Knitting is filled with opportunities to fail, make mistakes, face disappointment. Dropped stitches, wrong gauges, missed pattern repeats. Knitting is a slow craft, and when mistakes come up they can be slow to fix. Tearing out hundreds of stitches. Starting over. When something wrong comes up, it’s a ripe time to practice non-attachment, letting go of expectations.
– from: “Zen Mind, Knitting Mind” by Jennifer Urban-Brown in Lion’s Roar
It’s inevitable. Whenever someone sees me knitting the first thing they ask is: “What are you making?”
“Mistakes,” I answer.
When the questioner looks at me puzzled, I tell them I’m learning to knit; I’m far from pulling out a pattern and trying my hand at a project. The conversation then turns to stories about mothers and grandmothers knitting. Sometimes, a story of an uncle who knits slips into the conversation, but not as frequently.
Around the knitting table where I’m learning to knit and purl, stories are told of aunts, grandmothers, and family members who spent afternoons sitting on a porch knitting. The stories date back to the days before the revolution when these grandmothers and aunts lived in Cuba. Back then, what we regard now as a hobby or a way to relax, were daily activities on par with cooking and cleaning. Knitting socks, dresses, shawls, and table runners were common knitting projects. One of the ladies related to me how her mother taught her to knit, and how now, years later, she still hears her mother’s words when she stitches and mends her garments.
I have no such stories or voices to share. I don’t know of anyone in my family who knitted before me. In old family albums, there’s nary a person holding skeins or knitting needles looking soberly at the camera. I don’t know that any of my mother’s aunts knitted, and I have never heard my father say that anyone on his side of the family spent a minute stitching. Unlike the ladies around the table, I have no voice in my head telling me how to purl a stitch.
Making mistakes is inevitable as I learn. Prevalent among my errors are dropped stitches, jumping needles, confusing a knit-stitch for a purl-stitch on the same row, pulling too tightly, knitting loosely, not stitching the slip-knot, and choosing the wrong type of yarn to learn with. In the past week, I’ve unraveled and started over so many times, I haven’t been able to make a square shape piece of fabric.
During my last class, I made the entire table gasp in horror as I cut away the long tail of my yarn and dropped the misshapen piece in the trash. “What are you doing?” one of the ladies exclaimed. When I told her I was going to start again from scratch, she reached into the trash, took the piece of mutilated yarn, unraveled it, and said, “You can start all over with this!”
I decided then never to do that again in public. From now on, start-overs are to be done in private.
Part of the reason I took up knitting is exactly because of the do-overs. I’m a perfectionist – to a fault. I like to do things right, nice and neatly, on my first try. I hate to make errors; I loath making mistakes. If I can’t do something right the first time, I quit and look for something I can do better. Over the years, I’ve quit many a project I couldn’t do right from the start. Be that playing piano, strumming a guitar, sketching, drawing, yoga, eating-vegetarian, smule, math, coding, balancing a check-book, or dating, I’ve quit enough times to earn a spot in a quitters hall of fame.
If I hear any voices while I’m knitting, it is that of my inner Critic and the Perfectionist who are front and center pointing out why I shouldn’t be playing with yarns and needles, and why it would be best for me, and everyone involved, to never mind.
When I decided to learn how to knit, and now as I practice every stitch, I knew I’d be wrestling with these two voices in my head for the upper hand. I knew right off the bat that I would be making errors that Critic and Perfect would step in every time and say, “See? Now put those down and never mind knitting. There’s something on Showtime we want you to see instead.” This is why when I took my first knitting class I also made the decision to ignore Critic and Perfect and give myself at least three months before I decided if I had any hope of stitching a cap or scarf.
Critic and Perfect are indeed wondering why I’m pursuing this, and they both sit quietly nearby sipping Pinot ready to raise and eyebrow and say, “Dreadful!” But I’m becoming more clever than they, and even when I make a mistake, a needle jumps from my hand, or fifteen stitches slide off a needle, I turn my back to them and start over again. I’m enjoying this far too much to give it up!
In her article, Jennifer Urban-Brown says that zen and knitting “offer opportunities for noticing the mind and returning to the action.” Both activities allow us to be present, mindful, to what we’re doing, and offer an insight as to what is going on in our heads. Be they pleasant thoughts or not, or an on-going monologue by Critic or Perfect, we can learn to tune into the thoughts that benefit us, or we can turn the volume down on those thoughts that do not. For me, knitting offers a chance to ignore Critic and Perfect, let go of my need to knit perfectly every time, and allow myself to learn from my mistakes.
The point is to concentrate on the activity and let go of the expectations of any results. Rather than say I’m working on a scarf, gloves, socks, or cap, I’ve allowed myself to work on my errors and learn from them. “The practice,” says Jennifer, “is to come back to the action—insert needle, loop yarn, pull through; breathe in, breathe out—without holding on to the promise of the finished object.” Doing that is what keeps knitting, and learning how to, fresh and fun in my mind.
When I give up my expectations of what knitting or my work should be, Critic and Perfect leave the room, and I’m freed to have fun.