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It's The Little Things...

The other day, I met a young man (when you're my age, they're all young men) who was knitting his first project. Unsurprisingly, it was a garter stitch scarf. It was about six or seven inches wide, and he had about six or seven inches worth done, so he had what looked like a lovely square garter stitch potholder. He told me that he had started the scarf nearly a year ago, got this much done, put it down for a while—like ten months—and only now had he picked it up again.

I nodded and smiled and told him he was doing a good job and that it would get faster and easier—but in the dark recesses of my brain I thought: “Oh, just bind it off. Call it a potholder and bind it off. It's fine, you've learned garter stitch, it's time to move on.”

What is this thing we do to beginner knitters, this “to begin, you must knit a scarf” thing? Are we trying to build their skills through blind repetition? Are we trying to test their stamina, or attention span, or their commitment to $195 worth of cashmere in the corner that, dammit, is going to be knit into the most beautiful garter stitch scarf ever created if it’s the last thing they ever do?

Many of the men (and a significant number of women) who’ve told me of their interest in knitting have expressed several key concerns about the craft:

  1. It takes considerable time and patience;
  2. To the casual onlooker, it seems boring;
  3. They’re afraid (especially if they’re serial hobbyists, trying out one craft after another) that after spending money on yarn and needles and supplies, and time and effort on learning, they’ll just get a few inches into their first project, then stuff it into the back of the closet and forget about it.

Fair enough. Knitting, unlike—I don’t know, competitive checkers?—does take considerable time and patience to learn and to master. And it doesn’t have the edge-of-your-seat excitement of, say, skydiving, pole dancing or designing amateur fireworks displays. (Some of us are grateful for this.) But why would we take a beginning knitter, one who may rightly fret that they’ll never make it through their first item, and assign them a one-yarn, one-colour, one-stitch rectangle that is eight inches wide and seventy inches long? Are we trying to drive them to needlepoint? (Ardent needlepointers, please: don’t hate.)

I’m not ashamed to admit it—I’m the kind of guy who thinks instant gratification is just not instant enough. I like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a small project quickly. I find that it motivates me to learn more, to try harder, and to get closer to finishing the other works-in-progress I have on the go.

If you’re a newborn knitter and you have your heart set on knitting a scarf like this because you need it, you ache for it, deep in your soul, then by God you should knit that scarf and no one should stand in your way.

For the other 94% wondering “What should I knit first?” I would like to propose a new rite of passage. Something small—more challenging than a scarf, with texture, colour, pattern or shaping, yet achievable. A washcloth, perhaps. A winter hat. A baby jacket. A pair of socks.

I know I know—heresy. I must be tied to a giant oaken swift by the Spun-ish Inquisition and flailed with cruel feathery whips crafted from bamboo yarn, seasilk and modal. (You have your naughty fantasies, and I have mine.) But really, how much better is it for a junior knitter to make something engaging and intriguing, something where they’re learning new skills over the course of the project, something they’ll finish within three seasons of casting on?

More to the point, how many of us started with the ubiquitous garter-stitch scarf, grew annoyed with it before the 12-inch mark, abruptly frogged it and then started on something we really wanted to knit? Something we were willing to really push ourselves to accomplish? My guess is that many promising knitters got as far as the frogging stage, decided prematurely that knitting wasn’t really for them, and switched to Bedazzling.

If you are one of those tragic cases—one who turned away from knitting when you felt knitting had turned away from you—I beg of you. Put down the Bedazzler, for all our sakes. And come back to knitting, which welcomes you with open arms.

Here are some first-time knitting projects chosen to quickly build your skills as a knitter and whet your appetite for new and greater adventures. If you feel like you’ve done your time on garter stitch, be brave and jump in! Who ever learned to drive by just pushing down on the gas pedal for 70 hours? (Besides my dad, I mean.)

Retro Ballband Washcloth – includes cast on, knit, purl, slip stitch, cast off. So named because it appears on the Peaches’n’Crème cotton yarn ballband, this simple pattern has soared to fame thanks to Ann and Kay, the women behind Mason-Dixon Knitting, whose exceptional colour sense have elevated the homely ‘warshrag’ to great heights.

Ear Flap Hat - includes cast on, circular knitting, double-points, increases, optional colourwork, decreases. This is an excellent chullo-style winter hat pattern that can be knit in colour combinations from sedate to wild, with almost any worsted-weight yarn.

Worsted-Weight Sock Pattern – includes cast on, circular knitting, double-points, knit, purl, slip stitch, decreases, picking up stitches, short rows, grafting the toe. Some people will think I’m nuts for including this, as many knitters (including me, at one time) consider socks to be the Mount Everest of knitting achievements. Truth be told, they have a much worse reputation than they deserve, and are well within reach of any determined novice knitter—especially if first knit in worsted-weight instead of much finer sock yarn. I know someone who learned to knit by making a pair of socks as his very first project – because no one had told him that they were “hard”. He taught himself to knit and purl for the ribbing, taught himself slip stitch and decreases for the heel, and then taught himself how to graft the toe. If you don’t make this your first project, it can easily be your second. And once you’ve done these, there’ll be no stopping you!

Some great Knitty patterns to consider
Halfdome bald-friendly watchcap
Blue Hills snow sports cap
Swell earflap hat with colourwork
Thuja ribbed socks
Widdershins toe-up heel-flap socks
Penny dog sweater
Back to School monogrammed washcloths



David Demchuk is happy to help men, and knitters of all genders, get over their size issues. The many washcloths, socks, Knucks (pictured left), baby jackets and toys that he has knitted have led to the successful procrastination of his larger long-term projects. (Yes, honey, that means your off-white David Beckham belted cardigan is on the back burner…again…)

David’s obligatory knitblog can be found right here.