore-tex, thinsulate, polar fleece and the like were decades in the future.
Ski pants had a woolen outer layer, a bulky wadding for warmth, a flannel lining inside.
Soaked by wet snow such garments steamed gently overnight behind the stove, often still slightly damp when needed the next day.
No house was without the dank and distinctive odor of wet wool.

By the time our children were big enough to toddle out in a Vermont snowscape winter wear had begun an evolution to warmer, sleeker, lighter-weight garments. A snowsuit that came in from an hours play mildly damp was dry in no time.
Jim's mother, a speedy knitter, toted around balls of soft synthetic yarn, clicking out sweaters, leggings, slipper-socks and mittens for her grandchildren.
Young women made the scene in 'big knits'--over-sized, fuzzy, cowl-necked garments in neon shades.
We acquired thermal long-johns, insulated boots, heavy socks that didn't shrink in the wash.

In the early 1980's--those Vermont winters of record biting cold--my friend Mary and I discovered the mail order catalogs of Lands End and Eddie Bauer. We sent off orders for Shetland wool pullovers in jewel colors of ruby, purple, sapphire and magenta. [Jim, in a rare perusal of our check book, once demanded testily, "Who the hell is Eddie Bauer?] Soon one could punch in the 800 number, place an order, recite a credit card number and within a week the brown truck rolled into the yard and off-loaded a package with the expected sweater or two. 

I made good use of my sweater collection during the interminable winters of our 12 year residency in Wyoming, adding judiciously such garments as might be needed.
Our first winter in Kentucky was so mild that I, unwisely perhaps, reduced my sweater stash.
Subsequent seasons have lead me to pounce on a lovely sweater in a favored brand whenever spied in a local charity shop.

 A bright and crisp morning in mid October this year inspired me to an assessment of my sweater collection. When all had been brought from the closet shelves and the old black wooden chest, I realized that I might be a sweater hoarder.
A few could be designated as mildly disreputable--injudiciously laundered by former owners, bought for a quarter and suited to messy chores.
Many are rather elegant and set aside as 'church clothes'--the vintage one with pearl buttons and a fur collar, the embroidered chenille, the swanky black with bling border.
Most are decent cozy things, warm and respectable, the friendly kind of garment one throws over the back of a chair to be tugged on for a walk to the mailbox or for comfort when reading in the evening.
A few unique finds [the purple cardigan with lavishly embroidered flowers] cause my fashionista daughter to roll her eyes and declare, "Mother, I hope you aren't intending to be seen in that!"

Contemplating the stacks of sweaters I suddenly thought of someone with several daughters to clothe on a small budget; before I could reconsider I found a box and chose a careful assortment of sweaters to give away. 

I kept my favorites of course: the burgundy chenille bought in a classy Vermont college town shop; the leather-buttoned cardigan with the chickadee pattern on the yoke, several stout zip-front utility sweaters that defy the coldest weather a Kentucky winter has yet presented. 
I kept the purple cardigan with the wild embroidered flowers and the nubby one with cardinals perched around the neckline.
One very special sweater, a bit fragile now and worn only once or twice per season, was a Christmas gift from my daughter the first year that she was working and had money of her own.
The pullover, knitted in a soft woolen yarn, is patterned with bands of light and dark grey set off by narrow lines of rose pink and rose red. Fluffy white 'angora' cats parade around the dark grey bands. 
After each wearing the sweater is aired and tenderly folded away, a sentimental treasure.

As another winter settles in with its scarcely predictable procession of bone-biting cold, wind and snow, spelled by balmier days of returning sun and dooryard mud, we are prepared.
Jim, like my Grampa Mac, plans ahead for the firewood supply.
Like the competent woman of Proverbs 31, I am not afraid of the snow for my household, having assured myself each year that all who fall within my care are well equipped to brave the weather in warm jackets and gloves, with a special emphasis on the comfort of wooly sweaters.


  1. Thanks for a trip down memory lane, Sharon! Back in the days when battening down the hatches was a necessary part of our Fall workload. We still close off our drafty front door, but now with that plastic 3M kits. In the single digits here too. Stay warm!


    1. Jane; I hope you are too young to have struggled with the fat woolen 'snow suits.'
      Getting ready for what winter can throw at us is surely an ongoing part of country life--even though times have changed.

  2. What an enjoyable post about living in winter weather. Not enjoyable to have lived, but enjoyable to read about.

    Keep warm and enjoy your collection of sweaters.


    1. Rainey; I was wondering if you have always lived in Florida or have you experienced winter where it snows [?]
      I think I must keep my sweater collection under strict control!

  3. This was such a cozy post. I love the kitty sweater.

    1. Susie; The kitty sweater is special--in part because my daughter chose it for me and also because it is a cute idea. The designer must have loved cats.

  4. Some lovely sweaters, I did spot that one with the cardinals. I'm thin blooded and find it hard to stay warm even in the mildest winters. But I prefer it to summer.

    1. Janet; I agree about preferring winter to our summers--my only complaint with Kentucky is the long spell of heat and humidity to be endured each year.
      Sweaters are such friendly garments!

  5. Some 'warm' and lovely memories of growing up in Vermont with the Yankee spirit of 'Making do or doing without'! I loved reading about your childhood memories of those bone-chilling New England winters (being a Yank myself, growing up in Mass.). Your sweater collection sounds wonderful and I have a similar one. It is so hard to part with some of them despite going out of style or getting threadbare. Every fall I look forward to unpacking them all once again and adding to my collection with sales and thrifty finds. I recently found a beautiful Irish fisherman knit, in perfect condition for less than $10. I almost ran out of the store thinking they were going to call me back and say it was a pricing mistake! My dear hubby just filled up the wood-box and we are sitting here very cozy as it snows outside. Thank you for your kind words on the loss of my little cat. I enjoyed this post. x Karen

    1. Karen; I would rather write about the memories of New England in winter than tackle that weather again in person! In KY we know that spells of real cold will be of short duration.
      An Irish fisherman knit sweater--what a great find! Its hard not to gloat when we come across treasures at a fraction of the original price.
      The photos of Ling Ling, touched my heart--so like my beloved Eggnog. Pet lovers know that the death of a special animal is a unique kind of loss. I've noticed that the other cats in our household notice and seem to search for the departed one.
      Isn't it lovely to sit by the wood fire when it is cold outside? Somehow more comforting [and more work!] than turning up a thermostat.

  6. Lovely post, - we are so spoiled now, but memories are dear.

    1. Hildred; I think that winters in the Similkameen Valley--especially as you experienced them in the early years of your farming/orchard venture--must have called for similar preparations. Yes, I suppose our grandparents, parents even, would find us spoiled!