Substance over Form

…or, how I learned to love knitting!

(apologies to regular readers if you have seen this before. I thought it was time for a blast from the past, and for some reason this had ended up back in draft form on the Blogger site. Sigh. I’m such a luddite. Anyway, it was written in May 2007.

WARNING: potentially dull biographical commentary ahead. You may just wish to skip this and look at the pretty colourful pictures below. This is my first endeavour at personal writing in a long time (I write loads and loads for work) and so I thought I’d post it here for posterity given that it is topic-specific).

When asked what I do for a living, one of my snap answers is that I practice law in order to support my yarn habit. I like to think that I’m shunning the “lawyer” label, that being a “lawyer” does not reflect my identify or my interests. In my less glib moments, I realise that this smacks of reverse pretention. And, in fact, I’m really just trying to avoid either attracting the bad rap (who, after all, likes lawyers?) or fielding the almost-always inevitable “Oh really? That’s interesting. I’ve been having a problem with my divorce, inheritance, criminal charge, etc. etc.”).

Or perhaps it’s just that, for some reason, I find the fact that I am a lawyer embarrassing.

However, in many ways my personality reflects the worst Type A hallmarks of all those lawyer jokes. I am picky, technical, argumentative, cynical – and detail oriented to a fault. I’m also (traditionally) not big on doing anything unless I can find some authority in writing first.

This trend has until recently shone through perhaps most obviously in my approach to knitting. Had I not become a lawyer, I could very probably have made a decent living knitting samples for patterns and yarn companies (or, for that matter, gauge swatches for those fellow knitters who detest this task). My work is very technically proficient. I have never had any problems with knitting to the gauge specified in any pattern, with any wool or yarn, and the finished size has always been perfect.

An example – and the only time before nine months ago that I had ever knitted anything without a written pattern. While I was articling, my boss one day came to work wearing a gorgeous handknit sweater which had been made in Ireland several years before. It featured a lovely “tree of life” covering almost the full front of the sweater. I coveted it. I wanted it desperately – well, I wanted to knit it. However, of course there was no pattern available. What to do?

I stewed over this for much of the morning, then had a brainflash – I asked her if I could borrow the sweater for a while. And then I trotted off to the photocopier, sweater in hand, and spent the next half hour trying to reproduce it. It took me 15 minutes to get an image of the tree of life that satisfied me, and then I started on the back, and then the sleeves. This, as you might imagine, provokes no little hilarity – and scepticism – amongst the coworkers.

They weren’t giggling, however, when I came in to work five days later wearing the twin sweater to the boss, who by great fortune had turned up wearing it again. The following photo is my version: unfortunately, the former boss’ version is long gone. You’ll just have to take my word for it!

I still work for the same organization today, and once in a while they still bring this up.

And just what is so bad about this, you might ask? The problem was that everyone loved this sweater – but me. I could never get over two things – that I had no way of knowing with which brand of wool (if any brand) the original had been knitted, and that I could not locate the identical shade of wool despite scouring the entire city of Toronto.

These two issues made it impossible for me to actually wear the sweater, as every time I’d catch a look at myself in the mirror, I’d get completely stressed out. I wore it perhaps twice more, and then gave it to my mother. And – seeing the sweater still bothers me today.

This rigidity also made it difficult to enjoy knitting. Oh, I knitted. On and off, I knitted almost incessantly. But I didn’t really like it. It certainly wasn’t relaxing in any way. What amazes me in retrospect is how productive I was in knitting despite the fact that I would sometimes rip out the same series of rows 10 times until it looked “perfect”.

Also, I found myself unable to make several patterns I really liked because the yarn called for in the pattern was not available in Canada and I would not allow myself to contemplate a substitution of any kind. If the right yarn wasn’t avaiiable to me in the exact colour specifies – no go.

I should confess that I am exaggerating here for effect. But just a little bit. This was pretty much my knitting behaviour until perhaps four years ago or so, when I did try to modify a couple of patterns for friends. They were very happy with the outcome, or so they said. I, however, was not.

After that point, I did from time to time allow a shift in colour as well – usually to a different shade of the same colour. Again, I was very unhappy with the results (for no good reason, as the resultant sweaters were objectively speaking beautiful). I only ever knitted sweaters, by the way. I wouldn’t dream of knitting anything else.

I still can’t figure out how I became so enslaved to patterns and so fearful of deviating from them. This has not, for some reason, been the case with other crafts that I “practice”. A few years ago, for example, I took up making mosaics after a friend took a course with the Board of Education and told me how to do it. I have rarely followed a pattern and have made many original (and I think, beautiful) works:

The irony (or, possibly, the explanation?) is that I only learned to knit in the first place because my father’s mother, who did beautiful lacework night after night after night and who probably was not even aware that patterns for knitting existed, refused to teach me how to do what she did.

Why? Because she was an old school Greek woman who valued education and was very proud of her smart granddaughter – what she told me was that knitting was a pastime for “ignorant, uneducated farmers like herself”, and not appropriate for someone who was going to become a professional.

As I mature, I find the fact that she devalued her own work so much increasingly sad. At the time, however, I was 12 years old and no-one was going to tell me that I “couldn’t” do anything. So – I taught myself to knit. From – you guessed it – a pattern book.

And so it went – until about a year ago when I picked up a new book of patterns – Mason-Dixon Knitting by Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne. I was intrigued by it immediately I saw it at the local yarn shop, although it took me a full month to actually break down and buy it, mostly because it didn’t seem to contain any sweaters. Instead, it contained a lot of fun looking projects, short and less short. I started off by knitting a log cabin blanket – without doing a swatch! – and I have to confess, it was very fun.

Around the same time a friend asked me if I would knit a felted bag for her. I had never heard of felting, and so I agreed – only to panic when she gave me the pattern (which she found on the Knitty website – the French Market Bag, Summer 2002 [?]), which made it obvious that it was impossible to predict what the finished size would actually be. I then realised that my friend didn’t seem to care (after I bored her for a good fifteen minutes with my various apprehensions) – so why should I? She felted it herself as the machine in my building is front-loading. I liked the look of it and immediately found more felted patterns. I even felted them in the front loader!

Then, one fine day, I realised that I wasn’t happy with the length of one of the bags… and decided to modify the pattern to make it longer! And the earth didn’t come to an end. I realised also that I was really starting to look forward to my knitting time, rather than self-dreading it. I also found myself starting to wonder how I could broaden my knitting horizons even more…

Then one day I came across Freeform Knitting and Crochet by Jenny Dowde. A book of patterns about, essentially, how to work without a pattern – genius, I thought! How ironic – and how perfect for a recovering type-A knitting lawyer like me. I didn’t wait a month to buy it this time. And – I’m now doing freeform work without Ms Dowde’s (very wise) patterns to guide me.

At this point in time, I have never felt more contented with knitting, or more proud of my knitting work. I now believe myself to be a knitting artist, rather than someone who knits well – which feels tremendous. And funnily enough, this sense of contentment has spilled over into my personal and professional life and calmed me down from my Type A hyper highs.

Mind you, I still knit compulsively, I would say, and I still buy pattern books and make patterns – albeit using different colours and yarns than specified. But then again, Rome wasn’t built in a day – or even a year. And then again, I’m still someone who practices law to support my yarn habit…


10 thoughts on “Substance over Form

  1. Darx says:

    I love this post. Thank you for reviving it for those of us who came later to your blog. I love that 12YO Kristina would not accept not being taught how to knit. And now, look at you! Very inspiring.

    I also want to say, I just made a bag this week without a pattern, and whenever I go pattern-less, I always have way more fun, too. I don’t know why, but I do, so I completely understand. It’s just more fun.

  2. clarabelle says:

    Not a dull commentary at all, Kristina; it’s always very interesting to read someone’s ‘history of knitting’.

    Funny to read your grandmother’s take on knitting; I’m sure she thought more of it really, but just wanted you to have more choices in life than she’d had. Still, you went on to have it all really, didn’t ya!

    Your mosaics are gorgeous…

  3. brouhahahaha says:

    Tracy, I don’t begin to understand the mysteries of blogging, really I don’t!

    Clarabelle: I guess I do have it all… πŸ™‚ or most of it, anyway. Can’t really complain (although of course I just did – see the above rant).

    Thanks for the compliment re. the mosaics. Had I stuck with my original plan to do some this past weekend, I think I would have been OK. LOL. There is a gallery page with more of them here in case you didn’t see that. πŸ™‚

  4. Deborah says:

    Love the mosaics, Kristina πŸ™‚ That’s the best of all, to do your own thing in one way or another. Rarely have I ever followed a pattern exclusively πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for popping by my site and saying hi πŸ™‚ Have a great week!

  5. Susie says:

    I LOVE your story……….and I’ll let you in on a secret…….i also broke down and bought the Mason-Dixon book……………for more money than I really cared to part with……..however I’ve been laughing and laughing through it!
    And I rarely use patterns at all…………and when I do………well let’s just say I spend an ordinate amount of time listening to a bloody frog!

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