Interior Design

I'm Knitting My Way to My Happy Place

March 30, 2018

The subway delays were making my neck hot. I unzipped my jacket and pressed a coldish hand against my throat. We’d been underground, immobile, for what was now 10 minutes and my toe was tapping fast—a nervous tic—on the inside of my snow boot. Next to me a woman sighed deep and looked at her watch for what felt like the fifth time in a minute. It was rush hour and the thing about rush hour is that you really are rushing: to home, away from work, to family, or friends, or a couch. To leave behind the stress of a day before you have to return to it tomorrow. I cursed the conductor and the train system and New York City. I shook a fist in the air, but only in my head. Spite can feel nice, momentarily, but it doesn’t do much. So, instead, I pulled out my knitting needles.

I began knitting only a month prior and I was halfway through an oatmeal-colored scarf. I wasn’t very good and the scarf—or what bit of scarf existed—was pockmarked with gaps where I’d missed stitches. Some sections were wider than others and the whole thing was starting to take on a kind of hourglass shape. Like untucked chairs or off-kilter blinds, these types of avoidable imperfections usually bother me, cause me some inexplicable internal stomach knot. But this scarf was different. It felt so soft and I’d logged the time to get it this far, how could I not keep going, mistakes and all?

What's the stitch?

It all began on the subway (another time), when I witnessed an older couple knitting in tandem across the car. The woman was working on what looked like a blanket. I approached them, wading into their manufactured idyll to puncture it with my curiosity. I barraged them with questions: What are you making? How long did this take? Could I learn? No, like would I even be able to learn? Was it easy? Was it hard? Should I learn? They answered so patiently, so earnestly, and with such placid smiles on their faces that I was instantly convinced knitting had to be some type of mood stabilizer. I exited and stood clear of the closing doors as they sped away on an A train towards the Upper West Side.

A week later, I had a two knitting needles and two balls of yarn. It was winter in New York and I was scarfless, so I figured that type of built-in goal would be useful to get and keep me going. In 2018, hobbies are hard to come by. I work on the weekdays and catch up on TV on the weeknights. The weekends are for sleeping and the occasional outing, spending time with friends. I’ll read a book or a magazine during my time in transit, and I spend a lot of my free time cooking or eating. But when was the last time I learned a new skill? Something tactile, something that made my joints crick in a I’m doing something new kind of way. 2018 was to be the year of the hobby, I declared to my roommates.

Photo by Julia Gartland

Don't be knit-picky

Like any good millennial, I learned on my phone. I FaceTimed my younger sister (who taught herself to knit last summer and was, I'd say, a scarf and a half better than me) and watched YouTube tutorials, and in a couple of hours, I was casting on, knitting parlance for getting started. I had to restart three separate times—one time my string felt too taut, another time too loose. Unwinding my progress was annoying, but it was also OK. Had I wasted my time? No, because I was constantly getting better. But I had nothing to show yet. So what? Each successive beginning was but a reminder that the work I had put in was for improving a skill, and skills aren’t always so visible. By the third iteration, my stitches came easier, my hands moved with ease around each other. I didn’t have to hyperfocus on my fingers, whispering ”twist, through, over, pull” narrating each action. I could knit and converse, or knit and watch TV. A pro, I was not, but I was becoming proficient.

What’s that phrase about idle hands? They make a dull boy? Not sure. But I’ve never been one for sitting around with nothing to do. Call me anxious, call me antsy. I’m both! Be it cards, a book, a charged phone, I’m always one for some on-hand or hands-on entertainment, and knitting was quite literally that. I began carrying my needles around with me. All the time. I whipped out my needles in the waiting room of my doctor’s office or snuck in a few stitches before bed. The subway was now my mobile studio.

Needles to say...

Knitting became a crafty respite, a safe dissociation. There’s very little cognitive heavy-lifting required, and to connect with your hands in such an intimate way feels like a privilege, an afternoon treat. You can listen to music or eavesdrop conversations or sit in self-manufactured silence. Also, in a world so structured by consumption—the banana I buy for breakfast, the Instagram stories I tap through in line for said banana—there’s something special about creating, watching something manifest before you, by you. As our subway ground to a halt somewhere under the East River, I opened my backpack and pulled out my needles. I was an hour from home, stuck on a crowded and slowly overheating subway car, but I was, at least for the moment, pleasantly distracted.

The final product: keeping my neck (and heart) warm all winter long. Photo by Julia Gartland

More Feel-Good Fare: Watch

Do you knit? Share your story in the comments below.

32 Comments

Hollis E. September 25, 2018
i read every comment, always interested in others' personal knitting thoughts. my Bubbe taught me when i was about 6, and i liked it, but for some reason didn't pursue it except for one sweater i made in high school while i knitted with a friend of my mom's. after a few years of college, i moved to New Orleans (from South Jersey) and found my husband, a Sassoon haircutter in a cute little shop. across the street was a cute little knitting shop. i gravitated there, and picked it up again, once again knitting a sweater. again, i put it away for quite a while.<br /><br />about 10 years or so later, i started crocheting, switching to the smallest steel hooks and thinnest threads to make lace doilies galore. that lasted about 15 years and saved my sanity. i have made some really spectacular pieces, as wedding and birthday gifts mostly, although i've sold a few things. i myself kept practically none of my own work.<br /><br />then, around 12 years ago, i put down my steel hooks and picked up the knitting needles again, and it's been knitting ever since. i have collections of needles (some from my Bubbe, some from her daughter, my aunt, and many sets i've purchased online). i don't often finish what i start -- usually, i work to a certain point; when i'm no longer feeling the love, i put the piece down for a bit while i start something else. by the time i get back to an abandoned piece, i'm ready to unravel it and start another project with it. ravelry.com and craftsy.com are great, and i have particular designers whose patterns appeal to me very much. my pattern collection isn't huge, but it is varied and eclectic. i love yarns almost like they're foods; they make me salivate, just by feel and color. i have way more than i need. Purl Soho, as one commenter mentioned, has some really really great yarns and colors, as well as other crafty projects, like embroidery and weaving.<br /><br />i have always embroidered and still do, preferring Japanese sashiko style and traditional blackwork style because i love geometric patterning. i also love needlepoint, card weaving, and knot-tying. pretty much anything with a needle and thread (except for actual clothing) fascinates me. i know that macrame is still in my future (i'm 64, so my future is limited).<br /><br />i love crafts, and i love to cook, too. and reading, thinking, and writing. all of those arts are intertwined. but knitting has a special place in my heart for so many reasons.<br /><br />p.s. YouTube is a veritable treasure chest of how-to videos, and there are many excellent instructors.
 
Michele H. July 28, 2018
I started knitting on my maternity leave after adopting a beautiful baby girl. I stopped by a yarn shop with her and fell in love with the softest most beautifully died yarn that was used in a sample baby sweater in the store. I bought the yarn and needles and promptly showed up at my Mom’s house to ask her to try showing me how to knit again. This time it took. It’s been 14 years now and I don’t finish many projects but I am always knitting. It kept me sane through 9 years of gymnastics and now tai kwondo practice and piano practice and school concerts. I can still listen and pay attention but be productive at the same time. It also helps with the winter blues because you can get cozy by the fire with some tea and some wool and knit your way thru a snow storm. I love it!
 
Lesley P. June 2, 2018
Your article reminded me of me when I was about to turn 40 I wanted to learn a new skill. I have always wanted to knit, so a who is a fabulous knitter and also a great teacher I found out with the patience of Job, taught me. Fifteen years later I am still knitting. Never as well as my friend but more than good enough for me. But this new skill led me to another new skill a few years ago needle felting. So you are so right about the joy of learning a new tactile skill it is good for your soul.
 
Heather H. June 1, 2018
I’m 44 and i’ve crocheted for 32 years, cross stitched for 1, and have been teaching myself recently to knit. I like to multitask so it keeps my hands occupied while I watch tv or wait for an appointment. Once my 4 yr old learns to listen to his soccer coach and stay focused on the ball (and stay on the field), i’m Looking forward to taking my fiber arts with me to soccer games too.
 
Annie F. April 10, 2018
All those years my mom could have taught you. ☺️
 
Julie M. April 4, 2018
I really enjoyed your article. It has given me the inclination to start knitting once again. I stopped after knitting afghans for all my family one year for Christmas. I'm back!
 
CrewLunch April 4, 2018
I have been knitting on and off since I was a teenager. The past few years I've barely picked up my needles and had resigned to unload the vast collection of half-used yarn in the cupboard. Then I went into a knitting store with a friend and some crafting neuron clicked on. I felt the need to sit and knit again and not just easy projects but really complicated ones involving fine materials. In a world that seems spinning out of control, it has been such a tonic. The music goes on, the needles and yarn come out and the anxiety is replaced by calm. Congratulations for discovering one of the cheapest therapies out there.
 
Niknud April 3, 2018
Given the recent hotline thread, would just like to say that I like these quasi DIY articles. You cook in your kitchen, your kitchen is part of your home, these articles make the site more well rounded and interesting. That being said, I have gotten most of the way through a pair of socks on an international flight to Asia, a sweater on a deployment to Iraq, and routinely bring my knitting to all of the kids' games (and hoo-boy are there a lot of games). So count me in as another huge fan of knitting.
 
creamtea April 2, 2018
Welcome! I have been knitting since just before grad school. I came to NYC to visit grad schools and see my sister who was upstate at the time. To ease the boredom of a quiet town I would visit the yarn shop. The owner taught me to knit free of charge. I started with a sweater out of heavy, rough Lopi, and would visit the lady in the shop every day or two to have my work checked. I now knit lace shawls of cashmere or silk, with very, very thin threads, and tiny, wondrous Japanese glass seed beads. I often have use a tabletop magnifying glass to correct errors since the thread is so fine. It's a very gratifying hobby and finishing a project is a great source of pride. Enjoy your hobby. There are so many wonderful yarns out there these days!
 
Rebecca Z. April 2, 2018
I've been a knitter for most of my life. Every Tuesday afternoon, I go to my knitting circle on a sheep farm here in Western Maine, it's my version of 'going to church.' <br /><br />Knitting is a lot like learning to play the piano; it requires practice to gain fluency, and ongoing effort over years to gain mastery. Probably the biggest problem most beginning knitters face is finding patterns that are written for their skill level; it's easy to write a bad, unhelpful pattern (I know, I've done it!) but difficult to write one that makes the process easy and intuitive. In fact, pattern writing and recipe writing have a lot in common! My advice to beginners is to just knit; don't try to make a thing, so much as to learn the skill, which means getting the muscle memory into your hands. I recommend working with real wool (not superwash), making a square or rectangle or two or three, and don't worry about dropped/added stitches, etc, except to recognize them when you make them. Just get the technique into your hands so that you don't feel all fidgety about it. <br /><br />When you're done, felt the pieces in hot water in the washing machine (which will shrink it, tighten it, and secure any dropped stitches you might have). This felted fabric can be cut, and used for elbow patches for other sweaters, sewn into pockets for small items, or pieced together for a hot-pad for the table. <br /><br />Just knit until you're comfortable knitting, and then seek out a good pattern for beginners that will help you build your skills. Like cooking, it takes time to put the good stuff on the table, and like cooking, it's worth the effort for the joy and warmth it brings to our lives.
 
Karin B. April 2, 2018
A very wise female doctor brought me back from the brink of death in Germany during 6 months of paid sick leave by ordering swimming a thousand meters every day, walking in the woods for at least one hour with friends every day and knitting . I bought the most beautiful yarns, joined a knitting group and produced 12 great sweaters in those six months. My vitals were back to normal after three months.<br />I think I have an unfinished project lying around somewhere. Thanks for reminding me.
 
Jocelyn G. April 2, 2018
Delighted to see this article. The industry needs more new knitters. Enjoy the learning process!
 
Sabina P. April 2, 2018
I love knitting. I inherited my grandmothers knitting needles and taught myself how to knit socks. I make them for friends as a gift.
 
Rebecca Z. April 2, 2018
There's something magical about turning a heel, isn't there? I love watching people do it for the first time; such a joy to see their response to the magic of it!
 
Chase C. April 2, 2018
I love reading about people’s experiences with knitting like this - it can change your whole outlook on life! Where normally you’d be annoyed having to wait in line at the post office, or in the waiting room at an appointment, if you Knit it’s just another opportunity to sneak in a few rows. I’ve been knitting for 10 years, and crocheting & sewing for 20, and just a little over a year ago I opened my dream yarn & fabric shop in the SF Bay Area, and my favorite thing is meeting or teaching new knitters and watching them grow their skills over time!
 
Suzanne April 4, 2018
I love you, chase. The Knitting group you started has been a life changing experience for me and many other women in Oakland. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
 
JRB731 April 8, 2018
I live in Miami, is your store’s yarn and patterns online? I learned from my grandmother and continued mostly when I fly as a way to calm myself. I have a fear of flying. I would like to stop making throws and scarves-- on to perhaps a sweater for my husband! I am a baby boomer, so you can imagine how many scarves and throws that amounts to....
 
BerryBaby April 1, 2018
I use to knit, when I was maybe 5 or 6 our next door neighbor taught me. After dinner she would sit outside and knit. I never got fancy but made a scarf. Then my dad took an empty spool that was wooden. The opening was about 1/2”. He hammered 4 skinny nails to one end. Then my momshieed me how to weave yarn using those four nails. It was like knitting but now you used a crochet hook to loop the yard. It made a yarn tube! It was fun seeing how long you could make the tube and then making the tube into something by hand sewing it. In the 60’s I was all about macrame...plant holders and neck choker jewelry!
 
Jana April 1, 2018
Good for you Valerio! I am a self-taught knitter and I started about 8 years ago. I am not great- maybe advanced beginner. I was so terrified of dropping stitches that it held me back. I decided that 2016 was the "Year I was going to Improve my Knitting," So I headed to Youtube as well and watched a lot of videos to improve my technique and I learned to fix those pesky holes! I have been a life-long crocheter and I still love it, but I feel like knitting is more calming and zen-like for me. Your scarf looks beautiful and all the more so since you made it! 2018 is going to be the "Year I Learn to Knit Socks." Wish me luck! I'm on Ravelry as Kaberle. Hit me up!<br />
 
Anastasia W. April 1, 2018
I learned to knit about 12 years ago when my daughter was little. I was a single mom and couldn't afford babysitters, but I wanted some new activities. On a walk, I found a Martha Stewart magazine someone left on the sidewalk. It had step-by-step instruction on how to knit. I got cheap yarn and a pair of needles. I still love knitting. It's a cosy, portable activity<br />
 
Patty April 1, 2018
I have been knitting since I was 14. My most ambitious project was an Irish cabled sweater using yarn from a roadside shop in Nova Scotia. After about 4 months, the body of the sweater was complete and I was in awe of the cables I was 3 inches shy of the second sleeve when I ran out of yarn. I lived in Connecticut and only remembered the town that the Nova Scotian ship was located. I called their Chamber of Commerce and described the shop and that I remembered a play yard in the shape of a ship near by. They knew which shop but informed me that it was closed for winter and would reopen in the spring. I put down my knitting and patiently waited. I called them in the spring and sent them a swatch of my yarn and my credit card info. A week later, I received my yarn and finally finished my sweater.
 
kroyston March 31, 2018
I am a knitter and a yarn dyer, but my first love was cooking. I find that knitting gives me the same sense of connection, accomplishment, and joy that cooking does, I just get to carry it with me wherever I go. There is something profoundly countercultural about feeding and clothing ourselves with things we make-- it's all spiritual and stuff. But also-- homemade bread and socks are just better than the store-bought stuff. I second Mason Dixon Knitting and Purl Soho-- Ravlery is great, too but also kind of overwhelming at first.
 
Lisa S. March 31, 2018
Loved this post, Valerio! I don’t knit but I needlepoint and I find it very therapeutic too.