The sound of knitting needles as they click away is really soothing, isn’t it?
One of the things that most knitting mothers dream of doing is passing the skill down to their daughters. They pick out the right needles, the softest yarn and the perfect pattern to start with. They envision sitting at the kitchen table or snuggling up beside each other on the big, comfy couch counting off the first ten stitches of the cast-on. They can almost hear their child reciting the rhyme along with them,
“In through the front door,
Run around the back,
Hop through the window,
Off jumps Jack.”
They secretly plot that when the knitting is put away for bedtime, while the child is fast asleep, they will go back and re-do all of the mistakes, reinvigorating the fledgling knitter when she returns to her beloved first project. Oh, yes. Years upon years of knitting and laughing together. Mother and daughter.
And then you get that one. You know. The child who is so not a knitter, you could see it in her eyes at age zero. That’s the one. I got one of those, y’all! So, I have to console myself at times with birthing other knitters into this craft.
Getting another knitter started is one of the funnest things about being a knitter though. You get to reproduce that love of fiber, texture, and meditative repetition into another person. And watching a new knitter ease into the motions of knitting is phenomenal. At some point, they transition from where they were once pursing their lips until they’re blue with frustration to chattering away while making their umpteenth stitch. There’s just nothing else like that! Over the course of an hour or so, you’ve taught them to cast-on, to knit, to purl, and maybe even how to do a few more tricks. And then, normally, you have to part ways and let them fly their own course. Oftentimes, should they decide to continue the craft, that means following a basic knitting pattern without you beside them. And therein lies the rub. A knitting pattern can look like Greek to a new knitter. And, there are so many variations for recording stitch combinations, sometimes a more advanced knitter may need help with deciphering. So, for the first time on this blog, please welcome Andrea Berman Price who will be sharing how her book, Knitspeak came to be. In keeping with how we bloggers like to do it (😉 ), Andrea has graciously agreed to respond to your comments and questions to her post this week, so be sure to say hello!
Oh, and in case you are wondering…Girl Child, is not a total lost cause where it comes to knitting. Every once in a while, when it’s nighttime and she’s good and sleepy, she curls up right under my arm while I’m knitting. Click-Clack. Click-Clack. Even if she never learns to actually make the knit stitch, she has still learned the underlying language of the craft. Comfort.
And without further ado…Andrea Berman Price.
My students whizzed through the first three beginning knitting classes held at our local yarn store. On the fourth night, Anne came to me with what amounted to an accusation: You taught me to knit! I bought a pattern, I bought the yarn, but I can’t knit anything in this book! In three short evenings, Anne had learned to knit, purl, increase, decrease, and change colors. Revved up to start her first project, she purchased a book of alluring, colorful patterns and went home to snuggle up with her yarn and needles. “I can’t understand it,” she wailed, “it’s knitspeak!”
As with so many knitters, Anne had acquired all the necessary skills, but the language of the pattern book was so foreign that she felt like she needed a dictionary. Knitspeak! The neologism stayed with me and became the germ of an idea. It would be a dictionary of knitting terms, and beyond that, a listing of those pesky technical terms by abbreviation. In interviews and focus groups with different levels of knitters, I was astounded to find that (mostly female) competent knitters lacked confidence. Some had no idea that they were stumped by the use of garment terms—vocabulary familiar to anyone who was forced to take home economics in seventh grade* instead of shop. These terms aren’t specific to knitting; they describe garment construction and tools. One young woman was brave enough to admit to a store clerk that she had no idea what a tapestry needle was, only to find that it was the same item she thought of as a yarn needle, and she already had one of those in her knitting bag.
In some fields, specialized vocabulary is “niche protection,” a special lingo that protects the initiated, since an outsider can be identified right away. I’m convinced that knitters feel the opposite impulse: Designers and knitting ancestors want very much to include us, to enable us to knit their dreams. And the best way, if oral transmission is not possible, is to write instructions down. Therein lies the difficulty: How do you describe in a succinct way the operations that you do with your hands, when you are limited to words? Words are cheaper to print than photographs, and cheaper still when you can abbreviate them to save space. Being able to give the customer more patterns in one publication could lead an editor to save a ton of space by saying something like: “Make left side the same except reverse the shaping.”
As a result, knitting pattern language is infamous for its abbreviations and terse instruction. If we’re unfamiliar with the vocabulary, how can we look up a word such as “M1L” if, as sometimes happens, it is hidden under a category called “Increases”?
Indeed, that’s my sales pitch to knitters who want to know what my book is about. All I need say is: “It’s alphabetical by abbreviation,” and they stop in their tracks. The little pink book may not be able to untangle the worst, badly translated, knitting-pattern sentences, but even advanced knitters have told me that having a dictionary in their knitting bags gives them the confidence to unlock the language of written patterns.
* Thank you, Mrs. Salvucci, wherever you are.