Saturday, May 16, 2009

Square 4: Lessons from knitting

Story blanket square 004

Many artists are plagued by perfectionism; I seem to suffer from the opposite. Sure, I can be very picky when I choose to. When preparing a written piece for publication I can become a fussy self-editor. Alright I admit, I can meddle with a casual email or blog post for hours to get the words just right, especially when there is something more important I should be working on, so maybe I have a tight orifice somewhere. But generally when I'm knitting, drawing, doing photography or writing a poem I just do it and enjoy the ecstasy of creative absorption. When it comes time to PhotoShop an image, rip out stitches, twiddle, tweak, revise or correct mistakes, I lose patience and would rather move on to something new and fun.

I tend to knit things for myself, so who cares if I have the wrong number of stitches, or knit when I should have purled? No one else will look closely enough to notice. When I make something for one of my daughters it will frequently be for a birthday or special day. At 3:30 a.m. on Christmas morning I am not about to rip out five rows to get that seam just right.

Usually I am grateful for this personality trait. I do not admire the way perfectionists can torture themselves. "Will I ever get this right?" "This is just bad!" "I am a lousy writer, lousy mother, lousy whatever." "I do not deserve to live." I think I am happier in the Meatballs camp: "It just doesn't matter!"

But last year when a friend commissioned me to knit a hat, that changed. I didn't want to miss a single stitch. It was one of Danny's traveling rib hats, the most challenging pattern I have undertaken. I had to rip out work many times to master the technique. The cost of perfection was high, but in the end I had never been so satisfied with a knitted piece.

From that experience I learned not only some kick-ass knitting skills, but also tasted the pay-off of great patience.

When I finished and moved on to another project for myself, one which had lain idle for almost a year, I determined to do the same. It was an entrelac scarf using Noro Silk Garden colour no. 249. It is my favourite yarn ever. The palette seems to be drawn from a Van Gogh painting like Wheatfield With Crows. I wanted the scarf to be exquisite. There would be no mistakes this time!

I taught myself the entrelac technique from Debbie Bliss's book, How To Knit. More experienced knitters have told me entrelac is too hard for them. Sure, it was a challenge. The first few rows were excruciating. When I got a quarter of the way through the scarf, I noticed that my guage had changed as I got the hang of the technique. I didn't want one fat end and one snug end, so I ripped out hours upon hours of work and started over.

Thing is, I never got tired of working with that gorgeous yarn. Watching the colours blend and contrast, row after row, became a zen experience. I was mesmerized and delighted. I had bought four skeins of yarn for the scarf, but was disappointed when it started to run out. Not that the scarf was too short. I just wanted to keep knitting. In the end, it was my favourite thing I have ever knitted (I'm wearing it in the icon on this blog).

The blue and orange yarn in this square were left over from that scarf. It is a reminder of two important lessons.

First, perfectionism has its place. You might notice errors in some of the squares of this blanket. The first peice was my first attempt at a mitred square. Starting out, I decided to leave some of the flaws alone. After all this is my life, and mistakes are part of the story. But so is excellence, and hopefully that will emerge in the course of this adventure.

Second, the right materials and technique will turn a chore to pleasure. I suppose every artist must learn this lesson somehow, sometime. During the past year I have discovered my own deep well of patience. Yes, I can stick with a big project when it engages my senses and curiosity. It was this self-knowledge that inspired me to launch The Yarn.


  1. I love the lesson of this square. I know when I make a mistake knitting it glares out at me. Most often I frog back and fix the mistake - knowing it's there bothers me to no end. It shouldn't - nobody else will notice, but I will. And yet, in other aspects of my life I'm not a perfectionist. I do tend to hide myself, though. Shroud myself in layers of things that speak of someone and something else. There is the lesson - live with yourself, mistakes and all. Something to think about.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!