This weekend, I taught a class on "Fixing Mistakes," and was gratified to see several new-ish and/or returning knitters becoming much more confident about their knitting abilities. I truly find that rewarding – as you may have gathered, knitting has been a passion of mine for over 20 years, and I love to expand other knitters’ horizons.
These knitters had lots of questions, which was great. And I found myself saying various extremely wise and sage things that I have learned in my personal knitting experiences – sometimes the hard way — and that I have said time and again to many knitters, in my 4 years of teaching.
So, I thought — why not write ‘em down?
Well, for one thing, I suspect that most, if not all, of the following can be boiled down into that one most famous of Elizabeth Zimmerman sayings,
"You are the boss of your own knitting,"
but then again, some of us aren’t that smart, and we have had to learn and re-learn at least a few of these things explicitly, and sometimes more than once (#7b and #8 in particular).
Tess’ Top Ten List of Basic Knitting Advice
1. Don’t be intimidated.
It’s just yarn, and needles. It may even be expensive yarn, but it’s still just yarn. Those little needles can’t do a thing on their own, without you helping. And at rock bottom, the act of knitting is just pulling loops through other loops. It’s not rocket science, and it’s not exactly hard — but it does take practice.
I once had a student who came to a learn-to-knit class with a pair of needles and some nice, expen$ive yarn. I don’t remember if it was cashmere, or what, but it was intended to be a scarf for her man for Xmas. She really struggled through the first half of the class, and I thought maybe the yarn was hard to work with. So, I finally handed her a ball of whatever yarn from my bag and suggested she try using it instead. After that, she was like a house on fuego. I was mentally patting myself on the back for having recognized and solved what I thought was the problem — until after class when she came up to me, handed me the ball of yarn back, and said, "Thanks. Once I didn’t care about the yarn, it was easy."
But — horrors — what if you do something wrong?? EZ famously pointed out that almost everything a beginner does “wrong” at first turns into a technique later on. I will add that this goes back to the fact that it’s just loops of yarn, and really there’re only so many things you can do with a loop of yarn — therefore, we creative knitters through the years have found ways to make use of almost all of ‘em.
You picked up an extra loop of yarn and now you have a hole? Lace knitting! or at least a buttonhole.
Also, remember that knitting is mostly a non-destructive craft. If something really does go horribly wrong, you can almost always rip it out and re-do it.
2. Knitting is not a competitive sport.
Especially in beginner knitting classes, sometimes there is a person who, about halfway through the class, will start looking around at how everyone else is doing, and comparing her / his own performance to the others. Almost always, this person can find someone else in the class who is knitting "better," or faster, or purling already, or whatever.
One thing is for sure: there’s always going to be someone better than you, and someone worse than you. (Unless you’re the Tiger Woods of knitting, or something.) I’ve seen beginners absolutely thrilled with their first scarf, containing mistakes that were obvious to me – but what does that matter? As long as your knitting makes you happy, who cares how long it takes you or whether someone else got it done faster?
3. Be patient with yourself.
Progress comes with practice, and experience. Knitting is a lot like cooking or sewing: you learn bit by bit, and usually there are some mistakes made along the way. You are not likely to turn out the equivalent of a Cordon Bleu feast or a designer gown with your first project – but rarely has anyone else. Knitting well is a skill that was prized in days gone by for a reason: it’s something that has to be earned, usually by experience. And you know what experience is:
"Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted."
~~ Dan Stanford
You are learning a brand new skill, with a whole new vocabulary and its own set of rules and exceptions. Probably the last time you learned a new skill involving your hands was typing, and for most people that was a good long time ago.
When my students wail some version of, “I can’t do this!” I always make them add a “YET” onto their statement. “I can’t do this yet!” is a lot different from “I can’t do this!”
4. Tight knitting is not happy knitting.
As adults, we expect instant perfection – and if it’s not immediately perfect, we may just try harder. Unfortunately, beginners often think that their first few rows look kind of crappy, and think, "If I just knit a little tighter, it’ll look better."
For goodness’ sake, it’s your FIRST THREE ROWS. Of course they aren’t perfect.
However: it’s not that your knitting is loose, it’s that your knitting is inconsistent. Here’s the good news, or the bad news, depending on your viewpoint: tight knitting can be every bit as inconsistent as loose knitting.
Consistency comes with practice, my friend, and practice alone. Fortunately, by the time you’ve done about your hundredth stitch or so, your consistency will have settled down quite a bit. It really doesn’t take long. It may get a little crazy again when you try purling, but stay calm and continue practicing, and do not develop a death grip on your needles or your yarn (yes, you control freaks, I’m talkin’ to YOU). Either habit will eventually cause you hand and/or arm pain.
And tugging on every stitch to tighten it up will not only slow you waaaaay down, it actually introduces another step which INCREASES the chances of inconsistency. Think about this: what happens when don’t tug on it exactly the same way every time, or worse, you completely forget to tug on a stitch? Don’t tell me that’ll never happen.
As plain as I can make it: don’t fret about your work being "too loose", and don’t try to tighten it up. The size of the stitches and the looseness or firmness of the work is meant to be controlled with needle size, not with our susceptible little muscles and tendons.
5. Don’t practice on your project.
When you’ve done a couple of inches of ribbing and you’re about to start on that funky new stitch pattern – do yourself and me a favor. Get out some scrap yarn and practice that stitch somewhere OTHER THAN ON YOUR PROJECT. Yes, I know it is "wasted effort" to spend your knitting time on a useless piece of practice knitting. (Of course, if that’s how you feel, then you probably didn’t make a gauge swatch, either, and I am not responsible for the outcome of that decision, either.)
Tell you what: tell me again what a waste it is to practice, after you’ve fouled up and had to start over for the 4th time, and you hate the stitch pattern now, and your yarn looks like complete crap because it’s been ripped out so many times, plus it got all tangled on the 3rd time so you finally had to cut it to get the knots out, and you’ve thrown the pattern in the trash, and you’ve stuffed what’s left of the yarn in the back of the closet.
6. Don’t cheap out.
When you start a new project, especially as a beginner, it is tempting to think, “I’ll just buy this inexpensive yarn. I am not sure I can do this very well yet, and so I should not spend too much money on my materials or tools.”
I have made this mistake more than a few times, and I finally learned this cold, hard truth: if we end up looking back with regret on our choice of materials, we are far more likely to be thinking, “I wish I had sprung for something better,” than “I should have gotten something not quite so nice.” Rarely are we disappointed with having chosen the best we can manage.
As for tools, some people are quite happy with anything that works, while others may require a certain brand of needles or sterling-silver stitch markers. The former are probably “product” people who are more focused on the finished item; the latter are probably “process” people who immerse themselves in the doing. You are probably geared more towards one than the other, and neither is wrong. But if you are a process person who tries to “make do” without knitting luxuries, you may not enjoy your knitting experience as much.
7a. Admire your progress.
It is important to stop and admire your work on a regular basis. Pat yourself on the back a bit. Look at your work and think, “WOW, I am really doing a great job here!” (It’s okay: no one will know you are thinking this. They will think you are just scrutinizing your work for errors.*)
When looking at your work doesn’t make you happy, though, then it’s time to reevaluate. If you think instead, “I really don’t like what I’m getting here”, then admit it and stop spending valuable knitting time on it. Honestly assess what’s wrong, and change it or fix it if possible. (HINT: It’s almost always possible.)
*P.S. When you are done admiring, it is important to check for errors also. If you find one, see the next section.
7b. Truth is, it will not magically get any better when there are several more inches of it.
If you just don’t like doing the stitch pattern, or you have discovered the yarn splits, it is probably a doomed project – and it ought to be, because why should you spend time knitting something you really don’t like? Overall, knitting is something we do for fun nowadays, not because we desperately need socks. And most of us do not have so much leisure time that we can afford to waste it on something un-fun.
If your great new idea isn’t so hot in reality, best to admit that now and tinker with it, than to knit a whole garment and then stuff it in the closet or give it away in disappointment.
8a. Know thyself. Fix mistakes you can’t live with, and keep your mouth firmly shut about the ones you don’t fix.
Figure out your level of mistake tolerance, and stick to it. I have worked mine out over 20+ years of knitting experience and life experience, and it is something like this:
Anything Noticeable Must Be Fixed, and No More Than Two I-Wish-I’d-Done-That-Differently’s Allowed Per Garment.
I know I can live with a couple of minor disappointments, but by the time I make that third bad decision, it’s time to start over, or I will never be happy with the finished item.
I do believe there are some mistakes that truly don’t need fixing. Perhaps the yarn is so fuzzy it completely obscures the fact that you purled when you should have knit. Only you will ever know – unless you point it out to everyone.
And pointing out your own mistakes is not really a graceful way to accept a compliment: "What a lovely sweater!” “Oh, well, but look at this part HERE.”
Much better to say, “Thank you for noticing; I’m proud of my work.” (If you can’t manage that with a straight face, you can at least say, "It was a lot of work," or maybe "It was a challenge.")
8b. Don’t talk yourself out of fixing something that you know you really should fix.
If you know how to fix it, but it will be a lot of tedious work that you just can’t face right now, put it aside (with a note if necessary) and tackle it when you are fresh.
If you are just unsure how to go about it, get help – from a professional if need be. You will be happier with the result, and you will definitely learn something.
9. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In knitting, there are usually several ways to obtain the same (or very similar) results. Find a way that works for you. To again paraphrase the great EZ: When someone tells you that you are doing it “wrong”, you may let her (or him) show you another method, and then adopt it if and only if you prefer it.
Frankly, there aren’t a whole lot of things you can do completely wrong in knitting. In this sense, again, knitting is a lot like cooking. For example, there are many different ways to chop an onion – and most of them give acceptable results for your average, say, meatloaf recipe. However, if you only cut the onion into quarters, or just chuck the onion in your meatloaf whole, people will probably notice. So…
10. There’s always room for improvement.
The other side of this coin is, there are usually new or different ways of doing things that you can learn to improve your knitting. As a start – literally! - there are dozens of ways to cast on stitches. How many do you know? If you’re a beginner, just one or two is probably all, but after all these years I know at least a dozen off the top of my head. None are truly all-purpose, and some are better for certain applications than others.
It’s a good idea to try to learn something new on a regular basis. When you come up against something you don’t know how to do, consult a reference book or a knowledgeable acquaintance and check out the standard ways of achieving the result – then you can improvise on that if need be.
Also, I hate to have to say it, but it has to be said. The plethora of new magazines & books that are available, together with the ease of self-publishing online, means there are a lot of, shall we say, less than stellar patterns available to the modern knitter. Some are just poorly written; some use non-standard terminology in an effort to be "original" or something; some are just plain incorrect; some are complete and utter lies. Magazine & book publishing is a business, after all, and business people make decisions based on making money, not on what happens to the poor knitter.
And, even with the best of intentions, pattern writers are human, and humans have been known to make mistakes.
Thus, it’s best not to have to rely completely on written directions: which can be unclear or a poor choice of technique at best, and downright wrong at worst. Instead, gain the know-how to evaluate the directions for yourself, and make your own choices.