There’s an old saying: When the student is ready, the teacher will come. While this may be true in other disciplines, it does not apply to knitting.
Ask a knitter how (s)he learned the noble art, and you will frequently hear a heart-warming tale of sitting at the knee of a patient, apple-cheeked grandmother being lovingly instructed in the manipulation of treasured family-heirloom needles to create a misshapen but highly-praised potholder. This is not how I learned to knit. I came late to the woolly art, never having spent much time with either of my grandmothers, who could not be described as patient or apple-cheeked even when they were around.
The year was 1980. I had recently ditched first husband and was living at the Cockroach Arms, a dilapidated apartment complex so far from the right side of the tracks even the motorcycle gang who owned the club house next door only dropped by on weekends and public holidays to drink beer and rumble in the parking lot outside my living room window. I didn’t have a television, but didn’t really miss it because I’d just nabbed a new programming gig at a start-up company located in a converted gas station over twenty miles from my digs and half a mile from the nearest bus stop. Whatever waking hours remained after overtime were devoted to the commute.
At Christmas, the company gave us two weeks off and a twenty-five dollar bonus. I decided to spend this windfall at the local secondhand bookstore, where a few sci-fi classics and the occasional Georgette Heyer could usually be found tucked in among the Harlequins in the dollar bins, with the intention of reading through my vacation. The bookstore happened to be next door to a handicraft shop which had a bushel basket filled with oddly colored yarn just outside the door, on sale for 25 cents a ball.
This is as good a place as any to begin sharing voice of experience tips. For all you newbie knitters reading this post, here’s VOE TIP #1: any yarn on sale at 90% off is NOT a bargain.
As I flipped through one of the bins at the back of the bookstore, I found the second book of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which I’d already read but was considering re-reading if I could find the first and third books and didn’t find anything more appealing that I hadn’t already read. (Of course I know Foundation is actually a septology, but at the time, only the first three books had been published. Now where was I? Oh yes… )Tucked between the pages of the book was a folded pamphlet that had obviously been used as a bookmark. I unfolded it and discovered a 1956 knitting pattern for a gorgeous cable and lace cardigan.
VOE TIP #2: There’s a reason grandmothers start young knitters out with potholders. Cables and lace are ADVANCED techniques.
Lacking ancestral input, I decided to make this cardigan. My friend’s grandmother was too senile to put her clothes on right-side-out and she knit all the time. How difficult could it be? Instead of buying books, I stole the pattern/bookmark and went next door to the handicraft store, where I bought ten balls of pinkish-brown acrylic yarn, the most plentiful color in the sale basket, and two needles in the size recommended by the helpful saleslady who threw in a pamphlet entitled Beginning Knitting – A Compendium of Techniques for the New Knitter. I had enough money left over to treat myself to take-out Chinese on the way home.
As I ate my Sichuan noodles, which happened to be the same color as the yarn I’d purchased, I carefully studied the instructions for knit and purl stitches in the Compendium. Piece of fortune cookie, I thought, and settled down on my couch with yarn and needles to create a masterpiece. The first instruction in the pattern read: Cast on 220 stitches for back, so I returned to the Compendium and studied the cast on diagrams, which turned out to be much more complex. Four hours later, I’d managed to cast on 47 stitches when the first stomach cramp hit. I moved from my couch to the bathroom and cast on the remaining 173 stitches between purges. Exhausted, but triumphant, I went to bed.
The next morning, in the cold sanity of daylight, my 220 saggy, snaggly stitches did not, in any way, resemble the tidy edge of the cardigan pictured on the front of the pamphlet. They flopped loosely over the needle like earthworms that had expired simultaneously in the middle of an orgy. Undaunted, I started again and two days later probably became the first person in recorded history to master the art of casting on before learning to how to knit. The experience, coupled in my memory with the residual effects of food poisoning from Sichuan noodles, has left me with a worm phobia that remains to this day.
Chuffed with my cast on success, I spent the next week in an insanity of determination, pulling out and re-knitting so many times the cheap yarn frayed and snapped. When arcane techniques not covered in the compendium were required, such as 6KFC (six knit forward crossover) or KTBL (knit through back of loop), I went out and bought a secondhand book on knitting techniques that cost more than the yarn and needles combined. I celebrated every completed row with a Rocky-esque victory dance, every dropped stitch initiated an agonized howl of defeat. It was a pinkish-brown fight to the death.
On Christmas day, while my biker neighbors slashed at each other with broken beer bottles in the parking lot, I finally finished the back. Casting off the last stitch, I held up my work to admire my accomplishment. In the flashing blue and orange lights of the police cruisers and ambulances, I realized this would never be the back of a beautiful cable and lace cardigan. Aside from looking like Tyrannosaurus vomit, it was three times too big. At best, I might have passed it off as a warped, lumpy, saddle blanket for a sway-backed Clydesdale.
VOE TIP #3: Always check the gauge.
Crushed by disappointment, and not knowing anyone who owned a Clydesdale, I threw my failure in the garbage. But I’d learned a lot, and I’m not the kind of person who gives up easily. My second knitting project, a potholder, did three months sterling service before melting into a sad, pinkish-brown scab on a hot element, which the landlord made me replace.
VOE TIP #4: Do not make potholders out of flammable materials.
Over the past thirty years, I have knit many potholders, many sweaters and blankets, socks and hats, gloves and scarves, even a couple of coats. I can cable like an Aran Islander and lace like an Estonian grandmother.
I wish knew what the hell I did with the pattern for that cardigan. I am SO ready for it.