April 15, 2008


Having had a houseguest for the past few days, I haven't got much done in the way of knitting or spinning, and what I did get done, I either can't talk about (note to self: find out who in my family reads my blog -- had to forbid my mum after blabbing here about her socks, and she got a gleam in her eye...) or didn't take pictures of.

Or don't care about, I guess; I'm using up some old stash making a little rug for the dog to lie on so the upholstery on my beloved mission armchair doesn't get bleached any further from cleaning up his emanations. It's something I'm just throwing together in a hurry, and I wish I'd had the idea a couple months ago so it could've been on that chair during the Time of Mud. He's a good dog, but he doesn't wipe his feet. Anyway, it's just a whole lotta garter stitch, so progress shots would not enlighten anyone.

But that brings me to something I've been wanting to say to someone for a while. Now that I have a fiber blog, I can say it to the whole internet! And I think it's something that needs saying. Without further ado:

In Defense of Noob Knitting

Consider, if you will, the garter stitch scarf. The quintessential First Project. You learn three things doing it: how to cast on, how to make the knit stitch, and how to cast off. And maybe not even that; maybe someone casts on for you, and knits a few rows so you don't have to struggle to get the needle into those tight cast-on stitches. And maybe when it's long enough (or you run out of yarn) you bring it back to that person and he/she casts it off for you. So then you've only learned one thing: the knit stitch. Supposedly.

Supposedly? Well, yeah. Because you've actually learned a lot more than that. You've learned how to hold the yarn, how to hold the needles, what they feel like in your hands. Where you like to sit while you're knitting, how much light you need. Whether you like to chat or listen to music or watch TV while you knit. How long it takes, and how much you can speed up when your hands get used to it. You build up muscles in your hands and arms -- don't laugh, you do! Knitting uses different muscle sets from other hand-doings, and you get sore until you've developed those. Depending on developments, you might learn what a dropped stitch looks like, and maybe what to do about it. You might spot the wily and elusive accidental yarnover -- probably ten rows after you make it -- and find out whether you're the kind of knitter who rips back, or the kind who just knits two together to get rid of the extra stitch, or the kind who just leaves it. You might notice that your knitting starts out tight and then loosens up, then maybe gets tight again as you worry about it, then loose again as you forget to worry and just gogogo.

In short, you learned an amazing amount from that first project, and I bet you didn't give yourself credit for hardly any of it, did you? That's a lot to assimilate. One scarf is probably not nearly enough to really get it. You might need to knit another one; maybe learn to purl and do it in stockinette. Which curls unwearably, so then you've got to learn ribbing. Seed stitch. Fringe. Changing colors. Using different yarns, different needles. See how much you can learn from the humble scarf? Why do we refer to this as the 'scarf stage', as if we expect the new knitter to pupate or something? Scarves aren't a 'stage', they're a full-credit course in knitting skills!

Now, conventional wisdom tells you, after you 'graduate' from the 'scarf stage', you're supposed to go on to something trickier. And then something harder after that, and harder after that. And until you're churning out acres of lace and Fair Isle by the mile, some people will always treat you like a beginner.

I'm here to say pbpbptht to that!

There is nothing wrong with simple knitting. Nothing. In fact, I encourage anyone who enjoys knitting to work on things -- well, things they enjoy. Not things that reduce them to tears. I promise you, you'll still be learning a lot.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that you really love scarves. That's all you want to knit. So you knit a zillion of them. You knit them in different yarns, you knit stripes, you knit big and small and in-between. Cotton, wool, silk, acrylic. Sock yarn and ultra-bulky. Four-bucks-a-pound yarn from Wal-Mart and exquisite one-of-a-kind handspun. You knit them on wood needles, metal needles, plastic needles, circulars and straights. You knit a dozen scarves the same size and seam them into an afghan. You knit scarves for everyone you know, matching their styles, picking sizes and weights and colors and textures that will flatter them. You spend years knitting nothing but scarves.

You know what? After all that, you probably know more about the art and craft of knitting than I do.

Me, I'm the kinda guy who's hungry for challenges. Every skill I don't have is like a birthday present I'm not allowed to open yet. I can't help shaking it and smelling it and picking at the wrapping. While I'm learning lace stitches, I'm pausing every couple days to open my 'Knitter's Bible' to the entrelac page and drool on it. I also have a reasonable yarn budget and a high frustration tolerance, so I can afford to be that guy. But not everyone is, and that's cool.

Maybe you have a high-stress life and you knit to relax. You don't feel like spoiling your relax-time by trying to do something challenging. That's cool, it's your yarn, and you're the one holding the pointy sticks. Take it easy, have fun, enjoy it.

Maybe patterns drive you nuts, and reading them gives you a headache. You don't feel like attempting something that requires you to knit with a printout, a pencil, and a pad of graph paper beside you.

Maybe you have kids or busy roomies or a chatty spouse or a spaz of a dog who won't let you concentrate. I don't have kids, but on the rest of it, I'm right there with ya, and I won't attempt anything new in the middle of the day while everyone's running around. I only learn new stuff when everyone's settled in for the night; if you don't get that quiet time, nobody can blame you for giving the 16-row lace charts a miss.

Maybe you're a Zen master, and knitting the same stitch over and over is your way of being in the eternal empty Now. Well... if you're a Zen master, you're probably not the least bit bothered by other people's opinions, or much of anything really, so that's all right. :D

What I'm trying to say here is: challenge yourself as much as you want to be challenged, and you will still be learning even when you're not stressed out. If you like to pick a sweater out of a book and then learn all the techniques you'll need to know to knit it, good on yer. But if you like to master each step before moving on to the next, that's every bit as good. You will be the absolute boss of those steps, while the sprinters of the knitting world still stumble over some of the basics.

And when some self-congratulator at the yarn store raises an eyebrow at your 20th scarf while she's proudly dragging around a lace cardigan (which she's cried buckets of private tears over and ripped back nine times), just give her a humble smile and say, "I'm working on understanding the soul of Merino right now. I think I'm close to grasping its nature; here, touch." She will pet your scarf, try not to look impressed, and then go buy herself three skeins of the same yarn you're using. Betcha anything.


Marsha said...

I think you're after Elizabeth Zimmerman's heart with this post. :)

I just happened upon your blog. Love the name of it--I can TOTALLY relate.

mosrael said...

I don't think I've ever made a scarf... My grandmother taught me how to knit a smallish rectangle when I was eight or so, but I'd describe it as more of a large bookmark. I think it's still hanging off a lone bent needle somewhere.

I agree that the best project to make is the one you WANT to make! Of course, persons such as myself look at things like this or this and think, "Damn! I want one! Now how the hell do I make it??" Not to mention that my current gear consists primarily of two sets of size 9 needles and a shit ton of crochet hooks, all handed down. Guess I'll settle for my scarf-equivalent - crocheted drink coasters. :D

Jesse said...

Nice ta meetcha! I've heard many good things about Elizabeth Zimmerman, but for some reason I don't have any of her books. I ought to remedy that. :)

Hey, whatever works. My mom has a large collection of crocheted coasters, she says you can never have too many. And if you ever get the urge to make, say, a circular shawl or a tablecloth, it's the same principle, but with a lot more video-watching. :D