Knitting: Teaching Muscle Memory

I intended to post this yesterday, but I fear I was hit by a time warp and somehow my day disappeared. Enjoy this piece, it is one of my favorites. --ty

As some of you may know, this (particular) series of missives and polemics about the knitting craft are part of a project that I'm currently working on as part of my last semester as an undergraduate. Another aspect of this project (which I'm using to address an interest in a larger sense of a knitting community) is a weekly knitting group that I've been responsible for on campus. We meet on mondays and we've had tons of people come in. I bill it as a knitting workshop, rather than an SnB, or a group, and people come in to knit, to ask questions, or learn from scratch.

In the beginning, I thought that what I really wanted to do was work on helping people move on to more complicated shapes, because I take the opinion, that once you know how to knit and purl, the only difference between making a scarf and making a simple sweater (or a hat) is dedication and commitment, and it's my sense that that many knitters are reticent to make that leap. While I still think this is mostly true, knitters are surprisingly aware of this. Interestingly, what I think has been the most helpful lesson that I've been able impart, deal with some of the most fundamental parts of knitting, the very minute details of how stitches are supposed to look and feel on the needle. I've taken to thinking of this as string theory, but I try and keep that to myself.

What I think I'm teaching is something that many knitters figure out eventually, but that people tend to refer to in a number of different ways. I'm pretty sure that I've heard it called "knitting in your head," also "watching your knitting," or being able to "eyeball patterns," and so forth but the core of all these skills is pretty much the same. You want to be able to observe your knitting and be able to understand how the stitches are formed and interact, basically, what causes a stitch to twist and what causes a knit stitch to become a purl stitch. This sounds like a really uninteresting skill, and perhaps it is, but I've realized that many people receive lessons to knit in a really structured way so that they'll be able to follow patterns easily. Teachers start out with something, say knitting, or casting on, and they say, "this is casting on, here's what you do." People can pick this up, but it's difficult, because the name is largely irrelevant: learning how to knit is more about learning how to make your hands and fingers do something that they're not used to.

As a result, I've taken to doing a few things that might be a little atypical. (Or they might be normal and I'm just slow.) For instance, I teach casting on after a person has gotten how to knit (using a sample:) casting on is difficult, and it doesn't really make sense outside of the context of knitting. Similarly the "difficulty" of purling seems to be an artifact of how we learn to knit: I've had some measure of success teaching people "one way of knitting" (knitting), and "another way of knitting" (purling) when I tell/explain the distinction after it looks like their fingers "know" how to form the stitches. Once all the basics are under control its really easy to move on to other spheres and projects. How to learn to knit shapes, garments, or whatever else the new knitter wants to knit. And that's about it.

The last time(s) that I tried to teach knitting, I found that it was hard, and that I wasn't incredibly adept at explaining this aspect of knitting, and was much more interested in teaching particular ways of knitting. This time around, I have people that have learned to knit from me who are knitting continental, combined, english style, you name it. Someone even took to knitting a garter stitch garment by purling every row (atypical at best,) and allowing learners to have this kind of freedom is both easier from my perspective because as long as they're making fabric that works, and they're enjoying it, it doesn't matter how they tension the yarn; and once their fingers know how to form the stitches, teaching them the names of what they're doing, is relatively simple. And then people know what to knit: what they do after this point is really out of your control as a knitting teacher until they come back to learn how to make specific things, but laying the foundation is definitely important.

I'd be interested in hearing your perspective on teaching methods, if you've ever taught someone how to knit. I'll be back in a week with an article about yarn choice and knitting economy.

'til next time, tycho

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