When I was a little kid, my mother taught me how to sew, knit, crochet, and play chess. I took to sewing, and have loved fabric, patterns, and making things ever since. The crochet lessons somehow didn’t take. Like chess, no matter how many times mom re-taught the skill, I never could retain it. Knitting though...the knitting stayed with me. She taught me English knitting, where the working yarn is held in the right hand. This makes me a “thrower” because the movement of the yarn over the needle with each new stitch is like throwing. European style knitters (or “pickers”) hold the the working yarn in the left hand, picking up the yarn for each new stitch, and pulling it through with the right-hand needle. My mom taught herself both styles, and now uses the European method, which many knitters consider the smoother, more efficient technique.
When I was first learning, I was easily frustrated, prone to ripping out stitches and tossing away the needles, yarn and all, in disgust, when I wasn’t instantly able to produce perfect rows. I expected to be able to churn out gorgeous, fair isle sweaters, and here I was, finding a well-knitted square beyond my capabilities. I particularly remember how much I was bothered by the idea of achieving the correct “tension” in my knitting. I would practice wrapping the working yarn around my right index and little fingers, and no sooner would I begin knitting than my hands would cramp up into a painful claw-like rigor, and I would have to put the needles down. In addition to my problem with the concept of tension - or “gauge” in Canadian parlance - I remember being outraged at the notion of the “gauge swatch”.
In knitting, you are creating a piece of fabric. Just as if you were weaving fibres together on a loom, you are producing a flat (or tubular) piece of fabric from which useful and beautiful things can be made. Knitting patterns provide the knitter with information as to the “gauge”, or stitch-per-inch, and rows-per-inch, size of the pattern. Without this, it would be difficult-to-impossible to achieve the correct size in the finished product. So, what determines the gauge of the knitted fabric? Three variables factor into the equation: the size (diameter) of the knitting needles, the weight (or thickness) of the yarn being used, and the particular way each individual knitter handles the yarn as she knits. Some knitters pull their stitches tight, and others have a gentler, looser touch as they work the yarn.
Each time you begin a new project, you need to find a balance between the three variables - needle size, yarn, and your own hands - that will produce a piece of fabric with body and a little stretch. Too tight, and you’ll end up with a rigid, unbending fabric, that would be torture for someone to wear. Too loose, and you’ll end up with an airy, floppy fabric that won’t keep the cold out. Of course, part of this equation has to do with your intended goal - sometimes you want
airy and floppy, and sometimes you want tight and rigid.
The gauge swatch is a trial-run of the prescribed materials for a particular pattern. A pattern will tell you what weight of yarn, and what size of needle to use. That other variable, however, - the particular way that your hands work and hold the yarn - can only be discovered in the act of knitting itself. So, before launching into a new project, a prudent knitter will do up a gauge swatch - a piece of fabric large enough to show whether the stitches-per-inch, and rows-per-inch, are the same as the pattern intends them to be. Based on that swatch, you make adjustments in needle size or, carry on with the project.
As a younger woman, I could not, or would not, accept the wisdom and the necessity of the gauge swatch. I had no time to poke around, putting effort into knitting that wasn’t part of the finished product. For many years, this aversion to what I thought of as wasted effort, coupled with the painful result of my attempts to control the “tension” of the yarn, kept me away from knitting altogether. I still found myself admiring beautiful yarns, and imagining the things I could make with them, but I gave up the idea of actually knitting.
Here’s what happened as I got older: I found myself in dire need of a form of creative expression. I needed to be making things with my hands. Having been without a sewing machine for a few years, I wasn’t set up for my usual creative outlet. I picked up some knitting needles and some yarn, and tentatively re-embarked on the craft my mom taught me as a child. It was gratifying to find that the muscle-memory of those early lessons had stayed with me. I had internalized the basic movements of English-style knitting, and it took no time for me to get going; knit stitch, purl stitch, casting-on, casting-off, yarn-overs, increases, decreases….I was doing it.
What made knitting possible as something more than a half-hour exercise in frustration, though, had a lot to do with what I wasn’t doing. I stopped focusing on only the finished project, and became more interested in simply forming the stitches, creating consistent rows. Crucially for me - I also let go of my death-grip on the needles and the yarn. I experimented with allowing myself to work the yarn and hold the needles in whatever way came naturally to me. I gave up winding the yarn around my fingers, and just “grabbed and threw” each time I created a new stitch.
The result has been, that knitting doesn’t hurt anymore. My hands don’t end up pinched into painful claws, and I can enjoy the rhythm of creating the stitches. I found out that I actually have my own, unique rhythm as a knitter. My particular way of working and holding the yarn is fine. It’s not better or worse than any other way, and things work out fine when I relax and let the knitting happen the way it happens in my hands. For me, this has been one in a series of life-lessons on the nature of trust, or, more specifically, on the necessity of trusting myself. One more thing: I always do a gauge swatch before starting a new project.
April Ruttle 2017