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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Just K1, P1 for 1115 days

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I taught myself continental style last week, mostly on a whim.

I can say things like this, because I have become fairly proficient at knitting. See, today marks exactly three years since I learned how to knit.

Learning to knit changed my life. I never saw it coming. And since I started learning, I have never stopped.

So, why the continental style? I’m working on a second pair of Newfoundland mitts, as a request from a coworker at the Adult Education Centre, and the first step is to do 7 cm of ribbing. Ribbing is not difficult, but the constant shift from knit to purl can be annoying and is one of the things I am still quite slow at; while I was working on this, I happened to come across an article on a knitting blog comparing styles. It claimed that continental, among other things, is faster at ribbing (I know, I know, continental knitters—you think continental is faster at everything). Until now, I’ve always been satisfied with knitting English—but I’m also interested in expanding my knitting skills. Plus, the article made a compelling point in favour of mastering both styles: you can switch between them to extend your knitting sessions while avoiding finger fatigue (and cramps).

So I rustled up some videos on YouTube and puzzled over how to “pick” the working yarn instead of “throw” it. As was the case with the English vs. Continental battle of calculuses, with Newton’s fluxions battling Leibniz’s infinitesimals, the continental style is, probably, more elegant. It took me a while to get the purling down, but even that I’m feeling more comfortable with—I stuck to it, despite not liking it at all at first, to the point where I can happily churn out an entire row in continental style in about the same time I coud do it English.

Don’t get too excited, continental-style knitters: I’m not a complete convert. Not yet. I’ll play both sides of the field still.

It has been a long time since I wrote an entry dedicated to knitting on this blog—almost a year, if my searching is right. That entry talks about finishing my first pair of socks (this is before I discovered I was knitting in the round inside-out). Since then I’ve made:

  • a couple of pairs of slippers from a pattern my Grandma uses;
  • a really colourful scarf for my friend Erica;
  • my very first pair of mittens, which was a lot easier than I thought they would be, once I realized I was knitting in the round wrong;
  • a scarf, hat, and [another hat](mittens]] for my birthday-buddy Josie;
  • [[, done just because I liked the pattern, but which I have turned into my winter hat (though I miss having a pom-pom and will rectify this at some point);
  • a scarf for a teacher I worked with back in England;
  • and a shawl for my long-suffering former department head back in England.

I’ve been a busy boy! Of course, I doubt this is prolific by any reasonable knitting standards. I remain a “slow” knitter, though that might be more because I seldom knit for more than an hour or so each day, depending on how enthusiastic I am about my current project. But it’s worth pointing out that in the past year I’ve produced more than half of my projects. My goal has been to aim for about one new skill every project, whether it was a new type of stitch, or cabling, or just a type of garment I’ve never made before. I’ve also become confident enough to start giving my knitting away to people as gifts. A year ago I would never have taken on a “commission” from a friend or coworker; now I am eagerly thinking of what I can knit and who I can knit for next.

Yes, the past year has definitely been good to me in terms of knitting. But that’s not why I’m writing this post.

This is my three-year anniversary. I remember the exact day because it coincides with the day we went to the education career fair at LU (this was during my last year of university), so it was the same day I watched the presentations that started me on the path towards teaching in England. Yeah, kind of a momentous day on two counts.

As I said earlier, I never saw it coming.

A surprising number of my friends knit. It’s something I never really picked up on until I began knitting—I knew that some of them were knitters; they didn’t keep it secret or anything, and Carly had even knit a scarf for me!—but I was not part of their world. After I started knitting, we could talk about it. We could knit together. We have another shared experience now, and I have one more dimension to my life I never had before.

Given how many of my friends knit, though, it’s interesting none of them ever tried to teach me. Note to friends: not blaming you! You had no idea I was interested, because I had no idea I was interested. See, this entire episode is an example of how sometimes context of friendship is an important thing—and sometimes the people you aren’t that close to can affect you in the most profound ways, precisely because they don’t know you well enough outside of a single context to really gauge your boundaries.

I had only met Katie a few months before, back at the beginning of our professional year in the education program. We got along well for a few reasons: like me, she was a math fiend. (She has her Masters, though, which is super-impressive!) More notably, we both had math and English as our teachables, a skill set that continues to earn me gasps of wary approval from people who buy into the whole left brain/right brain myth.

I don’t get that myth at all, because it is so obviously untrue. No one is good at everything, but everyone is good at more than one thing. Everyone has some creativity and some amount of logical reasoning and ability to plan—the proportions are never the same, of course; that’s what makes us different. But there are some amazing mathematicians whose rigorous understanding of that arcane discipline only enhances their vital creativity—Vi Hart springs to mind, and Ana Tudor makes some of the most incredible math-based CSS effects I’ve ever seen. And as someone who has worked in an art gallery for years can attest, most artists have a sense of discipline and an ability to plan that would rival an army corps of engineers. Yes, many artists I know are messy, not punctual, and prone to being disorganized. But if you’ve ever seen an artist produce a multi-canvas series of paintings or watched them collaborate with others on a massive project, you’ll understand that they have method in their madness, and that they are far more left-brained than we might give them credit.

But I digress. Katie and I both mathed, and we both Englished. But she knit, and I didn’t.

Then she offered to teach me.

I don’t remember why or how exactly she extended this offer. (I’m pretty sure it was over MSN, while we were chatting about her knitting projects.) But it was unexpected.

I was almost fool enough to say no.

I’ve never been very good at doing things with my hands—at doing anything that impacts the physical world, really. My brother and I possess a stereotypical dichotomy of skills in that way: I’m the intellectual juggernaut; he’s the unstoppable mechanical genius. When it comes to tools and hardware, I’m lucky to be able to use a screwdriver competently. I’ve gotten better over the years—thank you, YouTube—but I still don’t have “the knack” the way mechanically-inclined people do.

So I was hesitant when Katie broached the idea that I might learn how to knit. After all, it looked difficult. It required a type of dexterity and skill set I doubted I possessed—despite playing piano when I was younger, I didn’t think I could move my fingers in the improbable ways knitting would require. To be honest, I can’t remember why I accepted—except that I knew, regardless of the outcome, the experience would be fun, and I had faith in Katie as a teacher!

We made plans: we’d go to the education fair, and then we would go to Michaels together to buy me some needles and wool for my first project. Katie found me the shortrows sideways hat pattern that would become my very first project, dubbed the “Sarcasm Hat” by Carly. (At this point I want to offer a hat tip—no pun intended—to our mutual friend Hélène, also a knitter, who gave me some good advice when I started out and has since been around to help me out of a few jams here and there. She recommended I not start with a scarf, because it would be boring and repetitive and take too long. I think she was right. I’ve knit a few scarves and will knit a lot more—but they are repetitive and long! Glad I chose a hat instead. Thanks, Hélène!)

I was so proud. It was awful. (I redid it a few months later, and it turned out much better!) But it was something I had made. Anyone who has ever made anything understands that feeling. It’s why we coo over our kids’ art projects, even if they look horrible. The pride of a maker is a type of pride all on its own, and there is something doubly special about the very first thing one makes after learning a new craft.

I was a terrible knitter to begin with! The way I held my needles was horribly impractical. My tension was all over the place. I kept dropping stitches, or twisting stitches, and I had no idea how to recognize what a “stitch” was or whether it was a knit or a purl. Fortunately, I had a patient teacher. Katie put up with my incessant inquiries, my photos sent over MSN, my persistent need to ask at odd times about a technique. The Internet is an amazing resource for learning how to knit, but once in a while you just need another pair of human eyeballs to look at what you have done. (When I went to Toronto in the summer to register my fingerprints for my work visa, I visited with Katie and Hélène in Waterloo, and they spent about half an hour at my grandparents working to undo a knot in a ball of wool for the project I was knitting at the time. Now that’s friendship.)

So I was terrible at first. But I stuck at it, and like anyone else, I improved with practice. My confidence grew, my muscle memory improved, and my projects became more complex and varied. I started to use vocabulary I never knew I possessed. I was no longer a novice: I was definitely a knitter, and it wasn’t just a fad or a phase; it was a hobby. I’m never going to be a superstar knitter. I’m never going to be more than competent at knitting—and that’s OK. I never thought I would be as good as I am now, and I am quite happy with what I’ve achieved so far! It’s not my skill level that makes me so happy, though.

I do love that I feel adequate enough to start making knitted gifts. When Erica saw the scarf I made for her as a thank-you present for letting me crash on her couch in Halifax for a few days, the look on her face was just compensation for all the hours that went into knitting the same row over and over for 2.5 metres. There is nothing quite as sweet as receiving something someone made, with their own hands, for you and no one else. I know this myself, so I know what others feel when I give them something. And to be appreciated in that way is wonderful. And that’s not an ego trip, because, you know, knitting is work.

When I was coming to terms with what it would mean to move back to Canada, knitting helped. I was eagerly anticipating my homecoming, of course—but I was leaving behind so many good friends. I had already knit my landlady a cozy for her coffee press in the form of a Dalek. (As with Erica, her reaction of mixed surprise and joy was wonderful—I had been knitting it in front of her for weeks, but she never realized what it was or who it was for!) I resolved to make a scarf for Josie, one of the Canadian teachers I met while at Thetford Academy, who is exactly the same age as me to the day (and I had enough wool left over that I decided to do a hat and mittens too, because I am crazy). Even having returned to Canada, I’m still knitting for people overseas! And why not? Knitwear is light and therefore not too expensive to ship. And now whenever my friends wear whatever I made for them, they think of me, have a little tangible piece representing all those good times we had together.

In that way, knitting is an act of creation and an act of love. A knitted gift represents an investment of time and energy—and, in the selection of pattern and yarn and colour, thoughtfulness. It’s something I can do while watching a movie, or while in a social situation I would otherwise find boring or overwhelming. And it’s so relaxing, the complex interplay of repeating elements of a pattern like the theme and variations of a symphony.

Knitting also appeals to the mathematician in me. After all, a pattern is quite literally an algorithm. There’s a lot of math in knitting, such as making calculations to adjust for different sizes of needles or thicknesses of yarn. (If you want to get really technical, you can start thinking about knot theory and all the ways you can represent cool mathematical ideas in woolly form!) In my quest to transform math education from boring drills and necessary formulas into the living, evolving process of mathematical discovery and creation that I know math can be, I’m always trying to think of ways to make math more creative.

So, three years have gone by. I moved across the ocean, and I took my knitting with me. My needles clacked away on planes, on trains, and yes, in automobiles. Knitting has changed me, entirely for the better, and is now a significant part of who I am and how I identify or describe myself—my one-line bio is usually “I read. I write. I code. I knit.” And it amazes me that, if it weren’t for an offer extended out of the blue, this wouldn’t be me today.

I don’t think Katie understands how significant her simple act of teaching me to knit turned out to be. It is true that the majority of my skills I’ve taught myself since she showed me those first few stitches—that’s an autodidact for you. But I would never, ever have considered taking that first step by myself. Katie, you opened up an entire new world to me. That is something I can’t repay. All I can say is, thank you.

And thanks to my friends who have helped since then. I’m still in awe of what they can do. I love seeing what you put on Ravelry, even if I don’t comment nearly as much as I should. (Knitting, for me, is perhaps one of my most social activities—even more so than reading, because while I write my book reviews primarily for future me, the things I knit are undeniably things I want to show to others. I’m not sure I would have taken to knitting quite so enthusiastically as I did had Ravelry or something similar not existed. That’s the technophile in me, I guess.) I love talking about knitting with you, or getting together and knitting in person. I love it when you humour me, and tolerate my obvious mistakes, and celebrate my genuine triumphs. You were my friends before I became a knitter, and you were wonderful then; now that we have this new shared thing, you are even more wonderful still. There’s a lesson here—something about books and covers and not judging. (I am not surprised, alas, by how surprised others get when I first pull a needle on them. Which, um, is not as street as I make it sound.)

Something I’ve learned from keeping this blog for 10 years is that the ways in which we change over the years are often subtle and seldom predictable. I am true, I think, to the 14-year-old Ben who started coding and blogging. And I’m true to the 22-year-old Ben who started knitting three years ago. But I am also a different person. My voice in these posts has evolved. I couldn’t have anticipated learning to knit, or that knitting was going to become such a fundamental part of who I am. I wonder what the next big thing will be in my life (crossing fingers it doesn’t involve joining a cult).