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A Guy's Thoughts on Knitting His First Sweater

Some may argue that it's not good to make comparisons in character between the two genders, but others would agree that certain details are true. I begin with the idea that men, in many ways, never quite grow up. I know that I never have. Indeed, I work a full time job, pay my bills, watch Red Sox Vs. Yankees games, read thoughtful books, participate in society as much as any other guy; but, many men don't shrug off their youthful curiosity, and this would explain my fascination with knitting.

My mom wanted to raise boys that would never "depend on a woman to take care of his every little need." In keeping with that, she taught my brother and I to do many things on our own. Although I was the "craftier" of us two brothers, we're still independent lads. I remember learning the basic procedures of knitting when I was very young, from mom, and the fascination never quite left me. The very idea that one can take little sheep hairs and twist them around and produce a piece of clothing still amazes me to this day. It was and is all part of my mother's do-it-yourself philosophy. I left home to go to New York City for college with a full knowledge of how to make jelly and preserve it, how to mend my own clothes, make pancakes, wash stains out of shirts and bake whole grain bread. As I grew up, "making things" has never left my psyche.

Knitting is, in many ways, a lot like architecture: this explains yet another reason why men can find it fascinating. Many people don't realize that knitting is a three-dimensional process. It requires one to be visionary, because you can't really see your final product until you're done. You make sketches, look at photographs, use a calculator and take endless notes. As you're knitting, you're envisioning. This is what an architect does: s/he is planning and building monuments in the air, and then jumping ahead to construct them. This was the same process behind my first ever sweater, in which I was spending ages drawing and plotting, adding and subtracting. Before I'd even touched the darn needles, I'd been designing a million variations of a sweater while riding the train to work here in Boston (my current home.) With my designs, I could have been knitting a new Empire State Building. But, this is where I encountered my first problem.

Knitting isn't just about plans, it's about process. When I started upon my grand notion of building a sweater based on another "already made" sweater, everything went wrong. My calculations didn't take into account all the funny things that wool can do: it can stretch, it can get bulky, it can shape differently based on how you make increases and decreases in the stitches. Sad to say, my first attempt didn't work, and I ripped out all my effort and salvaged the yarn.

But we live in a fast age, and that means that there are solutions to many problems right in front of us. Being a guy knitting in the urban landscape, it can be a bit daunting. There is still a lingering stereotype that "guys don't knit." Finally, however, out of deep frustration, I just went to the amazing local shop in downtown Boston called Windsor Button (an historic button shop that's been there since the early 1930's) and bought up a whole bunch of new needles and counters, gauge rulers and stitch holders, and found myself chatting a bit with some of the patrons and employees. It's interesting to see the genuine relief that some female knitters experience when they find a fellow knitter of the other sex talking with them; it's as if you can see them saying "Yes! There IS hope in the world! Men CAN knit!" Being in Boston, some of the funky vibe of an urban center leaves more room for men to do different things. Although I'd say I'm not quite ready to bring my knitting on the train in the mornings yet, I do feel increasingly comfortable talking about what I like to do.

One of the main reasons I wanted to even start this sweater was the fact that I was so tired of the available clothes out there in the world. Why not make something for myself? Something that fit well? Something that was durable and would last a long time? Something that I could learn from making? All these questions loomed large in my imagination. Interestingly, it was a little jaunt over to that brought about a revelation for me. Julie Theaker's "Make Your Own Pattern" article fit every need I had, and was the ultimate do-it-yourself method of working. Now, I thought, THIS is a guy's way to knit! There is an irony here that isn't lost on me: you know the joke about guys not wanting to ask for driving directions? Well, I'm ashamed to admit it was a bit the same. Here was described for me the very basics of how a sweater is made and put together, and all the rest I should figure out for myself. I was inspired. I got out the calculator and notebook once again. I planned an edgy, cool and unique sweater using just the basics, and throwing in a few tricks of my own.

Before long, I was knitting every chance I got. Many a friend will know that I had my cell phone on "hands free" while I was knitting away. How amazing it is to think that many things in the world have changed, and many have not, due to the wonders of technological advance. Here I was, at 1:00 am, knitting to by the light of my laptop computer, talking on the cell phone, and looking over occasionally to my cherished "Complete Book Of Knitting" by Barbara Abbey, copyright 1970; a book that had been my mother's, and I was able to find on an internet bookseller's website only a few months previously. The book was propped up by a few CDs of the crazy music I listen to, as I was slurping away on some strong Vietnamese coffee. Meanwhile, sirens and alarms blared in the background and I could hear the faint whoops and yells from a local frat party. Who would think knitting would have become so modern, and yet still remain steeped in such time-trusted tradition?

My friends listened to many of my ups and downs during the process. It took me about seven weeks to finish the sweater, and I felt every stitch. Sometimes the progress seemed slow, and at times I even wondered if I was getting just a bit tired of the repetition. That's when I found one of the many "tricks" that keeps us going: Change! Yes, it was that easy: I'd been plugging away at the trunk (or "body") of the sweater for about 70 rows when I put it aside and started working the sleeves. Instant gratification! Something new! My weariness gave way to new fascination as I started the cuffs and worked my way up increasing stitches. Soon I was starting sleeve number two, and not long after, I was at that critical stage when I joined the sleeves and body together and damn was I proud to have made it that far. The drawings, the plans, the knitting: it was all coming together! This is the point where I could see the child-like visionary part of myself becoming satisfied. Like a "Junior Scientist Kit" experiment, all the little pieces fell together, and I was about to add the Sodium, and BANG! Except, in this case, the "bang" was a very cool sweater.

After I'd blocked the garment and allowed it to dry, the next day I wore the sweater to work and noticed that the world was still the same; except for the fact that I'd proved to myself that I could do something from first stitch to final bind-off. I didn't make any kind of "show" about what I'd created except for presenting my finished project on a web forum. I think what mattered most to me was that I was so happy to have seen the project through from start to finish. It did make me ponder the question: What is the fascination for a guy knitting in the urban jungle? The answer is a tapestry of many conclusions. The curiosity of the "never quite grown up" boy's mind wants to know how to make things. The city dweller is constantly annoyed by the rigors of living in a state of interruption, held-together chaos, noise, distraction...knitting gives space and thoughtfulness. Men are tinkerers: How do you do that? How did you make that happen? Curiosity gets the better of us, and before you know it, you're looking for that certain lifted increase stitch or "make 1 stitch, right" and wondering "how is that DONE?" And in a way that is true for many of us in this day and age, we're tired of being nothing but consumers. We want to make things ourselves, and re-learn some of the skills our mothers and fathers knew. We're part of an important trend in which technology is enabling us to return to amazing skills of our past. You can see the evidence of this in the innumerable men and women who are brewing their own wine at home, making recordings of music in the basement and sharing it via the web, and shearing sheep to spin wool for sweaters.

Without a doubt, there is a place for men in the world of knitting. Damn, we're a lot of curious little lads, don't you think?



John Biebel is 36 years old and lives in Boston, after having spent nearly two years in London and getting his BFA from the Cooper Union in New York City. He is a painter, musician, and amateur Asian cooking buff. He also works a dull boring day job, but hopefully that will change. His artwork has been featured on the BBC, and his paintings reside on a few continents.

He hopes to knit himself at least three more sweaters for this coming winter. Visit his website.