19 August 2006

Progress, Relapse, and a Resolution

Like last time, I'll start with the good news. I've made a lot of progress on the lace pillowcase panels (from Weekend Knitting), on my UFO list.

I finished one panel - I had *just* enough yarn in the first skein - and have started the second.

Converting the instructions into chart form made all the difference in the world. Why any knitting editor anywhere has ever CONSIDERED publishing even the simplest lace pattern in words/abbreviations when it could be put in a chart is totally beyond my ability to comprehend. When I was trying to knit this according to the printed instructions, I spent all my time squinting at the text, scribbling on it with pencil and manipulating post-its and several kinds of row counters like a madwoman, cursing, tinking, frogging, cursing some more. I had to work on it in stolen moments, in a quiet room with no distractions, and I had to be mean to anyone who was dumb enough to try to walk into that room and inadvertantly throw me off. Finally, I threw the whole #@$@#$ thing in the closet. In days and weeks of working at it, I had finished about half of one panel.

Now, after I took 15 minutes to convert these same instructions into a simple chart, the knitting is fast, easy, fun, and mistake-free. I finished the panel in an evening. I can see at a glance where I am, where I left off, and that everything is proceeding as it should. I don't have to count a thing, I don't need markers or lifelines, and I can even watch TV (though not perhaps with my full attention on the screen very often). I am perfectly cheerful when my husband interrupts the knitting.

This is precisely as it should be for a simple little bit of cotton lace that's only 4 inches wide, for godssake.

What POSSESSED my adored and otherwise almost infallible Melanie Falick to ask knitters to "K4, yo, ssk, yo, sssk, yo, yo, k1, [yo, ssk] twice, k4, [yo, ssk] twice, k3" -- wait -- no, I mixed it up with the line below it -- it's supposed to be "K4, yo, ssk, yo, sssk, yo, k2tog, yo, k4, [k2tog, yo] twice, k3" -- when you could just print a pretty picture of the perfectly simple pretty lace, where each stitch looks just like what it is, and even a two-year-old could follow it???

Okay, I had to get that out of my system. The lace panels are well on their way, and I fully expect to finish them in the next day or two.

Now for the not so good news. I've been feeling so good about making so much progress on all these UFOs, that I got big-headed. Fool-hardy. Those of you who read the previous post might have seen it coming. After my triumph with the lace chart, I was feeling light-hearted, confident. Brilliant. I thought I could do anything. So I....cast on a new project. It wasn't on my UFO list. It wasn't even on my WIP list or my PP list. It wasn't on any list. It just called to me, and I did it. I'm ashamed. Well, okay, not really. Actually, I'm delighted, because they are so awesome. What are they? They're my Mrs. Beetons!!!

I know what you're going to say - you knew I was a lost cause the second I posted a picture of the yarn I'd selected for them, two days ago. You were right. I couldn't even wait till I got around to going downtown to buy beads. I just knit them without the beads. What can I say -- I was on a lace-chart-high, and I just lost control for a few hours.

I've finished them both, though the second one wasn't done in time for my little photo session earlier today. They're so quick, and the results are so incredibly pleasing! I've seen how people have noticed that they also make great Barbie dresses

(though perhaps a little too warm and fuzzy for evening wear)

But I also think they're irrestibly pretty just sitting there, curled up on themselves. Who needs beads?

Okay, I do. I want to make another pair, in lavender, with beads. I might even cave in and get the recommended yarns (since, oddly enough, I have no lavender in my stash of any kind). Not soon, though. I went straight back to my UFO the second these were done, I swear.

And now for my new resolution. It's not what you think - I already resolved to spend all of August finishing my UFOs, and I'm going to get right back to that this evening. This is a new resolution, for a new month. Starting in September, I'm going to spend a few months - possibly until spring, if I can stand it -- FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS.

Now, this may seem like heresy to some knitters. I know that creativity and liberating oneself from patterns is is The Way To Go, and I'm as big a fan of Elizabeth Zimmermann as anyone else, and more so than many.

That's the thing, though. I have so few issues with following patterns that I very rarely do it. I sort of put patterns in the same category as "authority" and I've had pretty much no instinct to follow either, ever in my life. As for creativity...well, I've always been rather full of ideas. Inspiration. New thoughts. Sudden and fleeting enthusiasms that exist only in my own head. I'm a "hey, why not this -- ?" kind of person. I see no reason not to do something just because I thought of it - quite the opposite - and I've always treated with intense suspicion anything that is described by anyone as a "right" way to do anything. My middle name actually is Mary, and I'm pretty contrary. Others have called it "stubborn."



I prefer "contrary."

But I've also always measured up a trifle short when it comes to...productivity. Stick-to-it-tiveness. Pursuing the lovely new thought more than two steps beyond the initial, thrilling moment of inspiration. I'm terrific at saying, "hey, what if I changed this here, and invented this new thing there, and totally altered this?!", and then failing to follow up these great ideas with the solid technique, practice, and drive to make it all work. This is true in every aspect of my life, but only really visible in my knitting (and in that pile of garments I never wear, or never finished, or which have disappeared under mysterious circumstances).

So the experience of doing UFO August has got me thinking about all this, and the result is that I've formed a resolution. I'm going to follow patterns, and I'm going to do things like I'm supposed to, and I'm going to enjoy my knitting, and I'm going to get nice, useful FOs. I need to reserve my creative energies for my dissertation. Because, I've noticed this summer (in the process of actually forcing myself to finish several big, troubled projects that in a previous period of my life I would have abandoned and felt guilty about ever after), that when I go wild with the modifications, inventions or embellishments, several things happen:

1. I spend many hours getting frustrated with the project at hand, because I don't have the skill or, primarily, the patience to live up to my own ideas.

2. I often have to do things two or three times, because I'm too impatient to think it through and do it right in the first place (or just because I really don't know what I'm doing). More often, I should do things two or three times but I only do them once, and the results suck.

3. I end up never really practicing techniques that I really want to learn well, and that would help with problems #1-2, because I'm always trying to do so many new things at once that I can't do any one of them with my full attention or care. Somehow, my mind is *always* elsewhere. Instead of trying and mastering so-and-so's great technique, I fall back on my usual half-assed way of doing things because I can't do the new technique and invent a new kind of collar in the wrong kind of yarn -- or whatever -- all at the same time without my head exploding.

4. I've wasted a lot of good yarn, and time, over the years, in giving full, enthusiastic-but-lazy rein to my creative side and absolutely no attention to learning craft.

5. On those occasions when I have followed a good pattern reasonably faithfully, I've been much happier with the process and the results. Usually. One innovation or modification at a time seems to be a happy medium.

6. I most enjoyed the creative outlet I got out of my knitting when my academic life was still in the stage of going through other people's hoops (coursework, exams, grant writing, archive work), but I'm moving on now in my real, professional life (writing and teaching) -- it's getting more creative, and taking up much more of my creative energy. And this is a good thing. So I need a different kind of therapy now - not art therapy, but a more basic and controlled kind, like physical therapy. I need to practice the same skill over and over until my muscles are in top shape, and I need to reserve my creative energy for the place it's needed most - the dissertation.

7. I'm feeling frustrated with myself more and more as I knit, because I want to be better at it than this. I have learned a lot and improved in all the time I've been knitting, but it's been a haphazard progress in which I forget 80% of what I learn and learn my best lessons only after I've done it wrong (and then 'forgotten' to go back and do it right, to cement the lesson).

8. In recent weeks, while dividing my time between the diss (it gets the majority, really! most of the time...) and my knitting, I've found that I go to sleep thinking about knitting problems or plans, and more often then not, I *dream* about knitting. I had one whole night filled with several dreams -- all of them about knitted socks! Has this ever happened to anyone else? My frustrations over re-doing bad hems and bad collars and funky sleeves are seeping into my subconscious and taking up space that really needs to be directed elsewhere. I like getting a collar right, but is there any reason why, right now, I need to spend all my mental energy figuring it out from scratch instead of learning it from someone else who already did all the work? No - my ambition is really not to design knitwear for a living. I want to knit, and design, for myself and my family, and I want to write history books for a living. Time to get my mind where it belongs, and make the knitting (more) mindless. Not forever, but for long enough to learn and grow from the experience.

So, at least for the next few months, maybe until my diss is done (deadline: March), and maybe for a while beyond, I'm going to follow patterns invented by other people, people cleverer and more careful than myself. I'm going to do what I'm told, I'm going to be modest and choose simpler projects, but I'm going to do it mindfully, and I'm going to learn. I did this recently when I made the Icarus shawl, entirely by accident because I was feeling a bit scared of lace (thanks to a certain pair of uncharted pillowcase panels, huff huff). It was perhaps the most enjoyable knitting experience I've had since my first sweater, when I also followed directions carefully and exclusively.

Here are the exceptions I will allow myself:

1. I can substitute yarns. I have no choice - must use the stash, and can't afford new yarn anyway. But I'll try to be wiser about changing fiber content or weight - or better yet, avoid that altogether.

2. I will convert any lace instructions to charts. This is simply a matter of survival.

3. EZ's non-"pithy" instructions are so simple they count as patterns to be followed, as long as I don't get into any extra-added stuff of my own.

4. VERY VERY BASIC simple waist and/or bust shaping is allowable, to be added to some sweater patterns, only when absolutely necessary, because I would look hideous in the sweater without it. I still don't want to spend X hundred hours to knit a sweater that fits as badly as a store-bought one! That said, I'll follow other people's directions for shaping instead of trying to invent it from scratch because I'm too lazy or impatient to go find the book that explained it.

So. I'm NOT going to change all the Fair Isle patterns in my KnitPicks Palette Sampler cardigan from those boring ultra-easy ones into something crazy and interesting that messes up all the color sequences and numbers, like I was thinking about doing. No. I'm going to do the incredibly simplistic (but pretty) Fair Isle as written and I'm going to perfect my technique in a way I've never given myself a chance to do before. I'm going to study how the color sequences work as I mindlessly knit around and around, so I can invent something more complicated some other time, later, when I'm ready to do it right.

And so on.

This relieves the stress of trying to force myself to take good notes, for once, since I won't be doing anything that requires extra notes.

I won't have any worries about making sides, sleeves, socks, etc., match, because I'll be following instructions every time.

I won't spend hours scribbling out bizarre unworkable ideas or doodling sweater shapes when I should be working on the diss.

Because -- appearances aside -- the doodling and the unworkable knitting ideas are really procrastination for me. Sometimes I get inspired by all these amazing, talented designers out there and I think, "yeah, I can do that" -- but to be honest, I can't and I don't want to. I like the idea of doing it, and I like the idea of earning enough money from it to buy yarn with no guilt attached whatsoever, but the only thing I've ever really been able to follow through on and truly do well is writing and teaching history. The immense uncertainty, crises of confidence and sheer panic inherent in the dissertation-writing process have led me to bury myself in (relatively) comforting knitting problems, so that I can ignore the Really Scary Thing that I most want to do. I hereby resolve to change this.

From here on out, knitting is for fun, and the diss shall occupy my dreams....


Laura said...

your mrs. beetons are super cute!

i have come to the same conclusion about knitting sweaters -- for awhile i thought could just design my own, but i have concluded that i need to spend a lot of time knitting other people's patterns first. it's a way to learn what works and what doesn't.

knitting lace without a chart ... shudder! that's just plain scary. :)

Kirsten said...

Wow, you sound so resolved! Impressive!

I couldn't agree more about the lace charts. Why would anyone publish a knitting book without them???? I have a wonderful little grid notebook where I chart everything before I begin.

Lovely Mrs. Beetons, such a quickie project, I doubt they even count as going off your UFO August plan!

Kate A. said...

Ooh- a dedicated lace-chart notebook is a great idea. I have a binder where I put all miscellaneous bits of paper for a project in a clear plastic sleeve, and I have a notebook (or two, or odd paper scraps) where I scribble anything knitting-related, but this is very messy. I like the idea of copying all my lace charts into one notebook, into which I could also paste xerox/enlarged charts that came with patterns - and eventually I'd have all the lace charts I've ever knit in one place, handy for re-use in patterns of my own making someday in the misty future! Thanks, Kirsten!

And thanks, Laura, too for the support - for some odd reason I feel a little crazy about this resolution, but like you said, it's a way to learn. Hurrah!

Beth said...

Holy Crap! I came to your blog because of your comment on mine and I think we could be best friends and I've only read 1 post. I love the Mrs. Beetons. I think I might be having some of those. I am obsessed with Russian Lace and have a huge crush on the Knit Picks Pallette Sampler cardigan - though i haven't started it yet due to an inordinant amount of projects on my needles. I will definitely be watching this spot.

Kate said...

I'm with you. Right now I'm just trying to make my own knitting better, I don't have time to design too. I'm not sure I'm ready for it anyway. Love the Mrs. Beaton's. Never thought I needed some, now I'm not so sure.

Kirsten said...

Hi Kate I filled out a Knit Geek questionnaire. You can find it

beverly said...

I really enjoyed this post...lots of interesting things to think about...

The Purloined Letter said...

I am WITH YOU!! I love #6.

Good luck! I've been trying it this year. My knitting has improved AND the book is almost finished. It works!