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.