What Knitting Taught Me

What Knitting Taught Me

When I began working on the first edition of The Principles of Knitting in 1982, I poured over knitting books looking for techniques I thought should be included. I quickly realized I had seriously underestimated how deep and rich the craft of knitting was and how much I would need to learn in order to do it justice.

Unfortunately, while there was a lot of material to work with, most of what I found was anecdotal — there were regional traditions, or the favorite techniques of an author, which as often as not were different from those of another author. Furthermore, while instructions for how to do a technique would be included, there was very little in the way of explanation about how they worked in the fabric, which was what I really wanted to know.

In other words, there was no evidence that would allow a knitter to decide which technique to use, or whether any claim made for it was true or not. That was the task I set myself.

I had been knitting most of my life and considered myself something of an expert, but I knew what I had to do was go back to the beginning and question even the most fundamental aspects of knitting. This required me to set aside everything I thought I knew about knitting and suspend all of my assumptions about which techniques worked best. The goal was to let the knitting teach me what was really happening in the fabric. In order to do this, every technique was tested, and all similar ones were tested in the same way so they could be compared.

For instance, when working on the cast-ons, I used the same yarn, the same needles, the same number of stitches for every technique. I made separate swatches for each of them, one  with the edge followed by Stockinette, one with a pattern that drew in like ribbing, and one that opened out, like lace. I measured how far the edge would stretch and how well it recovered. I drew a diagram showing the path the yarn took in the fabric so I could understand its structure and why it behaved the way it did.

This general approach was used throughout the book. The process often revealed new insights into how a technique could best be used, suggested a variation on the theme, or even an entirely new one. In some cases, I found that what first appeared to be separate techniques were simply different ways of doing the same thing, or the same name had sometimes been given to two entirely different techniques. Some turned out to be not particularly good at what they were supposed to do, but even that information was included in the book so you would know about it.

In short, this book is not about my favorite ways to work, nor do I necessarily recommend everything in it — it truly is what the knitting taught me. Basically, my intention was to put you in charge of how to knit by providing explanations that would help you choose which technique works best for what you plan to make.

And given how many times my own assumptions were overturned during the process of doing this research, and how much I discovered that was new, I can unhesitatingly recommend that every knitter, even the most self-confident and experienced, read the chapters on the fundamentals.

I hope the book will deepen your understanding, hone your skills, and inspire you to try new things with confidence. I strongly believe that a mastery of technique is the source of creativity because it allows you to realize your ideas.


And finally, a few words about attribution …

The Principles of Knitting contains the accumulated wisdom of generations of knitters, some of them published, most unknown; I owe them a debt of gratitude for all they taught me. I consider it not just an obligation, but an honor and a privilege to acknowledge an original contribution to knitting whenever possible. However, this is not always easy to do.

For the most part, that means crediting the author of published material; even though a technique may have been learned from a grandmother or neighbor who was not mentioned, the trail back in time stops there. Furthermore I could never be sure if I had the oldest mention of a technique; while my library of knitting books is a large one, it is, of course, incomplete and for the most part, in English. Occasionally there was also the challenge of trying to decide who to credit when more than one person came up with a new idea around the same time.

I gave all this a great deal of thought and did the best I could. Sobered by the difficulties it presented, I was very modest in my own claims to originality — even though I knew I had invented a technique, or developed a variation or new application of an existing one, I could never be sure someone else hadn’t already done so. However, looking back on things now, I sometimes think I was too modest.

The first edition of The Principles of Knitting was out of print for fifteen years, and most knitters today have never seen it. During that time, many things introduced in my book became common knowledge. Indeed it is quite conceivable that some knitters today might assume that most of the material in the second edition is just that, common knowledge, or even that many of the techniques I introduced were developed by someone else.

To some extent this is the price of my modesty in not claiming things as my own and, of course, very few people can be expected to do the kind of intense bibliographic search I did in order to trace a technique or application back to its origins. Nevertheless, given how careful I was about attribution of other people’s work, I must say it is rather ironic that it might now look as if I have taken other people’s work and presented it as my own, when in fact it actually came from the first edition of the book, or was introduced in the second edition.

I alternate between being amused and dismayed by this (and I confess to being quite dismayed when I hear of teachers who base classes on material in my book without acknowledging the source). But basically, it would be far more upsetting if my work had been ignored! After all, the point of writing this book was to share what I learned with the knitting community and I take pride in knowing how many things that first appeared in one edition or the other of my book are now considered general knowledge about the craft.