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What I’ve Learned From Teaching Knitting

 

knit swatch on needles

A student’s first knit sampler

I’ve been teaching knitting to both beginners and more advanced knitters for a few years now. Even this little bit of teaching experience has taught me so much. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Muscle memory is forever

In every small group of Learn to Knit students, there is at least one person who learned to knit when they were a child, made a five metre-long garter stitch scarf out of bright red acrylic, then never touched knitting needles again. This student always claims to have no knitting knowledge, and they want to learn the basics along with everyone else.

Each time, that student picks up the needles and, claiming to not know what they’re doing, casts on a perfectly tensioned row of stitches, then starts knitting away. Our fingers and wrists remember the motions for the simple stitches that make up knitting projects.

I have also found that students who use their hands in other work — carpentry, sewing, tying knots when sailing — understand the motions of yarn and needles very quickly. When you are used to seeing things come together, guided by your hands, it seems to be much easier to understand how other crafts work.

Each culture has their knitting style (and they’re all fascinating)

I had two fears when I started teaching: having to teach a left-handed student, and teaching advanced techniques to continental knitters (a technique where you hold the yarn in your left, or non-dominant, hand). It turns out, neither one of these is all that challenging to work with!

In fact, the range of knitting styles extends way past just those two differences. Last week, a student in my Colourwork class learned to knit from her Finnish mother. Not only did she hold the yarn in her left hand, but she also purled with the yarn held in back (not in front). You can imagine how much faster it is to work ribbing in that way, when you don’t have to move the yarn to the front and to the back between each stitch.

One of my students in yesterday’s Knitting Clinic, an Australian woman of Greek heritage, learned from her mother, who tensioned the yarn by wrapping it around her neck. The other student in that class, a South African man, learned to knit in primary school in the 1960s. Thirty years later, in my own elementary school class, the boys were sent outside to play soccer while the girls learned to knit and sew.

Watching knitters from around the world work in the ways most familiar to them reminds me of how my own French-Canadian grandmother taught me: with two long straight needles, one held in the left hand, one held upright between the knees, leaving the right hand to maneuver the yarn. This isn’t too far off from using a knitting sheath or knitting belt, the way knitters have done for centuries.

Go where the student wants to go

My own knitting goals are clear: work on patterns that challenge me and take all my focus. While I do a fair amount of mindless knitting while reading, I prefer the projects that teach me somethign new. Naturally, I tend to assume that the same is true for my students.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even in project-based classes, students come in with a huge variety of goals. Some want to learn complicated techniques and make beautiful, wearable garments. Others want to learn simple stitches to make quick projects for the people they love.

One student came to a Knitting Clinic with a beautiful lace projet, halfway done. Her late mother had started it in the 1950s, abandoned it as her family expanded and her time grew scarce, and never finished it. My student found the project, extra yarn and printed instructions in a box of her monther’s things. The pattern was published in a post-war magazine, used older British knitting terms, was five pages long, and had several errors that a skilled knitter could detect, but that would leave a novice completely puzzled.

This student wasn’t interested in learning new lace techniques. She needed help in decyphering the old pattern, in finding the exact row where her mother had put her knitting aside, and in completing the project. It took us two full sessions to go over the pattern together, line by line, charting as we went, correcting errors and finally finding the correct row.

Another student wanted to make her husband a garter-stitch scarf. She wasn’t a complete beginner, and the project sounded impossibly boring to me. Why not moss stitch? Ribbing? Maybe a bit of colourwork?

But as the class progressed, this student revealed that she was recuperating from brain surgery. Her short-term memory wasn’t very good, and she wanted simple instructions and one motion, repeated over and over again. Plus, her scrape with illness had taught her the value of quick gratification and wrapping up projects quickly. She didn’t want a challenge. She didn’t want something complicated. She knew what she needed; all I had to do was teach her.

Speed and skill are two very different things

Don’t tell the others, but my favourite students are usually the ones who take their time. They look at my hands as I demonstrate a technique, have me work one-on-one until they understand what I’m doing, sometimes have me guide their hands as they hold the strands of yarn and move the needles.

The slower knitter isn’t just in class to wrap up a project: they truly want to understand. They don’t cringe when I remind each student to focus on technique. That’s the only reason they spent their money and their Saturday afternoon on this class.

This is the student who barely finishes the work during class time, but who comes back for the next session with massive progress. When learning colourwork, they focus on holding both strands of yarn at once, and don’t revert to their old ways when they don’t think I’m looking. They aren’t necessarily a perfectionist, but they are there to learn. We’re all adults in these workshops: the worst consequence of goofing off during class isn’t a note home or a reprimand, it’s having wasted time and money, walking away without new knowledge.


 

Some students assume that knitting is my full-time occupation. It isn’t — I have a job that keeps me rather busy. No matter what, though, I make the time to share the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years. It’s often the most relaxing, and most gratifying, part of the week.

I teach knitting classes (from beginner’s Learn to Knit to advanced lace and technique workshops) in and around Melbourne. If you’re interested in signing up, you might like to subscribe to my occasional email announcements.

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