Thursday, March 26, 2009

How did you learn to knit?

I learned to knit from knitters, not from books.

Terse knitters who just said "KNIT" (when they really meant 'stocking knit') or “plain” (for garter)

If you learned from a knitter, by watching, then all that was offered was a word or two—or at least that was my experience.

You were expected to be able to LOOK at a sweater, or hat, or baby blanket, and at directions that said:
Cast on X,
2 by 2 ribbing for 3 inches
(You were expected to look at the X, and figure out that X was a multiple of 4 +2, so you'd start and end the ribbing with K2 (on right side) and start and end the ribbing with P2 on wrong side. NO ONE would spell that out!

Then it would say "increase X times, evenly, and establish pattern. (And the pattern would be written out in K's and P's--not charted--unless it was color (fair isle or intarsia) No one did the math for you. No spoon feed directions to K X, then KFB, repeats across row, end row with Kx)

Arm hole and neck line shaping would be terse too—bind or cast off 4, then decrease 4 more times over the next 8 rows on each side)

No details like K1, SSk, work in pattern till marker, K2tog, k1, -- (next row purl) 
(and really, no SSK--it was s1, k1, psso!)

The directions PRESUMED you knew enough to use SSK's and K2tog’s, and that you KNEW to make the decreases 1 or 2 stitches in from the edge.

And you would know such details—because you would have seen them incorporated into all the knitting around you.

Same goes for the style you would have learned to knit in.

Chances were, 100 (or even 50 years ago) all, or most of the people you knew and associated with, came from the same cultural background as you and your parents.

And every one learned to knit in the same style, and to use the same cast on.

When I taught myself to knit, and started holding the yarn in my left hand –it was a sort of heresy to my mother.

An Aunt, Gus—(short for Augusta) assured my mother, it was OK –She was German, and knit Continental. But then she looked at how I knit—and she too was appalled.

I flick my left finger to make stitches; I don’t move the needle the proper continental way! (Worse, I knit combo—and just learned to “play it as it lays’ when it comes to my knitting.
NO ONE could knit like that it was declared! (And yet, I did, and continued to!)

100 years ago, you learned to knit (and to cook, and to sew, and to…) without books—though even a hundred years ago, things had begun to change.

You learned to do all these things the same way your mother, and grandmother and aunts did them.

If you were middle class, you might have some needlework books that provided you with some ideas and directions for new patterns or stitches. But most of what you knit would have been the same as what your grandmother and great grand mother, and her grandmother, before her, knit.

And you’d knit in the same style—what ever the style was.
You’d have eaten the same foods too...

Before my parents (both working class residents of Dublin) immigrated to NYC neither had ever cooked or eaten rice, nor most forms of pasta.

My mother knew wheat, oatmeal and barley—rye was exotic flour.
Corn? I don’t remember my mother ever buying corn flour, (or corn muffins, or making corn bread) in my childhood
My father, who worked in a grocery store got exposed to a greater variety of foods, --and was an adventurous eater.. He made sure we kids got exposed to a wide range of foods.

When it came to knitting, my mother was a fantastic FAST knitter.
(I have to restrain myself from pointing out to other knitters—“you could knit much faster if you...”—I don’t knit fast because I am competitive—I just thought that FAST was how you did knitting!)

She knew 2 ways to cast on—her basic cast on was ‘thumb’—the English version of working a long tail (vs. the “sling shot” American method) and the knit cast on.

She knew one way to KNIT (
her way, the proper way!) –even if she did grudgingly allow that her sister in law Gus knit a different way—but then she and Gus knit very different things—Gus was more cultured, (and had grown up middle, not working class) and Gus knit for the pleasure of it—my mother knit so we kids would have warm sweaters, hats, scarves and gloves—for many years, knitting was done from need, not desire.

It’s not too different from cooking. People learned to cook at home, from their mother and grandmother, and aunts.
And they cooked the same food that they had always cooked; in the same way they had always cooked them.

NO one owned cookbooks, many didn't own measuring cups (or measuring spoons)

Things changed—especially with the industrial revolution--with new stoves, and other new equipment, with high speed transportation, moving once exotic food to market in even the smallest town.

There were new lands to explore, new opportunities to take advantage of, there were wars and destruction to get away from.

People moved! And had to learn to cook the new foods they found in their new homes. They found themselves living next to people who cook and ate very different foods (and they found very different foods for sale in their local markets.)

Today, both knitters and cooks (especially younger, hipper, more computer literate knitters!) have learned to knit and to cook from books, on-line material, and youtubes.

I am a knitter on the cusp—I grew up in a community of knitters, and learned much about knitting by observation.

Then grew into a community of knitters who learned much of what they knew from authorities, from books, from magazines, from structured classes –and the same goes for my cooking.

I learned the basics from my mother—and from Julia Child!

I have learned as much about knitting by reading about it, as I learned by exposure to knitters

So how did you learn to knit? From a community of knitter, many of them female relatives? Or from a book, filled with technical information?

In the end, the Knitting is the same—or is it?


Anonymous said...

Wow, what a great post! I have to sit and think about this one.

Anonymous said...

I too was taught by knitters, we had one book that I found out about after knitting for many years.

Interesting that my Mother knitted the same way you do, with the wool in her left hand. That's why I had to learn from my Grandmother. I had to knit 'properly'.

BTW my cast on of choice it 'thumb method' I learnt it as a child and use it for almost everything.

gayle said...

My paternal grandmother taught me to knit (English) and I knit that way for 20 years. Then I read about Continental in a book, taught myself to do it, and have knit Continental for 25 years.
My mother doesn't knit, though she knew how. (She knit one sweater in her entire life - it was for her father, and she followed the pattern diligently. Unfortunately, she knew nothing of gauge. The sweater was big enough for Grandpa, Grandma, and Mom to all wear at the same time...) Her mother was a quilter, and a crocheter, but not a knitter.
Now that I think of it, Grandma and I were the only knitters in the family...
I taught both my daughters to knit, but only one of them stuck with it. Though the older girl is starting to take an interest again since I taught *her* daughter to knit!

Melissa said...

I am completely self taught. I fact no one else in my family knits, they crochet! I used books to teach myself and just figure out the rest as I go along. I'm not a very patient person and would personally rather teach myself anyways so this works pretty well for me.

I think it's great that people all knit a little bit differently. Two people can knit the same thing and each turns out just a little bit differently. It's what makes each creation unique.

Anonymous said...

About 1840, my great grandfather's grandmother taught him (had his siblings) how to knit socks. She couldn't knit fast enough to keep them all in socks without their help. He knit his own socks until he died in the 1920s. About 1912, he taught my mama to knit. She knit mostly lace because she only had string from the butcher shop. About 1950, Mama taught me to knit. Now, my daughter out-does us all.

Marcy said...

I learned with a little of both. A friend taught me the basics in one sitting: e loop cast on and knit and purl. The rest I did myself -- after one follow up lesson about ribbing. I learned to look and figured a lot of stuff out just by looking at sweaters. I have asked people on the subway if I can look at the insides of their sweaters.

BUT, the friend that taught me taught herself from a book.
We were both the results of parents and grandparents who had shed domesticity.
My own mother taught my oldest sister to use the sewing machine but didn't bother following up with the younger girls.
I had to search out knitting teachers and still can't sew. One of these days I'll stop knitting long enough to figure that out.

Susie said...

What a great post. Makes us all think back to our knitting beginnings. I wrote a blog post about how I learned to knit here
When I started to knit, this time, I was afraid to knit in public for fear of me doing it wrong. I didn't know then that there really is no's all right!