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It’s a Purl, It’s a Chain, It’s …

January 7th, 2014

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I was sitting in an airport, waiting for the flight to a teaching engagement, winding yarn. Travel with a swift being sadly impractical, I was making do with the back of an empty chair. Without warning, a screeching ninny plunged into view and grabbed at the unwound skein.

“So cute!” she screamed, jangling a fistful of wool in one painted claw. “Are you, like, doing some crochet or something?”

“That was the plan,” I said.

But it was too late. The skein had become a tangle so dense not even light could escape from it.

Working out occasional small snarls is part of knitting. There’s no avoiding it. But really big messes like this? Forget it. I’ve always taken them as a sign that I wasn’t supposed to knit with that yarn, anyway.

When I got to the guild I mentioned what had happened and displayed the ruined skein.

“It was so pretty, too,” I said. “But now it’s dead.”

“No it’s not,” said the Chief Guild Lady. “Somebody get Eileen.”

There was a general chorus of agreement: Eileen must be got.

There’s was nothing in Eileen’s physical appearance that would have made you look at her twice. She was nice-looking. Pleasant. Neatly dressed. Polite. But Eileen had a special talent.

“Give it to me,” she said. I handed her the tangle.

Ten minutes later, she handed back the yarn–not only free of snarls but wound neatly into a ball.

I was gobsmacked.

“How did you–?”

“I’m just good at it,” said Eileen, smiling shyly. And she melted back into the crowd.

I think Eileen was selling herself a little short. That had been no run-of-the-mill jumble; you could have lost a pack of hounds in it. No, Eileen wasn’t merely “good at” untangling yarn. She had a super-power.

Everybody in the guild knew it. They all laid their hopeless cases at her feet, trusting that in short order she would have set matters to rights. To be a proper superhero, all she needed was a cape, a mask, and a lair.

The more of you I meet, the more I firmly believe that every needleworker is a bit of a superhero. It’s a rare practitioner of the yarn arts who doesn’t possess a knack for something that reduces most others to tears. It may not enable him to leap a tall building in a single bound, but it may get him unscathed through a chart more riddled with hazards than a minefield. It may not stop a plot to destroy the planet, but it may stop an otherwise law-abiding knitter from stabbing random passersby with an angry needle.

Every villainous tangle in Gotham has a sworn enemy–and she or he may well be sitting in the chair next to you. More likely, she or he is sitting in your chair right now.

What, I would very much like to know, is your superpower?


Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008–now in its third printing) and proprietor of The Panopticon (, one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. On an average day, upwards of 2,500 readers worldwide drop in for a mix of essays, cartoons, and the continuing adventures of Dolores the Sheep.

Franklin’s other publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue KnittingYarn Market NewsInterweave KnitsInterweave CrochetPieceWorkCast On: A Podcast for KnittersTwist Collective, and a regular column on historic knitting patterns for

These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with an Ashford spinning wheel and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.

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  • karen

    I was given some free extremely tangled yarn to use with some autistic boys that I was teaching to knit. We 5, 4 boys( all non verbal) and I, stood in a circle and started to disentangle separate colors. I supplied the talking saying who gave us the yarn etc. I told them that the night before I’d worked on it at the theatre ( I do wardrobe on Broadway shows). Anthony SPOKE up.. “You are to pay attention to the actors on stage, not do other things. You were being disrespectful.” It was all I could do to not faint. He had never spoken before, but here he was using “disrespectful!” I believe that we fooled some connection in his brain to allow him to get his thoughts out for once. We kept at the untangling and Anthony kept talking, responding to my ? about theatre, transportation etc. The other boys were as amazed as I and his regular teachers. From then on, when he appeared to want to say something his teacher gave him some fiddly hand project to work on and often he would be able to talk.

    • Maxi

      I LOVE IT! But then we yarn artists always knew that working with our hands is therapeutic.

    • Anne Ohnemus

      What a wonderful experience! A super power for helping others find their voice through the tactile nature of fiber! Fantastic.

  • Jenn Brooks

    My husband is a very good untangler.

  • Pat

    we have an untangler in my knitting group here in NJ. She is so very valuable. No yarn snarl is too tangled and knotted for her hands. We all love her for it.

  • Deborah B. Morgan

    I am a freehand ball winder and love doing it. I find it very cathartic.

  • Donna

    My hero ‘untangler’ is someone not interested in the fine art of needlework, It is my husband. Whether it is a tangled chain, yarn, floss, or thread he has the gift. He has saved my bacon many a time. Who knew????

  • Judi Jackson Reiss

    The hall needs Rosie, she finishes your unfinished items!

  • marie st john

    My family and friends refer to me as the knot queen. I have yet to be given a knot I cannot untie. Could be all the time I’ve spent untangling my crochet yarn but more likely it’s due to the years I spent in Scouts teaching gals how to tie those little buggers!

  • Cleo

    I love balling my yarn before every project just because it makes it easier to unravel while working. Plus I have a little ocd and I hate when the skein gets al tangled and lopsided.

  • Lorrie Palmer

    Usually I am not a patient person (putting it mildly, I think) but untangling yarn is something I DO have the patience and affinity for. I don’t know why, but I, too, find it calming. And it gives me a great sense of accomplishment when I succeed. Perhaps making order out of chaos….?

  • Sharon H

    I can equal Shirl and Wayne. I can look at a knit stitch and see what somebody did wrong. Crochet, however, I have to take the stitch out to find what was done wrong.

  • Elizabeth Gonzalez

    I loved the article… I respond to humour and I’m usually the first to see the humour in most situations. That could be a super power, but I also am a detangler. I will be looking forward to reading more of your insights and stories.

  • zach52

    I love , love this story. I had been knitting scarves when my mother was ill; my puppy found my yarn and had a party with all of it after my husband and I had gone to bed. I couldn’t sleep from worry about my mother and got up found that my yearn was all mixed up in a tangled mess in my living room, I believe that it was therapeutic for me to untangle the MESS that my puppy had created. I used knitting as therapy during the time that mom was in the hospital and after her death. I was able to salvage
    that yarn for my intended projects.

    • Anne Ohnemus

      Knitting and yarn helped me deal with grief from my Dad’s death. I’m sorry for your loss, but glad knitting helped you after your Mom’s death.

      A friend bought yarn for me to use in a scarf for her husband and their new puppy decided the yarn was his new toy … I untangled the mess and knit up that scarf. Gotta love puppies!

  • UncommonSensesc

    I’m not bad at untangling yarn – I have to be since I live with 4 cats (they all think they can crochet better than me)!

  • Idiosyncratic Eye

    Hands OFF the yarn! 😉

  • Pat

    I have two lovely skeins of sport weight yarn given to me free of charge by the clerk at the discount store because I was patient enough to untangle it from the rest of the skeins in the bin.

  • BJ Strickland

    I call them “patience projects” and while it may take me up to several hours, I do find a certain release of tension in untangling a mess of yarn, coming to that last little knot and seeing a nice wound ball as reward.

  • Katie Mather

    I have recently found out another super power. A mouse got into an afghan and chewed several holes and I cut away the damaged areas and reworked the pattern and filled the hole. This also included another super power. I found the small leftover ball of the same yarn out of the stash of 10 bins in the very first one I looked.

  • Iris

    I used to get my mother to correct mistakes, finish projects, and to untangle my messes. Now she is gone, I am left to my own devices which are pretty much hit or miss! I presently have a beautiful sweater I knitted for my older daughter; when I began to pick up around the neck to finish, it began to un-knit itself, leaving me with a tragic heap of knitting that I fear to touch anymore! Any suggestions? I need a MASTER knitter!

  • Catlady C

    My superpower is – there isn’t a knit or crochet technique that I can’t learn and master instantly….

  • Joan

    Untanglers of the world unite. wouldn’t it be great. I myself love to unpick my old sweaters after a couple of years and reknit in a different design. Am I mean or just industrious?

  • Linda T

    While i’m a good detangler, my real talent is in being able to repair heirloom crochet projects, resewing things that have come loose and recrocheting places where the thread (or yarn) has disintegrated whether it’s rows or motifs.

  • MaryD

    My grandmother is said to have been able to knit socks on double pointed needles from memory while watching a movie at the theater. I never saw this but I trust that my Mom was not exaggerating because she said people would watch my Grandmother knit and forget to watch the movie.

  • Celeste Dunn

    I call myself a Crochet Technician. I can usually decipher any pattern, figure out what stitches are used by looking at a finished piece and can write and edit / test new patterns on the fly.

  • Deb Christiansen

    I am an untangler, too. However, I untangle jewelry chains. I have no patience with my kids, but I can spend hours untangling a chain and never get upset. Hmmmm.

  • Jenny

    Am also pretty good at untangling, although it always makes me feel very uncomfortable. The reason for the discomfort is that the tangles remind me of dreams I had as a child, actually nightmares, that had tangles everywhere that never could be removed. I could remove one, then another would take over, etc.

  • Shelley

    I’m pretty good at untangling but my super power is finding the end of the yarn in the center pull skeins. All my friends give me their skeins to start them out. I guess I should have been a proctologist – pretty much the same….

    • Collette

      Finally! Something I also can do!! My students in my crochet class just wordlessly hand over the skein when it fights back at her! I get inside that skein, and in a couple of minutes, I hand the skein back to them–the end hanging out!

  • BetteJo

    I not only enjoy untangling I am obsessed with it. Periodically I straighten my yarn stash and inevitably get tangles. It is impossible for me to cut away the tangle and dispose of it. It must be untangled!

  • Sharon

    I am an untangler also. I love the challenge, actually….so I am a sick untangler. LOL The secret is to not pull the knots too tightly…..keep it loose and take it slow. There….now all of YOU can be untanglers too!

  • Diane Stiebel

    Untangling yarn sometimes scares me but sure helped untangle the Christmas lights that everyone was ready to throw out. Now, if only I could figure out how to work those darn double points. I want desperately to learn how to make socks but even my friend who is a master knitter has given up on me. The one pair I made at the LYS was really a disaster. One sock was big enough for Paul Bunyon

  • jane

    I’m like Alala — good at repairs, even way down in knitting. And I loved reading about the tradition of having a potential wife untangle a mess of yarn to prove her patience. Should be extended to the husband as well — or some similar more masculine problem.

  • demelzabunny

    I’m our group’s “Eileen.”n I can untangle other stuff, like jewelry chains, too. And I’m the one who will whipstich (or any other stitch) the prepared squares together for those charity afghans. I believe it indicates a natural patience and desire to best a seeming unbestable challenge.

    But other challenges seem to elude me, like being able to count rows effectively, or reading pattern charts. What I would really like to be able to do is adapt patterns to fit the people I’m attempting to make stuff for, or even just put it together w/no pattern, just like my grandma used to be able to do. If I don’t have the exact yarn and other materials suggested in a pattern, I’m sunk. Any suggestions? Thanks!

  • Jeri Wendzel

    Shirl needs to live in my house!

  • CherylALeonard

    I inherited the “untangle gene” from my grandmother about the time I became a mother myself. She taught me to knit and crochet when I was about 5 years old using kitchen string for fear I would ruin a good skein of yarn while practicing my different stitches. I think maybe too your hands and eyes develop a sense of memory along with your brain and the the untangle gene becomes a bit born from evolved from economics rather than waste a beautiful skein or part with the dream therein.

  • terrycadymt

    Wonderful stories! I’ve never really thought of having any superpowers, but I was lucky enough to be raised by a creative mom,and she just assumed that I could do any creative thing I could think of. Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of UFOs, as most patterns seem to me like general outlines. Let’s see, I like this cable pattern but I want to do it in a finer yarn, oh, and these sleeves, and I’ll make it tunic length, and maybe I’ll add a shawl collar…

  • C.S. Weaver

    It’s a challenge to untangle yarn or undo knots, but I don’t know if I’m super at it. I am pretty great at taking a random stitch (I’m a crocheter and hand needleworker) and visualizing it into an item of some kind. I recently had a customer ask me to replicate a knitted slipper for her, just from a picture. I did it without too much folderol.

  • Fluzz

    And this is how Ravelry has an entire group dedicated to untanglers! I too adore untangling. There is nothing so rewarding as taking an “impossible tangle” and turning it into a ball of usable yarn.

  • Michelle

    I really don’t mind weaving in ends. It is very satisfying as that marks the completion of my project! I am going to find that unravel group on Ravelry!

  • LindY G Sherrod

    My Mom is The Detangler in my family. I am The Queen of throwing the yarn across the room as I say some very well chosen words.

  • Dana

    I will mattress stich, happily, all day long. I have to force myself to return the knitted pieces to my students when I’m fixing a mistake, or I would just sit and mattress stich the whole thing for them.

  • deeziner4

    Yep, I can untangle any mess of yarn :-) and have taught myself to knit, crochet, sew, embroider, cross stitch, and make my own patterns. I rarely toot my own horn so thank you for the opportunity :-)

  • Riannon Rodrigues

    My beautiful human being of a husband can sense where to find a lost crochet hook. It’s quite amazing. And perfect because my super power seems to be making crochet hooks disappear.

  • Susan Gawarecki

    My 2nd ex had the most amazing ability to spot a four-leaf clover in any clover patch. I could stare right at one and never see it.

  • Anne Ohnemus

    Great story! Superpowers are so often those things that seem small – especially to the person who is good at them. I can detangle to a certain degree and am lucky to have a Husband and good friend who will step in and help when I’ve gone as far as I can … because since I hate weaving in ends, I would never choose to cut the yarn!

    My superpower is that I knit … I took to it literally like a duck to water … 1st project after learning (in College) was a raglan sleeve sweater … expert fiber artists I knew at that time were impressed with my even stitches throughout the entire project. Back then nothing intimidated me – knitting lace, designing my own sweaters, etc. (Back then it was difficult to even find knit lace patterns – today it’s easy.) I think because knitting came so naturally to me, I can recognize and encourage nervous new knitters and help set them at ease – teaching them simple, but intimidating to them things like tinking or fun new stitches.

  • Phyllis Swanson

    I’m also an untangler – be it yarn, string, wind chimes or Newton’s Cradle ( the five ball thing that shows conservation of motion – kids tangle them pretty well in my hubby’s science classes).

  • Amy S

    I can deconstruct a store item – knit or crochet – and reconstruct it from photos or memory… not really a super power but it’s fun when I see a cute bag that they want almost $200 for and I can make it the colors I want for a lot less AND the added pride of being able to say “I made it”.

  • Tanya Hixon

    I like restoring order to the yarn. I used to visit my aunt and untangle her threads and yarn bits in her sewing drawer all the time. I can also crochet fast. I made 5 headbands for my cousin’s kids at Thanksgiving dinner this year.

  • Deborah Hale

    I, too, am an untangler. My gift was actually discovered when I was on a “fishing party” boat and 4 other fishermen had gotten their lines hopelessly tangled. I handed my rod to my date and went to rescue the other men from their mess, coming back a few minutes later to reel in a fish that hit my line as soon as I retrieved my rod from said date, who grumbled that he STILL had not managed to catch a fish of his own!

  • Sandra Terra

    Sandra Terra
    My super power is figuring out new ways of knitting something and than finding out the someone else just wrote a blog or pattern for that exact thing. I am a self taught knitter and figured out a sweater pattern based on percentages, socks from the toe up, socks on one needle,and socks two at a time (four if on one needle), I am currently working on double souled socks with single strand tops (but I haven’t found a pattern for this one yet)…..

  • Lynne Gabbe-Harkcom

    I’m an Eileen, with some Shirl added in. I would LOVE to meet Rosa, though.

  • Erin Smith

    My sister and mother always give me the tangled yarn and I am happy to un-tangle it. I find it strangely calming…