13 November 2018

Janet Johnson Stephens 1931-2018

Jan Stephens (7 December 1931 - 22 September 2018) was my friend and mentor. I was asked to speak at her memorial service last Saturday, 10 November, which was also Skacel's day to create 10,000 new knitters. Below is a version of my comments.

Knitting is about turning something that is intangible — love — into something tangible. You can feel love, but you can't see it. It isn't as if you can sit love on a table in good light, take a picture of it, and post it on Instagram. When we knit a scarf for the child going off to college — in the school colors, of course — or an heirloom baby blanket for that precious new arrival, or a chemo hat for a stranger going through one of the toughest years of his or her life, we are turning love into something that can be seen. We are saying, "You are loved. You are important to someone. You are cared about."

Jan loved two things — people and knitting. It isn't surprising, as the one followed logically from the other.

There are several people who couldn't attend today to honor Jan. I sent out a few e-mail requests for stories. Here are some of the replies.

Possibly Jan's best friend in the area was Nancy Barke. Nancy mentioned how Jan had a great memory for people and names. They would attend an event together. On the way home, Jan would say, "Did you meet so-and-so?"  Jan would know this person's name, how many children she had, what she did for a living, and all sorts of things. Nancy would be saying, "Who was that? Was she the one in the plaid skirt?" As Nancy wrote of Jan, "She never forgot anybody." As her daughters Jane and Karen have already mentioned, Jan knew people everywhere she went. You could walk through an airport on the other side of the country, and Jan knew somebody! Knitting gave Jan an easy way to meet people.

I don't remember when I met Jan. I am guessing it was at an Atlanta Knitting Guild meeting? Freida mentioned walking into an Atlanta Knitting Guild meeting for the first time and being overwhelmed by all the people. Jan, of course, welcomed Freida and invited her to sit down next to her. I got to know Jan best through North Georgia Knitting Guild. Jan was an enthusiastic charter member when our guild was founded in the summer of 2007. We had next to no money. We couldn't afford to pay speakers. I looked back at my records. Jan gave three programs that first year. She had helped found the knitting guild in Cleveland. She gave generously of her skills so that North Georgia Knitting Guild could get up and going.

Jan supported more than just North Georgia Knitting Guild. She supported knitting in general whole-heartedly. She was involved with The Knitting Guild Association from early on. She wrote articles and patterns for Cast On magazine. She taught at shows.

Jan had a love of knitting history, of the humanity of it. She didn't just want to know how to replicate historic knitting. She wanted to know why someone had made it. When Center for Knit and Crochet started in 2014, Jan was a charter member. She even listened in on the annual meeting conference call. She asked questions and cheered us on. Jan made a donation of the presentation she had written about the history of knitting. She donated slides she had taken herself on travels to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Smithsonian, Colonial Williamsburg, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada, among others.

I asked Beth Brown-Reinsel to recount for me a story I had heard Jan tell. Beth was doing research, and Jan suggested Beth contact the American History Museum in Washington, D.C. Beth did. Jan wanted to come along. When they arrived, they discovered the Smithsonian had rules about who could and couldn't go behind the scenes. Basically, Beth and Jan spent the day pretending Jan was Beth's research assistant. As Beth wrote," I remember we were amazed at the incredibly beautiful christening dress, and the horribly tacky and worn baby bootie —  both ends of the spectrum!" That would have been like Jan to appreciate all of it, the masterpieces as well as the novice projects.

Jan mentored others. She was a mentor to Beth, when Beth joined The Knitting Guild Association Designer Group. And she was a mentor to me.

My big chance to get to know Jan better was when we attended The Knitting Guild Association show in Concord, North Carolina in October 2013. I don't remember who approached whom. Somehow, we figured out we were both attending and decided to share a hotel room. I happily agreed to do the driving. By that point, Jan's health was already interfering in some of the things she wanted to do. She rented a scooter for the weekend, so she could get around the spacious convention facility. I didn't realize I would be Jan's minion for the weekend. Remember, she knew everybody. I knew that it was going to be an important weekend for me, but I didn't realize how important. As I accompanied her, Jan introduced me to many people who are important in our industry. At the Saturday evening banquet. Penny Sitler presented Jan with an honorary lifetime membership in the Knitting Guild Association, to honor and thank Jan for her tireless work for the organization.

In addition to her contributions through writing and teaching, Jan created the correspondence course The Knitting Guild Association still uses to train and certify knitting judges. Jan loved competitions, probably because she wanted everyone to be a good knitters, newbies through masters. Nancy Barke recalled how Jan had encouraged (pestered?) her to submit items to the Georgia State Fair. Nancy kept saying no, she wouldn't win any ribbons and it was too much trouble. Finally, Jan bet a hot fudge sundae on the outcome. Not only did Nancy win several ribbons, she won best in show. Jan got her hot fudge sundae.

This makes me think maybe Jan had a fondness for sweets? On our drive up to North Carolina, Jan insisted we stop at Cracker Barrel for lunch. Not only did we eat Coca-Cola cake there, but Jan purchased a generous portion so we could continue to enjoy it throughout the weekend. I had never heard of Coca-Cola cake. Now, I will always associate it with Jan.

Getting back to the competitions — North Georgia Knitting Guild has an annual competition because Jan encouraged us. I've submitted items to our guild's competition, as well as Maryland Sheep and Wool and Southeastern Animal Fiber Fair. I almost certainly would not have done this if not for Jan's enthusiasm and encouragement.

I need to tell you the story of this grey scarf. As Jan and Bob downsized from their home, I've helped disperse items. When I attended their moving sale, Jan had a ginormous cedar chest. It looked like a movie prop where the villian would hide three or four bodies. Even the woman organizing the sale said she had never seen a cedar chest of that size. Quite a stash! Jan loved yarn. Penny Sitler remarked that Jan literally showed her love of yarn, as Jan decided in her 70s to get a yarn tattoo on her arm.

Bob called me over in the spring of this year, when Jan couldn't knit any longer. I gathered up the last of her needles and yarn. Some of it was used for Knit In Public Day, which gave us a chance to create new knitters. And then Bob called me in August to gather the last few items. That was the last time I saw Jan. We went in to visit. Her room was small. She didn't have any yarn or books or knitting needles. But she had all those shadowboxes of competition ribbons hanging up. It was as if her résumé was there on the wall, for anyone to read. I thanked Jan for being my mentor. And I showed her the grey scarf I had designed, and told her it would be in the next issue of Cast On magazine. When Bob and I talked after our visit, I asked if Jan's eyes had brightened just a little when I got out that scarf. Bob admitted that yes, maybe they had.

Debby L. Johnson wrote, "I will always remember her fondly and like to imagine Jan, now, knitting in heaven with fibers not yet imagined on earth!"

To close, let me tell you why I am wearing this little green stocking. This is a pattern Jan wrote. It is worked back and forth and then seamed, rather than working in the round and using a heel turn, so that even a newbie knitter can make it. That would be like Jan, to want to include everyone. There were even a couple of these still on the needles when I dispersed the last of her knitting supplies. Jan had a big stack of these when we went to North Carolina. As went went around the show, Jan kept introducing me to people and handing out these stocking ornaments. It took me about a day to figure out what she was doing. She suspected Concord was going to be her last show. Travel had become too difficult. There were lots of people she had worked with over the years whom she was not likely to see again. As she was handing out these ornaments, she was saying, "Goodbye. You have been my friend. I value you." She was making her affection and friendship visible, so we would always see it and know it is there.

Thank you, Jan, for all you did to make us better knitters and better people.


Elizabeth said...

I am sitting here crying. Thank you for such a beautiful tribute to Jan, Jolie. Jan was a very special lady, incredibly skilled, so warm and generous with her time and knowledge. She gave me her collection of (vintage) EZ newsletters from the 50's after hearing me rave about Elizabeth Zimmerman. I am sorry to have missed her memorial service. May her memory be eternal.

lynneUSA said...

I echo Elizabeth comments, is a moving and heartwarming piece.