-Originally appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Black Purl Magazine

Katrina Shawl by you.


I have always crafted for comfort as much as for the pleasure of watching something take shape between my hands.  I am somewhat infamous for slipping projects into my purse, watching movies with the lights on, stitching between words and chores, and at times, stretching the spaces between them to questionable distances.  So, it came as no surprise to anyone that when hurricane Katrina hit I had a hook in my hand. I clutched it tightly in the days that followed. 

     There was a frantic spinning of tales in the hurricane’s aftermath.  There were tales of heroes and damsels in distress; tragedies abounded and tall tales suddenly became plausible in the topsy-turvy landscape.  A flood of images broke across the television screen in waves as everyone scrambled to understand what had transpired and each of us tried to identify Katrina’s character in our own story.

   A casual comment my husband made on the phone to a relative revealed her character in my story long before we knew the status of our home. “Tenia que ser la Katrina” (it had to be Katrina) he said, and I saw her in a flash.  She was “La Catrina,” turn-of-the -century Mexican graphic artist Jose Guadalupe Posada’s infamous image of a fashionable lady skeleton who even in death refuses to give up her extravagant sense of style or “joie de vivre”. She embodies a sense of exuberant excess and elegant decay, a masterpiece in the art of political satire, which it struck me, are also among the qualities for which New Orleans is both known and loved.  La Catrina would love New Orleans, I thought.  I could just see her wading through the French Quarter in her oversized plumed hat; Mardi gras beads draped round her neck, swinging her hips to some zydeco, following the scent of some steamy gumbo, completely oblivious to the havoc wreaked with her every step. I saw the curls in the plumes in her hat as miniature hurricane winds, spinning the world around her. I saw the shawl fashionably draped over her arms and accentuating her diminutive waist as a stream of water flowing from the fringe and trailing behind her.  I saw her face peering over the crescent city, spindly fingers grasping the edges of a crescent moon, holding it up for size, contemplating the landscape as her newest accessory.

     Then, in a leap of imagination that a fellow crafter will surely understand: I knew that she had to be knit.  No, crocheted… in any case, a lacy stole had to be made:  a prayer shawl, a rebozo, a mantilla for mourning.  I began charting the K(C)atrina image for the central panel of the shawl in filet crochet.  Rather than try to replicate Posada’s image, I created my own version to crochet with accentuated hurricane swirls coming out of her hat.  I also added some big earrings, (never minding that skeletons don’t have ears) and placed a crescent moon between her long fingers, held up below her chin. 

    I wanted a wavy stitch for the body of the shawl on either side of the K(C)atrina, reminiscent of the flowing waters that engulfed the city.  After looking at various knit and crochet patterns, I settled on a traditional Shetland lace pattern “print o’the wave” from Rae Compton’s now out of print: “Traditional Knitting”, which I came across at the local library.  “Sorry, evacuees can’t check out books” I was told. Never mind, I had a notebook and pencil.  For the yarn I chose a lace weight Alpaca blend of black with subtle hints of blue and green. It arrived at our safe house in Baton Rouge, a day before we headed north.

     I literally knit and crocheted for thousands of miles as we journeyed hither and thence in the hurricane’s aftermath.  Once reunited with my stash, I incorporated a strand of black thread with floating black sequins into Catrina’s hat and at the join between the triangular edging and the body of the shawl.   The sequined thread was a gift from a retired New York fashion designer trying to pair down her stash: a petite woman with long, white hair flipped at the ends and subtly teased at the top.  Her hair served as a dramatic contrast to her preferred outfit: a black mini-dress over lace stockings. She apologized for only having shades of black to choose from in her yarn stash and enthusiastically recommended I try knitting with sequins. Her own home had suffered from severe flood damage the year before, bringing her to realize the futility of hoarding a large stash.  After more than two years had passed, the time was right for knitting with sequins. The thread was the perfect complement to the shawl.

    And now, nearly a year after that fateful August day, the shawl is finished, or nearly so.  I am still contemplating some crocheted flowers for the hat, three magnolias perhaps, for the three southern states Katrina poured through. Small crocheted skulls line either end of the stole.  The letters spelling out La Katrina are suspended within the triangular points along one side.  The shawl is riddled with imperfections, a reflection of my mottled emotions, a year’s worth of picking up and putting down the needles between seeking new beginnings and cherishing enduring threads from the past.  As I set down my hook and look up from the shawl draped over my shoulders and spilling into my lap, listening to survivors stories on NPR, the story I have woven for myself becomes transparent and fades… but the comfort of the shawl remains.