Failure, resilience, and knitting

I have been thinking a lot this week about the nature of resiliency.  Why?  As Programme Director for a global MBA, it pops up a lot on the job.  It turns out that resilience is important:  it is a key quality of effective leaders and managers, it is vital for companies trying to survive in fast-changing business and technological environments, and it is an important factor in whether students will flourish and grow (not to mention graduate) during their MBA studies.  Given how crucial resilience is, we might think about how one develops it.  How does one learn to be resilient?  Well, it often derives from failure.

I once read an essay written by a professor at an Ivy League university who had served for decades on admission panels. He commented that these elite schools have a tendency to accept students who have never failed at anything.  These students arrive at university and suddenly find themselves in a high-stress environment filled with high achievers who have always been at the top of their class. The point of the essay was that these students often turn out to have very poor resiliency; one little setback and they crack.  A history of continual success can lead to perfectionism and unrealistic expectations.  On the other hand, exposure to failure often leads to resiliency and the development of skills which allow you to pick yourself up and flourish. This professor speculated that accepting students who had overcome barriers or difficulties would be a better barometer of success.

One of the things which I try to impart to students is that failure can be good; that success is built upon learning from mistakes.  This is true of business and true of design – a good design usually develops by prototyping, an iterative process which often consists of getting things wrong in order to get them right.  Many successful companies develop this way too, starting small and building on mistakes, a type of constructive prototyping analogous to the design process.  I try to give students skills to help them become more adaptive and more resilient; I encourage them, in the safe space of the classroom, to push past their comfort zones and embrace risk.

Why am I blabbing on about resiliency and failure in my knitting blog?  Well, we knitters can tell you people one or two things about failure! Knitters positively crow about their failures!  Ripping and frogging (that is, pulling out your work by unravelling it) is almost a badge of honour.  We learn by doing, and often that means learning by doing it wrong. It helps, of course, that knitting is so intrinsically unravel-able (I made up that word!): if you don’t mind the loss of time and effort, almost everything in knitting is fixable by ripping it out and starting again.

Not only are we knitters experts at failure as a part of the learning process, but we do it with a sense of humour! If you don’t believe me, you can look at some of my posts detailing failed efforts, like How to be stupid at knitting, How not to block a sweater, and Stupidity strikes again!

Business consultants, self-help gurus, professional coaches – even futurologists – make a fortune by teaching people to be resilient.  We knitters have no need to pay for such advice.  We learn it the natural way!

Knitters of the world, stand up straight and proud, and repeat after me:

“I AM A KNITTER!

I LAUGH IN THE FACE OF FAILURE!

RESILIENCE IS MY MIDDLE NAME!”

The power of quiet

When I was a child, I was known as a day-dreamer. I spent most of my time wrapped up in a fantasy world, often with my head in a book, but just as often not. I could spend many hours happily in my own company, and rarely felt lonely. I took up handicrafts very early, in the beginning mostly embroidery, needlepoint, weaving, macrame, and ceramics, later mostly knitting.

I know that I enjoy the creative aspects of craft; it fills up a very important place in my psyche. But from a very early age I was also aware of the peaceful aspects of handicrafts, especially ones with repetitive motions, like knitting. I liked being in my head while engaging in the creative process. It is restorative, like meditation or yoga. Looking back on it now, I think that maybe there was more to it: being in your head makes people uncomfortable. The saying “idle hands make idle minds” may not be said all that often anymore but I think it invaded much of the philosophy of child-rearing when I was young. If I was caught day-dreaming, that was bad – it showed me to be a dreamer (and not in a good way). If I was caught knitting, regardless of the fact that I was just as much in my head, I was seen to be industrious and creative.

This reminds me of a story my husband tells. As a young man he worked in a paper mill in the summer. As he tells it, if you took a break to smoke a cigarette, this was acceptable.  You could stand by yourself and have ten minutes of peace. If you tried to take a ten minute break without a cigarette in your hand, you were seen as being idle and were told to get back to work. It didn’t take long, Doug says, until the whole crew took up smoking.

This “being in your head” is not idle – some of it involves elements of fantasy, while it also encompasses thinking about philosophy, history, politics, fashion, books you’ve read, problems you are trying to sort out, designs you are creating, people who you know or would like to know, paths you want to follow. I find this space both peaceful and invigorating. I also find it necessary. It rejuvenates me.

Knitting, therefore, has many different functions for me. It is a creative outlet, it produces beautiful items, it allows me to develop skills and mastery over an ancient craft, it links me to a history and fellowship of needlework, and it also allows me space and freedom to be in my head.

As my life has gotten busier, I find that I have tended to relegate my knitting time into a multi-tasking experience.  I knit, usually, while doing something else: watching TV, chatting with friends over coffee, waiting in line. A few years ago, I went through a time where I resented the fact that knitting took up reading time and vice versa, and to solve this I started buying audio books and knitting while listening.

I recently noticed that my knitting time was thus almost always accompanied by noise. If I picked up my needles, I would turn on an audio book or tune into a podcast. Sometimes, I would suddenly become aware that I had missed some of the book, and would have to re-wind and listen again, often three or four times as my mind would wander. I came to two realizations at almost the same time – I was not enjoying the knitting as much, and I was finding quiet to be lonely. I was rushing to fill up blank space.

Doug has been gone for a few weeks (day before yesterday he was climbing the Great Wall of China) and I have had a very busy teaching schedule. But, while he was gone, I set my alarm clock for very early every morning, got my cup of coffee, and settled down to knit, in absolute silence. And I came to a conclusion I already knew as a very young child: there is power in quiet.

I am knitting something new, which I am designing myself, and enjoying every stitch.  I am feeling more at peace with quiet.  I am feeling more in my head.  I don’t NEED there to be quiet to enjoy my knitting – I still knit while watching TV (currently “Miss Fisher’s Mysteries”) or listening to an audio book or podcast.  But creating a space for knitting in silence is good.   I have come to appreciate, once again, that there is a specific joy to be had in not multi-tasking, in enjoying the peace of knitting all by itself, and listening to the quiet.

Just like every other day

Yesterday was April Fools Day.  I was heading into the city on the train.  As I was leaving the train station, I noticed a hand-written sign on a large white board.  It said:

Thought for the day:

Today is April Fools Day.

Don’t believe anything you hear.

Don’t trust anyone.

Just like every other day.

I did a double take, and stopped and stared at the sign while commuters streamed around me in annoyance.  This was obviously supposed to be funny; a little bit of humour to set you on your way.  I found this sign very depressing.  I left the train station feeling very down and sad about the state of the world.

I was in the city to conduct some interviews for an ongoing research project on stakeholder engagement in the mental health care sector.   My last interview of the day was with someone who had a very sad story to tell.  A sad and harrowing story.  One that didn’t end well.  Imagine, if you will, the kinds of sad and harrowing stories that could be told when discussing mental health.  Well, this was one of those stories.

The person who told me this story was elderly.  Life had dealt him a very bad hand.  He could have been profoundly pessimistic.  His story had ended tragically, but he believed in the power of change.   He believed in the power of people to make changes.  He believed in the power of people to be good.  He believed that he could make a difference.

I walked back to the train station late in the day and the sign was still up.  But in my head, I re-wrote that sign.  In my head, it said:

Thought for the day:

Someone today is making a positive difference in the world.

Just like every other day.

The explosion in pattern length

When I started knitting, patterns were very short, and often quite obtuse.  They were sprinkled liberally with phrases like: “decrease x-number of stitches from each side every row, while keeping to established pattern”, “make raglan increases, while incorporating new stitches into lace pattern”, “decrease x-number stitches evenly across row”, and my favorite (usually in all caps) “AT THE SAME TIME”.

Every pattern had bits like this:

RIGHT FRONT

Work as for left front, reversing all shaping and placement of pat.

(from Vogue Knitting International, Holiday 1986, p 96)

Or, in a similar vein:

Right front shoulder

With right side facing, rejoin appropriate yarns and, keeping continuity of patt, work the 51/54/57 st of right shoulder, as for left, reversing neck shaping.

(from Alice Starmore’s Book of Fair Isle Knitting, 1988, p, 121)

Knitters were expected to figure out how to incorporate increased stitches into a particular pattern, be it lace or mosaic or fair isle, and also how to decrease stitches in pattern.  Furthermore, they were expected to be able to naturally reverse all pattern instructions and shapings.

My early knitting projects were always accompanied by loads of hand scribbled notes.  If the pattern was complicated, I would notate each row, and specify how I incorporated increases, decreases, and other shapings.  These scribblings were filled with math – most patterns did not include all of the necessary mathematical calculations – and a competent knitter needed to know a lot of practical math in order to complete the pattern.

Patterns were sold in print medium – in magazines or books – and I imagine that they were kept short in part to save on page length.  Today, most of the patterns I use are downloaded PDF files, and one of the things that is quite obvious is that the patterns are getting longer and longer.  In fact, there is a veritable explosion in pattern length happening right now.   I used to photocopy a pattern from a knitting magazine and keep it in the project bag with my knitting; this was usually a single piece of paper, on which I would add scribbles like mad, front and back.  Now, many of the patterns I use are 8, 10, 12 pages or even longer.  Why is this?

Partly, it is because the patterns have become highly specific.   Each technique is described in detail., often with photos.  In fact, it is quite common now to have links to on-line tutorials within the pattern.  One of the things I have noticed is that it is becoming rare to have instructions like “knit as for right sleeve, reversing all shapings”; instead we now have detailed instructions for both sides.  Furthermore, instead of instructions like:

  • Keeping stitches in established pattern, bind off 3 st each end every other row 6 (8, 10, 12) times at shoulder edge; AT THE SAME TIME, decrease 1 st every row at neck edge 4 (6, 4, 6) times, then every other row 5 (7, 10, 8) times.

patterns now will often have these instructions laid out row by row, so that each row of the knitting for the entire garment (or at least the parts where any shaping takes place) is given its own set of instructions.  The thing I have found really striking lately is the tendency for designers to lay out instructions for each size separately.  Jared Flood, of Brooklyn Tweed fame, recently wrote this about his design, Rift (you can find the full discussion here):

Pattern writing and grading on this piece was definitely a hard nut to crack! Since the shoulder details would have specific idiosyncrasies based on the size of the finished garment, no specific set of rules or written instructions worked very well. So I opted for the more “bespoke” route of charting out the front and back yokes for each individual size. The end result included 6 total sizes with finished chest measurements ranging from 39.25” to 59.25” [….] The pattern is quite long as a result, but don’t be fooled—most of the pages are charts for additional sizes and you’ll only need to print the two that pertain to yours.

I love Jared’s use of the term “bespoke” route for capturing this way of writing out patterns.  While Rift is no doubt complicated and the pattern is bound to be extremely clear (Brooklyn Tweed patterns in my experience are excellent), this method – of writing detailed instructions for each size – is now being used frequently by designers, sometimes for rather straightforward designs where it is clearly unnecessary.   My project bags now have pages and pages of pattern in them – I have to flip constantly from one page to the next.  (This problem is not solved by having the pattern on an electronic device; you still have to scroll up and down through the scores of pages.)  I also have little need for a pencil these days – since all of my scribblings and calculations have now all been done for me and charted in infinite detail, there is little for me to take note of.

There are many reasons behind this explosion of pattern length.  Here are a few of them:

  1. Self-publishing.  Designers used to mostly have their patterns published in a knitting magazine;  these publications would have established formats for pattern writing which the designer would adhere to.  Once self-publishing came to the fore, designers had the opportunity to establish their own formats and layouts.  They also had to compete to stand out from all of the other designers.  One way to do this was to provide lots of content – photos, tutorials, charts, schematics, etc.  (I am a big fan of both charts and schematics.)   If you are a designer, it is in your best interests to be as clear as possible on every front.  Sometimes, this means being overly explicit about everything.
  2. Money. When you buy a single pattern download for much the same price as you can buy a knitting magazine with 30 patterns in it, you want to get your money’s worth.  It’s human nature to feel that a 10-page pattern for $7.20 is a better deal than a 3-page pattern for the same price. (At least until you’ve read them.)  Knitters want to feel as if the product justifies the price, and designers respond to that.
  3. Sizing. Another trend recently (and a very good one) is that knitting patterns now come in a much larger range of sizes.  A pattern which is written in three sizes (S, M, L) will look much neater on the page and will be infinitely shorter and easier to read than a pattern which is written in 10 sizes.  Many designers have started writing out separate instructions for different ranges of sizes for clarity’s sake and ease of reading.  This can only be a good thing.

What do I think of all of this?   I find I have rather ambiguous feelings about this trend.  On the one hand, having detailed and explicit instructions makes it easier for beginners to take up their needles and tackle interesting projects.  It saves us from hours of ripping and trial and error.  Even the most experienced knitter doesn’t alway want to think out every step in detail.  If it’s all worked out for me in advance, then I can multi-task – knitting while reading, watching TV, chatting, having a glass of wine, etc..   If I wanted to spend hours doing the math, I could just design everything myself, right?

On the other hand, I think I am a better knitter because of all of the intense thought and concentration some of those early patterns forced me into.  I think I “read” my knitting better.  I think I learned how to “fit” a garment better.  I get a kick out of the intellectual challenge.  (Don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about patterns which are full of mistakes and typos – I hate those!  I am talking about the level of explicitness entailed in the pattern.)  And although laying it all out makes it easier on many levels, flipping the pages back and forth can be annoying.  In fact sometimes the sheer length of a pattern is so daunting that I can’t get past that to see how well-structured it may be.

I think that some of the ambiguity I feel derives from the grumbly professor in me: I believe that there is value in figuring some things out for yourself.  I never want to give my students the answer; I want them to derive it for themselves.  My job is to give them the tools they need, and also to make it interesting.   Perhaps a great pattern has this in common with a great lecture – they should both inspire one to think.  On the other hand, I can’t abide obtuseness – I love a pattern which is simultaneously explicit and concise.

I think that this discussion reflects the tension between the process knitter in me and the product knitter.  As a process knitter, I enjoy “getting my hands dirty” so to speak.  I like to figure things out.  I don’t want it to be easy.  When I am in full process mode, ripping gives me a little thrill (yes, I admit it, even if it is insane).  I love the concentration, the endless calculations, the counting.  On the other hand, as a product knitter, I want to make a garment that fits, and I want to wear it now, not some time next year after I get all the kinks worked out.  When I am in full product mode, ripping is agony – it just slows me down.  In this case what I want are very explicit instructions with no margin for error.   I think most of us fit somewhere on the spectrum between process and product.  However, I think we all tend to “bounce” a bit between the two ends – and where I sit on any one day determines how much detail I want in the pattern.

What about you?  Have you noticed the explosion in pattern pages?  Do you like it?  Does it drive you crazy?  Do you think I’m crazy?  Inquiring knitters want to know…..

Pattern, recipe or inspiration?

I have been thinking lately about how we use knitting patterns; they can be used as a pattern, a recipe or an inspiration.  These terms represent points on a continuum and thus can be rather fluid.  Two questions particularly interest me:

  1. What are the boundaries or tipping points?  For example, when does a pattern become an inspiration?  How much do you have to personalize a pattern before it becomes something else?
  2. How does one appropriately attribute those projects that fall on the boundaries?

Part of the reason I am thinking about this now is because of the project I am currently working on.  I am knitting a turtleneck pullover with Madelinetosh Tosh Merino Light in Tart.  I usually start a project by picking a pattern that appeals and then finding the yarn.  In this case, I started with the yarn – 4 skeins of the Tart – and a gap in my wardrobe.  Specifically, because I’ve put on some weight, all of my pullovers are too tight and too short.  I wanted a pullover that fit properly and that could be dressed up or down.  I wanted it to look good at the office with a pencil skirt or out hiking with my jeans and boots.  I spent some time (I will admit – I spent a lot of time) pouring over patterns and finally came up with the Lightweight Pullover by Hannah Fettig.  Here is the pattern photo:

copyright Quince & Co

copyright Quince & Co

It’s hard to tell from the photo but the waistband is ribbed as are the sleeve cuffs.  I am not quite finished with mine – the body is knit but one sleeve is about half done, and the other about a third done.  If you look at the most current progress photo below, you can see that mine doesn’t really look that much like the pattern photo.

IMG_0717

Part of this is for obvious reasons – mine has less ease, more fitted sleeves, is longer, and the waistband is in seed stitch instead of rib.  The choice of yarn also changes the look of the sweater quite a bit – the Madelinetosh Light doesn’t have the halo of the angora blend called for in the pattern.  But as it turns out, the reasons for my pondering have more to do with how I used the pattern – namely, not much at all.

Let me be specific.  I choose the pattern and then I bought the pattern.  I decided which size to knit, looked at the pattern and it said to cast on x-many stitches and knit 9 inches for the turtleneck before starting raglan increases.  I cast on the stitches and knit 9 inches and started raglan increases.  But, here is the crucial bit – since looking at the pattern initially to see how the turtleneck was made, I have not looked at it again.  The truth is that the pattern is for a very basic raglan construction, and I don’t need a pattern to make a raglan sweater.  What I do is try the thing on frequently, look at it critically in the mirror and decide what needs to be done.  Is it the right length to divide off the sleeves?  Do I need more waist decreases?  Where is my natural waist?  Does it flare enough over the hips?  It doesn’t occur to me to check the pattern because I am making it to fit ME and to please ME and I have two eyes and can see how it fits and adjust it accordingly.

I am pretty sure that my sweater is between the sizes offered by the pattern though I haven’t checked.  The seed stitch, too, is an innovation.  When I was knitting the body of the sweater I was in South Africa.  I didn’t bring the pattern with me and had limited access to the internet.  I couldn’t recall what the original pattern looked like, but decided that I would make a turned hem because I wanted a neater, more professional look for the sweater – so that it had a bit more polish, like a blouse.  After agonizing over it for a while, I decided to knit an inch or two of seed stitch as an experiment and see what I thought.  As it turns out, I liked it so it stayed.  (Now that I’ve seen the progress photos, I’m thinking of going back and adding another inch of seed stitch at the hips.)

Hannah Fettig is a very popular designer whose patterns are extremely well-written. Hannah was at the leading end of a recent trend towards finer-gauged yarns in sweaters.  She has a perfect eye and many of her designs are on my wish list.  Some of them are very unique and clever, and others are extremely well-executed classics.  This one falls into the latter category and is why I felt confident doing it my way.

Now let’s look at the question of attribution.  On Ravelry, you link to the pattern page for any pattern you use.  At some point not too long ago, Ravelry realized that many people incorporated certain parts of patterns into a finished piece, or merged two or more patterns into one.  They introduced an option: one can either link to a pattern (thus essentially saying “I knit this pattern”) or one can say that the project “incorporates” a pattern (thus saying “I used bits or pieces of this pattern within another pattern”).  When I started the project entry for my turtleneck, I linked to Hannah’s pattern.  At some point, I started to think that perhaps my project deviates from the original enough to say that it “incorporates” the Lightweight Pullover pattern.  I actually changed the Ravelry entry, changing the Name of the project to “Turtle in Tart” and acknowledging Hannah’s pattern using the “incorporates” option.  I also included notes to outline how I made it, so that someone can replicate it if they wish.   To refer back to the title of this post, I essentially moved it from pattern, to either recipe or inspiration.  I must admit to being undecided about this – I have changed it back and forth a few times in the last few days, and it is likely to end up linked as pattern.

Let’s take another example, which I think contrasts quite well with this one.  In the spring of 2013, I knit the following sweater:

IMG_6309_medium2

IMG_6321_medium2

The pattern I used was called Livvy, designed by Tori Gurbisz.  Here is the pattern photo for Tori’s design:

8482082957_9555cab5d0_z

As you can see, I changed this pattern as well.  I detailed all of the changes I made on this blog.   I made it much shorter, put in hems at the hip and cuffs, and made the sweater curvier, with more negative ease built in but also more pairs of waist decreases.  I think that my Livvy looks dramatically different from the pattern – much more so than my Lightweight Pullover looks from its pattern.  In fact, the types of changes I made are very similar in both sweaters – changing the length, the ease, and the sleeve cuffs and bottom edgings.   However, it would never have occurred to me to use an “incorporates” option in Tori’s pattern.  This is partly because Livvy has some very unique features, which I have utilized, which are instantly identifiable as Livvy.   So why have I wavered about the attribution of one and not the other?

On reflection, the underlying difference between these two cases has to do with the math.  To make the Livvy sweater, I used all of Tori’s numbers as a basis for my own calculations.  In knitting the Turtle in Tart, I didn’t use Hannah’s numbers, essentially ignoring all of the math and calculating my own numbers as I knit.  Thus the former “feels” like I followed a pattern and the latter doesn’t. Looking at the photos, you can see that the end results are very similar – a project based on a lovely pattern that has been “tweaked” to fit my curvier body and my style.  The only real difference is whether I used the numbers or not.   But perhaps this distinction is odd or outmoded.  Is it math that makes the pattern?  Or is it vision?  And, if it’s math, does it still “count” the same now that most numbers are generated by software?  I don’t think there is any right answer here.  (I suspect that both math and vision count, though, depending on the sweater, and perhaps on the knitter, one may be more dominant than the other.)   Many knitters are now using Amy Herzog’s CustomFit, in which they can basically input specifics of a pattern they like and it will generate the maths specifically for their body.  The resulting project is usually attributed to both the original pattern and the CustomFit programme.  (CustomFit also generates a selection of “classic” designs to fit.)   To me the important facts for my two projects discussed here are that (1) I paid for both patterns, and (2) I acknowledged both designers.

There are many related issues I haven’t even begun to get into here, and I have been trying to keep to the issue of how patterns are used, and where one draws the line between following a pattern, using it as a recipe, or being inspired by one.  (That said, I recently came across a funny case.  Someone had seen a sweater worn by a certain celebrity baby, and reverse-engineered it.  She then “published” the pattern.  Later, she became incensed that other knitters were knitting the sweater without attributing her pattern.  Someone asked, very reasonably and politely, why she believed that no one else would be able to reverse-engineer it as well.  After all, if she had done it, thousands of other knitters could have as well.  She responded – in an increasingly snippy and clueless way – that there was no need for anyone else to reverse-engineer it because she had already done so! She was completely unable to see that someone else could have knit it without using her pattern, or that someone might not have seen or had access to her pattern.  I must admit to finding the discussion fascinating.)

What do you think?  When is a pattern not a pattern?  Does it matter?  Is anyone else fascinated by these types of questions?  Have I been adversely affected by writing a philosophy grant this week?  Can I use British spelling conventions and still say “math”?  Maybe I should get to work on those sleeves…..

Mom will find it!

“Mom will find it.”

This is a recurring phrase from my life; we could even call it a leitmotif of motherhood.  Along with its companion phrase:

“Mom, I can’t find my [insert any item]”

The latter is usually accompanied by shouts, whining, a bit of hysteria; the former by conviction and (a perhaps misplaced?) optimism.   I have spent much of the past 21 years finding things that no one else seems capable of seeing.   In my general experience these are frequently things that are right in front of our proverbial noses.  Why can’t they see these things?

Since I manage a cognitive neuroscience lab, I am aware of visual neglect, a condition often following brain damage, which affects vision on one side.  Here is a definition from WIkipedia:

“Hemispatial neglect […] is a neuropsychological condition in which, after damage to one hemisphere of the brain is sustained, a deficit in attention to and awareness of one side of space is observed.”

What I am describing in this post is not a form of brain damage but is nonetheless a well-documented phenomenon which I shall call “Mom-is-in-the-room neglect”.

Mom-is-in-the-room neglect is a neuropsychological condition in which, when one’s mother is in the room, a deficit in attention to and awareness of any item which one wishes to find is observed.”

This condition is unrelated to the size of the object one wishes to find.  For example, while I frequently hear “Mom, I can’t find my glasses!” or “Mom, I can’t find my homework!” it’s not unheard of to hear “Mom, I can’t find my cello!”

The condition is also notable for the inherent ability of moms to see whatever it is that others can’t see.  What is it about the condition of mom-hood that mediates this?  My own opinion is that it is a Superpower, along the same lines as Superman’s ability to fly, or perhaps a more relevant analogy, his x-ray vision.

My kids have both flown the coop and I am now an empty-nester.  Yesterday, I had the house to myself, and needed my laptop.  I looked for it everywhere.  I looked upstairs and down.  I searched every room; not once or twice but three times.  I looked under things.  I looked around things.  I finally gave up.  I ate lunch.  I did some knitting.  Then, I walked into the living room and saw my laptop right in the middle of the couch.  Right out in the open.  Not disguised or hidden in any way but so apparently obvious that only someone with a neuropsychological impariment could fail to notice it.  Could it be that there is a statute of limitations on Mom Superpowers?  Do they fade away when one’s kids leave home?  Have I developed a new condition, called The-kids-have-left neglect?  Or maybe I just need my eyes checked….