In Praise of Learning: The Value of First Stitches
I’ve taught a lot of people how to knit. Eight-year-olds at the camp where I used to work who stabbed at the wool for hours before triumphantly holding up a snarled pre-scarf; friends on picnic blankets in the park when the weather finally turned nice; coworkers who stopped by during a lunch break to observe my crafting and wound up walking away with a new set of needles and a dream. All of us, no matter our age, start from a place of frustration mixed with determination, which eventually, hopefully, gives way to the compelling rhythm that’s the reason we all love making things in the first place.
But what I’ve noticed from my extremely unscientific sample group is that it’s not usually the kids who wind up abandoning first projects due to irritation. It’s the grown-ups.
“I can’t do this,” they’ll say, throwing down their tangled yarn. “I’m just not crafty.”
At first, this resignation surprised me. Kids are supposed to be the easily distracted group, the ones who have no control over their still developing fingers and brains, right? Adults can do complicated things, such as taxes and driving, so why would they be stymied by some sticks and string?
The answer, I think, is that the older we get, the less comfortable we are with being bad at things. We’ve been conditioned, throughout school and work and just generally moving through the world, to focus on our talents, and to let them define us. We’re “math kids” or we’re “book kids”; we’re liberal arts majors or STEM majors; we’re client facing or project-managing workers. We have jobs that we never thought to want when we were little.
These descriptors might limit us, but they also comfort us. They help us find a place in an otherwise uncertain world. And they do not readily leave room for attempting something new—and sucking at it.
Learning how to knit, although nowhere near as drastic as attempting a career change or a personality overhaul, can dredge up some of those “it’s just not for me” fears. The logic is that some of us are “crafty” while others aren’t, and those of us who aren’t shouldn’t even bother to try—it will be too embarrassing, too inefficient, too unproductive.
But that belies the fact that nobody is born knowing how to do anything besides spit up and cry. Each knitter had to perform a stitch over and over again until one day the crappy not-quite-anything turned into an okay bit-of-a-something.
The best feeling in the world, as both a knitter and a teacher, is witnessing that moment when skeptical students really get it. It’s not necessarily when they become “good,” or even when they master the basic knit stitch; it’s when they lose themselves to the act of it, when they’re silent for a minute or five while they work the tip of their needle through the following stitch and then go on to the next. It’s when they trust that one day, they will go from bad to slightly less bad, and then another day will arrive at the hazy, always-changing land of good.
ALANNA OKUN is the author of the essay collection The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater (New York: Flatiron, 2018) and an editor at Racked. | Header Illustration by Bekah Thrasher.