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(or, What Teaching Taught the Teacher)

I knitted in obsessive spurts throughout my life before returning to it for good a couple of years ago. The return was almost accidental: at work, I was assigned to a cube next to a woman who is an Expert knitter. She had taught several people in the office to knit, with great success. In fact, there were several knitters in the office, and they met informally at lunchtime once a week. The Expert and I chatted about knitting and she showed me some of her truly astounding work. I mentioned that I knit, too; that I had an unfinished baby blanket that had been sitting idle in a glossy shopping bag for two years because I had lost the line of the pattern I was on and couldn't figure out what to do next. I was invited to bring the blanket in, and that Thursday I sat in with the Knit Wits at noon. The Expert helped me find my place in the pattern and I worked on the blanket for the rest of the meeting.

But as the hour progressed, I looked around at what others were doing, the sweaters they were making, the scarves flowing from their needles. The well-spun natural fibers they used. I looked down at my acrylic nightmare and felt myself shrinking from it with something like the feeling I had the first day of sixth grade when I looked at my new classmates and discovered that my tennis shoes were wrong wrong wrong. I had the bizarre feeling that what I was doing wasn't up to par. I certainly don't mean to suggest that acrylic baby blankets are unworthy of the effort, but being among these other knitters gave me an itch that only wool could scratch. I wanted to be making beautiful things, using fibers that wouldn't melt if exposed to flame - actual sweaters!

I became obsessed. I bought yarn and books and tools and gadgets out of all proportion. I will probably never use everything I have. It was as if I were making up for lost time, feeding my long neglected inner knitter - or rather, stuffing her like a fois gras goose.

I loved the Knit Wits, loved meeting every week to see other people's work, new yarns or new experiments, and to show off my own. I had big ideas: my first foray into self-designed intarsia I intended to be a stunning display of my innate genius for color, placement and form. I made it through about 5 inches of the front before crying uncle. It sits abandoned and alone among the bobbins it begat and is referred to scornfully as "Bill Cosby in Hell."


I generally don't like following patterns from books and magazines, preferring instead to maverick my way through things. I could not face intricate Aran or Fair Isle patterns, seeing them as a trap: missread one line, and you're sunk! But I did admire the work my fellow knitters created from patterns. For one thing, they finished things. For another, the things they finished fit.

I made good progress in denting my madly gathered stash, finishing a few actual garments and wearing them. The Expert was gracious and generous with her knitting wisdom [indeed, she taught me how to knit Continental style, for which I will always be grateful] and her technical guidance and the inspiration of the other knitters buoyed me right along, even through the kind of slumps that, in my previous knitting incarnations, would have caused me to drop my needles for years. I never, however, created anything that I really loved to wear.

As time passed, I became known as a knitter, too. Not on par with the Expert, but knowledgeable in serviceable sort of way. A co-worker was impressed enough with my - well, it must have been my enthusiasm - to ask me to teach him to knit. This I did. At lunch one day, we sat together with some large needles and acrylic I brought in from several mad stashes ago, and I taught him how to cast on and the knit stitch. He, being extremely bright, caught on right away and in no time had a garter stitch square. I was pleased as punch at having taught someone to knit. It made me feel like a real knitter. That, no matter what my shortcomings or farreachings, I was good enough, at least, to bring someone else into the ranks.

I had a few days off after that lunchtime lesson. I recall that every so often that long weekend, as I knit at my own project, I would hum a pleased sort of hum and think that I would be a mentor to this fellow as the Expert was to me.

I was utterly floored when I came in to work on the following Monday and my New Knitter, my protege, my novice, proudly held in his uplifted arms a completed sweater that he had knit in the past few days. I could not believe it. Indeed, it was roughly done. The shaping was a little off, and the seaming was awkward. But here was a finished sweater, seemingly effortlessly born. My first completed sweater was struggled and labored and cursed into creation. As I spluttered my confusion, wondering how in the world, he explained that another co-worker had taught him to purl, and that he had been so intrigued he ran off to a yarn store and bought some bulky wool and good needles and just had at it. Disdaining a written pattern, he had taken a sweater of his own he liked and traced its pieces onto brown paper. He kept working at his pieces until they fit the paper pattern, then sewed them together.

Soon he had knitted scarves, halter tops, more sweaters, a dog blanket, and hats, only occasionally using actual patterns. He knit more in six months than I had in a year and a half of fairly diligent effort.

While I was impressed by and very proud of the New Knitter, I felt a tingle of envious rivalry as I watched him churning out so many things. I taught him how to knit, and now look! The New Knitter's success gave several other non-knitting coworkers the itch to learn for themselves. There are now so many knitters at work that, if any one of us should happen to forget something at home, at least one other of us is sure to have an extra of that very thing to lend for the lunchtime meeting.We show off our new yarns, our new gadgets, new books. We keep each other informed if we hear of a yarn sale; we laugh at each other's excessive yarn purchases.

If I was diligent before, with this influx of new knitters, I became more so, determined to do the best I could do with my own work. But I had a new perspective on it. The New Knitter's very rebelliousness taught me that while I strove to be an impressive knitter, I might be missing something. I came to see that when I obsessed about the technical, I lost the whimsy that was really me. At the same time, the New Knitter's unorthodox finishing techniques reaffirmed for me that without at least some level of technical mastery, my whimsy will never sit squarely enough on my shoulders to be seen as it should be.

On the way to learning this, I thought about the knitters who first created intricate Aran and Fair Isle sweaters. I imagined groups much like the Knit Wits, where knitters came together to do their work, gossip idly, and, dare I say it, show off. I imagined some of these people sitting up late into the night, improvising fantastically complex patterns by the light of a tallow candle or whale oil lamp in order to impress their friends at the next gathering, where they would pass around and improve upon each other's skills. As time passed they taught and learned and welcomed new members who brought their own unique vision, all of them keeping up inspiration by a kindly sort of determination to take what is and make it better, make it their own. Without that tingle of rivalry, perhaps, we'd be clad today in plain wool stuff, serviceable and dull.

I am not yet a great knitter. I say this with no shame, and I accept it - sometimes with grace, and sometimes with gritted teeth. That mess of a baby blanket is still unfinished in its glossy shopping bag. Like all of us, I will keep learning and growing as a knitter, always with my own yearning to take what is and make it mine. Having a group of people who share my interest and my determination is immensely valuable to me. Not only has seeing what everyone else is doing [and is capable of] kept me on my toes, the Knit Wits help me keep knitting even through slumpy patches.

If only I had such a group for other areas of my life, I'd have the cleanest house and best-looking yard in town.



Kate Boyd lives in Oakland, California, where this year her daffodils came up earlier than anyone else's on the block. She doesn't wish to point out that they poked up through last year's unraked fallen leaves.

She has been on several wholly unsuccessful yarn diets and is dismayed that her stash is larger than it was before she tried reducing.