I love teaching and writing and knitting. Sometimes I get discouraged in my work, and I think that it is frivolous and meaningless and just a way of making money, but then I remember that adding even a little bit of beauty into the world is a small step toward making the world a better place. And sometimes I hear from students and readers and knitters and find out that I am, indeed, making small changes in the world. And then I am happy again. I can’t change the world, or move a mountain. But as my friend Deb Robson once reminded me, a mountain is made up of grains of sand and I can move a grain of sand.
Knitting a Pineapple: Knitting without Tears or Fears
When I knit, I knit with a little fear and trembling. Gauge swatches lie, wool stretches out, and a whole sweater can unravel if a single stitch is dropped. That knitting is very challenging, complex and often times mysterious, keeps me dependent on knitting patterns and far from venturing into the world of designing. But, have you ever noticed that even advanced knitters have trouble stepping out of their comfort zone? A common temptation with knitting is to just sit back and knit, following a pattern exactly and using techniques that are familiar. However, while we may end up knitting beautiful works of art, our knitting will fail to be a reflection of all the talent and inspiration that lies within. For to knit something that is truly worth knitting, one must learn to knit without tears or fears.
The first time I was ever challenged to knit fearlessly, was when I attended a Victorian knitting class at the Interweave Knitting Lab. Taught by Donna Druchunas, the class promised to bring an antique knitting pattern back to life. We were given the assignment of knitting an authentic Victorian pineapple bag. However, we were not given pattern instructions for the bag, instead we had to interpret the old fashion instructions for ourselves.
The challenge of interpreting an original antique pattern is not an easy task. Donna explained that Victorian patterns are written differently than modern ones, not only are the common knitting abbreviations different, but sometimes whole parts of the knitting instructions are left out. Although historians believe that Victorian women knew how to execute the unwritten parts, the challenge for modern day knitters is to improvise. Donna studies pictures, does research, and uses a lot of experimentation to create accurate knitted replicas from the antique patterns. What fascinated me the most about Donna, was that she never hesitated to try a vintage pattern that either had missing instructions or required a lot of guess work. While my knitting was completely dependent on following a pattern line-by-line, Donna was able to make things up as she went along.
Tackling a vintage pattern, not only requires a giant leap of faith, but also a great amount of effort. Victorian knitters used very lightweight yarn on the thinnest needles. Their needles were so thin that they would knit on needles almost completely horizontal to each other, instead of the usual slant downwards. This special horizontal knitting was not born from custom or fancy, but actually occurs as the easiest way to slide the working needle into such a small stitch. Knitting the Victorian way demands patience, concentration, and physical dexterity. Indeed, old-fashion knitting is not for the faint of heart.
The exquisite detail, primitive shapes, and fine stitches give old-fashion knitting a charm and beauty all of its own. As the class continued to knit from the old pattern instructions, precious bags started coming to life. The construction of the bag is clever, the knit stitches used for the bag resemble a pineapple perfectly, with well defined leaf sections coming out of a nubby pineapple body. As I knit the pineapple, I felt more tightly woven with the Victorians than I have ever felt from reading a Victorian novel or watching an historical time-piece. Vintage knitting makes the connection to the past an intimate experience, since I was knitting an exact replica of what was made by women more than a hundred years ago. This old-fashion knitting was changing the knitter in me. I was knitting with a renewed purpose, courage, and boldness than I had ever knit with before.
Although I am extremely proud of the pineapple that I have made, believing that the greatest accomplishments in knitting happen either on or off the needles misses the mark. The most fruitful knitting actually occurs when it stirs up our deepest feelings. The Victorian knitting class helped me to realize that I do not knit to make beautiful things, or to be more creative, or even to become a better knitter. I knit for the sole reason that I love knitting. This renewed passion has allowed me to knit in a different way. I now knit fearlessly, without following a pattern, namely I have the courage to make things up as I knit along.