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I have considered myself a serious knitter since the early 1980s when a friend cleverly bribed me into learning to knit so she would have a knitting buddy. That relationship blossomed into a regular stitch and bitch group, sealing my fate as a knitter. I couldn't get enough of the books, the yarn and the pure fun of knitting. Still, serious in those days was not like serious is to me now. Since moving away from my friend in the mid '80s, I have usually had a knitting project on the needles, except for a few necessary lapses for the trauma of moving and settling into several new cities and situations in the intervening years. Still, I would have called myself a knitter if anyone had asked during that time.

Twenty years later, settled comfortably into a home in northern California, my interest and production were greatly enhanced by visits with the bribing friend of earlier years and also a business associate who took her knitting very seriously. She did machine knitting as well as hand knitting, took lessons regularly, bought ALL the newly released knitting books, purchased lots of yarn online and by mail and had considerable ability and creative energy to bring to her craft. Many a business meeting was rapturously concluded with lunch in her wine country garden poring over the latest pattern books or discussing new projects and techniques.

Even with such inspiration, I was still a-one project-at-a-time and one-project-a-year knitter. Although I carefully calculated the difficulty of a pattern against my interest level and time available for the project, it still seemed I knitted mainly on vacations or long trips.

My productivity level was accelerated when I started to read the knitting mailing lists on the internet. I learned about knitters who stole every odd moment possible to work on projects. There were people who knit at doctor's appointments, any meeting where it was allowed, in church, at long stop lights, waiting for chemo treatments and on and on. These people were truly committed.

So was I, or so I thought, and I started looking for my own odd windows of opportunity to knit. Soon, with the help of a headset phone, I was knitting through any phone conversation longer than 5 minutes -- even protracted business calls -- and stealing moments in the car and at my own meetings. Still, with only one project going at a time, I sometimes wasn't at a point in the project that I could go on autopilot to take advantage of the time.

It's not that I didn't have dozens of ideas ready to put to the needles, and there was certainly plenty of yarn around, but I suffered, as I think many knitters do, from a certain paralysis that comes from wanting to make the new project perfect. I would hunt endlessly for patterns and yarns that I thought went together in a unique and appropriate way for my knitting style and fashion sense, which was inevitably not the same as the designer had envisioned. Knitting only one item a year put a heavy burden on this decision and my exaggerated expectations often brought the process to near standstill. Something had to give. I was bursting with ideas I was too vain or timid to attempt because I knew my skills weren't up to the task. I had found more time to knit, but I still wasn't knitting more.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 and the plight of the people in the country and living in refugee camps became so prevalent in the news, I reacted strongly. I constantly worried about these people, now miserable their lives were. For some reason this, among all the world's tragedies and crises, hit me hard and I knew that I had to do something for the people of Afghanistan.

Hearing news of the approaching winter in Afghanistan heightened my concern and I felt the need to make a personal connection with the people there, to contribute something tangible, direct, useful. I thought they needed sweaters. Sweaters, mittens, socks and whatever I and other like-minded people could send. Someone had to see the same need and figure out how we, sitting in our comfortable living rooms in the United States, could help. I remember saying to a friend that I had to find an organization that was collecting sweaters for these people or else I would have to do it myself, which I really didn't have the time or know-how to do. Luckily I found Afghans for Afghans, an organization run by the enthusiastic and resourceful Ann Rubin. The bonus was that she and the collection point for Afghans for Afghans were in San Francisco and I could help with the sorting and packing of items as they came in. I had found my inspiration and the effect on my knitting was dramatic.

Knitting for others, especially those who don't care about color or fit or a perfect increase or heel turn was liberating. The dozens of ideas that I had been incubating for years burst forth and suddenly I was working on several projects at once, trying many new constructions and techniques. I now had a project for every level of energy or fragment of time. Released from my ego and the imagined criticism of finicky recipients among my friends and family, I became, compared to my previously constipated production level, a knitting machine. It wasn't just quantity, either. I was designing and adapting. I made a hat for the first time for Afghans for Afghans and wondered why I had never tried them before. (Living in northern California might have something to do with it.) Suddenly I had new design ideas for hats, too. I tried new stripe rotations where the pattern called for plain knitting. I added cables where there had been none and experimented with edging techniques picked up from recent reading.

One great challenge came from donations made to Afghans for Afghans of 1970s vintage wool yarn. The colors were classic harvest gold, avocado green, bright rust, and dirty brown, but I was oddly attracted to them and took a bag to play with. It was a real brain teaser to make something beautiful out of colors I found...let's say...unsophisticated. The result was a stunning sweater, if I do say so myself, and many who saw it wanted one like it for themselves, challenging colors and all. I worked with the yarn endlessly on various projects, combining different colors, trying new trim details, twining it with other donated yarn, creating. The floodgates were open and there was no going back. I looked for other unusual or orphaned yarns on sale to test my skills. How many odd yarns could I collect, combine and make something beautiful? I kept a list of patterns with construction techniques I wanted to learn and worked them into Afghans for Afghans projects. I made my first Einstein Coat, falling in love with the pattern along the way.

Most of what I knit for Afghans for Afghans is small, so the projects go quickly. This is part of the secret. I read somewhere about a study of potters where one class was given the direction to work for a week and their final grade would be given on one object that they would submit at the end. Another class was told they would be graded on the body of work produced, not necessarily one piece. Not surprisingly the class churning out as much pottery as they could produced the best work. It seems to be a given in the creative process that practice makes perfect, or at least for better quality in the long run. I was stuck in a "one perfect piece" mentality and my knitting was not progressing as I wanted it to. Classes and inspiration were helpful, but without lots and lots of practice, I was going at a snail's pace. The lessons learned from the charity projects greased the wheels in my development process and the result is what I consider a much more fulfilling knitting and creative life.

In a more altruistic vein, I learned something else from knitting for charity. When one knits for others, known or unknown to them, the opportunity is presented to knit a bit of oneself into the piece. Even I, an unrepentant multi-tasker found myself alone at times quietly knitting, just knitting and thinking of the recipients, wondering about their lives, wishing them warmth and health and peace. Feeling the urgency of another's need made my fingers fly through the knitting, lending them an intuition and skill I didn't know they had. Even though the Afghans would likely never know where the sweater they received came from, I imagined my prayers went along with it and put a little good into the world. It was an opening of the heart.

As I thought about how eagerly the pieces that all of us knit would be received and unconditionally appreciated, I learned as I knit to be less harsh with myself, less demanding and judgmental. I started knitting a few pieces for friends and family too and rather than critical or merely polite acceptance, I found the giftees thrilled with the fruit of my labor.

I still work on "perfect" sweaters for myself with sometimes less-than-perfect results, but they are much better than they used to be, a little closer to perfection, more expertly constructed, more creatively detailed and joyously worn. Knitting for others and especially those in need, not only improved my knitting skills, but enhanced the enjoyment I received from my craft/obsession.

Afghans for Afghans captured my imagination and touched my heart, but there are dozens of worthy organizations which can connect those in need with those who have the desire to give of their time, talent and heart.


Candace Key lives, works, knits and struggles to find the meaning of life in San Rafael, California.