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.
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Duly noted. Still haven’t finished my first sweater..
That is why I prefer crochet. I love your retelling though. <3
No crafting decisions after 11pm. Thatâ€™s my mantra. I learned the hard way many years ago when I snipped the wrong thread and started unraveling the sweater rather than merely the sewn-in end. I still knit after 11pm, but if Iâ€™m facing a decision, I put it away until tomorrow. .
PS, I also fear getting stuck inside clothing. There have been a few moments of panic in store dressing rooms. If itâ€™s too hard to get on, I donâ€™t even bother.
That’s hilarious! I do that with stuff too, only it ends up on dicey projects where sleeves cannot be extended lengthwise and cuffs that are too long would look silly and it’s like ok great hours of work and I should have made a longer initial chain!
Funniest thing I have read in ages! Nice to know others have “challenges”. Thanks for the belly laughs Franklin!
Ah, yes, I call it Project Completion Mode. That feverish feeling when a project is nearing completion. It usually hits late in the evening, for some reason. I should follow your example, Franklin, and set a “don’t work past this time” rule. I can usually tell when I’ve hit what my costuming friends call “stupid hour”: the time when I can’t figure out how to do simple, basic stuff. Lately, that time has been getting later and later in the night and I’m a morning lark! However, I recently (finally) bound off three longer-term projects, so there’s less completion mode to go around these days.
Great read to start the day!
I love your story, and you are an amazing story teller. When learning to knit after only a couple scarves
and matching hats. I just new I could knit a sweater! Well lets just say I learned real fast the art of
“TINKING” and had there been a class on “TINKING” I would have been the honor roll student!!
I did finish it and my local yarn shop displayed it in the shop!! (I used their yarn).
P J Evans
My very first sweater was a v-neck pullover, instructions in my mother’s Good Housekeeping needlework book, and with some of the yearn worn thin from being frogged. (Red Heart wool fingering, from local variety store.)
Second sweater was an Aran pullover, from commercial instructions. Both of those were knit in pieces and sewn together.
Third sweater was an EZ raglan-sleeve Aran. It got third prize in the Aran class at the county fair. (My mother’s sweater got second prize. Some woman using a commercial pattern – I recognized the design, it was in the same book as my first Aran – got first prize. The judging was supposed to be 30% on originality. My mother and I did our own designs.)
I mostly taught myself to knit, so I have an unorthodox style, neither normal US nor Continental. But I can generally hit gauge with the needle size called for on the yarn label.
Please post a photo of that first sweater. ..My first sweater, 20 years ago was for our first granddaughter, Chelsea. It was lovely and I wonder if it is still around or at Goodwill?
Thank goodness I was in a knitting group in Albany, NY. The ladies there were so much help and inspiring. Miss them and their beautiful creations. One lady had sheep even and made her own wool and even ceramic buttons. Incredible blessings.
My first sweater was made for my husband. It didn’t fit him, but might have fit Godzilla. It has long since been unraveled and re-knit to the correct size. The elbows blew out and are patched, and it’s threadbare in places – what is it with guys and clothes? I may turn it into a cat bed…
We are dying to see that sweater! My first sweater is a Peruvian style 13-color sweater that never fit meâ€”beautiful but apparently wasnâ€™t the right style for my daughter when she hit age 10 and would have fit into it…it now hangs on a bedroom wall, an object dâ€™art.
Knit Fool Deirdre
Wonderful story! My 1st knitting project was a raglan sleeve sweater … I wore it with the sleeves rolled up & pulled it on very carefully (too tight bind off) …
Love the Blog about fitting while knitting. The patience it takes is beyond me????
Carol F Metzger
Scary moments. At least in an elevator there is a button to push.
Wonderful & encouraging.
I am still laughing as I write thisâ€”it SO reminds me. I was stuck alone, in a department store dressing room, in a cocktail dress that I cavalierly decided I could fit into. Most of me fit but the er, boobsâ€”er, no. So of course I crossed my arms to whisk it over my head
and got stuck. I was breathing beige colored chiffon, wondering how I was going to get out of it without ripping it to shreds and cursing the dress. Also cursing the fact that no salesperson had come back to check if I needed anything, no way to call anyone, and so couldnâ€™t hear anyone else in the stalks around me. I finally gritted my teeth, breathed in and held my breath and prayed the dress would hold and heaved it off. There I was half naked, hit and sweaty, but free! I got out of there as fast I couldâ€”done for the day, exhausted. Needless to say I too learned a good lesson!
My first sweater, turtleneck, bright multi colored wool,, varied width stripes made somewhere about 1970 was for my 15-year-old daughter. The second, a beautiful fair isle turtleneck ski sweater, came soon after for my thirteen-year-old son. Both refused to wear them because that just was not cool. I mean, “YOUR MOTHER MADE IT??? ICK!” Imagine my surprise at finding them in a storage box forty some years later. “I made those? They’re beautiful!” Tried them on—-they fit perfectly and now that I live in a cold winter climate, I wear them regularly and get compliments even yet. I’ve made much nicer ones, many many, my own designs, but somehow I get more smug satisfaction from those two than all the others. Stupid kids!