Roberta Branca

Algebra and Knitting

In Knitting, Support on October 21, 2011 at 8:40 am

I took Algebra for the first time in 7th grade. I got a zero on the first test. So my mother sat down with me and watched as I reworked a few of the problems on the test. She stopped me during the first problem and asked, “Where did you put the N?” (Or X, or whatever the letter was. It’s unnatural to mix numbers and letters.)

“I don’t need it until the end, so I took it out.”

It seems I misconstrued a shortcut the teacher taught us. I don’t remember now what the shortcut was but after that I never questioned the unholy alliance between numbers and letters.

It took me three tries to pass Algebra, but eventually I got the concepts and the application. I had to work hard on the details, though, checking my work carefully, working through problems more slowly. The year I finally passed Algebra was the year I had a friend tutor me just to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently inventing any new “shortcuts” as I learned new concepts.

Knitting is a lot like Algebra for me. In fact, it turns out you have to do a fair amount of math if you want your project to turn out right.

I’m not at a point of following a pattern yet. I’m knitting a scarf using a simple two-row repeat: one row of knitting, and a second row of Knit-4, Pearl-4.

I’ve unravelled my work three times now, and my wool/mohair single strand yarn is starting to get ratty. But I persevere. And along the way, I’ve sought the help of other knitters. Couldn’t do it without them.

I learned the basic knit stitch, and later the purl stitch, from my sig-other’s mom Sandy. I supplemented this with some book-learning and an attempt to fly on my own with simple patterns. Sandy re-taught me everything about three times. The very last time was because she noticed I was working the wrong side of each stitch. Knitting backwards. It was striking to both of us, because in spite of this I happen to knit a very even stitch. Or so I’m told.

Then there’s Kristen, my college roommate who lives on the West Coast. We follow each other faithfully on Facebook and talk on the phone about once a month. She’s shared with me her knitting stories, like how she first learned to knit from a friend who was dying of cancer. At the friend’s funeral, most of the people wore a scarf this friend had knitted. True to her outgoing nature, Kristen has emphasized the importance of socializing with other knitters. She says knitters are forgiving of mistakes, and it never hurts to ask for help. She has provided me with a list of knitting websites as well.

My friend Elizabeth in Minnesota is a champion knitter. Literally. She carts a plethora of projects to the state fair every year and wins ribbons. I can email her any time or rely on a well-informed Facebook comment. She pointed me to a knitting social website called Ravelry where I can log every pair of knitting needles I own. If I can find the time.

Then there’s Jennifer, a friend of mine since we were 6 and 8 years old. Today we’re two middle-aged broads trying to pick and choose what traits and habits we inherit from our mothers — including knitting. It was Jen who first gave me the idea of learning to knit. I inherited my mother’s sewing notions, including 25 or so pairs of knitting needles. When Jen read this in one of my previous blog posts, she immediately offered to teach me how to knit. Jen lives 45 minutes away, and is the mother of a teenager and pre-teen. Sandy only lives 20 minutes away and is retired.

So I learned the basics from Sandy and practiced on my own, in private, until I felt confident enough to try knitting in public. I arranged to meet Jen for coffee, and we both brought our yarn projects. Jen finished off one crocheted potholder and started a new one in the space of about an hour and a half.

I proudly pulled out my purple wool/mohair scarf project and showed Jen the stitching. From afar, she said it looked like it was too tight. I held it out across the table so she could examine it further, and she said, “Nope, it’s fine. You don’t need my help.”

I confided my fiasco with the backwards knitting, and admitted that I was worried I was doing the same thing with my purling. I told her what I was doing, and asked if I should be doing it differently. She said it sounded like I was doing fine, then she demonstrated a couple purl stitches for me so I could be sure.

Then I pulled out my “cheat sheet,” an index card on which I write down which row I should start on when I pick up my work. She titled her head and looked at me quizzically. “You haven’t learned how to tell by looking at it yet?” She then explained how one stitch is flat, and the other is bumpy, and I’ve already forgotten what she said.

Nonetheless, since that day I’ve practiced comparing one set of four stitches to the next set of four, so I can understand how knit-purl stitches look compared to a row of knit stitches. And, after perusing a “knitting dictionary” and reading instructions on how to pick up stitches, I’ve added a crochet needle to my project kit and I now patiently pick up stitches I drop. The overall project still has rough spots. For one thing, I’ve noted that the stockinette stitching that comes from knit-purl alternations doesn’t show through evenly. Somewhere along the way, I repeated rows of knitting when I should have done some purling.

The day after meeting Jen for coffee, I sat at the beach, pulled out my knitting, and examined the work I’d done while talking. I found a lot of dropped stitches so I unravelled a few rows. It was then I decided to teach myself how to pick up stitches.

A few days after meeting with Jen, she sent me a package. A beautifully worked potholder with a note: “For you!” It made me glow for days.


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