Wabi Sabi Knitting

Wabi-sabi is the quintessential Japanese aesthetic. It is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble.

It’s the imperfections, the mistakes, the idiosyncrasies, and the blemishes that make life interesting. These are the things that make knitting interesting, too.

I am not a perfect knitter. In many ways, I’m not even a good knitter. I make mistakes and I am too lazy to fix them. I have ten-year-old sweaters with safety pins still securing dropped stitches. I row out–my purls being looser than knits–and I don’t even care. I can’t be bothered to use left- and right-leaning M1 (make one) increases to balance a pattern. And I often use k2tog-tbl (knit two together through the back loop) for my left-slanting decreases even though the stitches are twisted. I use duplicate stitch to hide mistakes in texture and colorwork. Although I will rip out knitting occasionally to fix an egregious error in something that is very important to me, I’m more likely to drop a few stitches down and fix a portion of the knitting even if the tension of the repair isn’t perfect. And sometimes I ignore a mistake completely–even if I notice it before finishing. As the saying goes, “If you can’t see a flaw from a galloping horse, it doesn’t count.”

Arctic Lace ProjectsBut all of these things make my knitting experience–and, I think, my knitted items–more interesting. Each of my idiosyncrasies tells a story about me, and each is recorded in the objects I create.

Outright mistakes might be the most interesting imperfections. Have you heard the story of the fisherman who drowned and was later identified by the cable pattern on his sweater? The legend holds that each fishing village had a signature pattern and you could tell where a man lived by the arrangements of the cables or knit and purl patterns on his gansey pullover.

I think it was much more personal. The body on the dock. The women crying, examining the corpse through tears. The deceased’s face and hands too swollen or deformed to recognize. But one woman notices that the cable on the left sleeve crosses in the wrong direction. “This is Seamus,” she says with utter confidence. “I remember when Claire made that sweater for him. She was so mad that she didn’t notice the mistake until the sweater was finished and Seamus needed it for winter. There was no time to reknit the whole sleeve.”

I have mistakes like these in my sweaters, too. Given a pile of fifty identical garments, knit from the same yarn in the same pattern, stacked up on a table, I could identify my own knitting without hesitation. It’s not just the stitch patterns or yarn that make a garment recognizable. It is all of the personal idiosyncrasies and mistakes that add to the unique character of every handmade item.

Here are a few examples:

  • Folk knitters around the world often knit without paying attention to how many stitches were needed for a pattern repeat.
  • Some projects don’t come out the size intend even after making a gauge swatch because the yarn changes after washing and blocking in ways the knitter didn’t anticipate.
  • Knitters in the past–and undoubtedly some knitters today–used leftover scraps of yarn to make projects and changed colors randomly as they knit.
  • Knitters hold the yarn and needles in many different ways and use different techniques, resulting in slightly different shapes of stitches and unevenness of tension.
  • Mistakes are made, and not always noticed before a project is complete. On one sweater I knit, I made an “afterthought” pocket to cover a mistake in the seed stitch patterning. My mother used a brooch to cover a similar mistake on a sweater of her own.

This is what makes hand knits special. I believe in learning new kills and improving my craft, but I don’t believe in striving for perfection. Not in knitting. Not in drawing. Not in writing. Not in life. It’s the quirks that make it all worth while.

Perfection is not a virtue. It is a lie, a myth, a fragment of someone’s imagination, a confection, an illusion. It is the bane of happiness.

  1. My mother was an amazing quilter and taught me about the Galloping Horse Rule. I often knit at soccer games and when I later find little knitting mistakes I call them “goals,” as I was probably distracted by an exciting moment of play during that stitch.

  2. Milda Stechyshyn 02/27/2016 at 9:21 am Reply

    I will definitely keep a copy of your article close to my knitting room over my many years of knitting. I have made mistakes in items I have given as gifts – not mistakes purposely overlooked, but usually ones noticed after fully completed. Several ladies in the knitting group I belong to, have often commented that a mistake is just a design element! :) thanks you for a great article!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m going to steal that last paragraph, print it out, and put it in a frame in my workroom! It really needs to go on a comfy sweatshirt…you know, the one you pull on when the world is attacking!

  4. My mom is 88 and still knitting for her great grandchildren, she like’s to do blankets and scarfs. She was upset about making misttakes I tell her they are grandma kisses. So she keeps knitting and still has her grandma kisses in her work.

  5. A friend of mine made a shawlette with holes from her short rows, undaunted and still in love with her work she used colorful buttons to cover the holes! That shawlette is a piece of art! So darn clever. We all keep extra pretty buttons on hand now.

  6. I’m going to steal that last paragraph, and post it somewhere in my knitting (as well as whatever other creative endeavor I happen to be engaged in) space. Thanks!

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