My first visit to a yarn shop was discouraging, but not so discouraging as to keep me from knitting. I had no knitting teacher, and after commencement scattered our class to the four winds, I no longer had friends who knit. It was more than a decade before I went back to the shop in Harvard Square, or to any place like it.
As a solitary practitioner, I knit with whatever yarns I could find. Usually they turned up at garage sales. I wasn’t fussy about who made them or what they were made from. I could only knit three things, anyhow–garter stitch scarves, hats (worked flat, with a seam), and mittens (ditto). My sole, ghastly knitting book didn’t even mention circular knitting–or, come to that, minor details like gauge, fiber, or yarn weights.
Even so, I was knitting. I had in the back of my mind the idea that one day, I’d tackle a sweater.
That day arrived in the early 2000s, during the first blush of the knitting revival. I’d found a knitting group and a (friendly) local yarn shop. I’d learned to swatch, to read patterns, and to knit in the round. I’d even learned stranded colorwork, which was key to realizing my vision.
The goal? An Elizabeth Zimmermann percentage system with raglan shoulders and a band of colorwork around the chest.
I was pushed right into the deep end of the pool–knitting to fit–because I am both short and stocky. My measurements, and those of the imaginary gentleman for whom standard patterns are designed, have nothing in common. My chest belongs on someone five inches taller. My arms belong on a boy entering the sixth grade. If you are thinking I sound like a junior tyrannosaur, you have the right idea.
I was excited to imagine that I might, at last, have a sweater that would fit. All of mine either strained across the pectorals or bagged at the waist, and they almost always hung to my knees. Elizabeth Zimmermann, in Knitting Without Tears, was obligingly upbeat about my chances of success.
Nor was she the only authority on my shelf. I now had a tidy library of very good books about knitting, including Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ’n’ Bitch and Maggie Righetti’s immortal classic Knitting in Plain English. I was hesitant to say much, or ask many questions, on my occasional visits to knit night. But it didn’t matter–the other knitters were very forthcoming with suggestions.
I swatched. I blocked the swatch. I measured, and measured again. I calculated, twice. I took a deep breath. I cast on.
I have nothing noteworthy to say about the first three-quarters of the sweater. I did as I was told by Elizabeth Zimmermann, with frequent advice from Maggie Righetti. There were moments of uncertainty, as when I at last joined the lower body to the arms. There were moments when I broke a sweat, as when I began knitting the colorwork band around the chest.
Yet I found that my mentors were correct–while knitting, a cool head and a lick of common sense will carry the day.
I began working the raglan decreases and wondered if I might be coming down with a fever. I recognize the feeling now. I get it whenever the end of a long-term project appears on the horizon. Often, I break a sweat from sheer anticipation. I want the thing, whatever it is, done.
At this moment both my cool head and my common sense deserted me.
I was living alone in a modern apartment building made from surprisingly soundproof concrete. I had reached what I now recognize as my personal Knitting Danger Zone of eleven in the evening. These days, when the clock strikes eleven the knitting is put away, no matter how alert I might feel. Because if I keep knitting after eleven, bad things happen.
I did not understand this that night, alone, in my soundproof apartment.
The sweater had been an uninteresting series of tubes. Then it had become an unwieldy clump of knitting with tubes flailing in three directions. But now, about halfway up the shoulders, for the first time it looked like a sweater. Maybe even a well-made sweater.
Was it well-made? Would it fit? I had to know. I had to try it on. Right then, right there, right now.
I remembered, vaguely, that one of my books had said a work in progress could be tried on if the live stitches were first transferred to a length of scrap yarn. I didn’t have a length of scrap yarn next to my chair. And anyhow, I had decreased to the point where surely I could leave the circular needle in place.
So put the thing over my head, and shoved an arm up into each sleeve.
The top of my head poked out through the live end of the work like an egg emerging from a ostrich. My hands caught in the sleeves, just above my ears. I couldn’t see out. And then I realized I couldn’t get out.
I was stuck. Stuck inside my unfinished sweater.
I inhaled sharply and got a mouth full of stockinette. I wiggled. I writhed. The sweater would not pull on or come off. I grunted. I jumped up and down. And that’s when I hit the coffee table and fell over.
Now I was on the carpet, blinded, with a throbbing knee and my hands still held captive above my head. I could hear live stitches popping off the needle. I half-heartedly shouted for help.
Help from whom? Nobody could hear me through the concrete. If they had, what on earth could I have said? How does one ask, in a dignified fashion, to be released from one’s own knitting? After that, how does one face one’s rescuer in the lobby?
Dignity, by now, was forgotten. I lay on the carpet, hyperventilating into wrong side of the colorwork and trying to form an escape plan.
Maybe I could wriggle against the carpet? I decided to try. My gyrations were unspeakable, unearthly. Obscene. Were the blinds closed? Was I being watched from the the building across the street? Would they call the fire department?
It must have been half an hour before I was entirely free. I slumped, panting, against the upended coffee table. The sweater was not in ruins, but certainly looked raggedy around the live end. The needle had slipped its bonds and slithered halfway across the room. I gathered up the remains gingerly, expecting every live stitch to immediately ladder to the cast on. In my head, I saw months of work disintegrating. Poof.
Life was over. They would be find me, eventually, sitting dead in the exploded piles of yarn that had been my dream sweater.
I went to bed. There on the nightstand was my faithful copy of Knitting Without Tears. Before I went to sleep, I added a note in pencil. Elizabeth Zimmermann had given me so much good advice, but had never said to be careful not to get stuck inside my knitting.
Don’t get stuck inside your knitting, I wrote.
And now, dear reader, I pass this hard-won wisdom along to you.
I did finish the sweater, and even wore it to my first fiber festival. But that’s another story.
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of I Dream of Yarn: A Knit and Crochet Coloring Book (Soho Publishing, 2016) and It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008) and proprietor of The Panopticon, one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. His publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Ply Magazine, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and Knitty.com.
He travels constantly to teach knitters at shops and guilds across the country and internationally; and has been a popular member of the faculties of such festivals as Vogue Knitting Live!, Stitches Events, Squam Arts Workshops, and the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat.
These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel, two looms, and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.
Visit him at www.franklinhabit.com.