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I never learned how to "tink" properly. In fact, I didn't even know there was such a thing until my co-worker Diana brought me her messed-up knitting one day at lunch and asked me to tink it for her.

"Tink" is "knit" spelled backward, and that is exactly what tinking is: a method of knitting backward to correct mistakes. I had repaired Diana's dropped stitches before, but not by proper tinking.

Over the years, I'd developed my own way to correct mistakes, a soul-crushing process of removing each stitch from the left needle, pulling it out and moving it over to the right.

I would have gone on like that indefinitely if not for the intervention of my mother one Christmas Day.

My father had gone out for something, probably the newspaper, and Mom was in the kitchen getting the turkey going. Their apartment already had the glow of a memory about it in the fading afternoon. Our presents were all unwrapped and stacked neatly back beneath the tree. Dad had collected the wrapping paper and tossed it down the chute.

I should have been helping Mom in the kitchen, but she had told me to sit and relax. The occasion was perfect to cast on for a chunky cowl like the ones I had seen all the cool kids wearing when I was out Christmas shopping. I figured I could make it myself, better and with more hipster cred.

It wasn't hard to find a cowl pattern on Ravelry, the social network for knitters. "Gap-tastic," it was called, and it had been knit by more than 5,000 people already. The instructions barely even qualified as a pattern: Cast on, join, then knit one stitch, purl one stitch until done.

After knitting a few rows, I realized I'd made a critical mistake right out of the gate. I'd failed to make the join.

Frustrated, I swore at the marled mystery yarn in my hands as if it had caused the problem. My aunt, who had been recovering from a recent wool-buying bender at Thanksgiving, had given it to me.

Those afflicted with the knitting bug will tell you that the unnecessary purchasing and stockpiling of yarn should be recognized as a full-blown addiction. I had taken home a huge bag stuffed with her shame instead of a container of leftover turkey that day, and on Christmas morning a quick dig through it revealed the perfect wool for the cowl job.

My mother taught me to knit when she was recruited to assist with the local 4-H Club, a youth group for rural kids. "Learn to do by doing," is the club's slogan, and I learned many valuable skills at 4-H. My best memories, though, are of the knitting program. Since Mom had cheated a bit and taught me the basics beforehand, I had an early advantage in our sessions. It kept me out of her hair during meetings, and she could send me in to assist if the rest of her troops needed help.

Although I had learned to knit when I was little, I hadn't been a knitter for years – until last summer, when it became a soothing therapy. I had completely unravelled after 12 weeks of hard work in a night-school writing class. I didn't have another word to set down on paper. But then, as luck would have it, I read an interview with author Chuck Palahniuk in ShortList magazine.

"My working day involves jotting down ideas while doing a seemingly mindless physical task," Palahniuk said. "Then, when I'm exhausted, I'll sit down and start writing. Today I stacked firewood. That kind of exercise seems to occupy a certain part of my mind, allowing another part to be freed up for thinking about stories."

Immediately, I went to the closet and rummaged through hoards of needles and wool. Palahniuk's stacking wood would be my knitting. I began click-clacking away on a scarf, occupying a certain part of my mind, like Palahniuk said. Three pairs of fingerless gloves and two-and-a-half scarves later, I opened the lid of my laptop and wrote something. Now, I pick up a knitting project any time I feel stressed.

That Christmas Day, my profanity drew the attention of my mother, who emerged from the kitchen and took a seat near me. For a few minutes, she quietly observed my toil. When she could bear it no longer she asked, "Do you want me to teach you how to knit backward?"

Of course I did. I watched my mother's hands move confidently, uncreating my stitches. Her hands unknitted, unpurled.

Glancing up at me, she said: "Do you see what I'm doing?"

I panicked. I didn't see what she was doing! I felt an old distress left over from all the times she had tried to teach me her own favourite craft, crochet. But then I did see what she was doing, and after a couple of minutes I could do it, too.

Today, young women are turning to the Internet to learn such skills, since many in the generation of mothers before us have cast off traditional roles. I am grateful to have received these gifts not from YouTube or the knitting social network, but handed down from mother to daughter, carrying on a long lineage of handiwork.

Sometimes it even goes the other way. On Christmas Day, we both learned something new. My mom had never heard the word "tink."

Leslie Sinclair lives in Toronto.

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