A Year of Recovery: The Story Behind My Baltian Sweater

Some of the many naturally dyed skeins I created at the end of 2020

At the start of 2021, I woke up with a sharp pain in my shoulder. I assumed that dyeing a lot of yarn had finally taken its physical toll. I took it easy, took some Advil. Within a few weeks I couldn’t use my left arm normally. I continued to take Advil and adapted, using my right arm for the heavy lifting. If someone saw me wince, I’d reassure them (and me) that I was fine. Everything is fine. You know where this story is going. Everything was not fine.

I finally saw my doctor, then an orthopedist, got an x-ray (calcium deposit in the joint), spent many weeks in physical therapy (didn’t help), did a course of Prednisone (it was horrible and also didn’t help), and finally an MRI. It was after the MRI that my orthopedist gave it to me straight: the calcium deposit will soon tear the rotator cuff. This problem will only get worse. This I believed. It began in January as a minor issue and grew into consuming pain by May. I was emotionally frayed from months of failed treatment. In June, my shoulder joint underwent a successful arthroscopic cleanup: errant tissue removed, tattered tissue melted back together.

The first week after surgery I stared at spiderwebs moving in the wind with wonder. I dreamt about painting yarn the color of distant moons and galaxies. I felt positive, renewed, ready to recover, ready to move. I was in pain, yes, but it was recovery pain and that goes away.

But it didn’t go away. I was in debilitating pain for two months. Like, ALL of the two months – day and night. I couldn’t get the pain under control. Weekly physical therapy sessions weren’t improving my mobility. I slipped in and out of sadness and hopelessness.  And the entire time, I forced myself to knit.

Before surgery, I made knitting part of my recovery plan. Boyland Knitworks released a new sweater pattern that ticked my creative boxes: bold colorwork and mohair. My plan: complete the mohair colorwork section before surgery; then after surgery, while resting from daily physical therapy exercises, I would rewatch Downton Abbey with my arm carefully propped up, ice packs in constant rotation with pain meds, and mindlessly knit myself into a healthy body.

That was so unrealistic. I soon learned this: muscles of the arm and back join in a tight apex at the shoulder joint and wow – inflammation radiates pain through all of them.  Even with my arm carefully balanced on pillows, using my hand to hold a knitting needle became a domino effect of pain straight into the joint.

I ignored my reality: I could not blissfully knit myself into recovery. When a task hurts your body, your body is telling you to stop doing the damn task.  Did I listen? No. I was stupid and stubborn and kept knitting. And it led to real shitty knitting. There are spots in the body of this sweater where my tension is awful. It’s one of the worst sweaters I’ve knit. My body was sending me a very clear message and the evidence is in the final product.

The Baltian Sweater, wonky bits and all

Will other people notice these issues if I wore it? Perhaps not. Although another knitter may wonder what happened there if they looked close enough. While I love the color and I love the design, whenever I look at it, I don’t love what it represents.

I was determined to create during a time that should’ve been devoted to rest and recovery. It wasn’t limited to knitting- I even tried one-arm dyeing! I carefully followed all my restrictions and thought I was being so smart! Look at me. Recovering from surgery and here I am, still dyeing. This officially makes me bad ass rock star dyer. Sure, I dyed some lovely yarn, but was it really worth it? I was miserable throughout the process.

At my eight-week post op appointment my doctor assessed my pain, the (lack of) movement of my joint and diagnosed me with frozen shoulder: adhesive capsulitis. AKA: stiff joint. This is a common side effect my doctor said, it’s not your fault, my husband said. But my physical therapist had grilled into me, before and after surgery, that my goal was to avoid this very diagnosis. My recovery period extended from six months to 1-2 years.

This post operative complication was not caused by knitting a sweater. But knitting sure didn’t do what it had done in the past: heal me emotionally. It tapped into the negative flipside of why I knit: to feel productive, to “do” even at rest. Production equals worth.

There’s a beauty to rock bottom. After this new diagnosis and a long therapeutic cry, I found my calm center, and made two important decisions. First: new physical therapist.  My new treatment strategy addressed my pain first, mobility second. What a difference that made! My new therapist spent hours simply working through the baseball sized knots in all my muscles. Finally, some pain relief! I felt hope. Second: stop doing. During my rest periods, I rested.

A shoulder is a complicated, stubborn, joint that heals on its own schedule – not mine.

I didn’t start another knit project until my pain was under control. With a clear understanding that this wasn’t a goal to complete – this was a process to enjoy.  I knit slowly. I knit relaxed. The weight of sadness slowly lifted. I felt physical progress. Slow, careful, progress.

A few details about the yarn:

Always good when the mushroom is larger than your head

For this sweater I used a superwash fingering weight wool, dyed with my favorite polypore, Phaeolus schweinitzii. (I wrote about this polypore here and here.) It was a very fresh, very large mushroom that I picked on Christmas Eve. The holiday bustle left no time for immediate dyeing, so I did something a little different: I chopped it up and it soaked in water for several days. I don’t know if that contributed to this color, or if my bath happened to be intense from a large ratio of very fresh mushroom to yarn. Either way, that orange color stunned me (skeins on the right). As I continued to add skeins (superwash DK weight wool) the color shifted to in-your-face yellow (skeins on the left).

Yarn dyed with Phaeolus schweinitzii

A few notes about the sweater:

For the colorwork I held two strands of undyed mohair. I’m always a fan of high contrast in my knits and I’m a sucker for yellow and white. Once I could physically try it on, I realized my icord cast on was too tight. I carefully tinked it out and replaced it with a simple loose bind off. It’s a little shorter than planned since a massive knot in my bicep prevented me from trying it on as I knit. I do have leftover yarn to add length. Perhaps someday I will. There’s always time to mend previous mistakes.

First fit test after arm could finally fit through sleeve!

9 Comments

  1. Extract from Turkey tail polypore is being made into a supplement that a few women i know are using to fight cancer along with their doctor’s protocol.

  2. The jumper looks gorgeous and I like its line very much.
    I’m sorry that it got associated to such an unpleasant time. I hope that by wearing it’ll grow out of it and you will be able to fully enjoy its beauty.
    The shades of your natural dye are very pretty.
    I’m tempted to knit one too 🙂
    Merry Christmas!

  3. Oh Dear Myra! You are a rockstar, albeit a determined & stubborn one! I’m so glad you are finally getting to a better place with the shoulder. Shoulder issues are a b***ch. I love the new blog name. And I love the dye videos you and your Mom (and brother I think) are making. Perhaps you are participating in the International Fungi & Fiber Symposium happening up in Port Townsend, WA in 2022?!

  4. I had a similar problem last year after doing a lot of knitting and crochet. My circumstances changed and I did nit knit ir crochet for about ten months. The pain went away completely and I am able to now knit and crochet quite comfortably. Consider that your shoulder may need complete rest

  5. I feel/felt, your pain! I too had this happen to me but I left it so long that the calcium deposit had almost cut entirely through the tendon under my rotator cuff. I had a brilliant surgeon and although recovery was slow (and painful) I was back to full fitness after 9 to 12 months. So…..be good to yourself, rest up when told! lol. But you will get there. I absolutely LOVE your jumper and am blown away by the colours you achieved too. Thank you for sharing.

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