Updated: Feb 25
Growing up in the 1970s, TV was a fixture in our house and one of the shows I remember most from my childhood is "Mr Roger's Neighborhood", which ran on public television for a stunning 905 episodes spanning five decades. The first episode aired 53 years ago on Feb 19, 1968 and was hosted by the slow-speaking, kindly Fred Rogers who was deeply committed to reaching children on their level and helping them grow both cognitively and emotionally. For many of us growing up during the decades of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Mr Rogers was a loving, supportive presence in our little lives, teaching us about how marbles are made, or singing about feeling mad, or ushering us into the "Land of Make-believe" to discuss important themes such as making new friends or dealing with grief.
If you've watched an episode (and, really, who of us hasn't?), you'll see Mr Rogers familiar opening ritual of walking onto the show and changing out of his suitcoat into a casual cardigan sweater. I recently read "The Good Neighbor: the life and work of Fred Rogers" by Maxwell King and learned that Mr Rogers was an avid student of child development, often stopping production of the show to check in with his mentor in child development, Margaret McFarland, and make sure that a phrase or explanation was not only suitable for children, but was the best possible way to present a topic to children. He would work over scripts tirelessly to make sure every word and phrase was perfect and could not confuse a child or cause them anxiety. He knew small children thrive on consistency and clear signals, so his daily change from his street clothes to his comfy cardigan while singing "It's a Beautiful Day in the neighborhood" helped children visually transition to the beginning of the show each day.
His cardigans are an iconic part of many American childhoods and I was delighted to learn that his mother, Nancy McFee Rogers, hand knit the cardigans he wore on the show. Each December, she would gift him a new cardigan she had made the previous year, a custom she maintained for six decades. If Mr Rogers kindly presence weren't enough to endear him to me as a child, the knowledge that handcraft was literally on display in each and every one of those 905 episodes made me fall in love with him all over again as an adult.
Because Mr Rogers, despite his slow and methodical speaking style, was a very sharp and intelligent man. The fact that each episode begin with him changing into a garment his mother had lovingly made for him by hand--with all the unqiueness and variation that things made by hand have--would not have been lost on him. It was in learning about his hand knit sweaters, that I was surprised to discover that my very first exposure to handcraft--and not only me, but millions of children--was most likely the sweater that Mrs Rogers had made for her son.
Many of us are inspired by the life and work of Mr Rogers, as well we should be, but I came to be inspired by the quiet work of his mother, Nancy, sitting and knitting those cardigans each fall, knowing that they would be seen by millions of children. I would have loved to go with her to the yarn shop to see which crayon box color she would choose that year, chat with her about which cable pattern was best alongside the obligatory zipper (faster than buttons for filming) and find out if she knit the sleeves in the round or flat.
It's often the way with makers that we stay quietly in the background as our creations go out into the world to be used and appreciated by others, yet Nancy McFee Rogers reminds me that the backstage work of our hands has real power in the world. It may seem like a small thing to embroider a handkerchief or cross stitch a table mat or knit a sweater, but these acts of beauty have the potential to transform the lives of others around us.