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The joys of un-knitting

September 6, 2010

If you spend enough time knitting, you learn a lot about making mistakes and finding ways to recover from them. I learned to knit when I was about eight and never stopped. Having created many beautiful and useful things over the years, I have also concocted my share of calamities. Consequently, I consider myself an authority on how to make a mess with yarn and how to clean it up. You can always change your mind about what you’re making, which magically turns the disaster into a work of art. If you decide to back up and correct the error, the most efficient thing to do might be to rip out your work to a point before the mistake and pick up from there. But if the pattern is complicated or the yarn and the needles are small, then it’s safer to un-knit.

Un-knitting is a do-over but unlike deleting text and starting again, it forces me to undo what I did before I can do it differently. That means looking at what I did from a completely different perspective–understanding it from the back instead of the front, from the bottom instead of the top, from the inside out. Sometimes I am stunned to learn I was doing something entirely different from what I thought I was doing, or meant to be doing. (Why this always comes as a big surprise, I’m not really sure.) Occasionally, I wind up inventing a better way—a way that I think is easier or prettier or more interesting. More often, I realize the urge to “improve” is actually the problem and I’m better off sticking to the pattern. Sometimes I knit, un-knit, re-knit and un-knit several times before I learn what I need to know to go forward. It drives certain friends of mine bananas to hear me talk about knitting this way, but I like the tension between goal and process. Staying focused on the objective keeps me moving, while tending to the process keeps me grounded in the moment.

My mama taught me to knit, but I had to learn to un-knit all by myself. She knew what she was doing because the fact is, you can’t teach un-knitting—everybody has to learn to do it their own way, in their own time. It’s less a skill than a state of mind–instead of giving up or bailing out, you muster the resolve to figure out where you went astray and find a way to get from where you are to where you want to go. There are no rules about how to do it, or even whether to do it. One thing I love about knitting is that you make up your own rules and change them whenever you want to. I recently finished a pair of “just keep going” socks—I never turned back, even when I saw a mistake. Unlike most of my sock creations they aren’t pretty, but they kept me occupied at odd moments during an aggravating summer which is the main reason I made them. And they’ll keep my feet warm. Meanwhile, I’ve been working off and on for a year and a half on a sleeveless sweater with a complicated pattern of twisted ribs, beaded ribs and cables. I started over from the beginning not once, but twice. By the time it’s finished, I will have knitted enough stitches to make two or three like it, and spent at least 25% of the total time and effort un-knitting. I’m having a wonderful time with it.

I also love that knitting offers an endless supply of metaphors for life lessons, which gives me plenty to think about when I’m untangling a mess I’ve made.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2010 8:28 am

    This is wonderful–thank you for saying it so eloquently! I started knitting last November and am still unskilled enough to screw up just about every project at least once. The main thing I have learned is not to panic. I take a breath, stay focused, think, un-knit, think some more, re-knit–and sometimes lather, rinse, repeat. My mother (also a forever knitter) says she has learned infinite patience from knitting. I’m getting there.

    Love your blog! And happy birthday!

  2. September 19, 2010 1:32 pm

    Did I miss your birthday? What about crocheting? Why isnt that as popular as knitting?

  3. September 19, 2010 8:25 pm

    You haven’t missed my birthday yet! (today)
    I think crocheting is very popular, just not at my house. Mama crocheted a lot, and all three of my sisters do, but for some reason I can’t quite get it–no matter how hard I try, all I can produce are trapezoids.

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