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One of the many things I find fascinating about knitting is the amazing number of metaphors and analogies you can discover and unlock in your handwork.  Sometimes they are soft and subtle, making us smile.  Sometimes they are so loud and obnoxious, they make us stop, and sometimes we send them to another state.

Your knitting can be a chronicle.  Your knitting can be a calendar.  It can connect you to a loved one, and to the collective of handworkers backwards and forwards through time.  One thing that particularly interests me about knitting is its ability to reflect your state of mind or your current intentions back to you.  Sometimes subtly, sometimes as a big giant ugly mistake - dropped stitch, misturned cable, or a big knot sticking out front and center – always somewhere on the bustline.  (This last one seems to have some kind of Murphy’s Law quality to it that is mysterious, but always happens.  This is why I do not believe in knots!)

In chapter five, “Onward and Outward,” of Mindful Knitting, I talk about how our knitting projects offer us so much – pleasure, “fibergasms,” a beloved pastime (or addiction), a vehicle through which we can express our generosity.  Our projects can comfort us, and also allow us a safe zone in which we can challenge our skills and grow.  Every project we choose relates back to a specific time, place, state of mind, relationship or phase of life.  It’s simply amazing how much we can see of ourselves in what we knit.  To summarize this magical attribute of knitting, I have coined a word for this phenomenon – the Sweaterphor.

Take a minute to think about what you are currently knitting.  Here we are in the HEIGHT of knitting season – and as I think about all my yarn (trust me, it’s a lot) and all the things I want to make through the fiber lens in my mind, I get all happy inside.  There’s a thrill that is entirely indescribable to someone who is not a fiber freak.  I’m sure there are comparisons out there, that similar emotions are elicited by the source materials of other pastimes and passions.  But, if you are a yarnie, you know just what I’m talking about. Before we even get the stuff home, we have a romance running with our new project – like the quiver of the beginnings of a new love affair.   Then, once the first blush of infatuation has past, we begin our really intimate relationship with the yarn and the needles and what we think they will one day become.

My current sweaterphor is about a beautiful handpainted kid mohair dragonfly adorned piece I designed for an upcoming project.  I was in love with this sweater when it was just the shimmer of an idea.  I saw the yarn and it began speaking to me in that special yarn language that only some can hear.  It knit up light and airy.  It floated and hovered with its exposed loose knit.  Then, as it would happen, our relationship hit its first challenge – we had to frog.  A chart was off by a stitch, so we went “a-ripp-it.”  We were still okay, we were good.  But then, the yarn pulled an attitude and started getting sticky – protesting that I had handled it roughly.  We repeated this scenario several times at different junctures.  The sleeve shaping wasn’t quite right, so – rip rip – try again.  Then it just got downright ticked off – and stuck to itself in such a way that it tricked me into knitting into the stitch below.  That just wasn’t fair.

After much angst, I walked away from my dragonfly loves, and we had some time apart. We were “on a break.”  I came to the realization that by the time the knitting was done, I had likely knit the thing at least two times over.  It took months, not weeks – a very big distinction when you are knitting on deadline.  I saw that there was so much frustration, so much grind, manifest in this sweater.  

This project was not only an archive of the span of time that had passed, but of the state of my mind while I was knitting it.  How did I relate with the mishaps and the fiber-fighting?  I responded by letting myself become more and more annoyed until I couldn’t stand it anymore.  My once enchanting, secret language ear-whispering creation had become my “shenpa”.  This is a Tibetan Buddhist phrase that doesn’t really translate into English, but is used to refer to things that hook you. We don’t need to look at is as either good or bad, but it is an opportunity. Shenpa could be one of our “secret passions,” the little extra chocolate ice cream, sale cashmere.  It can also be like a repeated annoyance, like gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe.

Shenpa makes itself available to you by presenting you the gift of repeating the same thing over and over again.  It also simultaneously gifts you with the opportunity NOT to react like you always do, but rather to act differently, simply notice.  For example, if I had noticed - instead of being really absorbed with the big drama of the Kid Mohair affair,  I could have seen that the project was the mirror of the frustration, creative block and other things making up my then state of mind - and put the stupid, lovely sweater aside.  I could have worked on something else for a while and put a little space in my mind around the situation.  It’s not like this sweater didn’t keep pounding me over the head with the chance to do so over and over again. 

So there’s the sweaterphor. A really tangible (literally tactile) example of how just about everything can provide us an opportunity to apply mindfulness and not to react in our habitual manner.  I actually did sent the sweater away to Boston – for technical editing (really).  That action of physically sending my sticky mind, sticky shenpa and annoyance all the way across the country is very amusing to me now.  Very soon, my dragonflies and I will reunite.  We will be able to be in the same room again.  Maybe we can even attend a party together or go out for a drink.  But it takes some time.  A meditation teacher once told me to remember that it is always okay to “scrap the project” – take a do-over when your practice is just not working.  It seems it applies to Kid Mohair too.

If readers are interested in more about the philosophy of shenpa, I would recommend this essay by Pema Chodron.


Tara Jon Manning is a designer, and author of five books. With her book “Mindful Knitting: Inviting Contemplative Practice to the Craft” she pioneered the Mindful Knitting movement, and invites knitters and readers alike to apply the instruction of basic mindfulness meditation to the work of their hands. Among her other books are the newly released “Nature Babies” and “Men in Knits.” She lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado.

Visit to learn more about Tara’s Mindful Knitting retreats and workshops, and her blog, Earth-Sky-Knitter, for musings on life, knitting, dharma and motherhood.