Ravelings: Behind Every Good Knitter

Inside every knitter there’s a tightly coordinated team of talented professionals, poised to bring her next project to completion.

The materials engineer analyzes yarn substitutions, calculating the number of skeins she needs, weighing the effects of a cotton/silk blend on the drape of a cardigan, changing needle sizes to match a gauge. The structural engineer finds a way to hide shaping details, tests several joins for a button band, and experiments with short-rows to make a collar lie just right.

And the time-and-motion expert in all of us finds inventive ways to speed a cable twist, use short-rows to avoid fiddling with a sleeve join, or get a row or two knitted in the car pool line.

There’s another member of this team who powers the whole process. She’s the dreamer, the visionary, with an image of a garment more perfect than any she’s ever known.

Knitter as Dreamer

The dreamer falls in love with an image in a magazine or pattern book and she wants the whole package—the fuzzy cardigan, the cozy book shop, the pleated skirt, the long auburn braid, the tortoiseshell glasses, the cute lace-up shoes. She’s happiest with a knitting project that offers to wrap her in another time and place for several weeks, like a good novel.

The dreamer sees a ruched and pleated band on a cardigan that takes her to Regency England. A cabled sock sends her to the Highlands of Scotland, and a Fair Isle vest finds her sipping tea by a fire on a winter afternoon in a Cotswold cottage in the 1940s with war news on the radio, a photograph of the royal family framed above the fireplace, and a King Charles spaniel at her feet.

My own dreamer has me knitting nostalgically without even knowing it. Drawn to a moss-green alpaca and an eyelet pattern, I am halfway through the ribbing before I remember I knitted very nearly the same sweater back in high school for the Homecoming Dance of 1971.

When a book or a painting evokes a world I love, the dreamer in me tries to knit my way there. I’ve knitted socks in honor of Virginia Woolf and socks inspired by a piece of old porcelain, a scarf alluding to Gustav Klimt, a sweater in the same shade of deep teal blue worn by Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, and a shawl that started out as a nod to Emily Dickinson and ended up looking more like it was inspired by Frida Kahlo.

And knitting dreams embrace the future as well as the past. Isn’t hope the universal appeal of knitting for babies? As an expectant mother or grandmother stitches a blanket or a pair of booties, her flashing needles conjure an embrace of the baby to come, and make a pledge with her moving fingers to wrap that baby in love and security.

Measure Twice, Frog Seldom

Once we dream of a beautiful afghan, sweater or shawl, a knitter’s team of engineers takes over. We calculate and measure, try on, re-calculate, pushing through the second-sleeve-doldrums with the steely willpower of our team leader, the same one who pushes us out to the gym on a winter morning.

When the new sweater is finished, the whole team can celebrate. That cotton/silk blend drapes beautifully, the collar points match up, the buttons gleam on their moss-stitch band, and the whole garment, miraculously, fits just right. Only the dreamer isn’t quite satisfied.

“It’s pretty,” she sighs, “but it would be even more beautiful in blue alpaca, like that cardigan Audrey Hepburn is wearing in Charade in that scene with the carousel. I wonder if I can find that shade of blue?” And so the team members set down their flutes of champagne, sweep up the confetti, and set off for the yarn store to pursue yet another knitting dream.

Mary Kaiser teachers writing and literature in Birmingham, Alabama, where she lives with her husband and two teenage children. When she isn’t grading papers, she’s turning a heel, twisting a cable, or falling in love once again with garter stitch. She blogs at Mrs. Ramsey’s Knitting.

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