Tuesday, October 14, 2014

I promised you a knitting post

A million years ago. Whoops! I actually wound up making a version of it over on the author blog, but I think I still need to make a slightly different one over here.

Because it's not just that knitting is a method of soothing the part of my brain that is comforted and calmed by doing simple repetitive tasks, though that's definitely part of it. It's not just the accomplishment of having those tasks result in a tangible reward. That's part of it too, obviously.

But it's also part of the same project as figuring out how to get tomatoes to grow in a Seattle season, and nailing together a compost bin from scrapped pallets with my own hands. It's about having useful skills, about connecting my time and labor more directly to the sources of my sustenance and comfort. (There's nothing like "working" in front of a computer for eight hours to make me go "...this feeds me how, exactly?") Being able to create a garment directly from twisted threads is good for me right down to the soul. (Being able to twist the threads in the first place would be even cooler; I'm signed up to take a class on using a drop spindle this coming Saturday.)

One of my current projects is a set of densely-knitted slipper socks from Andean Folk Knits: Great Designs from Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador & Bolivia, by Marcia Lewandowski. Who is just as white as she sounds, and occasionally the book veers into using-your-culture-for-tourism territory, but mostly she's pretty aware of the tendency to do that and tries to avoid it -- pointing out, for example, that no matter how romantic she finds the idea of indigenous women hand-spinning, she can't argue with their desire to save time by using commercial yarn when she herself relies on her washing machine, dishwasher, and microwave to make necessary chores move faster. So that degree of self-awareness was nice to see.

Anyway, the thing I meant to say about the book: one of the things that's been neatest for me about it is the details about how working with fiber gets integrated with other things: herders working with drop spindles while they follow their animals. Men sharpening the ends of salvaged bicycle spokes to make sets of double-pointed needles. Colorwork designs being improvised to fit the garment as the knitter works. It's a very practical making approach (which doesn't mean it's dreary in the least; the colors and patterns built into these useful items are glorious).

In contrast it feels a bit like USian knitting culture has a strain of, well... consumerism to it. Acquire the best brand-name yarns! Use the most perfect exotic fibers! Stash a monstrous hoard of yarn you will never have time to use! Follow celebrity designers and rely on their technical expertise! Buy individual patterns! Use a vast array of needles in minutely varying sizes! It's a seductive approach that I am definitely not standing outside of -- I've spent more money than I should have on yarn in the last season. And there are some absolutely lovely finished objects that come out of this stuff-focused style. But I really want to try to remind myself that there is a full suite of skills here, not limited to following patterns; knowing how and why a piece is put together a certain way are crucial. Those are the parts that would let me improvise. That knowledge lets a craftsperson produce work that is more than the sum of its inputs.

And that's a goal I'm actually reaching for.


  1. That consumerist tendency was one of my biggest stumbling blocks, getting into knitting. I mean, when the 'how to knit sweaters' book is telling you you need X number of $30 skeins of yarn, that's a steep sacrifice in the name of learning. And being new to the whole thing, switching out yarns was some kind of arcane science that I couldn't quite wrap my head around. I think that must be one of the best things about having an established knitting tradition - you know where to start, everyone learns pretty much the same way, and once you've got it down you can carry on the same way or innovate to your heart's content. I'm so happy that I can now (for the most part) look at a thing and figure out what I want to keep and what I'd like to change. And if I can't figure out how, someone else has surely had the same problem and made a how-to post about it. :)

    I just found out there's a Portuguese style of knitting as well as Continental or English. Can't find any good picture tutorials, but there are videos: vimeo.com/107463785

    (sorry if this doubleposts, Idk what's happening)

    1. Yes! The point in learning a skill where you understand why Step X is called for, what it will accomplish, is so great. That's the point where you can pass beyond pure mimicry and reliance on instructions, and start to improvise according to what you have and what you need.

      I think making this post actually helped me a lot with my consumption problem; setting it out in so many words let me see what I was doing a lot more clearly, and I haven't bought any new yarn since. I'm just working on the things I'm making for people for this winter, and considering how to meet more of my own staying-warm needs with stuff I have on hand. Mindfulness! Always a good idea, it turns out.