Theres an old adage: When the student is ready, the teacher will come. While this may be true for other disciplines, it does not usually apply to knitting.
Ask a knitter how she (or he, but that remains a rarity, even in these modern times) learned to knit, and you are likely to hear a heart-warming tale of sitting at the knee of a patient, apple-cheeked grandmother being lovingly instructed in the manipulation of treasured family-heirloom needles to create a misshapen but highly-praised potholder.
As it happens, I am the exception that proves the adage. I came late to the woolly art, never having spent much time with either of my grandmothers, who could not be described as patient or apple-cheeked even when they were around.
The year was 1980. I had recently left first husband and was living in a dilapidated apartment complex so far from the right side of the tracks that even the motorcycle gang who owned the club house next door only dropped by on weekends and public holidays to drink beer and rumble in the parking lot outside my living room window. I couldn’t afford a television, but didn’t really miss one because I’d just taken a programming job at a start-up company located in a converted gas station over twenty miles from my apartment and half a mile from the nearest bus stop. Whatever waking hours remained after overtime were devoted to the commute.
At Christmas, the company gave us two weeks off and a twenty-five dollar bonus. I decided to spend this windfall at the local second-hand bookstore, where a few science fiction classics could occasionally be found in the dollar bins. The bookstore happened to be next door to a handicraft shop which had a bushel basket filled with oddly colored yarn just outside the door, on sale for 25 cents a ball.
This is as good a place as any to begin sharing Voice Of Experience tips. For novice knitters reading this post, heres VOE TIP #1: any yarn on sale at 90% off is NOT a bargain.
An afternoon of rummaging through the dollar bins at the back of the bookstore turned up nothing that I wanted to read and hadn’t read already. What I did find was a folded pamphlet tucked into the pages of a tattered Regency romance. I unfolded it and discovered a 1956 knitting pattern for a gorgeous cable and lace cardigan.
VOE TIP #2: There’s a reason grandmothers start young knitters out with potholders. Cables and lace are ADVANCED techniques.
Lacking ancestral input, I decided to make this cardigan. My friend’s grandmother was too senile to put her clothes on right side out and she knit all the time. How difficult could it be? So instead of buying books, I stole the pattern/bookmark and went next door to the handicraft store, where I bought a dozen balls of pinkish-brown acrylic yarn from the sale basket and two needles in the size recommended by the helpful saleslady who threw in a small book entitled Beginning Knitting: A Compendium of Techniques for the New Knitter. I had enough money left over to treat myself to take-out Chinese on the way home.
As I ate my Sichuan noodles, which happened to be the same color as the yarn I’d purchased, I carefully studied the instructions for knit and purl stitches in the Compendium. Piece of fortune cookie, I thought, and settled down on my couch with yarn and needles to create a masterpiece.
The first instruction in the pattern read: Cast on 220 stitches for back, so I returned to the Compendium and studied the cast on diagrams, which turned out to be more complex. I managed to cast on 47 stitches before realizing there must have been something seriously wrong with my Sichuan noodles when the first stomach cramps hit. I moved from my couch to the bathroom and cast on the remaining 173 stitches between purges. Exhausted and empty, but triumphant, I went to bed.
The next morning, in the cold sanity of daylight, my 220 saggy, snaggly stitches did not, in any way, resemble the tidy edge of the cardigan pictured on the front of the pamphlet. They flopped loosely over the needle like earthworms that had expired simultaneously in the middle of an orgy. Undaunted, I started again, and two days later, I probably became the first person in recorded history to master the art of casting on before learning to how to knit.
Chuffed with my cast on success, I spent the next week in a frenzy of determination, pulling out and re-knitting so many times that the cheap yarn frayed and snapped. When it became apparent there were arcane techniques not covered in the Compendium, such as 6KFC (yes, my first thought was fried chicken as well) I went back to the second-hand bookstore for a more advanced book on knitting techniques. I celebrated every completed row with a Rocky-esque victory dance. Every dropped stitch initiated an agonized howl of defeat. It was a pinkish-brown battle to the death.
On Christmas day, while my biker neighbors slashed at each other with broken beer bottles in the parking lot, I finally finished the back. Casting off the last stitch, I held up my work to admire my accomplishment. In the flashing blue and orange lights of the police cruisers and ambulances, I realized it would never be the back of a beautiful cable and lace cardigan. At best, I might have passed it off as a saddle blanket for a Clydesdale.
VOE TIP #3: Always check the gauge.
Crushed by disappointment, and not knowing anyone who owned a Clydesdale, I threw my failure in the garbage. But I’d learned a lot, and I’m not the kind of person who gives up easily. My second knitting project, a potholder, did three months sterling service before melting into a sad, pinkish-brown scab on a hot element, which the landlord made me replace.
VOE TIP #4: Do not make potholders from flammable materials.
Over the past thirty-five years, I have knit many potholders, many sweaters and blankets, socks and hats, gloves and scarves, and even a couple of coats. I can cable like an Aran Islander and lace like an Estonian grandmother.
I wish knew what happened to the pattern for that cardigan. I am SO ready for it.