On Giants' Shoulders

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Not A Natural Knitter

I think I've mentioned this a time or two before. Knitting for me is a hard won skill. It's been hard won every step of the way, and even now when I can knit socks without a pattern, make variations of Jackie Fee's sweater that aren't in the book, and change out yarns without a second glance, there are some things that still elude me. The current pattern I'm knitting is one my daughter found on Ravelry. It's a cute short sleeved cardigan that I've loved on her. I haven't knit anything big for myself in a couple of years, and I'm short on sweaters. She said this one took like two days, so it looked like a go.

Well the first problem was that the designer has the pattern in a small/medium only. I'm definitely not a small/medium. However, on Ravelry there were loads of people who'd modified the pattern so that it was my sized. So I cast on and used one of the most frequently mentioned modifications, only to discover that the directions for the very first increase row were wrong (as in you didn't end up with the number of stitches that it said you would). Now this is not because I did it wrong. I sat down with pencil and paper and figured it out. The directions were actually wrong. They were also wrong on the second increase row, and the third. So I figured out the increases to get to the right number of stitches and blithely went on my way. Then, having decided that I liked the idea of shaping (the first modification didn't do that) that I'd pick up with the second modifier's directions for shaping. She had supposedly followed the first modifier to that point. Uh, well, she'd almost followed to that point. Her first step was five stitches off the first modifier's numbers at that point. I couldn't figure out how to get to her numbers without going back and ripping out a bunch of rows that I didn't want to. So I went back to the first modifier's pattern and figured I'd just make the thing with no shaping. My daughter said that everyone was fooling around with how many stitches to cast off at the sleeves because the various ways made a different sort of sleeve. She even told me that she was going to do it differently the next time (she's made two or three of these). Well I couldn't see the benefit of each different sort of cast off.

The people on Ravelry who modify these patterns are much more like my daughter than they are like me. While I may not always be a "blind follower," I probably do need to have pretty accurate directions the first time around. Hence, my struggle with Elizabeth Zimmerman's Baby Surprise Sweater. Without the additional instructions I found online, I never would have finished even one of those. I wish I could just simply do modifications like that. I wish that when a designer says just add extra stitches (you figure out the math) to make a bigger sweater, I could consistently do that, but I can't. I can make the yoke of a dress longer, I can make a toddler dress with a size 2 chest and a size 4 length, but I can't do the sorts of modifications that some of these people seem to manage in their sleep. When the Yarn Harlot talks about grafting lace stitches together in the middle of a scarf it's almost enough to make me break out in hives.

I can't really "see" what things are going to look like until I've actually done them. Once I have I can then at least some of the time figure out a modification that I like, but it's got to be there in my hands. The funny thing is that when I'm learning a new stitch, just showing me isn't necessarily going to work, or at least not the way my daughter "shows" me. She's very much of the "you do this, this, this" (all accomplished at lightening speed) type of demonstrator. I need to either read the whole thing out and put my own hands through it, or watch the steps interminably on U-Tube.

She's a natural knitter. Knitting is like a second language to her. She learns new stitches easily and quickly and enjoys the challenge of it. I learn new stitches slowly with some difficulty and give a sigh of relief when I get back to just plain knit. It's pretty much the same way with sewing. I can sort of follow a pattern, and I do occasionally make something, but I don't love to sew and I avoid altering patterns. My daughter, like my sister can simply see the way something will work, and make changes as she goes along. The odd thing is that I taught her to knit, and with the exception of a very few things, taught her the basics of sewing. My sister lived far away, but gave her a couple of lessons, my friend Chris taught her to put in a zipper, and someone else taught her a swing tack. Other than that she learned from books. Of course, her father is an engineer, her grandfather was a carpenter, and her great grandfather also had the ability to make stuff up as eh went along. Too bad all of that skipped me.

I do think that not being a natural at all of this may make me a better teacher of it, however. I understand some of the problems that a beginner knitter has because I've had them. It's much easier to identify with the frustrations of the beginning knitter when your stuff still doesn't always go the way you want.

I now know that designers don't always get all the numbers right, that sometimes the way a designer has done things can actually be improved on, and that sometimes the best thing you can do is rip a row back.

This morning I figured out that yesterday I'd made a truly boneheaded mistake. Somehow I'd managed to knit in the wrong direction (i.e. I was knitting back and forth and somehow switched directions in the middle of a row (obviously I'd put the knitting down, lost a few stitches off a needle and when I picked them back up headed in the wrong direction. This meant a frustrating hour of tinking (which is much slower than knitting).

What I also realized yesterday is that a small medium of this sweater may take only a couple of days, but an extra large takes somewhat longer than that. Even though I knit all afternoon I only made about three inches worth of progress (which of course had nothing at all to do with the fact that at that point in the sweater the small had about 107 stitches to the row while I have over 160 stitches to the row!). So the sweater I hoped to wear to church today will have to wait until next week for its debut.

So for all of you non-natural knitters out there, take hope. When you see me knitting socks without a pattern, realize that it comes after years and years of knitting socks. Realize that I still don't know how to knit from the toe up. Every time I read about knitting socks with the magic loop it makes no sense to me and I'm glad to be knitting mine on double point needles (even if the stitches do frequently fall of in my knitting bag). Want to learn to knit? Don't go to the experts. Come to someone like me who is no expert, who frequently makes dumb mistakes, and who understands the problems of beginners. You'll probably find that once you've mastered knit and purl that you're more like my daughter than you think. Maybe it will turn out that you, unlike me, are a natural knitter after all. After all, that natural knitter daughter of mine -- I taught her every thing about knitting she knew before she was fifteen.


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