Monday, May 28, 2012

right-minded ripping

I am working through a draft of my next (and last) book. It's a book about pattern drafting--about taking something from your closet or your dreams, and executing it. And as I use that word "execute," I am reminded that to execute is to both create and to destroy.

How fortuitous that that particular word came to mind. Because to create we may have to destroy.  The previous post quoted the principle at PIXAR which said to be wrong as fast as you can. That means
          1) make something
          2) *then destroy it
          3) to make something better:
          repeat from *.

Ripping is essential to knitting. And in the next book I acknowledge this necessity. I do this as kindly as I can, and with as much encouragement as I can, knowing our reluctance to pull out hours of work.

So I read that part of the book to a friend--who does a lot of carpentry--to make sure it had the right tone. And we had an ensuing conversation about what he called "right-mindedness" during a "tear out." Here are some of our conclusions.
  • If you are certain you know what the problem is, don't let the sun set before ripping. (Otherwise, you'll pack the piece away and "get to it sometime . . . .")
  • If you are not absolutely certain you know what the problem is, sit with it for a while . . . sleep on it . . . play with it . . . to see if you can't fix the problem in some creative way that does not involve a complete tear out. Do not pack it away and start on something new until you have done this. The result might be the piece telling you what it needs. (And no, I do not hear other voices. Knitting is my only inanimate object that speaks aloud.)
  • Rip in public--with dignity, with decorum, with sedate pride. It's a valuable lesson for others to see a knitter (who knows the lesson of patience better than most) pull out hours of work to get something right.
  • Rip in private, and curse if needed. (A young person raised in my household went off to university and called after the first month to say he'd been in a common room where someone behind him was swearing like crazy, so he turned around to see who was knitting.)
  • As you rip, remind yourself that the first thing you were going to do after this project was find more knitting: you just found it!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Be wrong as fast as you can!

John Lassiter (the creative director at PIXAR) was on Charlie Rose a while back. What a lovely man! He's passionate about what he does, he speaks intelligently about it, he has created some of the most wonderful entertainment we know. But above all he seemed very wise.

One thing he explained was that it takes four years to create one of their films. And because it is such a long and expensive process, they do the editing before the "filming." Unlike live action films (in which things can be fixed in the editing room), animation needs to be fixed before all those very expensive and time-consuming drawings are done.

So a guiding principle at PIXAR is "Be wrong as fast as you can!" They know, as all creative people do, that mistakes are an inevitable part of the process. There is no guiding principle to not make mistakes: just get them over with as fast as you can please!

We could certainly translate what he says to knitting. As far as things like this go, knitting is expensive and does require lots of time and patience. So how do we take this wisdom and apply it?

I hear knitters say they are afraid of one thing or another--and it's usually about mistakes that would waste time or yarn. But, in fact, there is no such thing as waste. Those "mistakes" have to happen. We need to make them so we can learn from them and move on . . . better for the experience.

Maya Angelou said "You did what you could until you knew better, and when you knew better you did better." So sometimes we can't know a thing and have to mess up before we learn to do better. The best we can hope for is to hurry the process.

But because so many of us are afraid of our mistakes, we follow the pattern. (The shop LOOPS, in Tulsa, has a knitting bag that reads I will follow the pattern through the gates of hell!!! We can only hope they were being facetious?!) And when we follow patterns, we create some of the difficulties I wrote about in my previous post.

The thing is to look at our work critically (as John Lassiter might advise), to understand that we know this isn't right, then to learn from it and move forward.

Besides, fear and knitting are not two words I think should occur in the same sentence!

Monday, May 14, 2012

For whom are patterns written?

While teaching, I often launch into what I call a "rant" against one of many common knitting practices that are clearly not in my repertoire (else I would not rant!). And I know I swim against current streams, but my list is looooooong, and my rant is pretty loud and strong. Here is a list of the practices I find myself railing against.
  • knitting in the round in anything other than fairisle or a garment with heavy cables
  • knitting top down
  • 3-needle-bind-off at shoulder seams with or without short rows
  • one-piece raglans
  • slip stitches as selvedge in anything other than garter stitch or scarves
  • slip stitches at the beginning of round neck bind-offs if a neck edging is to be applied
  • short rows and live stitches for round neck shaping
While explaining my reasoning for not liking one of these practices, a student wisely asked "So why are patterns written with these instructions?" And I answered "Because the pattern was written for the knitter, not for the sweater." 

"That's really good!" said the student. (Since I had given my reasoning, and since she was a wise woman, she agreed with my rant and thought the statement perfect!) Yes, I thought, that really is good. But what does it mean?

It means that sweater patterns are written in such a way that works for the knitter but not the sweater. It means that sweater patterns are written in such a way that the knitter can look at her knit pieces and say "Wow, that sure looks good!" But then the student is faced with finishing that is near impossible to make look good (in the case of the last 3 bullets), or a sweater that isn't often flattering (in the case of the 4th bullet), or a sweater that droops at the sides over time (in the case of the 1st bullet), or a sweater with a ditch rather than a tight shoulder seam (in the case of the 3rd bullet), or a sweater where all manner of shaping happens early in the knitting and before we get to really know our gauge and stitch pattern (in the case of the 2nd bullet).

Obviously, there are long explanations for each of my rants. And here's just one of them--against garments knit in the round. What are we trying to avoid? Side seams--the easiest and most invisible of our seams. Why would we do this? We don't own sewn garments without side seams (except for occasional T-shirts which skew after washing), so why would we knit them in our more flexible knitted fabric? Seams are the skeleton of our garment. Look in your closet, and you won't find a sewn garment without side seams. You'll also find dresses and coats with additional seams at center back. It is a rare knit fabric that does not benefit from this structure. 

And consider this. If you knit your garment in pieces and find that the front is too big, you can make the back smaller. (I have many garment with M fronts and S backs.) If you knit in the round, you cannot adjust as you go: what you get is what you get.

For these and other reasons, I stand by my statement that patterns should be written in such a way that gives the best possible result for the sweater itself. Because that's what will make a knitter feel really proficient and clever! And then she can happily and proudly satisfy my most common rant: knit what you wear, wear what you knit!

I know there are differences in opinion out there, and I truly look forward to a dialogue.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

"stick to your knitting"

I do think I've heard this phrase. And I have to admit that when I've heard it I've assumed it to be negative: don't poke your nose in where you don't belong; you don't know much so back off; stop trying to pretend to be more than you are. Does any of this resonate?

So imagine my surprise when I heard the phrase used on Charlie Rose one night (If you don't know him, he's a well-respected interviewer, on PBS every night at 5pm.) and in a very positive way, as advice from one of our geniuses. Here's the story.

Charlie was interviewing Walter Isaacson,  who'd written the wonderful and definitive biography of Steve Jobs. They were discussing what made Steve the genius he was. And Charlie told the story of being with Steve at an event at which they were both being honoured: TIME MAGAZINE's 100 most influential people. Charlie was talking to him when he noticed a young tech guy he knew would be thrilled to speak with Steve. So Charlie called the young man over and said "Steve, what advice would you give this young man?"

And Charlie reported that Steve said "Stick to your knitting."

I had to rewind my machine to be sure I had heard right. And I had. And Charlie went on to extrapolate that Steve had used this in a truly positive sense, as the best advice he could give: "stick with what you know." Both the biographer and Charlie discussed this as part of Steve's genius.

But don't we love how it was expressed: knitting as a starting point for brilliance. I suppose we all knew this all along, but you gotta love it when the big buys go there.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

the optimism of knitters

I have frequently described knitters as unfailingly optimistic (which is, of course, a good thing). Here's why.

Firstly, we do something many do not understand: we spend $16 and as many hours (or many, many more) on what you see below--a basic version of something that most people will never see, something we wear on our feet, something we could buy a facsimile of for a quarter of the price and a few moments of our time.

Why do we do this? Because they're wonderful, because we're worth it, because I believe I'll live long enough to actually wear them out!

But sometimes we don't follow a basic pattern: we do something we've never done before, and we struggle to get it right. While working through the following pattern
  • I ripped and re-knit the neck (because it was too low),
  • I ripped and re-knit the sleeves (because they were too long),
  • I ripped and re-knit the cuffs (because they were too tight).
I pretty much knit this garment twice to get it right.

original BEST-OF-BOTH TUNIC TOP, available on
(What I tell myself through this process is "As soon as you finished this piece, you'd look for more knitting. You just found it!")

But people see us ripping and ask Why would you do that? Why would you spend all that time knitting and then rip it out? Mostly it speaks to our optimism: there is a way that this garment will be right, and I'll keep working until I find it!

(Apparently I did get it right, 'cause while wearing it in Montreal a woman pointed at each part of my outfit, gestured enthusiastically, and said something about "ten thousand." Was she, in French, offering me $10,000 for my outfit? I choose to think so!)

And then there is the faith-keeping required when our knitting looks like this.

Who but a knitter would keep going when the project looked like this? But we do, knowing it will turn into something treasured.

for baby girls, available for free 

And then there's the terminal optimism of a knitter who finishes something, tries it on, sees that it looks like crap (that being a technical term in knitting), and doesn't break stride before she's off to the yarn shop to repeat the experience!

(I offer no photo of the latter. Let's just say I can't put my hands on one at this moment?)

For all this persistence, faith, and optimism, I saw we're wonderful! I say KNITTERS ROCK! And if there were any justice, we'd rule the world!