Notes for new knitters, part 1: My first sweater

This is the first of a three-part series of posts dedicated to beginner knitters, inspired by my past and present students, but experienced knitters may also find it interesting to read.  I have been teaching people how to knit for a few years now, and there are inevitably questions about my life as a knitter.  Most are easily answered with a couple of words – “How long have you been knitting?” – but occasionally my students ask questions that aren’t possible to answer in the space of a few minutes.

There’s always a student or two in each group that takes an interest in my handknitted wardrobe, and the questions typically go from “Did you make the jumper you’re wearing?” to “What was the first thing you ever knitted?”  And every time, I am caught out by not having a photo in my bag of tricks!  Instead, my students are left wondering what on earth happens between learning how to knit and purl and being able to knit a lovely, eye-catching outfit.  I realised how important it is to catch the interim stages of learning and development – not just for my students, but to demonstrate that we all have to start somewhere, and work out how to progress from that somewhere.  Everyone.

Whenever you watch a professional, someone who’s proficient at something, or the work of such a person, you’re looking at hours, weeks, months, years of practice, courage and dedication.  Sometimes such people forget the learning stages; sometimes, unfortunately, they create the illusion of having always been an expert at what they do; and sometimes their enjoyment and dedication makes time and effort pale into insignificance.  If you’re a beginner or not-so-beginner reading this, don’t let anything throw you or make you feel that something isn’t within your reach.  Everyone starts in the same way.  Do your best to remain unintimidated and undaunted by experienced talent.  Anyone worthy of your admiration will be generous with their time and advice.  Mine is semi-autobiographical, but I hope that you can take something away from it nonetheless.

When I first took knitting seriously after many attempts in my childhood, I was determined to make my own clothes.  No baby things, no toys – proper stuff, in my eyes.  And I decided, being able to knit and purl, to get stuck in.  So without further ado, here is the very first sweater I ever made:

MyFirstSweater1I made this in my late teens, so 10-15 years ago.  My mother advised me to get a relatively cheap yarn, so I went for Sirdar Denim Ultra and one of the supporting pattern leaflets.  Chunky yarn turned out to be a great choice, not least because my earlier efforts involved DK yarn, impatience and frustration – “Why isn’t it GROWING??!!”  Denim Ultra is an acrylic/cotton blend, but after years of laundering it feels a bit like a loofah!  Anyway, look at these close-ups:

MyFirstSweater2 MyFirstSweater4 MyFirstSweater5See the finishing in the two photos on the left here?  I only knew how to oversew at the time.  I tried to be as neat as possible, but even then I knew there had to be another way of doing things.  And on a practical level, the seams did – and are still doing – their job extremely well.  No sign of falling apart yet!

My tension is quite loose too.  In fact, in the picture below, you can see clearly that not only is it loose overall, but that the tension varies from row to row.  My purl rows were always looser than my knit rows because I hadn’t quite got the hang of the different manoeuvres required, and the consequent tension adjustment I needed to make.  Of course, this doesn’t happen to everyone.  Practice, and adjusting the way the yarn was tensioned around my fingers, helped a lot, and eventually there was no difference between my knit and purl rows.

MyFirstSweater6At the end of the day, I wanted a jumper – and I got a jumper.  I was, and still am, extremely proud of it.  It proved that I could knit something identifiable, and it also highlights some important things that new knitters should know:

  • Don’t expect your first project to be a knockout.  But it will still be gorgeous and you’ll be proud of it nonetheless.
  • Imperfection is no detraction from achievement.
  • Learn from everything you make; practice self-evaluation.
  • Do ask for help and advice.  Don’t be on your own.

Nothing created or achieved is ever without courage or hiccups.  EVER!  Especially if you’re the type that want to keep learning and moving upwards.

I took some extremely important things away from my first sweater project.  For one, I’m glad I took it on and made something that I wanted, that meant something to me, because it enabled me to honestly appraise myself, my progress, my ability to follow instructions, and what I needed to do to improve.  These improvements included: sorting out my purl rows, getting better at sewing up, and improving my tension.

So I took heart from having completed something, sewn it together, and made it wearable.  That was the result of my first proper knitting project.  It wasn’t wonderful, but it wasn’t hopeless.  It wasn’t what I was aiming for, but that was no reason to adjust my target.  My goal was within reach, and I knew what I needed to do in order to improve.

I won’t pretend that this creative self-confrontation was a doddle; it was a bit harsh and humbling because the jumper wasn’t quite what I was aiming for.  But again, you have to find out what exactly where you are and be unafraid of discovering things about your abilities – or what you are made of.  If you don’t make a start, you definitely won’t go anywhere.  GO FOR IT! 🙂  I did, and you can find out what happened next later this week.

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