Saturday, June 23, 2012

slowing down time and getting better at what we do

So we’ve all heard that time is relative. Einstein proved that if you ride through the universe on a star and eventually pass the speed of light, a) time will go backwards, b) time will cease to exist, c) you will crash and burn. One of those.

What we know, without being scientists, is that time passes differently depending upon what we are doing (Time passes more quickly when you’re having a good time.) and upon our age (The older we get, the more slowly time passes.) The good news is that the first of these italics is not true: the experience itself may seem to pass quickly, but an accumulation of such experiences will slow time. The bad news is the second is true: as we age, our brains experience the passage of time as speeding up. Or so it seems. But let’s see if we can reverse this.

Why does time’s passage change with age? What scientists have found is that we slow time down when we are having new and exciting and engaging experiences. (I would also suggest that we slow time when we have many such experiences to anticipate.) Hence children—whose lives abound in these—experience the slow grind of time towards holidays and birthdays. On the other hand, us older folk—who tend to have settled into routines of fewer and more familiar activities (with not as much to look forward to)--experience the unbearable swiftness of time’s passage . . . especially unbearable because we know the hourglass to be more than half empty.

So it isn’t exactly age that speeds up time: it’s how we behave as we age. The good news, then, is that we can slow the progress of time. Whether in knitting or in life, all we need do is look for new and exciting and engaging experiences!

And how does this relate to getting better at what we do?

As we approach competence in some skill or activity, we go through the following three phases:
  1. cognitive (in which we learn how to do the thing)
  2. associative (in which we gain proficiency)
  3. autonomous (in which we go into auto pilot).

Okay, so the first two make sense. (And related to the subject of time, you might see time moving more slowly through the first and then speeding up through the second.) But what of the third? What is this, why do we do it, and what does it mean for our experience of time?

Once we get really good at something, we go into what’s called the OK Plateau. Once our brains have decided we’re good enough at this, it doesn't try to get better, but it does allow us to do the activity unconsciously so that we can direct the brain’s important energy towards doing other things at the same time.

All this means that, if we stay at that OK level of proficiency,
  • we’re never going to get better at this activity,
  • unless we do something new and exciting and engaging at the same time, time spent in this proficient activity will pass more quickly.

How to override the speed-up of time? We could make time pass more slowly by doing something else (reading a great book) while knitting. But that’s not going to make us better knitters.

How to become better knitters? What we most need do is challenge ourselves by going back up to step 1—the cognitive stage— to challenge basic assumptions, step outside established comfort, ramp up expectations. The experts say that To improve, we must watch ourselves fail and learn from our mistakes. This means forcing ourselves back to the learning-how-to-do-something phase, and only by doing this can we get better at our activity.

But consider this: while challenging ourselves, we’d be involved in something new, exciting, and engaging, which would slow down our experience of time passing! And we'd be eagerly anticipating the results of this new thing! The result would be a classic two-fer (also known as a win-win)! Life is precious: why not get better at it and slow down time while doing so?

In case this seems like a recurring theme for me, it is: see Be wrong as fast as you can and Who do we follow patterns? and My most common knitting mistake (where I bemoaned the knitting of simple things from which I did not learn and that I do not wear). Clearly, I’ve talked about this before and will likely do so again.

(The research stuff in this post came from Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.)

Monday, June 18, 2012

my most common knitting mistake

After 55 years of knitting and making pretty much every mistake you can imagine, my most current recurring mistake is to make something I will never wear. This is compounded if it's knitting from which I don't learn anything new.

What are these pieces most likely to be? Believe it or not, what sets me totally against the current wave in knitting is that these pieces are scarves and shawls!

In the past year, I have knit the following.
  • Jane Sowerby's leaf and trellis (twice, once as a square and once as a rectangle)
  • Stephen West's spectra and bluewhale
  • Maylin tri'coterie designs' wingspan (twice, once over 72 stitches rather than the 90 of the pattern)
  • Veera Valimaki's stripe study and color affection (I am half way through the latter but have now decided not to finish it.)

These are lovely accessories (and here's a photo of the wingspan, spectra, and stripe study as evidence). I am especially fond of the Jane Sowerby piece and the Stephen West spectra from which I learned much.

These lovely things are decorating my home and closet beautifully. And I don't regret making them. I'm just finding myself talking myself out of starting anything else in any way similar.

Because I don't wear them! Why? Too hot? Forget? Don't know how? Because they obscure the hard-fought necklines of my sweaters? Because my best features are my neck and shoulders? All of the above? I don't know.

I made each of these patterns because I got caught up in the fact that everyone was making them or I saw a friend wearing one with great and enviable style.

BEST-OF-BOTH TUNIC TOP available on   

But they aren't me. And I won't wear them. So I need to (again) learn to knit things that bear some resemblance to what I actually wear--to re-establish the connection between my knitting and my closet rather than knit things that just hang there.

As I said earlier, when I make something I love to wear I'll make it three times.  Here's a picture of something I have knit three times and am busy exploring further. And I'd rather do this than make something once that I'll never wear.

It's about honouring our craft, which I do better when I knit what I wear, wear what I knit. Plus I learn more when I knit something that requires fit to my body and coordination with my wardrobe. That's the place I'd rather inhabit.

Friday, June 15, 2012

why we follow patterns

So are we the first generation of knitters to feel the need to follow the pattern? Surely our grandparents didn't do so? Surely they knew a pattern to be a guideline to be adjusted for individual fit? Or maybe they didn't use patterns at all?

So what's with us? Why are we "afraid" to deviate?

I think it has a lot to do with global economics. Here's my reading of the situation.

50 or so years ago, if someone bought a sweater, someone might say "Why would you buy that when you could knit it?" NOW if someone knits a sweater, someone might say "Why would you knit that when you could buy it?!?!?

What transpired in those intervening years? Globalization. What did globalization bring? Cheap sweaters! So if we needed a sweater, we bought it. (And we can assume we didn't buy it if it didn't fit.)

At the same time, the price of yarn went up. Why? Simply because it could? Yarn certainly became a "luxury" item--something that people with time and disposable income could indulge in, people who could easily buy the sweaters they'd wear. But having said that, the yarn we can buy is infinitely nicer than the yarn of those store-bought sweaters. Even really really expensive sweaters are made with yarn I think inferior to what's in my local yarn shop!

So really nice yarn was now in the hands of people with enough time and disposable income to knit. And what did we look to knit? Pieces in which the knitting itself  was exciting!!!!! (Remember, we could buy what we wear, so why not knit something way more interesting?!) Hence all the brilliantly innovative patterns offered over the past many years. But some were so innovative that there was no room to modify fit: consider all those one-piece modular item without instructions (or places) to shorten, lengthen, etc.

And so we are a generation who follows patterns because the sweater might be too complex to change. Or the yarn might be too expensive to risk. And through those years we lost the sense that patterns are a guideline. At the same time, patterns weren't particularly invitational in that regard.

But it is definitely time to take back our power! And how do we do that? By doing what our grandparents did--by re-establishing the connection between our knitting and our closet.

How do we do this? Here's my list--including things some of you already do and probably missing things some of you do that I haven't thought of. (If you have suggestions to add to this list, please let me know!)
  • By contacting yarn companies, magazines, and book publishers asking that they please write patterns more appropriately--with invitations to adjust for fit, with proportions of pick-up-and-knit for front bands.
  • By not being afraid to knit a garment.
  • By knitting simpler garments that look like what fills our closets and in which we can work out fit issues. 
  • By not being afraid to rip out and re-knit until we see what it takes to get it right. 
  • By checking measurements for whatever we make against something we own that fits! (This thing does not have to be a sweater. I've check measurements for sweaters against blouses, T-shirts, dresses, jackets.)  
  • By checking measurements for whatever we make against something we own that doesn't fit! (That's right! Even if it doesn't fit, we can see what we'd need to do to make it so!)
Through this particular rant, I didn't yet tell you my most common knitting mistake. I'll save that for the next post . . . But I will tell you that it's very much related to the major thread of this one.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

not following patterns, part 3

So the final issue on that list a few posts back (the list of places where we shouldn't follow the pattern if it's written in the "traditional" way) is the number of stitches for a cardigan band.

Patterns are traditionally written as follows: pick up and knit 137 stitches along the front edge . . . EVENLY.

That was helpful!? How do we do this????

This is so not what you need to hear because . . .
  1. If you shortened your front (to make it the right length for you) this number will be too high and you'll get what Elizabeth Zimmerman called dread frontal droop.
  2. If you lengthened your front (to make it the right length for you) this number will be too low and your front band will flip open.
  3. If you don't get the same row gauge as the pattern, this number won't be right.
So what we need to be told instead is with what proportion did the designer pick up and knit: 1 stitch for every 2 rows? 3 stitches for every 4 rows? 5 stitches for every 6 rows?  This suggestion is what we need to hear to start. (If your row gauge is different, this suggestion won't work for you, but at least it gives you a place from which to start and then adjust.) Then, after your pick-up-and-knit row, you should be told to count stitches, then decrease or increase as needed across the next row to achieve a multiple of (for example) 4 + 1 stitch. (This multiple will be whatever your edging stitch pattern needs.)

I've had some strange reactions to the suggestion that a number of stitches should never be offered--from open-mouthed silence to "but I'd be afraid"--there's that word again!--"to not be given a multiple."

I'd be more afraid to give you one, because you might be tempted to try and achieve it! On the other hand, giving you a multiple is real information from which you can work.

By the way, it's perfectly okay to give a total for the number of stitches for a neckline because it's what we call a closed system--you don't shorten or lengthen a neck opening. But I do think it's helpful if patterns give a little information about how to achieve the correct number before offering that number--like, for a V-neck example, pick up and knit 4 stitches for every 5 rows along the diagonal, etc--approximately 121 stitches.

To be fair, printed patterns (especially in magazines) are trying to save space, so for that and other (more misguided) reasons they give abbreviated and misleading instructions without options. It behooves us to understand that and be able to see past those instructions.

But why don't we? Why do we trust the pattern instead of ourselves? That's the subject of my next post.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

not following patterns, part 2

So the next item on the list two posts back--the next place in a pattern that should be personalized--is the number of stitches to cast on for a sleeve.

Here's my history with respect to this subject. . . .

I have really really small bones. This translates to really really small wrists. So, before I started writing my own patterns, whenever I knit someone else's the fit on my wrists was sloppy. Add to this that I didn't know how to get sleeve length right, and you've got a mess on your hands. (No pun intended.)

So I learned long ago to make the wrists of my garments fit by doing the following:
  • knit the front or back first;
  • wrap the cast-on edge around my fist to find the minimum number of stitches that allows my hand to pass through;
  • cast on this number of stitches for the start of my sleeve.
Because my wrists were small, this always meant casting on fewer stitches than the pattern suggested. If my sleeve had a cuff, after the cuff I would increase to the number of stitches the pattern increased to and then continue with the sleeve as written. But if the garment had no cuff, I had to work the sleeve increases more rapidly (every 6 rows instead of every 8?) to get the number of stitches the sleeve wanted by the time I reached the armhole.

If the sleeve was 3/4 length, this method still served because (at least for me) the minimum number of stitches that allowed my hand to pass through was the same as the number of stitches that fit will on my arm at 3/4 length. If the sleeve was shorter than 3/4 length, I'd wrap a cast-on edge around my arm where and how I wanted the sleeve to start, and I'd cast on that number of stitches.

I just never trusted a pattern to know how skinny my wrists or arms were. (Both my arms and legs are pretty skinny . . . at least I assumed that because my wrists and legs are my arms would be too . . . maybe with gravity and age I should re-consider that assumption about my arms . . . okay, too much information.)

So this is what I teach in my classes--to not follow the pattern but to cast on the right number of stitches for you. And I'll remind everyone that this also works if you knit your sleeves down:you'll just use a bind-off row rather than a cast-on edge. It also, of course, works if you have thicker wrists, so cast on fewer stitches, then work fewer increases after the cuff or work your sleeve increases less rapidly as your progress up the sleeve.

Why is this so important--especially if we are competent at getting our sleeve lengths right? Because a sleeve that fits at the wrist is a lovely thing! But, more importantly, remember that the right number of stitches for your hand is also the right number of stitches for your arm at 3/4 length? So if you are having an I feel fat in my sweater day, you can push up your sleeves to expose the slim part of your arm (and the skinny girl under the sweater): your sleeve will stay there because you cast on the right number of stitches for it to do so!

Like shoulder width, this is not a suggestion that is part of our published patterns. As much of a proponent as I am, I don't address it in my patterns. It would make them too long and complex. What I'll do instead is talk about it up-front in any fit discussions--like the first chapter of MOTHER-DAUGHTER KNITS. And I always talk about it in drafting classes.

So isn't it wonderful that we have classes or forums like this to open this discussion?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

not following patterns, part 1

There is a lovely yarn shop in Tulsa OK (LOOPS) that has an hilarious knitting bag for sale. It reads I will follow the pattern through the gates of HELL! We hope this is tongue-in-cheek?

Okay, so why not follow the pattern? 

Of course, there are occasional mistakes in patterns that we need to recognize and not follow. But this is not at all what I am speaking to. As elaborated in the previous post, there are places in the pattern where we must alter the pattern to get the right fit.

Where are they? Wonderfully, they aren't that many. But they are mighty! Get this right, and your garment fits: get it wrong, and well, we know that result all too well.
  • any kind of length--garment, sleeve, or waist
  • shoulder width
  • number of stitches to cast on for a sleeve
  • number of stitches for a cardigan front (if the pattern gives a total)
Speaking to the first issue . . . Forever, knitting patterns have said "Knit to 10 1/2" or desired length." And it was easy enough to just say Okay, I desire 10 1/2". They know what they're doing, right?

But they don't! Your size was based upon your girth, and the pattern writer has no idea how tall you are! You follow their length, and you might end up looking like Mrs Doubtfire!

This rather wimpy instruction is very different from the sewing world's SHORTEN OR LENGTHEN HERE. And it is to this standard that I wish knitting would adhere. As I said in the previous post, this says 1) do something and 2) do it here!

But what about those other 3 bullets?

Adjusting for shoulder width is a relatively new concept in knitting but, oh, when your garment fits on your shoulders your garment FITS!

It's odd that in the knitting world--and, I might add, in the ready-to-wear world--garments have ever wider shoulders for every larger sizes. (You've seen this, a pattern that reads 14 [15, 16, 17 18]" across the shoulders of 5 sizes for a sleeveless or set-in-sleeve garment. And you've bought many a set-in-sleeve garment whose shoulders were cut this way!)

Why? Because this graduated shoulder width does not reflect the population! When measuring students in class, over 50% of them have 15–16" shoulders. And I've met XS's with 18" shoulders and 2X's with 14" shoulders. So what I've started doing is one size shoulder width for all. And then I've added the following instruction: WIDEN OR NARROW FOR SHOULDER WIDTH BY WORKING FEWER OR MORE DECREASES. When you knit this pattern, you'll just reduce at the armhole to a different number than the pattern--and deal with it when you bind off for the shoulders.

For example, if you decrease to 72 (instead of 76), you have 4 fewer stitches than the pattern. When the pattern's shoulders end with "Bind off 5 stitches at the beginning of the next 8 rows", you'll bind off 5 stitches twice but 4 stitches twice--because you have 2 fewer stitches on each shoulder. And this is really easy to do when there is only one set of numbers across the shoulders and neck--as happens when we don't have graduated shoulder widths for 5 sizes.

If knitting patterns are responsive to our needs, they will adhere to this standard. 

In following posts I'll address the other 2 issues. And in a follow-up post I'll talk about why we think we need to follow patterns. And then I'll tell you my most common knitting mistake!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

My answer to our most common mistake

In case you didn't read the comments, here's what was offered.

Fiona said not knitting the right size--which is terrific and something I should have remembered as a frequently-offered answer.
Collegeknitting said not creating enough ease or checking ease for other than the bust.
Wildflower said  knitting without personal modifications, especially with respect to length.
Suncat said not personalizing fit.
Carolyn said being afraid . . . to knit what you like, to customize a pattern.

So, all responses were about fit. But before acknowledging how close these are to the words that flew out of my mouth, I'd like to address what Carolyn said.

Believe it or not (and as Carolyn seems to know), I hear knitters say they are afraid--to knit a sweater, to rip, to change parts of a pattern. And my response is that fear and knitting are two words that should never occur in the same sentence. There are many things in life to fear, but knitting should not be among them.

Okay, so my answer was about fit. My response to "the most common mistake knitters make" was . . . they follow the pattern! Who said that?!?! I write patterns!!!! Why would I say that???

 . . . because there are places on a pattern that must be changed.

When we chose a size, it is solely based upon girth (and on the girth of the largest part of us the garment will cover--so good idea to check schematics other than bust). The patterns does not know how tall you are, or how long your arms are, so, every pattern should say SHORTEN OR LENGTHEN HERE, telling us 1) to do something and 2) where to do it.

In addition, if you shorten or lengthen, then no cardigan pattern should read pick up and knit 137 stitches along the front edge!!!!!!! If you shortened, if you lengthened, or if your row gauge does not match the pattern's, this number is not helpful and probably incorrect. Instead, the pattern should tell you the proportion with which to pick up (maybe 3 stitches for every 4 rows) and then the multiple needed for the edging's stitch pattern (maybe 4 + 1 stitch).

I routinely write about and teach pattern modifications. And here's a story I always tell when doing so.

A woman from my old guild knit The Gray Cardigan from MOTHER-DAUGHTER KNITS--a pattern that instructs not only to adjust for length but also for shoulder width. This woman made an exquisite version of this garment, and the first time she wore it someone said "What a gorgeous sweater! It looks hand knit, but then I realized it couldn't be because it fits you too well."

There's more to say on this subject, but that's enough for today!
Thanks for your comments and I welcome more plus any questions you may have.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What is the most common mistake knitters make?

This is a question I was asked by someone in the Seattle Knitters Guild.

What a great question! I did answer--and was a little surprised by my answer. But because it
is such a good question, I've asked it in many of my classes.

Responses I hear are among the following . . .

1. Working to the wrong gauge--either for the pattern or the yarn.

Good answer! Small differences in gauge can mean big results in fit. If you knit the wrong gauge for the pattern, your finished pieces won't be the size you anticipated.

But knitting the wrong gauge for the fabric is a whole other issue. Sometimes we force a different yarn to the gauge of the pattern, and the fabric is just not right--either  too loose or too tight. And when we get the wrong gauge for the fabric, there's not much we can do to fix it.

2. Choosing the wrong yarn for the project.

This is kinda related to the last point above: we pick a yarn that won't get the right gauge or won't produce an appropriate fabric for the garment. And producing a fabric that is not quite right is a much more difficult problem to anticipate. I've done this many times (and have a pile of garments knit in great yarns that need to be ripped out): the yarn was too stiff or too drapey and didn't give the right result for the project.

3. Not buying enough yarn

It has been a fascinating discovery to me that if you knit the piece in a different yarn you will not use the same amount of yarn! I think this so very counter-intuitive--that you can knit a second version of something . . . in the same size, to the same gauge, over the same number of stitches and rows, but in a stiffer yarn . . . and you will use more yarn! 

4. Choosing the wrong style.

We knit something that looks fabulous in the photo but really bad on us! Maybe this speaks to the optimism of knitters?

Okay, so that's a list of common responses, all very good, all very thoughtful, all very appropriate. But they weren't my answer.

What would yours be?
I'll tell you mine in a couple of days . . . .