Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

There are two knitting questions that I get asked on a regular basis which I will not answer.  Just don’t even try.

Not that I don’t know the answer, or I don’t have an opinion.  It’s just that I have found that giving an answer usually leads me into more trouble.

Question #1:

What should I knit?

I used to actually try to answer this question.  And it was very hard for me to do.  But now, well — if you don’t know, honey, I’m not gonna tell you.  Not that I am trying to keep a big ol’ secret, or anything.  But let’s think about this for a minute —

First of all — if I really, really were to tell you what to knit, you can bet money it would be something in MOHAIR, either green or pink.  Often, that leaves you unhappy with my suggestion, and me annoyed because you keep wanting blue and purple cotton.  It’s basically a lose-lose.  Let’s just not go there, OK?

But seriously — and more importantly — answering this question runs counter to my religion strongly held personal belief — which is that

your knitting is an expression of your personal taste and creativity.

(And that, incidentally, is why you want the blue cotton instead of the green MOHAIR.) 

So, to me, this means that I cannot answer that question for you, and I should not try.  You really have to answer it for yourself. 

This is hard for many people, I think, because our society does not encourage us to think in terms of what we can create out of raw materials and our own minds and skills.  Usually the Madison Avenue approach is to give us so many choices ready-made on the shelf, surely one of them is right for you, at the low, low price of only $29.95.  Even the craft stores seem to have more pre-packaged kits in boxes than they used to.  Creativity, it seems, is not to be encouraged.

So bucking that trend isn’t easy, but c’mon.  You’re a knitter.  I know you have it in you.

Anyway, on a practical level, it’s you who will be spending a lot of time with this proposed project, not me.  If it’s a bad choice, then I have doomed you to hours of boredom, frustration and/or dislike.  (Plus, you won’t enjoy the knitting project, either.)  And I don’t want that on my conscience!

So, after figuring out that people don’t really want to be led over to the green MOHAIR section, I tried to figure out — what is it that people are really asking when they ask this question?

My observation is that most of the time, people ask this question when they are in search of inspiration.  And inspiration comes from many sources.

Sometimes, this question is asked by knitters who are more into knitting for the friendship and social network than the actual knitted items.  They generally knit whatever everyone else in the group is knitting, and that is their source of inspiration.  They thrive on connecting with other knitters through their projects.  So, what they really want to know is:  What are you knitting?  Who is it for?  Is it fun?  Do you like it?  And we "ooh" and "aah" at each other’s yarn.  And if they like the person, or the answers, maybe they will knit it, too.

This whole "pack mentality" idea is actually fairly alien to me.  I knit for close to 15 years — almost two-thirds of my knitting life — without ever knowing a single other knitter.  I didn’t even know of another knitter, except my sister in Chicago, and my Aunt Mary — both pretty far away, in terms of distance and ages.

And this may come as a shock to you, but fifteen or twenty years ago, yarn shops were not places to congregate and socialize.  They were more like fabric stores:  you went in, you chose your fabric/yarn and your pattern, you went home and did the best you could.  Maybe you eventually wore it out of the house, and maybe you didn’t.  You didn’t lug your sewing machine and fabric back to the store to ask a question, or to sit down and sew a while with other sewers.  Nor did you do it with your knitting.

However, this alone-ness in my knitting never really bothered me.  I am one of the unfortunate GenX-ers. Between the two huge demographics of (1) the Baby Boomers and (2) Generation Y (their kids), no one ever notices me and my peers. We are used to being alone, my generation.  If you don’t believe me about that Boomer – GenX – Gen Y bit, think about this:  I have only ever met two — count ’em, two — other people who were exactly my own age, and who also knit.  I haven’t kept an exact count, but I know there aren’t a whole lot that are within +/- 3 years of my age.  And I know a LOT of knitters.

Only since I moved to Oregon, eight years ago, have I had friends who also knit — although I taught most of ’em at least a thing or two, so maybe it is more fair to say that I dragged ’em down to my level.  But that’s not to say I can’t grasp the wonderfulness of having other knitters around.  When I first walked into a meeting of the local knitting guild, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.  A whole room full of people who knew what I meant when I said, "Cast on"!  Can you imagine?!  When I met Sandi it was like giving a drink of water to a wanderer in the desert — finally, someone else who speaks my language and knows the entire back issue collection of Vogue Knitting better than I do!  And I think I’d go nuts without The Posse:  Rock Star, The Pats, and Sheryl are some very fabulous ladies whom I am privileged to know.

But, these are all fairly recent developments, in terms of my whole entire knitting life.

So:  one reason I have trouble with this version of the question is that I’ve been pretty darned used to just knitting what I want to knit — and not consulting, nor being consulted.  This is still kind of a new paradigm for me.  (Unfortunately, this also means I don’t always "ooh" and "aah" appropriately in modern-day group knitting situations.  Don’t take it personally — I just wasn’t properly socialized as a puppy.)

Another reason is, usually my knitting is too hard to explain in a casual social encounter.  Often it’s something I’m designing, or something I’ve changed drastically, or something I’m knitting for research, etc etc.  It would be like asking Dali what he’s painting today.  I’m not sure even he knew.  Try explaining to someone that you’re currently knitting every short row heel you can find on the internet, and watch their eyes glaze over.

Other times, the question is asked by bored knitters.  They are looking for something new and exciting to do.  Perhaps they go take a stroll around the LYS and don’t see anything that grabs them.

Or, sometimes the knitter is — dare I say it? — grumpy.  Unfortunately, I am she is in no mood to be inspired by anything, and after looking at everything in the store — twice — she leaves empty-handed (or at least not with any good yarn) and still uninspired, and probably a little more grumpy.

Oh, I’ve done it myself.  I know the feeling, sisters.

Admit it, the stuff’s like candy — or maybe crystal meth.  Take a hit, you’ll feel better.  But when you can’t find at least a temporary solution to your [knitting / hormonal / other fill-in-the-blank ________ ] funk in the yarn store, I’m not sure there’s anyone who can help you.

Heck, half the time, I’m working on my own funk anyway and that’s why I’m in the shop.  (If I weren’t in a funk, I’d be home, knitting.)  So, instead of pretending we’re looking for a new knitting project — maybe we can play "put-away-the-knitting-and-go-drinking" instead.  Or how about a game of "hit-the-bead-shops"?

The third major group of people who ask what they should knit are the ones who have a right to:  the beginners.  They don’t even know what it is possible to knit.  I know, I know, it’s hard to believe — but they don’t know wool from cotton!  they don’t know what railroad is!!  they’ve never even heard of felting!!!

Unfortunately, it’s just as hard to answer the question for them.  They have so little concept of the vastness of the possibilities, they just look confused and say, "Maybe a simple scarf?"  And you want to grab them by the neck and say, "Are you mad?  what about lace??  what about cables??  what about some beads???"

To these new victims converts knitters, I usually suggest they do some reading.  Take a look through a few books at the LYS or the library; take a stroll online, and get an idea of what is out there.

Two things to keep in mind:  keep an eye on the skill levels required — don’t set your sights impossibly high.  And find something that you’d really love to have — i.e. don’t knit yourself a hat, if you never wear hats.  (The one exception I regularly allow is, knitting a baby sweater with no baby in sight:  for those who want to knit a sweater, but find an adult size is too much of a commitment.)

But once a new knitter gets the idea that they can knit anything they want to, usually this is enough to get them off and running.

Question #2:  well, you’ll have to wait for that one…  OK, here it is.


  4 comments for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

  1. sandy elardo
    05/21/2008 at 8:31 PM

    Today at work a guy asked me what I was knitting and I showed him. He said that his wife was knitting some socks. I used to work with her and I know that she is about your age. I think she was born in 1970. So there is at least one other Gen X knitter to add to you file.

    P.S. What IS a railroad?

  2. 05/21/2008 at 9:41 PM

    Welllll… OK. Though I was born in 1969. 🙂

    Railroad yarn: the kind with two little strands on either edge and “flags” in between them every inch or so. Very popular novelty yarn.

    Thanks for reading! Remember no class this Friday.

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