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Vickie Howell

Tipping the Canoe 

It was an exciting day in Grade Nine when our class was given a selection of physical education activities from which we could choose—a marked departure from the approach in previous grades, where various unpleasant and embarrassing activities were forced upon us in the guise of “exercise” and “health”. My four selections for the year were bowling (fall), cross-country skiing (winter), bicycling (spring) and canoeing (summer).

While bowling, skiing and bicycling were pleasant enough, I somehow knew they would pale in comparison to the relatively exotic sport of canoeing. As the beginning of May arrived and we were instructed to attend our first class at a neighbouring high school's indoor pool in t-shirts and trunks, as we arrived to find the canoes lined up along the side of the pool waiting to be launched,. As we donned our life vests and grabbed our paddles and pushed ourselves out into the water, I felt an incredible certainty that this, at last, would be the sport for me.

Never once during those first few minutes of that class nor for the eight months that preceded them did it occur to me that, in order to canoe, you needed to know how to swim.

“The first thing we all have to do,” the teacher called out to us, “is to tip our canoes, so that we can learn how to right them and climb back into them, and make our way to shore.” With that, my jolly classmates suddenly tipped and inverted our canoe, and I who could not swim – who was pathologically terrified of the water – found myself in it up to the neck, barely floating in my so-called life vest and completely and utterly hysterical.

And so it is with knitting.

It is the rare knitter that completes a challenging project without a single error from start to finish. In my experience, the more accomplished the knitter is, the more creative and confounding his mistakes are likely to be. Whatever your skill level, you’ll enjoy a more satisfying knitting experience if you anticipate the possible catastrophes you may encounter in the course of your project, prepare for and even rehearse them if they are unfamiliar to you, and then take a calm and measured approach (I know, large coming from me) to resolving them if and when they arise.

Luckily there is an ideal tool for tipping the knitting canoe that is already a cherished part of the knitting process. It’s time to reintroduce you to that old friend you’ve been crossing the street to avoid: The Swatch.

We’ve all found ways to rationalize ourselves out of knitting swatches, and we’ve all paid the price: Cro-Magnon sleeves, belly-baring waists, torsos that could double either as pup-tents or cosies for hockey sticks. Well, consider this: if you knit a swatch first, you can not only take a stab at getting gauge, but also practice the required stitch pattern and experiment with whatever kinds of errors and corrections you’re likely to encounter. Mistakes that can be fixed by dropping and picking up stitches in plain stockinette will not be so easily resolved in garter stitch, cables or an airy bit of lace. Problems that can be solved by unknitting (or ‘tinking’) rows of Fair Isle create a very different predicament when they occur in slip-stitch colourwork or in intarsia.

To get a feel for the challenges ahead, work up a 4" x 4" swatch of your pattern and include a few mistakes along the way. (If you’re like me, you won’t even have to try.) Then use the standard correction methods to see which will work best, and which won’t work at all, for your particular piece. If you’ve never had to change a cable’s direction, or use a lifeline when knitting lace, or catch a row of stitches on a spare needle before frogging down a few rows, you’ll be happier developing these skills on a swatch rather than in the middle of your project.

If you find after this that you’re still uncertain about your skills, make sure you have a more experienced pal on standby to help you through (or to make the repair for you) if problems should arise. Don’t be shy – conduct a quick survey of your knit-savvy friends and relatives, yarn store employees and members of your LYS knitting circle to find out who knows what and who would be willing to rescue you. And stock up on beer, chocolate and baked goods to trade in exchange for their expertise.

Whatever you do, do not give up and do not give in. More than 90% of knitting mistakes can be unmade, and a good number of the remaining 10% can be disguised, minimized or just plain lived with. If you’re a perfectionist, this is a painful crossroads to reach, but I urge you to reach it, pick a direction, and just keep going. Errors which are huge and glaring and demoralizing to us are very often imperceptible to everyone else.

(Someone who comes up to you with a beautiful new piece of knitting and blurts “There's a mistake in the eleventh row on the right side. I should have knit two together instead of slip-slip-knit” is just looking for trouble. And someone who gets down on their hands and knees to find fault with the ankles of your Jaywalkers deserves a swift instep to the nose.)

That said, there will be time—oh, will there be times—when all you can do is pick up some spare needles and a stiff drink and frog row upon row of your knitting in order to eradicate some unfathomable disaster from your piece. I’ve always found it difficult to take Stephanie the Yarn Harlot’s philosophical approach of “So what? It just means more knitting—and you love knitting.” (I love knitting—just not the same twelve rows over and over again.) However, it is helpful to approach even the direst of circumstances as valuable learning opportunities. We don’t just learn ‘not to make big honking mistakes’, but also what stitches complement each other, how different fibers behave, what adjustments can and cannot be made to particular patterns, how pattern pieces fit together – and not to make big honking mistakes.

At the end of the day, always remember: none of us, and none of what we knit, is perfect. (And even if something we knit does happen to be perfect, it will always get a huge penis-shaped spaghetti sauce stain on the first wearing. It’s some kind of karmic requirement.) The time we take at the beginning of a project to prepare for imperfection pays off when, as the inevitable crisis hits, we find ourselves ready to correct it, accommodate it and even embrace it. Or hand it off to a knitting pal with the promise of a double margarita.

Online and Offline Resources:

The Knitting Fiend, the Yarn Harlot and your very own Knitty have all tackled corrections and repairs at one time or another. Here are just a few examples:

Back in the real world, most general-purpose knitting books have a section on fixing mistakes. Some of the better ones include those in the Vogue Knitting Ultimate Knitting Book, the Reader's Digest Knitting Handbook and Stitch 'n Bitch. One book dedicated entirely to solving problems is Knit Fix by Lisa Kartus.



David has been making mistakes in his knitting for more than 20 years. He has made frightful design and colour choices, has knit yurts instead of sweaters when he hasn't swatched for gauge, has confused his numbers and knit two sizes at the same time for the back of a cardigan, has grafted thumbs inside out onto gloves, has seamed the outside of a hat by mistake, and once came very close to making a sock with a toe at each end. He is not too proud to ask for your pity.

David’s obligatory knitblog can be found right here.