Use the Damn Saw, Already

Photo credit: ronnieb from

Pop quiz:  What do "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People", Terry Pratchett and the New York Times all have in common?

I'm pretty sure you didn't guess this:  a knitting epiphany.

But with the confluence of those three items, I may have found the answer to one of the biggest knitting frustrations I've had in the past few years: 

Why don't I get any knitting done?

Up until this year, my excuse has been "teaching".  But I'm not doing so much of that these days.  So I've got to get to the bottom of the problem.  (Failing that, I've got to find a new excuse, or I'll have an awful lot of yarn to un-stash…)  


Let's start with "The Seven Habits" book.

Even if you are not familiar with the whole book, you may have heard of

Habit 7:  Sharpen the Saw.

Wikipedia says, in part, it means "to sharpen our skills in order to achieve better results."

Well and good.  I've spent a lot of time over the past several years sharpening and even honing my knitting skills to a rather nice sharp edge.

What I haven't accomplished is getting a lot of actual knitting done.

You'd think I'd have a closetful of sweaters, wouldn't you?  Or DH would have more socks than he can shake a stick at?  uh-uh.  Well, why not?


I hadn't been giving this problem a lot of active thought, but it has been nagging at me for quite a while.  Then, not too long ago, I read this article on memory techniques in the New York Times.  It's a fascinating article in its own right, and it's also very long — so I'll save you the trouble and give you the part that made me sit up and take notice:

In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner tried to answer this question by describing the three stages of acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the cognitive phase, we intellectualize the task and discover new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second, the associative phase, we concentrate less, making fewer major errors, and become more efficient. Finally we reach what Fitts and Posner called the autonomous phase, when we’re as good as we need to be at the task and we basically run on autopilot… To improve, we have to be constantly pushing ourselves beyond where we think our limits lie and then pay attention to how and why we fail.

I think by this time, it is safe to say my knitting skills are firmly in the "autopilot" category.

For example, when my friend Kim asked for some hats, and told me which ones she liked, I whipped out all three in a couple of weeks with very few issues, other than those brought upon myself, mainly by yarn substitutions.

So, given that I can pretty much accomplish any knitting project — why don't I?


The coup de grâce came while listening to Terry Pratchett's Discworld audiobooks, in which a saying keeps cropping up:  "You're so sharp, you'll cut yourself."

Generally, it's used to tell a person he's a bit too smart for his own good.

I'm thinking for me, this just might be the knitting gods, or the universe, or whatever, trying to tell me I've gotten a bit too picky snooty ambitious about my knitting.

I almost never just find a pattern and make it.  No, I have to be a show-off and design something new EVERY FREAKIN' TIME, just because I can…

…or do I?


Maybe not every single sweater I make must be designed by me from the ground up?  I can use Ravelry to find cute existing patterns that work with the stash, no?

Maybe not every new pair of socks for DH must be a unique and different stitch pattern?  Do I really think he'd complain if his next pair was plain 2 x 2 rib?

Hmmm…  maybe my saw is sharp enough, and maybe I should just start using the damned thing?

Read More

Other Knitting Superstitions

I was listening to an audiobook today that involves the theater, and was surprised to hear a character declare that “knitting on stage is bad luck”.

Having at least 50% of the qualification, and never having heard of this one — of course, I had to look into it.  And yes, I found several websites that insist that knitting on-stage — or near the stage, or to the side of the stage — is definitely bad luck — even at rehearsals!

However, some sources state that it is only a problem if the knitting is done by an actor or actress, so I guess that means it’s OK for the audience to bring their knitting.  (Thank goodness — I was beginning to worry about the Winterhawks hockey team.)

The most often suggested origin of the superstition is that pointy needles could rip a costume, or a needle on the floor could be stepped on by someone and cause them to fall.  A more romantic version says that the act of knitting will “entangle the production”, and connects this remarkable ability to the Fates — who may not be knitters, but they do weave the tapestry of Life, after all.

I also found a few other superstitions about knitting, aside from the well-known “boyfriend sweater” curse.  (Well, it’s well-known to me, in a very definite and experienced way, at any rate.)  For entertainment purposes only, please!


  • “Bad luck may befall a knitter who leaves a project unfinished.”  Well, this one pretty much puts me in the doghouse right there.  Anything else I might inadvertently do to cause myself bad luck — such as failing to hold my breath until I see a black, or possibly brown, dog upon hearing an ambulance — is probably completely overshadowed by this one.


  • The “bad luck from an unfinished project can be transferred to the intended recipient“, as well.  This is most often quoted in the context of starting projects for babies, which seems disproportionate to say the least.  Why doom an innocent child because I can’t get my act together to finish a pair of booties?


  • “Don’t stab your needles through the ball of yarn when you stop knitting, or anyone who wears what is created from that yarn will have bad luck.”  Unless of course your intended recipient is a baby AND you manage to finish the project WITHOUT having to resort to knitting it while on-stage.


  • I have to quote this particular impolite source verbatim:  “Ladies, not that he wants them anyway, knitting a pair of socks for your boyfriend may cause your man to walk away from you in the future.”  HA!  Not if he is smart.  Or maybe this is like the sweater curse, in that if the man in question is married to you, it’s OK.  This is not specified, though, so the best advice I can give is, knit socks for your man at your own risk.


  • “If you knit a strand of your own hair into an item, it will cause a closer bond to be formed between you and the recipient.”  It must be that this one only works if it is the knitter’s own hair:  because if it could be extrapolated to any old hair that gets trapped in the knitting, I think my husband would have run off with my cat by now.


  • “If you drop the scissors you are using to cut your yarn, it means your lover is cheating on you.”  Disclaimer:  some sources say they have to land open in the “V” shape for this to be true.  Some also say that someone else has to pick them up for you — no dire retribution is assigned if you pick them up yourself, but I suppose it’s going to be the ubiquitous but nonspecific “bad luck”.  I think it probably just means Rock Star has been knitting with the gin again!


so, Happy Knitting!  but for the love of sheep, NOT ON-STAGE, and be careful with the scissors.

Read More

“Teach someone to knit.”

A long, long time ago — we're talking at least a couple of decades — I started one of those lists that are now often called "bucket" lists — you know, things you want to do before you "kick the bucket".  (Only at the time I did mine, the list was titled "50 Things to Do Before You Die", which is a little more direct and a lot more specific.)

It turns out, 50 things is a LOT.  I don't have the original list anymore, but I think I only got to around 30, and half of those were places to travel to.

I can't remember all of it exactly, but I have indeed crossed the equator (New Zealand, 2008).  I have not yet driven on the left side of the road, despite having had a couple of opportunities to do so.  (Both times – New Zealand and Ireland – the vehicles available were stick shifts and I just didn't think I could manage that as well.)

But one of the items on that list — one of the first items, in fact — was, "Teach someone to knit."

At the time, I think I was just desperate to know someone else who knitted.  The first person I taught was a woman I had known since kindergarten, in a sports bar, practically in the dark.  Eventually, those four words ended up becoming a new career, with more far-reaching consequences than I will ever know about.

I don't know how many knitters I've taught, but I think it's safe to say it's comfortably over a thousand by now — according to my records, it's more than 200 knitters just in private lessons.  I don't remember all the faces, much less all the names.  I'm sure there have been plenty of students I've taught who have given up the sport, or who didn't think I was so hot of an instructor.

But the other day, I was at the LYS — and as it turns out, so was one of my former students.

And she told me I had changed her knitting life.

She used to be a "thrower" and knitted very tightly, she said, and had tense shoulders, and it wasn't a lot of fun.

Then she took my Continental knitting class.  Wherein I commanded told suggested nicely to everyone to "lighten up", she recalled.

Well, I often say  tight knitting is not happy knitting.  Apparently, I was right at least once.  😉

I don't know when she took the class, but it sounded like it was a few years back.  She has been knitting Continental style ever since, and her knitting now brings her joy instead of stress.  She's still at the yarn shop, still having fun, and I still have someone to talk to about knitting.

I'm teaching that class again this very afternoon, and who knows what joy it may bring to yet another knitter…

Now that's a happy ending!

Read More

Fighting A Losing Battle?

The interwebs is a fascinating and amazing time-waster, especially on cleaning day…

Don't ask how I got there, but today I found myself reading this psychology paper from UIUC.  It had a description of an interesting set of psychological experiments wherein college students were "primed" with certain social concepts, such as politeness or rudeness, and their subsequent actions were analyzed to see if the priming had any effect.

And what, pray tell, could this POSSIBLY have to do with knitting?

Oh, I'll tell you.

…the priming manipulation took the form of a scrambled-sentence task … We constructed two versions… one elderly prime version, which contained words related to the elderly stereotype, and another, neutral version.

For the elderly prime version, the critical stimuli were worried, Florida, old, lonely, grey, selfishly, careful, sentimental, wise, stubborn, courteous, bingo, withdraw, forgetful, retired, wrinkle, rigid, traditional, bitter, obedient, conservative, knits, dependent, ancient, helpless, gullible, cautious, and alone. These prime words were obtained from previous research that examined the components of the elderly stereotype (Brewer, Dull, & Lui, 1981; Harris & Associates, 1975; McTavish, 1971; Perdue & Gurtman, 1990).

Well.  Looks like I can now add "bitter" to the list of elderly traits I've got a handle on.

There may be some hope, though, because this paper was written in 1996 — 14 years ago.  I'm wondering if knitting is still so strongly associated with the elderly that it's one of exactly two actual activities in the list.  Somebody ought to do some updated research on that.

I mean, things have changed a LOT in 14 years.  I notice "computers" isn't on the list of elderly words, but we knitters have tons of knitting sites and blogs, Knitty and Ravelry; we have words and activities like "yarnbombing" that don't strike me as especially elderly things to do.

Perhaps, just perhaps, there may also have been a change in the way knitting is viewed by the general public?

We can only hope, or we'll all end up in Florida — where I doubt there is much use for MOHAIR — lonely, and wrinkled.  But courteous.

Hey, anybody wanna go to bingo?

Read More

We’re So Misunderstood

How wrong can one news story be?  Tsk, tsk, tsk.  Here's some tidbits from a Daily Mail article just out:

If someone told you knitting was making a comeback you would probably accuse them of spinning you a yarn.

Well, no, not exactly a "comeback".  Maybe you've only just noticed?

…the once unfashionable pastime really is enjoying a boom in popularity as the global economic downturn encourages people to create their own clothes at a fraction of the cost in shops.

"Once unfashionable"?  Not in my world.

"A fraction of the cost"?  Again, not in my world.

Raise your hand if you, or someone you know, owns a pair of socks made from $30 worth of yarn.  Mmmm-hmmm.  And I defy you to find a sock shop at which that is "a fraction of the cost".  And that's not counting the work!

Co-founder [of a knitting group] Gail Downey said: 'Knitting has definitely become more glamorous and the type of people who love it are far from the traditional image of grannies.  People find it very satisfying and calming …'

OK, I'll give them this one, but they had to ask a real knitter.

Knit one, purl two

Oh, for heaven's sake.  I really need to go find that old Knitter's magazine where someone deliberately designed a rather good-looking tank top to actually use the old "knit 1, purl 2" saw.

Knitting magazine editor Emma Kennedy said the renaissance began five years ago but had accelerated recently.

I'm kind of on the bubble about this one, but I think it started a bit earlier than 5 years ago.  As for recent acceleration, I can't really say one way or the other either.  Of course, this article was written for the UK, so I guess we'll give them some slack on this.

Mrs Kennedy insisted the misshapen Christmas jumper made by a well-meaning elderly relative was no longer a fair reflection of the hobby.

This is the part that really burns me.  "Insisted"?  Why was she made to "insist"?  It all but says, "although of course, we all know she's wrong."

Guess they aren't getting any fabulous handknits from me at Yuletide.

She added: 'There are always going to be disasters but knitters tend to have a great sense of humour and will be the first to laugh at how wrong they've got something.  And there's always next time to get it right – or you can unpick and start again.'

Excuse me, Mrs. Kennedy — I'm not sure exactly who your knitting buddies are, but unless it's a bunch of well-meaning grannies — I'm pretty sure you left out the part about "swearing".

Read More

Turn Off the TV and Knit!

Found an article on BBC News from a few months ago that tells the outcome of a recent US study on dementia.  And the results are quite encouraging for us knitters!

Those who had during middle age been busy reading, playing games or engaging in craft hobbies like patchworking or knitting were found to have a 40% reduced risk of memory impairment.

Well, I already know that knitting sometimes helps me remember swear words…

Read More

What Has Gotten Into Me?

This week, I finished off four — count ’em, four — UFO’s in the stack.  Not only that, I have a good shot at finishing off a fifth.

I’m as shocked as you are.  Probably more so.

Admittedly, none of them was a great deal of work.  (That part is somewhat more shocking, actually.  This project has been sitting there how long and all it needed was that?)

The first two new FO’s were pairs of DH’s socks that needed toe repairs; the third one was a project that shall remain nameless, but it was decided that it really wasn’t, well, sassy — so it has gone into the box o’ stuff to get rid of.

Hey, that counts.  It’s out of my hair, isn’t it?

Item number four was a fixer that I thought would need a belt, or something, and it turned out that really, all it needed was some buttons — which I had already put on it — and a touch of crochet to create some accompanying buttonholes.  I wore it yesterday, in fact, and garnered several compliments around town!

And number five is my trusty old green ski sweater, which over the years seems to have somehow gotten shorter in the sleeves, and now needs about an inch or two added onto them.  Fortunately, it’s a top-down sweater with a simple rolled edge at the cuffs, so this is easily accomplished.  I’m already about halfway there.

The "I will finish off existing projects before casting on new ones" oath is one that almost every knitter swears to at some time or another, and I seem to hear it mentioned a lot these days, what with the New Year’s Resolutions and the state of the economy.

I’m practically ALWAYS on a "new project diet".  Personally, I just find it difficult to cope with the guilt of having too big a pile of knitting projects.

But how big a pile is too big?  Just how many UFO’s can one knitter have?

Well now, that’s rather a personal question.

How many of us started out naively vowing, "I will only have one project going at a time"?  It’s just a short step to project #2, and then I suspect that most really sincere knitters go from single digits to double digits with hardly a blip on the radar — and I was no exception.

Perhaps every long-time knitter has been in this position at least once:  having a number of UFO’s that is just too darned many.  A number so embarrassingly large that it would cause discomfort, if not actual shame, to confess it publicly.  A number you would not dare tell your husband.  (Personally, the thought of triple digits scares the crap out of me.)

A couple of weeks ago, I was at one of the LYS’s and ran into my friend Nancy, who also happens to work there.  Nancy gets way more stuff done than I do, but she faces way more temptation on a regular basis than I do, too:

job at yarn shop + employee discount + being only human = too many UFO’s

Apparently, things had gotten a little out of hand lately, and as a preventive measure she actually wrote down her UFO tally and pinned it to the front of her clothing to remind her NOT to pick up any new projects.  And I about fell over laughing when she referred to it as her "Scarlet Number"!

I sobered up pretty quickly though, because I had recently tallied my own number — and for a minute or two I was a little worried that mine would be higher than Nancy’s.

But it turned out that her Scarlet Number was in the high 30’s — which really isn’t all that bad, given her special circumstances.  For myself, I was feeling embarrassed about 24.  Something about "two dozen" seemed like an awful lot.  My comfort zone seems to be somewhere around "under 20".  Any more than that, and I start to get guilty feelings.  But as of right now, I’m pretty relaxed about what’s in the stack:

  • one bag
  • two scarves / wraps
  • two "second socks" for me (that probably are not ever going to be finished, if truth be told)
  • two pairs of DH socks
  • two socks in the design process
  • the infamous bunny slippers (I really need to order the eyes for them someday)
  • three sweaters that just need finishing work — including the green ski sweater that should be finished this week
  • four sweater projects that are "on deck"

A grand total of 17 UFO’s, with the end of one in plain sight.  That’s really not bad at all!  And actually, the four sweaters at the end there kind of don’t count, according to Nancy’s very clear definitions:  the Scarlet Number only counts projects that are actually on the needles.

So, what’s your Number??

Read More

Bah, Humbug!

I took a look over at Knitting Daily today and found the holidays staring me in the face.  But in a kinda good way!

The Question o’ the Day over there is, "What are you knitting for holiday gifts?" and it seems that for many of us, the answer is, "Nothing."  I’m firmly aligned with Sandi Wiseheart – and from the comments, several other knitters too – NO holiday knitting!

Some mention their knitted gifts being unappreciated in the past.  This is always an issue.  I forget what year it was that I became absolutely incensed to hear that supposedly, the "fruitcake" has been supplanted as the classic Most Dreaded Holiday Gift by a "hand-knit sweater".

I was incensed partly because I happen to also like fruitcake — good fruitcake, that is.  My father worked for a chain of bakeries and one of their products was Grandma’s Fruitcake.  Apparently Dad and I were the only ones in our family who liked it, though.  There was one in the freezer when he died, that he had apparently meant to send to me for Xmas.  One of my brothers found it, thought it was hilarious, showed it to all my siblings, and announced that he was going to throw it away.  I went running into the kitchen and rescued it.  My husband has now been trained to get me one every year.

But back to the knitting.  It really got me to know that people all over the globe apparently dread receiving a hand-knitted gift.  Let’s hope, for their own sakes, that none of them are people I know personally.

Yes, under-appreciation is one of the main reasons I don’t usually knit gifts for the holidays.  In fact, I’ve been known to state out loud that I don’t knit for anyone.  That’s not strictly true — but the list of people I do knit for on a regular basis is a pretty short one:

  1. Myself
  2. DH

dad's sweaterOf course, this is not to say that I never knit gifts.  Over the years, I’ve knit quite a few.

My dad got a sweater back when I first learned to knit.  This was a nice wool one with sailing ships knitted on it.  Dad had been in the Coast Guard, and he saw the picture in a knitting magazine ad, I think — and he asked if I could make it.  But he wasn’t much of a sweater-wearer, and while he really did like it and he did wear it, he never asked for another one.  Somewhere there’s a funny snapshot he took of it, drying on the living room floor, after he washed it once, lying on what looks like a bunch of plastic wrap.

(BTW, I now have Dad’s sweater, and I cringe to look at the WS of it.  I didn’t really know how to do intarsia, so I — um — I tied a bunch of little knots all over the back.  Despite this, it really did come out OK.)

mom's sweaterSoon after that, my mom asked for a sweater — also intarsia — which I knit properly this time — and then I never knew her to wear it.  I eventually got that one back, too, and sometime in the intervening years, something happened to turn the white yarn yellowish in places.  So it went to the great Goodwill in the Sky.

I’m not sure if they count as gifts, really, but we won’t mention here all those blasted boyfriend sweaters I knit in college.

Just a few years ago, I made purple socks for one brother, who freaked out over the number of yards of yarn involved, and refused to wear them.  I hear he has now gotten over that somewhat, but he wears them only on special occasions.  With high tops.

I knitted a lace wrap for a dear knitting friend last year — and that was a labor of love, believe me.  I wouldn’t have done that for just anybody, Abby.

elizabeth's fur vest

And I knitted a cute little fur vest with a hood for a niece of mine — Xmas 2006, I think it was — and I got the most hilarious thank-you note back:

"Dear Aunt Tess, thank you for the vest it is very furry."

knitted hippoAnd who could forget the hippo?  That one was a hoot to knit.  It was nominally for my sister-in-law’s first baby, but in reality it was more for my sister-in-law herself, who had a favorite hippo toy as a child.




All of these knitted gifts were inspired by the same thing:

a wish to knit something fabulous and/or unique, that a person I know and love would truly enjoy.

For me, in every case, the genesis of the project is a specific end result:  not, "What can I knit Sandi for Xmas?" but "Sandi doesn’t have time to knit herself the Farmhouse Rug she wants — but I do."

Well, that’s the way I knit almost everything.  Definitely a "product" knitter, I am.

I don’t think I’ve ever tried to knit something for everyone on my holiday list.  I only ever do one or two of these "special" gifts per year.  A knitted gift from me is going to be truly personal — that is, inspired by the person receiving it.  But that inspiration doesn’t always happen in December!

Anyway, the whole "must-give-everyone-a-gift-on-this-particular-day" thing is really kind of forced, IMHO.  It always seems to me you end up in one of two places, whether gifts are handmade or purchased:

  • (a) just giving everyone exactly the same thing, or variations on a theme, which I find is incredibly generic;
  • (b) working yourself into a frenzy trying to get or make or finish the perfect gifts for persons ABC thru XYZ, in time for the deadline.

The first place is where you end up when it’s more about the gifts than the recipients.  "Everyone is getting a scarf" isn’t a gift-giving philosophy that considers the recipient — it’s all about the person doing the gifting, actually.

The second place is where I usually end up in December, just with the tasks of shopping and mailing, let alone knitting.  And it can have several outcomes.  One is, you might actually succeed, and everyone loves your gifts, but you’re probably too exhausted to care.

In my experience, it is far more likely that I will wind up falling back to plan (a) for at least some of the people on our list, and giving some generic gifts that don’t necessarily suit the recipients — potentially a waste of money, time and effort, which is bad enough if you’re "just" shopping — but it’s a killer if you’re knitting!

Another possibility with plan (b) is that you stick to your guns, but you don’t get your gifts finished in time, and you end up giving them whenever they get done.  Hey, guess what!  That’s what you end up doing if you don’t kill yourself over a deadline, too!

Personally, I’ll take whatever respite from the annual holiday madness I can get.  So, no need for anyone to cringe in fear that perhaps I’m planning to give a (gasp) hand-knit sweater!!  Maybe a nice fruitcake, though…

Read More

Not (Exactly) Knitting

Out of the blue, my DH sent me an email this morning:  

"Our friends at the Art Institute of Portland are having an Open House on Saturday (9.13) afternoon starting at 11am until 2pm. Their mission is to help you develop your artistic ideas into abilities and your passion into a creative career. Students can earn a Bachelor’s degree with a major in 1 of 16 creative programs AND…you can even minor in sustainability! To get you started on your way to being the next Art Institute of Portland student click here and tell us what design means to you for a chance to win a $1000 scholarship! Don’t forget to swing by the Open House on Saturday for a tour, chat with instructors and check out the life of an Art Institute of Portland student." 

Golly, they sure do make it sound like fun, don’t they?

But what was my first reaction?  Terror.

Seriously.  I was actually terrified.  It took me a minute to figure out just what it was that was striking me, but it was in fact terror.  Because this is something that I would absolutely love to do.

I’ve been happier in the past five years of not-engineering than I ever was in five years of engineering school, or the 11 years of working in high-tech.  I’ve all but concluded that I really should have gone to Iowa State, where I would have been able to easily change my major from engineering to art or fashion design — although my dad would’ve killed me.  And I could have had some actual fun in college, too.  However — had I not been working in high-tech, I would probably never have even met DH, and besides, it’s far too late for all that now… right?

Well, I’m no chicken when it comes right down to it, so this is what I ended up submitting.  Let’s see if either of you can figure out just which recent knitting project I am alluding to in my 250-words-or-less (247 words, actually): 

As an engineer, I learned “design” means “efficiency”: if something is well-designed, it does what it is supposed to do, without waste or extra effort. In that world, appearance is secondary — although I find there is a definite beauty in watching something or someone perform efficiently. My mother loved to watch professional ballet dancers because they “made it look so easy.” Observing anyone who really knows what they are doing is fascinating.

Five years ago, I quit my engineering career to live in the world of fiber arts. I learned that “design” in this world is often considered to be only about appearance: anyone thinks they have “designed” a knitted item just by drawing a sketch. This cheapens the term “design”. To have an idea is one thing — to successfully translate a concept into a beautiful reality still requires knowledge and expertise, and these cannot be faked. Poor execution of the design work will permanently and irrevocably disfigure even the best concept. 

Truly elegant “design” combines both of these aesthetics: function and beauty. But if one has to be sacrificed, then function trumps form every time. A well-designed tool is still well-designed, even if it is aesthetically ugly; if it does the job well, it is still beautiful, though in a different sense. It is beautiful because the skill and talent of the designer show in the finished item. To borrow a quote from a friend: “a novel idea is exciting, but execution is everything.”

Thanks for the perfect finisher, Patricia — I told you I was going to use that!

Read More

In the Mood

Over at the [Knitting Daily->] blog, they’ve been discussing the design process used by Michelle Rose Orne in her book, Inspired to Knit.  I haven’t gotten the book yet, but Michelle’s description of her design process intrigues me:

As a designer for the garment industry for many years, I used … mood or “story boards” when I would “pitch” ideas for a “line” of sweaters to retail buyers.  Though common in the garment industry, this type of presentation was apparently an anomaly in the world of handknitting!

Well.  This reminds me a LOT of the mind-blowing collage I made last year, when I was doing a major closet clean-out for the first time in several years.  (Well, it blew my tiny little mind, anyway.)  I ran across the collage idea in a book — unfortunately, I’m not sure which one, because I own a lot of books on style, wardrobe, and dressing well — and decided to try it, with some pretty amazing results — one of which was an entirely new direction in my knitting, and my beloved "Sassy" sweater.

Maybe I’m just shallow, but the subject of clothing has always fascinated me.  I can clearly remember how excited I was when Color Me Beautiful by Carole Jackson came out in… oh, dear.  This is going to be one of those I-can’t-believe-it-was-that-long-ago things, isn’t it?  I’m going to guess it was maybe 1983 or so.  Just a second, I’ll be right back…

…OK, it was 1980.  (I wasn’t that far off, but it was still a freaky long time ago.)  I was only 11, but that book made such an impression on me, because it confirmed something I’d been suspecting:  due to my redhead’s coloring, clothes in colors that looked good on most other people didn’t always look too hot on me.

Light grey, for instance, or light blue or even bright red.  I’ll bet both most of you have several items of those colors in your closet.  Not me.  Those are all colors I have eliminated from my wardrobe.  Instead, in my closet — another revelation from that major clean-out session — here’s what you’ll find:

  • black,
  • brown,
  • beige,
  • every shade of green imaginable (except for minty green),
  • and orange.
  • (and yes, some pink.  But not enough, really.)

And actually, I need to restate that earlier sentence — I should say, "clothes in colors that made other people look good didn’t always make me look good."  Because another important concept I learned, back at that tender age, was the idea that it’s the job of the clothes to make the person look good — not the other way around.  (Unless you’re a model or a designer, I suppose.)

In fact, this Color-Me-Beautiful revelation is in part directly responsible for the fact that I knit — because at some point I looked around at what was in the Iowa malls, and I figured out that I was going to spend about as long shopping for an olive-green sweater as it would take to knit one.  It was a matter of learn to knit, or settle for navy blue.

But anyway, back to the point.  What was it?  Oh, yes, story boards and knitting.  So, I’m thinking about my closet collage, and what a success that was in slapping some sense into me changing the way I dress (and shop) much for the better.  I’m thinking about the fact that I’m slowly but surely whittling away at the pile of knitting UFO’s, and that means I’ll need some new projects soon…

Oh, hey, guess what?  I already do this "story board" thing, in a manner of speaking.  I have…  THE HOTLIST (or HL for short).

The "hotlist" is my name for the pile of printouts and copies (copies made from my own books & publications, mind you) of knitting patterns that have caught my eye.  If I see something online that I like, I’ll download it and print out a copy and put it in the HL pile.  If I find something in a book or magazine that’s worth serious consideration, I scan myself a copy and put it in the HL.

You may think, "That’s way too much trouble," but my feeling is, if I don’t want to bother with physically putting it in the hotlist, then I probably don’t really need to spend weeks or months knitting it.  After all, let’s be realistic here — I am speaking as a confirmed  "product" knitter, as opposed to "process" — and my projects tend to be sweaters, not socks or hats that are of short duration and easily gifted.  (Now, if you’re into "process", or yours tend to be different types of projects, then fire away!!  By all means, cast on impetuously, passionately, even heedlessly, Sheryl sister!!)

I’ve been doing the hotlist thing for years, way before [Ravelry->] got started, but I think the Ravelry "favorite" and "queue" functions probably work about the same way for a lot of knitters.  Trouble is — for me at least — that it would be way too easy for me to click-click-click and then I’d have hundreds of things on my lists.  Not the easiest way for me to figure out what to knit next.

I know, I know — the concepts of limiting oneself and exercising restraint are not popular these days.  Planning ahead and making sober, considered choices is not encouraged, especially by Madison Avenue.

But until I figure out how to knit several things at once, I’m sticking to my guns.  The hotlist keeps me from making too many "start-itis" fueled mistakes.  I don’t make good decisions in the throes of fiber-related passion, nor in the throes of a knitting funk.  I’ve spent plenty of money and time on impulse clothing purchases that didn’t work out so well.  Why on earth should I use the same philosophy to choose my knitting projects?  Those generally cost more, in materials and sweat equity and personal investment — a lot more.  Even with the hotlist as a filter, sometimes I’ll look at an HL pattern and go, "What was I thinking?"  OK, that right there is dodging a big ol’ bullet, as far as I’m concerned.

So when I’m in that cast-on-for-a-new-project mood, the hotlist comes in very handy.  I’ll go looking through the HL pile, and often I’ll find I have cherry-picked a half-dozen different patterns that are basically the same silhouette:  cropped vests, maybe, or tie-front cardigans.  Then I have two big ol’ advantages over the impulse method:  one is, I have a pretty good guarantee that the idea of knitting a tie-front cardigan is not just a passing fancy — and two is, I have several versions to look at and compare side-by-side, to see what I like best about each one.

Of course, the next thing that happens is, I like the sleeves on this one, and the neckline on that one, so I have to do some math and swatching to combine the two ideas, and then I’ll get a wild hair and just decide to design my own from scratch.  Well, no system is perfect.  (On the other hand, not every commercial pattern turns out to be just what it’s cracked up to be — remember the Nutcracker? — so designing one’s own is not always such a bad idea, either.)

And here’s a good place to admit that I don’t always rigidly follow my own rules, because the Nutcracker was a pretty impulsive project — saw it, loved it, had to have it, knitted it (a couple of times) — and it turned out to be a success in the end, when I had managed to knit the sweater that I fell in love with in the picture.

At any rate, once my stack of UFO’s are completed, or at least down to a manageable level — I’m really looking forward to going through the ol’ hotlist again in the near future.  I may even try one of those story board collage thingys, and see what happens…

  • And as a reward for making it all the way to the end of this post, here’s a tip that works to keep you from falling for the wrong thing in a knitting pattern.  And it seems to kind of fit in here, what with all this about color and choices and copies.
  • One of the first things we "see" when we look at a knitting pattern is the color of the item.  If you pay attention to this tendency in yourself, you may find, as I do, that you flip through a knitting magazine thinking, "ick, no, awful" and then suddenly there’s a green one and you go, "hey!"
  • The way to eliminate this color bias is to make a black-and-white copy of the picture, and see if you still like it.  Clever, no?

Happy Knitting!

Read More

The Attraction of Tangles

What is it exactly about a tangled mass of yarn that makes everyone itch to get their hands on it and start untangling?

Well, maybe not everyone.  Usually, the person whose yarn it is has had it up to wherever with the tangles.

But bring the sorry mess into a yarn shop, and see what happens!  For those of us for whom fiber is practically a religion, turning someone else’s wadded-up gob of yarn into a beautiful ball is apparently some sort of a sacrament, and we can hardly keep our grubby little hands off it.

Or am I just in a weird minority?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not just yarn that does it either.

I remember one Xmas, before DH and I were married, when his parents were visiting him/us, in Texas.  One evening, just before the holiday itself, I found the professionally-decorated Xmas tree from my apartment’s office out by the dumpster, with about a billion strings of lights still on it.

Well, what would you have done?

What I did was to pull all the lights off the tree and then I brought this garbage bag full of tangled-up lights over to his apartment, thinking I would sit quietly by myself in a corner and work on untangling them.  Not so!  You’d have thought I’d brought over an early present.  We all worked on them until we had every strand untangled.  There must have been over a dozen strands, and DH and I still have some of them.

As for yarn, though, the #1 rule of untangling is this:  don’t pull tightly on a strand of yarn!  The yarn is probably not really in "knots" per se, it’s in loops that are interlocked — kind of like knitting.  You want to loosen those loops up so they can "unravel".  It’s a little hard to explain in words, but you want to be pulling the mass apart, and separating the loops, so they can untangle.

The #2 rule of untangling is:  don’t start taking the untangled part (i.e. the little ball you’ve gotten started off one end of the mess) and start taking it through other loops, until you’re sure this is the only way to finish the job.  Once you start taking that end through other loops, that’s pretty much what you’re going to have to keep doing.  Kind of like when you bind off, and pull that yarn end through the last stitch — this technique puts a stop to the easy "unraveling" of the tangles.

So, in the interest of finding out whether this behavior is kind of normal, or totally weird — and in the interest of playing around with the blog —  there’s a little survey attached.  I hope it works!


Read More

Of Course You Can!

A little while ago, y’all learned not to ask me a certain question:


What should I knit?

And since I didn’t explain in that post what the second-question-I-won’t-answer was, now nobody will talk to me.  So, I guess I’d better clear this up today.

The second question I get asked by knitters, which I will not answer, is

[knitter in shop holds up pattern, yarn, maybe even needles] and asks:

Can I do this?

Well, thus the title of this post.  Of course the literal answer is always, "Yes."  You can do anything you wish — or at least you can attempt to — and no one is going to hold a gun to your head.  The Knitting Police are not going to tackle you just outside the shop door and cuff you for your choices.

Again, it took me a while to figure out what the "real" question was.  At first I thought it was something like this:

Will I like it?

or maybe,

Will it end up looking like what I am envisioning?

Of course, that question can’t be answered by anyone but the questioner.  Personal taste varies considerably, as does the ability to envision.  In fact, that’s one of the hardest things for many people, going by the conversations I’ve had — particularly when trying to cook up a combination of yarns for a project.  (This is where Sandi’s ability is so incredible, it’s akin to magic.  And you know I don’t use that word lightly.  I’ve tried asking her how she does it.  Unfortunately, even getting an answer straight from the oracle does not appear to magically bestow upon one the ability to do it oneself.)

But there is a sub-question even under that.  Herein lies the real issue for many knitters, myself included, especially when trying to substitute yarns or make other changes to an existing pattern:

Am I about to make a biiiiiiiig mistake?

Yeah, that’s a tough one.  Again, not for me to answer.  Knitting is so very personal!  One person’s mistake is another person’s magnum opus, a tour de force — or at least a "design opportunity".   I’ve seen many a knitter overjoyed with a project that I would consider a form of punishment.  To each her own!

As far as big mistakes go, though, I’ve got some doozies hidden in my personal knitting closet.  Back in the day, some of my own projects were, shall we say, less than well-thought-out.  Well, ladies, I hate to say it, but that’s how you learn.  At least, apparently, that’s how I learn.

original anna mieke sweaterThe one that still haunts me One of the most memorable of my own unfortunate projects occurred back in 1989, when I was working a co-op job in Ohio.  There was this Vogue Knitting sweater by Anna Mieke from Fall/Winter ’85 that I’d been just dying to make.  The time had come.

I was a poor, young and ignorant college kid back then, not even quite old enough to drink legally, and I didn’t know anything about wool other than I’d heard it was scratchy — so I was using acrylic yarns, which I still think is at least partially to blame for what ensued.  And I’m gonna say that the 80’s in general are also partly to blame.  And maybe Ohio had something to do with it.

Well.  I thought the dark green and navy stripes were just a bit too boring.  Didn’t show up too well against the black.  So I decided to choose something…  hmmm…  a bit… ahhhh… brighter.

Oh, I can’t believe I’m going to admit the full and unpleasant truth here.  (But if nothing else, this will definitely stop people asking my advice in knit shops!)  So, in the interest of full disclosure —

Perhaps I was seduced by the touches of yellow in the photograph, I don’t know.  But I decided to do the sweater in… in…

OK, in yellowstripesalloverwithmintgreenstripesonthebodyandsortoftangerinestripesonthesleeve.first version

There, I said it.  I know you are laughing yourself sick, especially if you think about how unnaturally foul vivid those colors would be in acrylic yarns.

Hey, let’s see if I can punish myself (and you) even more.  With the magic of photoshop, I bet I can show you a pretty good approximation of just what that monstrosity looked like.

Well, I’m no photoshop expert, so unfortunately this rendition doesn’t do it 100% justice.  The yellow was far more sunshine-y, as I recall.  But I don’t want to burn anyone’s retinas, either, so maybe it’s just as well.

Believe it or not, I finished it — caught up in the excitement of finally doing this totally cool sweater with the pocket on the sleeve and everything.

But when it was done, I did have the sense not to wear it.  It is probably still polluting a landfill somewhere in northeastern Ohio.

So, in my disappointment and my shame, I next tried to figure out:  where, oh where, had I gone so terribly wrong?second version

Well.  At some point it dawned on me that one of the colors that the designer used — the one that was common to both parts of the sweater — was a neutral.  BLACK.

OK, I said.  I can do that.  On the next attempt I used black for the main stripes, and what was actually a kind of pretty turquoise blue for the body stripes.  Apparently I couldn’t help myself completely, though, and I used yellow again for the sleeve stripes.  But wonder of wonders, it wasn’t too bad (it was still the 80’s, remember).  I’d brightened the thing up as I had wanted to, but still it remained within the boundaries of halfway decent taste (the 80’s, I keep telling you).

That one I actually wore.  In fact, a woman who lived in the same apartment building saw it, and exclaimed that her sister would love it as an Xmas gift.  I guess I was still a little miffed at myself over the whole episode, so I sold it to her.  Which makes that the very first money I ever earned from knitting — although the knowledge I gained from the whole thing was far more valuable.  It’s always good to know one’s limits, after all.  What’s that thing about admitting you have a problem being the first step?

In a blatant attempt to redeem myself here, let me add that I’ve never made quite as bad an error of judgement since then — in my knitting anyway — knock on wood, or bamboo or something.

The next VK sweater I made color changes to was much more successful.  In the magazine, it was mainly black, with a large tattersall check in tangerine, and touches of turquoise green.  I remembered the lesson I’d recently learned about NEUTRALS, so I changed the black to white, with a coral check, and touches of aqua.  It turned out quite nicely.

Oh, but don’t think this incident no longer affects me.  Perhaps you remember how careful I was when I started playing around with the Fair Isle panel on the Nutcracker sweater?  (Proof that even I can learn something, given 20 years.)

Practically every time I’m thinking about substituting colors, I remember that yellow-orange-green thing, and I just shudder.  It’s scarred me and my artistic side deeply, to the point where I have lost a lot of my adventurousness.

OTOH, when you think about what I’m capable of — maybe that’s a good thing.

Read More

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.


Read More

Tess’ Top Ten List of Basic Knitting Advice

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.

So what?

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.


Read More