It is not reasonable to be so proud of a washcloth, and yet.

washcloth

For years, people asked me if I knit. I guess they figured I was the type.

“No,” I’d answer. “I’m not a knitter.”

I wasn’t. I couldn’t knit. Simple as that.

****

I love hand-knit goods. Always have. I love the nubby texture,  the rough imprecision, the way these items scream out “Someone made me! I am infused with soul and love!”

My favorite baby gift? A small striped cotton blanket hand-knit by a former colleague. I draped this blanket over infant Charlotte every time I pushed her in the stroller; it is now folded among the baby things I cannot bear to lose. One of my favorite purchases, ever? A set of hand-knit wool stockings for which I paid an outrageous sum of money at a boutique in Brooklyn. I left these stockings behind with a family member when we went to Peace Corps and never saw them again.

My favorite sweater? My favorite hat? My favorite socks? Hand-knit, all of them.

But me? Not a knitter. How could I be? I didn’t know how to knit.

***

Years ago, I spoke with a woman who ran a program designed to bring 21st century work skills to young people in a struggling community. Many of her students had dropped out of high school. All faced limited options. Originally, the goal had been to teach them simple computer skills: how to build a web site, how to create spreadsheets, how to use Pagemaker. All the youth needed to do, people assumed at first, was to master some technical programs, then join prosperity of the new economy.

Quickly, though, the program leaders learned that student challenges went far beyond a lack of technical skills. The technical skills were necessary, but they alone were insufficient.

“One of my biggest challenges,” said this woman, “is that the students seem to think that knowledge is a fixed property. They assume that if they don’t know something, they don’t know it, and that’s that. They don’t wonder how they can find the answer. They don’t realize how simple it can be to go from not-knowing to knowing.”

I sighed, and shook my head at this worldview, in which knowledge appears fixed.

“Wow,” I said. “Wow, that’s such a shame.”

We stood together for a moment, lamenting how hard it was to teach a human being how to learn something new. More than that: we lamented that people needed to be taught that they could learn.

I’m sure it was a mere days, maybe weeks at most, before someone asked me, again, if I knit.

“Nope,” I replied again. “Not a knitter.”

***

I wrote recently about attending a child’s birthday party, where I sat surrounded by Moms Who Knit. I watched as these women’s fingers moved dexterously over wool, I listened to the comforting clink-clink of their needles. I studied their hands, unable to detect the pattern in their movements. I watched closely, and still didn’t see the logic.

Then one of them handed me what she was working on, and I tried it myself. She guided my fingers, slowly: once, then again, then yet again. Ever so slowly, a pattern, a logic, began to take shape.

One of those moms sent me home with yarn and needles. At home, I tried some more. I knit, I unraveled. I made mistakes. I growled. Sometimes I even yelled at the yarn. One morning, I met the Moms Who Knit at a coffee shop, and they handed me two needles, a simple pattern, and a ball of white cotton yarn. “You can do this,” they said, with more optimism than frankly I thought the situation deserved.

It is like learning a new language, knitting. It feels awkward. You can feel your brain, and parts of your body, stretching in ways that don’t feel natural. You mess up. It doesn’t work. People don’t understand you. The yarn just won’t do what it should.

You fumble. You feel stupid. You feel stupider than you want to. Your tongue, your fingers, just won’t work right. At your age, to feel so inept. At your age, to make so many mistakes, to be so incompetent. Even children can do better. They do, all the time.

And then something happens. You walk into a post office and successfully order a packet of stamps. Or you tell a cab driver that you need to go to the train station, but first you need to swing by your room to pick up a bag, and he actually understands you.

Or maybe, just maybe, you knit a washcloth.

And when you do, you realize something: that knowledge really isn’t fixed. And more important: that somehow, somewhere along the line, you had started to believe it was.  I’m not a knitter. I haven’t learned to knit. The two sentences are so similar, yet the gulf between them is immense. All along, you had been no more open than those years-ago students who were trying to master computers, the ones whose worldview you had tsk tsked. Different subject, same worldview.

Knowledge is not fixed. Nothing is. You can knit a washcloth. And if you can do that, there are other things you can do, too. You can — eventually, with plenty more fumbling, of course — knit your own blankets, your own beloved stockings. Other possibilities open up, as well; if you can do this, perhaps you can ski down that mountain, learn the trumpet, figure out what that whole Reimann hypothesis thing is all about. You can raise a chicken, master another language, maybe even at age almost-40 learn to do a split, something you never attempted even in your most flexible days. Absurd, I know. But maybe.

It is a single, simple washcloth. It is perhaps the simplest item that can be knit. It is a far cry from the masterpieces of the Yarn Harlot or Kate Gilbert or Kristin Nichols or SouleMama. It contains at least one visible mistake. It is uneven. It is lumpy. The color, in your house, is wholly impractical; it will soon be dingy gray. It is perhaps the most humble item ever knit by hand, and it is unlikely to look better with time. Still, this nothing of a washcloth changed everything in a way. With this washcloth, and a good amount of help from friends, I went from being a non-knitter to a knitter.

Just look. The evidence is right there, in that photo.

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21 Responses to “It is not reasonable to be so proud of a washcloth, and yet.”


  1. 1 lisa January 12, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    You should be proud! Your washcloth has such even stitches. And it feels good to learn something new and have an end product. I just learned how to knit last year, and after the same frustration as you, I stuck with it, and really enjoy it.

  2. 2 behan January 12, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    You GO, knitter! I love this post, really love it. I “learned” at my grandmothers knee and forgot it all by age 16, then discovered knitting again when my third child was born. You’ve beautifully captured this (as you do for so many things). Isn’t the satisfaction wonderful? I can’t wait to teach my daughters.

    I’d stopped knitting since we left the Northwest. I mean, what’s useful when you’re on a boat in the tropics? Well, now I know. I can’t wait to start a new project. Thank you!

  3. 3 Anna January 12, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    Bravo! I think you captured the view about fixed knowledge very well, too.

  4. 4 Anna January 12, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Btw, glad you’ve got a supportive group to help you progress with your knitting. Be sure to support your local yarn store (LYS), too. There’s never been a better time to knit in my lifetime. When I finally *really* learned to knit 18 years ago (I was 29 yo), it definitely *wasn’t* cool or hip. Aside from the enjoyment, I think I sometimes used to knit as a way to express my contrariness (me, contrary? ha! now I have other ways to express that).

    Nowadays knitting is so mainstream, it almost never raises eyebrows, even when men or boys knit. And younger women are knitting now and not being called “Becky-Home Ecky” or accused of not supporting feminism; when I learned to knit (and was frequently knitting in airports while on work trips, or even hotel bars!), there were lots of comments about being too “young” to be a knitter. Now at the ripe age of 47, no one would ever say that, even if knitting wasn’t anti-feminist again.

    One more thing about knitting – in this day and age of cyber-yarn stores (too remote to help when you are stuck with an immediate problem and your knitting buddy is on vacation) and big box discount craft stores (which usually can provide no knitting help) – *most* yarn stores are happy to help stranded knitters. That said, I think it should be fairly obvious the LYS help will probably be a bit more forthcoming with help for customers than for people who buy their yarn and supplies at discount stores but then want to avail themselves of the expertise of the store where they don’t shop.

    Can you tell I worked 6 years part-time in a LYS? I happily helped anyone who needed help, time permitting, with shopping customers getting first priority, of course. I always hoped to encourage new knitters and gain a new customer’s business for the shop, but not *all* LYS owners see it that way).

    And if you find one LYS that “doesn’t fit” (they all have their quirks and “individual atmosphere”, due to sometimes quirky owners – did I say that?), try another LYS until you fit one you like. They vary quite a bit, from very welcoming to “old girls club”, not to mention the stock range varies quite a bit.

    Not saying you don’t already think about this (in fact, I’d be surprised if you didn’t think already put some thought into this, knowing how you are with local food, Ali), but it’s just a reminder for any knitters and potential knitters, so that we continue to have LYSs as a local resource.

  5. 5 Crystal January 12, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    I’m so jealous–I want to be a knitter too. Do you want to teach me? Because nobody else does.

    I remember trying to get my grandma to show me when I was little. She sat down with me and then remembered I was left-handed, sighed, and gave up. The same thing happened with a super sweet lady (who came to volunteer when we were living at the Ronald McDonald House) that I tried to get to teach me. She couldn’t figure out how to tell me to do it left-handed, but I stuck around hoping we could figure it out. Unfortunately, I think I scared her away because she never came back again. I don’t know why I’ve never yet found a left-handed knitter, but when I do they aren’t getting away…

    (Beautiful post by the way)

  6. 6 lime January 12, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    i’m a long time lurker but this post i HAD to comment on. it just makes me want to stand up and shout. better yet, give yo a bullhorn and let you shout. wonderful, wonderful concepts and example here. thank you so much for sharing it and congrats on joining the ranks of knitters.

  7. 7 Anna January 12, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Crystal, Knitting isn’t right or left handed; both hands have something to do, just like playing the piano. No one reverses what the right and left hands do when playing the piano, unless I suppose, the piano is made with the strings in reverse order.

    That said, there are a number of technique varieties different knitters used to create the same stitches and fabric effects, (so the knitting motions may look a bit different from one knitter to the next), but mostly they involve variations on which hand holds the “working” yarn strand and whether the yarn is wrapped around the active needle (the needle taking the stitches) or whether it “picks” at the yarn to make a new loop/stitch.

    This variety is more based on geographical/cultural knitting preferences (different cultures have different ways) than on which hand is dominant. I’ve known right and left handed knitters hold the working yarn either hand so hand dominance doesn’t determine that factor. Most knitters learn one way and stick with it, but some more active knitters do learn more than one way, to increase options with different projects (circular, multiyarn, flat, entrelac, lacy, etc.).

    UK knitters do tend to hold the working yarn in the right hand slightly above the work (knitted fabric) and wrap the yarn around the right needle and pull the new stitch through the loop, therefore overall, that is the way many American knitters hold the yarn make the basic knit stitch, but certainly not all, especially if taught by those of recent European heritage.

    European knitters, especially Scandinavians and Germans, tend to hold the working yarn in the left hand, slightly behind the work and pick the yarn through the loop with the right needle to make a new loop on the right needle. Sometimes this is called “German knitting”.

    The vast majority of knitters, both right and left handed, knit the stitches off the left needle onto the right needle. In my 6 years working at a yarn store, taking many knitting classes, and attending 3 knitting conferences, I’ve only ever run across maybe 3 or 4 knitters who routinely knit all the stitches from the right needle onto the left needle.

    There are some knitters who knit them in either direction to avoid turning around, but this isn’t very common either, and is usually a technique learned long after the beginner process is over, as a way to increase speed and efficiency in entrelac patterns. South American knitters often use a technique that involves bringing the working yarn around the back of the neck to better tension the yarn, and their knitting is reversed back to front compared to most North American, UK, or European knitters, bit if I remember right, they still knit stitches off the left needle onto the right. Tehy do soemthing different with their thumbs, I think, but I don’t remember the details exactly.

    I will put in a plug to learning whatever the dominant technique is for knitters in your region, because if those are the folks likely to help you; it helps to do as they do. They can help you better than way and ultimately you’ll probably struggle less.

    But in the end, it all comes down to what makes the fabric the way you want it to come out and not what you do to get it done. Standardized ways are just more practical if you are doing standardized patterns or needing assistance. If you can get it done another way on your own, go for it. You may have something to teach the rest of us!

    And remember, all the techniques feel awkward at first when on is learning, no matter if you are right or left handed. It just takes a certain amount of knitting practice before the mind, the muscles, and the rhythm all come together to not feel so strange and complicated.

    HTH

  8. 8 Lauren January 12, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Yay you!! Well done, and welcome to a whole new world of yarn and knitting. You’ll love it here.

  9. 9 mominma January 12, 2009 at 11:44 pm

    We knew you could do it. Congratulations!

  10. 10 Amy January 13, 2009 at 2:10 am

    A word about handmade dishclothes. Aside from being entirely practical, thrifty and quick to knit, you can also find 1,000 ways to express a personality, with a few well placed knit and purl stitches. Last year, I gifted a particularly wonderful teacher with a dishcloth with a Star Trek emblem knit into the pattern. I also gifted an old hippy aunt with a peace sign dish cloth. For less than a dollar’s worth of cotton and an hour or so of your time, you can find a present that will express your feelings for your favorite people, perfectly. But be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole. Knitting with cotton all the time can be rough of your fingers and hands, as it isn’t as soft and forgiving as wool.

    I heartily agree about the need to support local yarn stores, and I do frequently, but have you heard about the yarn CSA? While you don’t get to sheer your own wool, you can join and get a share of the shearing and you can get to know the lambs and kids you are supporting. Visit the Martha’s Vineyard & Hudson Valley Fiber Farms to meet Sue the Shepherdess.

    So Ali, what are you going to cast on for next?

  11. 11 Emily January 13, 2009 at 3:32 am

    It’s beautiful. Welcome to the fold.

  12. 12 Karen January 13, 2009 at 4:04 am

    Congratulations, Ali!

    I wish there were a good local yarn store around here. There was one in Adams but I think it closed. There was one in Bennington but it went back to online only. There’s Colorful Stitches in South County–not very local, and quite expensive. Seems like there should be one in Williamstown, maybe on Water Street?

  13. 13 Anna January 13, 2009 at 6:47 am

    Is Putney VT too far? Green Mountain Spinnery is wonderful – local fiber, ecological, organic options, etc.

    www dot spinnery dot com

    Waaaay up n VT near the border is a great online shop Copper Moose, owned by Bill, widower dad of a young son. His wife Crystal died tragically young, and he works hard to carry on her fiber arts dream. Well worth supporting.

    So many great fiber resources in the Northeast, you are lucky, indeed.

  14. 14 Ali January 13, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Well done! I learned to crochet this year. I also learned to ride a bike, something I never, ever thought I could do. I think more than I learned how to do either of those things, I learned how to learn things. That, as you say, knowledge is not fixed, the skills I have now are not set in stone, that the identity of being ‘not-a-rider’, ‘not-crafty’, ‘not-good-with-my-hands’ is just a screen in front of my fear of the process of learning. Because learning’s hard, especially learning new physical skills. It’s hard to be bad and clumsy at something (as you inevitably will be as your body and brain adjust), it’s hard to look silly in front of other people, it’s hard to ask for help, it’s hard to absorb the mountain of beginner information that, prior to diving into the skill, you would never have been aware of. But it’s fun, and it’s so worthwhile, to go from “I don’t-” to “I haven’t learned, but I might like to try”.

    Congratulations on your washcloth, it’s beautiful. I have a lumpy, odd-shaped and enormous scarf that I am equally proud of. And once you’re into it, you’ll be so surprised at how quickly more and more beautiful things are flowing off your needles.

  15. 15 Maribeth January 13, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    Hi Ali
    Sweet washcloth! I am so happy you are knitting. I find it so interesting that we so often feel a block when trying something new. It is simply part of the process, a part that we need to gently acknowledge, but then disregard. I believe that repetition, practice, discipline, and perseverance are really all that is needed to become decent at anything.

    I also appreciated your writing about how special handmade things are. I recently wrote on my blog about giving a handknit hat to a little girl I know. Check it out if you already haven’t. I think the story reflects your feelings nicely.

  16. 16 andrea January 13, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    This so inspiring…I learned to knit many years ago and have since then knit a few items here and there…fewer than one per year when averaged out…then the other day I was reading a knitting book and saw that the author had only been knitting two years before she wrote the book…I was like, “What have I been doing all this time?”

  17. 17 Jenna January 14, 2009 at 6:13 am

    Welcome to the insanity.

    And no… its not unreasonable. I’ve been knitting for a couple of years now, and I STILL feel the overwhelming need to rush up to someone and show them whatever new little skill I’ve finally managed in my knitting. The moment your brain switches from grumbling and griping along as you painstakingly work each laborious stitch to flying along without a care in the world comes in an instant – you’ll find a moment in time when you stop what you’re doing, look down and be shocked – simply shocked that you are making the magic of waving two sticks in the air around a piece of string and making something.

    Congrats on the washcloth. A small warning… they are oddly addictive. Snowed in today with a fire to keep stoked, I seem to have somehow cranked out 3 (and my wrists are sore to prove it) and I’ve been trawling the web for new patterns.

    (And if you really really end up hating a white dishcloth? A drop in some unsweetened kool-aid and a little time will give you a nice technicolored one! A wonderful aspect of knitting with cotton.)

  18. 18 kate January 16, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    nice job! we also have white washcloths, and i think i might try to dye them. i was going to use beets. congrats on the knitting. i have not yet learned to knit myself. and, ali, you cannot possibly be “not good with your hands” if you cook. it’s all love.

  19. 19 kate January 16, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    oh, and it’s awesome that you learned how to ride a bike! i ride everywhere (well, not now since the high today in chicago is seven degrees!)but s son as it hits the 20 or 30 degree mark, i’ll be pedaling again. hopefully with some new felted mittens which i will shamelessly attach with ribbon through my coat sleeves and across my back a la kate at 5 years old. i’m sick of losing gloves!
    learning new things can be daunting and sometimes, for me at least, it is hard to admit that i don’t know how to do something. especially if it is something i feel i should know, something i’m “the type” to know. but you have to put the pride behind you and be willing to question, something you seem to be doing lately. i like this new fiber art, quark direction, btw.

  20. 20 Sara January 17, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    My mom is a Knitter with a capital K, I can only hope to aspire someday. Way to go getting started!!

    When Mom helped me move into my first apartment, during the down time she knit me about seven of those dishcloths – exact same pattern as yours. They are SO useful. Yes, they’re all a little dingy now, and half have holes, but I get so much use out of them. Way more sanitary than a sponge (use, toss in washing machine), and gentle on your hands and dishes!

    Speaking of things we ‘know we can’t do’… I suppose I should admit I am capable of learning to ride a bike one of these days.

  21. 21 mojavi at Simple Things January 18, 2009 at 6:51 am

    AWESOME! you go girl…
    i am more a crochetter :) ;lol is that evan a word


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