Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.
When at work, we all have our pet aggravations. Some folks grow tetchy when stuffed into a necktie or panty hose. Some folks hate office parties. Some would rather eat a bowl of broken glass than go to one more budget meeting. Me, I flinch when I’m asked to assign skill levels to needlework patterns.
I understand the rationale behind the practice of branding a project as easy, beginner, intermediate, difficult, complicated, spicy, yikes, @#!$%*, and so on. The goal, I recognize, is to pilot needleworkers (especially beginners) into safe harbors. There is such a thing as too much ambition. If you are as yet unsure of the difference between knit and purl, perhaps a project full of orders to “p5tog tbl” may not be for you. Perhaps it would make you cry, and flail, and kick people. If the pattern throws up a five-star flag to steer you away from torment, it will have done you a service.
In practice, however, I find that skill ratings tend to encourage the rank and file of the yarn world to be overly cautious, to grow bored, and–in the worst cases–to then drift entirely away from needlework.
I spend about half my life on the road, surrounded by knitters. Most of them wildly underestimate their levels of expertise.
“Is that your work?” I ask a woman whose exuberantly cabled sweater would look at home in a couture showroom. She says that yes, it is, and in the following breath tells me she doesn’t feel ready to take on a certain pattern of mine because it was labeled by the magazine as being “intermediate,” and she’s just a beginner.
It happens all the time. Nervous crowds flock to patterns labeled “easy” because they fear they won’t be able to cope with anything more. They cut their pleasure short because they fear failure. They doom themselves to hanging around at the bottom of the ladder. And that is silly.
What happens when a knitting project goes horribly, horribly wrong? What is the aftermath of a total crochet disaster? You grind your teeth. You glare at the cat. You rip out. You ball up the yarn and shove it back in the stash closet to wait for a happier day. You go to the store and just this once you buy a shower present like a normal person.
Nobody has died. Nobody has lost a limb. Nobody has taken your favorite bamboo needles and fashioned them into a wicker man and put it out on the front lawn and locked you into it and set it on fire.
So what, really, are you so worried about?
Please know that I am not asking this from atop a high horse. I am asking while clinging, lopsided, to a stumblebum horse that has tripped over more fences than it has cleared.
When I was a fledgling knitter I nearly swore off lace for life after repeated clobberings by a scarf pattern the publisher had certified as “Easy.” It said it right there at the top: “Skill Level: Easy.” Further down, in the introduction, they said it again, more emphatically. “Anyone can knit this scarf!” they said. Anyone! Even if you’ve never done a yarn over, or read a chart, or your head has fallen off and rolled away, or you have octopus tentacles instead of arms, or you are fighting off a platoon of hostile Venusians with nothing more than a tube of lip balm, you can knit this lace scarf! IT IS SO EASY!
You will understand that I felt terribly discouraged when–after my fourth attempt–I had done nothing but fray and tangle a perfectly innocent ball of lace weight that had hoped its life would amount to so much more. If I could not knit Easy lace, how could I ever hope to knit fancy lace? Why bother to try?
This is where I think the traditional designations fall off the beam. What does Easy mean? Easy how? Easy when? Easy where? Easy for whom?
I had already knit an “Easy” striped beanie while traveling to work on the Chicago Elevated Railway; so it seemed to me the lace scarf should be a pea from the same pod. What I did not understand was that even when fine-gauge lace is simple, you may not want to cast it on and work it from a chart while you’re being fondled by the icky commuter on one side and jostled by the icky commuter on the other.
So I wonder if we might find a better way to communicate skill ratings than the old variations on easy, moderate, and difficult. Those sound like hiking trails, and knitting projects are less like hikes than like the people you meet on a hike.
So, how about:
Whatcha think? What are your suggestions?
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 (the-panopticon.blogspot.com), 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 Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and a regular column on historic knitting patterns for Knitty.com.
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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