Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On Knitting, Knowing, and Cultivating Passions

I am learning how to knit.

This was not on my summer to-do list.  What was on my list was getting halfway through revisions to my novel.  And getting back to regular yoga practice.  And spending more time with the fiddle, which I began playing two years ago but have neglected the past several months.

Of course, being my children's learning facilitator/guide/partner is always on the list, which is why, when my super-crafty seven-year-old daughter wanted to sew with a machine, I signed her up for some sewing classes at the nearest fabric store.  While my husband and I often take turns serving as our children's "competence model," to borrow a term from unschooling writer Robyn Coburn, in this case there was simply no competence to model: I don't own a sewing machine, and have never even used one.  I drag out the needle and thread once every few months to sew on a button.

Hadley loved the sewing classes so much that she decided to spend the summer trying every single children's class the fabric store offered.  I negotiated her down to a slightly smaller, more affordable list of the classes that most appealed to her.  Knitting was one of them.

Fifteen minutes into the first of two knitting sessions, Hadley and the only other student, an eight-year-old girl, were discouraged; they hadn't expected it to be so tricky.  The teacher, a kind and patient expert knitter named Becky, said to me and the other mother, "You know, they will pick this up a lot easier if you learn, too."

I had been afraid she was going to say that.

It's not that I'm completely uncrafty.  Though my sewing skills are a bit limited, I adore weaving potholders on those nifty little metal looms, and I went through a counted-cross-stitch phase that began when I was nine and lasted until I was thirteen.  But knitting?  It just seemed so big league.

I'd considered learning once, years ago, after it was recommended by a therapist I was seeing during the lows of our infertility struggle and the constant anxiety that accompanied my medically complicated first pregnancy.  Afraid you're never going to get pregnant?  Knit!  On bedrest to stave off premature labor?  Why not knit with all that free time?  The therapist even loaned me some needles and patterns, which I looked over for about fifteen minutes before deciding I wasn't up to it.  Instead I spent weeks poring over The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding  and Your Baby and Child from Birth to Age Five and watched, for the first time, The Godfather and its sequels and a mountain of less memorable movies that my husband brought home from the video store.

But there was my daughter in knitting class, imploring me with her huge brown eyes, and the other mother, who had snatched up an extra pair of teacher Becky's knitting needles and, after glancing at the handout on the casting-on process, was now casually whipping loops onto her left needle.

I walked out into the store and bought the big needles and oversized yarn from the class supply list.  Becky suggested I let her cast on for me, so that I could start right in on the knit stitch.  She modeled the stitch several times, but when I attempted to imitate her, I'd insert the needle in the wrong place, or the loops would slip off the end of the needle, or I'd lean over to help Hadley and forget where I was with my own work.  Then I'd need Becky to get me back on track.  By the end of the session I had four imperfect rows of stitches.

When we returned two days later for the second and final session, Hadley had a few rows of knitting to show for her efforts.  I had a tangled mess of yarn and empty needles, having made some mistake eight rows in and, in the process of trying to fix it, pulled the whole thing apart.  (I tried not to notice that what the other mother brought back practically qualified as a blanket.)  Fortunately, I was more rested than the first afternoon, and I'd had more time to adjust to the idea that I would be knitting.  I also had an obscenely large latte in hand.

After multiple demonstrations and attempts, and the entire enormous latte, I finally got the hang of casting on.  Then I caught on to the knit stitch.  As my hands began knowing what to do, I realized that knitting might be something I could enjoy for my own reasons.

Before we left the store, Hadley and I walked back to the yarn section and examined the various types to see which we liked.  I traded in the scratchy acrylic starter yarn for a super-soft skein of organic cotton.  I also picked out some smaller needles.  Hadley decided to stay with the large needles and yarn, but she picked a new color--a lovely mulberry shade--that she hopes to work into a scarf.

Two evenings ago I finished my first simple project: a small purse for Hadley.  Yesterday morning I sat down with the knitting books we checked out from the library and attempted to do the purl stitch.  I'm happy to report that I had some success before I had to stop and help my five-year-old prepare lunch.

Knowing how to purl will give me access to a whole new world of knitting projects, and allow me to model purling to Hadley, if and when she's ready to use it.  My knitting competence--however little or much I have by then--will be available to her in the same way as my competence at calculating sales tax and baking bread and resolving health insurance billing problems and pronouncing the names of Greek goddesses.

The idea that people are learning all the time is central to unschooling.  Instead of dividing children's activities into categories like "educational" and "recreational," unschoolers strive to take all of their children's interests seriously.  Reading a classic novel is not regarded as an inherently better use of time than playing with Legos; a fascination with Beyblades receives as much parental support as a fascination with The Scholastic Atlas of the United States.  A list of my three children's interests through the years would include--in addition to sewing, knitting, Legos, Beyblades, and The Scholastic Atlas of the United States--construction vehicles, the Eiffel Tower, Pokemon, chess, Barbie dolls, marble runs, rocks, Caillou, the First Amendment, face painting, woodworking, satellite dishes, surveillance cameras, the Titanic, Star Wars, Bruce Springsteen's The Seeger Sessions, constellations, The Kentucky Driver Manual, and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Some of these interests have sparked related interests, some have grown into passions, and some will surely accompany my children all the way to adulthood.

I've learned from all of them, even when I wasn't expecting to.

Hadley's first piece of knitting, which makes a perfect rug for Ariel

My first project: a little purse for Hadley


  1. My first several projects never looked that good! Enjoy! I used to like knitting at the end of the day as a good way to unwind. Funny what we find ourselves learning and doing from our kids.

  2. I think it's great that you are learning along with Hadley. I bet those will be some very special memories for her. I still remember sewing a project with grandma when I was very young.