When I lost my writing and editing job of 9 years due to “restructuring,” I decided I’d pass the time by doing three things, in this order of priority:
- Aggressively look for a new gig (obviously, because writing doesn’t pay the bills unless you’re getting paid to do it)
- Writing a novel, and getting said novel off the ground by cranking out 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo
- Learning to knit
I’ve already talked a bit about the job loss and the novel writing, so today I’m going to focus on the knitting. If you’re here for writing tips, look elsewhere. If you want to feel better about yourself and discover that you probably don’t curse nearly as often as you think you do, read on.
It started in Walmart. I went there to buy cheap groceries (remember, I’m on a very tight budget because of that no job thing) and found myself inexplicably in the craft aisle looking at yarn. There was an employee (excuse me: an associate) there stocking a shelf with ribbons, and she cheerfully grumbled to me about how frustrating it was to locate the right spots for each roll.
“That doesn’t sound like much fun,” I said. I was the soul of empathy.
“Ah, it’s not so bad,” she said. “Just annoying.”
I’d run out of sympathies to express, so I figured I’d jump in with a non sequitur. “I’ve decided to give knitting a try, but I don’t know what sort of needle I should get.”
Wait, what? This was new. Since when had I decided to start knitting? I am perhaps a touch impulsive.
“Oh,” she said, “What kind of knitting? Like, hats? Scarves?”
“Maybe just a nice scarf to start, don’t you think?”
“That’s a good first project,” she agreed. “It goes fast if you use some heavier weight yarn. And then get yourself about a number 10 or 12 needle.” She paused, cocking her head like a sparrow, eyes turned skyward (or ceilingward, as the case may be.) “It depends on your gauge. Are you a loose knitter or a tight one?”
I was stumped. “Is there a right answer to that? What am I supposed to be?”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “You just compensate for it with your needle size.”
I picked up a skein of inexpensive bulky yarn for practicing. I didn’t know if I was a loose knitter or a tight one, so I assumed that in most things tighter is better (ahem!) and decided to get the number 10 needle so that if I happened to be a loose woman, things would… tighten up nicely.
I may be a cheap knitter, I thought, but I refuse to be a loose one!
Knitting Commences, Swearing Ensues
My Facebook friend, Sarah, is a prolific knitter; I’ve seen many of her lovely projects posted to her wall, and even been the recipient of a gorgeous (and toasty warm) cowl. So, when I got home with my knitting treasures, I dropped her a message asking whether she had any advice. She directed me to YouTube and Ravelry.com, where she offered to help me find some good beginner patterns, and wished me luck.
If you’ve never searched YouTube for beginning knitting tutorials, you’re in for a treat. (I say that in the most sarcastic way possible while rolling my eyes dramatically.) It turns out there are two different styles of knitting—English and Continental. And not all video-makers will tell you which style they’re using, leaving you to stare in confusion because what the person on screen is doing doesn’t even remotely match what your hands and fingers have been trying to accomplish. There are also approximately 378 different ways to hold your yarn to keep adequate tension. (Okay, I’m being facetious, but everyone does it differently.)
After what felt like hours of watching videos, it seemed like I had the knit stitch down, and I was knitting Continental style, more by accident than by choice. Now I had to learn to purl, but that stitch was an elusive little bitch. No matter what I did, or how many videos I watched, I couldn’t seem to manipulate my fingers, my yarn, and my needles into the right positions at the right time without growling, “Fuck!” and scaring the cat. (The dog, bless his little canine heart, is immune to profanities.)
I complained to Sarah. She was encouraging.
“You’ll get it,” she said.
But I had my doubts. I was apparently a knitting moron, forever doomed to curse and throw things and frighten small animals. And then finally I found knittinghelp.com, watched a tutorial video on Continental knitting and purling, and suddenly things began to fall into place. I was working stitches! It wasn’t elegant, and I looked like a total idiot because the needle-holding technique I developed involves propping one needle against my boob while forming a palsied claw with my left hand, but I was making rows of stitches happen. (Bonus: The pressure of the needle end against my breast turned on my left headlight. That’s more action than I’ve seen in a while!)
Patterns and Things
Eventually, I was knitting well enough that I felt I could attempt to make a scarf for my son. Hey, if I could get this knitting thing rolling I’d have a bunch of Christmas gifts, made with love and cheap—er, affordable and washable—yarn.
Writers often recite the trope: “Writing is rewriting.” I submit that for beginning knitters, knitting is re-knitting. And that may be true even for veteran ones. My great-grandmother (aka – Little Grandma) had knit every day since she was a little girl, and I still have vivid memories of her ripping apart a project upon which she’d somehow made a grievous error. (I remember because mine were the hands she would rewrap her yarn on while scowling and muttering to herself.)
The problem with knitting patterns is that you actually have to pay attention. If you don’t, you’ll find that it’s easy to accidentally screw up. I’m riddled with ADD, so that’s a sort of double-jeopardy I wasn’t prepared for. Just one little distraction and suddenly my pattern was pooched, or I’d slipped some stitches, or something was coming unraveled for absolutely no reason. (Well, there’s always a reason. But let’s pretend for my sake that there’s no reason. No operator error.)
After screwing around trying to make repairs (and watching more amateur videos on said repair-making), oft times I would find myself ripping apart numerous rows of stitching to the chant of: “Fuck, fuck, fuckity, fuck…”
I also found myself frustrated by how many times stitches slipped away or hid or became otherwise twisted, frayed, or elusive. At one point I messaged Sarah:
You ever count how many times you say, “Come ‘ere, you little fucker!” or some variation on that theme while knitting? I say it once every third row or so. I think my fucker-to-stitch-ratio may be off.
She laughed and said that was normal.
But I completed a scarf with a nice seed stitch pattern and a selvaged edge. And I’m not even embarrassed by it! Then I made a couple of nifty fingerless gloves with a nice, soft, fuzzy yarn for my daughter. For those, I figured out how to make ribbing and create a basket-weaved look. The thing with knitting is that eventually you get it. Eventually, you understand the basics, develop a rhythm, get the whole yarn tension thing (turns out I’m a tight knitter by default because that’s how I roll), and find a way of holding your needles that works and, if you’re lucky, stimulates body parts.
Scarf of Destiny
I’ll admit it—I got cocky. I had a couple of completed projects under my belt, and I felt like I was starting to understand this whole knitting thing. At times, it was even soothing rather than frustrating. There’s a sort of Zen vibe to knitting, where you’re focused and tranquil and just sort of in the moment. Everybody needs more Zen in their lives.
But there are also projects that will kick your ass. The Doctor Who scarf I decided to knit for my husband (who’s more like a long-distance…something because he lives an hour away and sees me every other weekend or so and, well, it’s complicated, okay?) is one such project.
This scarf is supposed to be 66 stitches wide. That’s bad enough, but if you know Doctor Who, then you know that the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker’s scarf was like… 70-jillion rows long.
I started out following the pattern precisely—66 stitches and all. But they barely fit on my needle, and they kept falling off. I persevered. I was about 30 rows or so into the project (and it had taken all damn day to get there because of the scarf width, light yarn weight, small needle, and how tedious the whole stupid thing was) when I discovered a flaw that I had no idea how to fix. An edge area was coming unraveled. And this was all taking way too long.
I decided, reluctantly, to start over. I ripped the entire project apart to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat, except it went like:
Fuck, fuck, fuck this shit
Knitting fucking sucks!
Angrily, angrily, angrily, angrily…
The last line is spoken in a sort of monotone drone:
You’d better appreciate this, you bastard.*
I started over. I made the scarf 20 whole stitches narrower (and it’s still quite wide) and eschewed the pattern. In my many hours of watching YouTube tutorials, I have learned that the stockinette stitch will curl if used to make a scarf, so I opted for the garter stitch. If you’re not a knitter, allow me to explain that the garter is the simplest stitch there is—you simply use the knit stitch repeatedly. (It’s all about the knit, ‘bout the knit, no purling.)
I find the garter stitch kind of… ugly but functional. Although it honestly doesn’t look bad on the Doctor Who scarf (the pattern for which was presented without any designated stitch), if someone knits you something made entirely with the garter stitch, you can safely assume that either the project gave the knitter fits or, at some point in your life, you have given the knitter fits and s/he harbors some resentment.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.
*Note that my husband is not actually a bastard. His parents were married and everything.
Despite the Obscenities, Knitting Is Love
Knitting takes time. Knitting can be fraught with frustrations. There may be knitters who blissfully turn out projects without uttering one invective or even so much as batting an eyelash, but I like to think that the rest of us, especially the newbies, don’t like them very much. Even my sainted Little Grandma, who never swore once in her life, was known to mutter a temperamental, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” while tearing out a row gone awry.
But if somebody takes the time to knit something for you, do that person a favor—love it. Even if you receive a bright yellow sweater with puffy shoulders and a horse design knit into the front, such as the one my Little Grandma gave me, you wear it, damnit. Wear it for Christmas dinner, say that it’s warm, and extend to the knitter your undying gratitude. You might also do her a favor by suggesting things you would actually like so that she can direct her efforts toward something you’d be willing to wear in public.
If someone knits you a gift, know that they’ve invested time and energy into picking out the perfect pattern, and the perfect yarn in the perfect color just for you. And know that knitting takes time and commitment. Even a small project (like the fingerless gloves I made my daughter) can consume an entire afternoon. Someone may get you a cool gift picked out during a trip to the department store or while browsing Amazon.com, but the knitter’s gift is the result of hours of work. The knitter has dedicated a slice of her (or his) life to making you something special.
If someone knits you something, they love you. They may have cursed over it, but even those words of frustration ultimately result in an expression of love. From the knitter who makes hats for cancer patients, or beanies for newborns, to the mom who painstakingly crafts sweaters, knitting is love. Treat your resident knitter to genuine gratitude.
And if my story inspired you to take up knitting yourself… keep your fucker-to-stitch ratio in check, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Header image by Madellnetosh. Creative Commons license.