The Joys of Knitting Badly

5 Jun|Helen McCombie

Idler reader Helen McCombie takes a one-woman stand against competitive knitting.

I have been a knitter for more than half of my life. My grandmother taught me when I was a child, and once equipped with this skill it is hard to stop. Come winter there is nothing quite like curling up on the sofa with some good company, a high-quality documentary, or a mug of something soothing to drink, and slowly knitting yourself under a blanket. The sense of relaxation is almost unmatched. But, in the many years that I have been knitting, not one jumper have I produced. No hats have left my needles to be donned by enthusiastic (or not) friends and family. Gloves and mittens are positively out of the question. In the whole time that I have been a knitter, by output has been limited to scarves and blankets.

‘How on earth can you be satisfied by such a lowly task, such repetitive production?’ you might ask. It may seem rather dull to repeat the same actions over and over again, with little variation, and no mental challenges. The answer to your question is a simple one: I enjoy the repetition. Knitting is, by its very nature, repetitive, and should be applauded for this, not derided.

Knitting, along with other textile crafts such as crocheting, embroidery, and weaving, has witnessed something of a renaissance in the past decade. Previously only the fare of only our grandmothers, it is now quite ‘trendy’ to be engaged in these once-maligned activities. Akin to the Arts and Crafts movement of our great-great-grandparents, an increasingly mechanised and technology-driven world has led to a genuine interest in and nostalgia for more hand-made times. The value of items created with affection and ingenuity is once again being hailed as one of the key aspirational ideologies of our time. This is without question ‘a good thing’, encouraging people to not only realise their own creative power, but also to give greater thought to the environments in which mass-manufactured items are produced.

But with this rise in popularity has come a darker side: the rise of the competitive knitter. This is not necessarily a new phenomenon: we will all have known one elderly knitter famed amongst her comrades for her deft fingers, clever patterns, or sheer speed. But the collision of the worlds of craft and of social media has given this competitiveness an extra, performative edge. It is no longer enough to craft clothes for their practicality, nor is it enough to produce items for the pure joy of creation. They must now be shared with everyone we know via our social media personae, from colleagues to friends from primary school, ex-partners and distant relations. The knitting itself becomes simply a conduit to praise and admiration. Knitters push themselves to thread yet more daring patterns: more complex Fair Isles and more extravagant cables. The simpler pleasures of knitting are lost to this competitiveness, which turns it into yet another area of life in which we must strive to ‘be our best selves’, or to ‘fulfil our potential’.

To counter this I offer a more straightforward approach: knit what you can, and nothing more. If you find it easiest, as I do, to simply repeat patterns with which you are familiar, do not let anyone make you feel guilty about this. The world of yarns, threads and wools offers a huge selection to those wishing to introduce variety, without having to invest painful hours in learning complicated new skills. With a vast array of materials to choose from, including the traditional sheep wool, to more exotic threads like alpaca wool, one needn’t feel that one is missing out by making ‘just another blanket’.

The benefits of knitting to one’s mental and physical health are widely acknowledged. It has been shown to lower blood pressure, and potentially even slow the onset of dementia. It can help reduce anxiety, and is effective at distracting from chronic pain. The simple fact that it is a relaxing activity should not be underestimated. Knitting bears favourable comparison with yoga, which it equals for relaxation. It bears comparison with yoga in other respects; yoga is often overtaken by a similar competitive urge as knitting. We stretch to hold ever more trying asanas, losing many of the benefits, physical and mental, or practicing yoga. The same can be said of knitting: while it is admirable to attempt new skills, it is key that this is done for self-fulfilment, rather than to seek the praise or approval of others.

By feeling the need to compare our knitting to that of others, we risk losing the benefits it can offer. Can any of us really say we find it relaxing to struggle through a new pattern, losing track of our stitches, failing to understand obscure terminology, or attempting to hold four needles at once, all in the often vain hope that the resulting piece will be suitably impressive to friend and foe alike? I suspect not. There are so many joys in knitting that are entirely self-contained. The sense of continuity across generations of men and women, over hundreds if not thousands of years, which one feels when picking up a pair of needles, is hard to replicate in any other craft. Knitting has the same fundamental appeal as tilling the earth, or harvesting fruit. It has always been, and always will be. There is no need to add extra challenges to feel the joy of knitting. My loved ones still cuddle up in my creations: thick blankets to ward off dark winter nights, and soft scarves to keep out wind and rain on country walks. Both items essential to those living in blustery old Great Britain. My pleasure in seeing them use these items is a timeless experience, and is no less than if I were to offer them jumpers and gloves.

So, if you do not yet count yourself among the ranks of the knitting, I wholeheartedly encourage you to pick up the needles, and enjoy the soothing clicking of the repetitive action. The contentment felt by a ‘lazy’ knitter far outweighs the rewards of their competitive cousins. I entreat all, knitter and non-knitter alike, to embrace the simple, encourage the familiar, and adopt the achievable. In short, take an idler approach to knitting. You may find yourself not only a happier knitter, but a healthier one too.

Having spent her college years at Oxford and Cambridge studying art from Manet to the medieval Apocalypse, Helen McCombie now indulges in a quiet life writing and working in tranquil Oxford.

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