Now For A Knitting Rant

As long as I’m feeling ranty this weekend … on 28 January, in the Personal Journal section of the Wall Street Journal, the Cranky Consumer (Elizabeth Schatz) explored different ways to learn to knit: book, group class at a yarn store, cd-rom, and video. Picking up on the increasing trendiness of knitting (which is good news and bad news for us long-time knitters), she delved into these different teaching methods to compare their efficacy. The Cranky Consumer was definitely cranky with each and every one of these methods of learning to knit, finding that learning to knit is neither easy nor relaxing. Plus, it’s expensive, and if you frequent those fancy schmancy yarn stores, you end up spending gobs of money on a hobby that is not relaxing or easy.

Hmmmm, where do I start … ?

As you can probably tell from scrolling down my links, I am a knitter, and have been for almost six years (which is apparently an eternity relative to this trend). Few things in life make me happier than wearing a chunky turtleneck sweater, so it’s a natural fit.

Knitting is also the perfect hobby for an economist.

What??? you say. Knitting involves not only the sybaritic pleasures of the yarn against your skin and the feeling of accomplishment from having a practical hobby, but also the intellectual stimulation and challenge of learning new techniques, and lots of algebra and geometry. The non-mathematical knitters whom I know don’t knit for these reasons, but the economist knitters I know all groove on the spatial logic and mathematical skills that make both knitting and economics fun and gratifying. Not to mention the orders-of-magnitude increase in my patience since I started knitting. No wonder so many knitters call it fiber therapy.

The Cranky Consumer is constrained, of course, to reviewing products, which have become increasingly irrelevant in the process of learning to knit. I thought the Cranky Consumer’s attempts to learn to knit were generally superficial and obsolete, for the following reasons.

1. Aptitudes and learning styles vary dramatically, so don’t throw the yarn out with the handwash water. Knitting is not for everyone, everyone has different ways and speeds of learning new things, and if she did not pick it up and groove on it after spending 14 hours with various types of knitting instruction, perhaps knitting is not a good fit for her. So be it. However, knitting is one of those things that, like riding a bike, becomes automatic and unconscious in a very nonlinear fashion — you struggle and struggle, and then bammo! you get it without necessarily being able to point consciously to why it just clicked. And it’s a never-ending learning process, in which different knitters can do the same things in different ways. For example, I had evolved a way of doing purl bind-off that I thought was imminently clever, and last year I was taking a class at one of my local yarn stores, and the owner had never seen anyone use my technique and she started to adopt it.

In this way I also find knitting very Hayekian, full of evolution, tacit knowledge, experiential utility from the process, etc.

2. Group class teaching skills will vary, so you have to both choose carefully and be assertive in getting taught in a way that you can actually learn. The Cranky Consumer took a class at a super yarn store in New York called Yarn Co., which is a super-swish, uber-trendy store chock full of fabulous and luxurious yarns. The owners also have a wonderful book of patterns out called Yarn Girls’ Guide to Simple Knits, which starts (as do most pattern books) with a good, clear overview of knit, purl, cast on, bind off, increases, decreases, and picking up stitches, so you can learn or refresh basic skills from the book.

Just because the owners are good businesswomen and have a great eye for color and style, that does not mean that they (or other knitters whom they may hire as instructors, for that matter) will be good teachers. The Cranky Consumer complained that the instructor “often did our work for us” to save time. That happens. But that’s a problem with the instructor, and if I were the student I would have asked her to stop and to watch what I was doing instead, and to place her hands over mine so that my hands could experience what the instructor was trying to get me to do. Be confident enough to get the value for the money you are spending for a class, and if she doesn’t have the time during the class, then ask her to show you afterward. You’re the consumer.

3. Most folks knit for the decadent and sybaritic pleasures of the yarn and creating unique garments, not to save money. If I want to save money on sweaters I go with the economies of scale that the Banana Republic-Gap-Old Navy corporate conspiracy enjoys. If I want to look like I didn’t just stroll into Banana Republic, buy what’s on the mannequin and walk out, I spend for the good yarn and get so much utility out of thinking about what the yarn will ultimately be, out of working with it and feeling its luxury against my fingers, and out of wearing my unique sweater/scarf/hat/totebag and knowing that it looks good. Quality inputs matter. That’s why stores like Yarn Co. exist; also, the froo-froo yarn stores typically give a discount (usually 10-15%) on yarns purchased either for a class or while you are enrolled in a class.

I would have like to see the Cranky Consumer focus more on this aspect of knitting, with more of a “if you want to look distinctive and give distinctive gifts, it’s worth the money and the learning effort.”

4.More and more people learn to knit from friends, Stitch & Bitch groups, and weblogs, not from cd-roms and videos. Books and classes are very important, especially if you are particularly conscious of how you learn and make the choices that fit that learning style. For me, I had a 10-page “How To Knit” book that you can get at almost every yarn store in the country, a simple sweater pattern (yes, I started with a turtleneck sweater, not a scarf; I like a challenge!), and a demonstration from the shop owner of how to cast on. In the process of learning to knit I had to rip out and start over more than a couple of times, but the repetition and the mistakes reinforced the lessons, so my learning curve was steep. I knew this would work because I learn by doing, not by reading or by watching someone else do, so I had to dive in and make mistakes and start over.

Informal groups of friends and organized groups like Stitch-n-Bitch in Chicago and other cities provide the ideal combination of learning and social activity. Typically held at a coffeehouse or some other “third place”, these groups satisfy lots of knitting needs — learning, teaching, showing off finished objects, seeing what others are working on and incorporating their ideas into your knitting, and coffee and desserts! These groups have mushroomed in the past two years, I would argue precisely because of this combination of benefits. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy to attend, but it sure is fun.

Weblogs and online knitting instruction sites are another source of learning and inspiration. There are currently 189 knitting weblogs, with more daily. One of the best is my fellow Chicagoan Bonne Marie Burns’ ChicKnits, where she offers humor, style, and technique advice. There are also technique websites, such as and Vogue Knitting’s Learn to Knit. You can even learn to knit socks using two circular needles.

Why am I so moved to rant about this? Knitting symbolizes a lot of what I think is important in how information and technology interact with human nature. We learn by repetition. We all learn differently. Learning is nonlinear. Applying our learning to a productive end, and in a social context like Stitch-n-Bitch, is as important for broader issues of economic growth as it is for knitting. And we all get different things out of the experience.

And then, of course, there’s the math …