Small Mercies: (Finally) Knitting for Myself

On falling in (and then out) of the trap of optimizing a hobby

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Small Mercies: (Finally) Knitting for Myself

On one of the last warm days before fall arrived in New York, plunging everyone into pumpkin-scented darkness, I took a ferry to Governor’s Island to take in the air. That day was the best weather day of the year, with just enough of a breeze to signal that sweater season was coming, but still warm enough that a random man was roaming the island topless for no apparent reason other than to flex. It was in this bucolic setting that I came across a gorgeous naturally-dyed alpaca wool sweater. It was a chocolate brown off-the-shoulder pullover, delicately hand-knit with the smallest stitches I’ve ever seen which triggered within me a deep longing to return to my abandoned hobby of knitting in a way I hadn’t approached knitting previously. It was time to finally make something for myself.

I picked up knitting sometime during college and cannot for the life of me remember what inspired me to do such a thing. One of my mom’s friends, Liz, was my first teacher. She hosted a little dinner party in her apartment where she taught me and a few other ladies basic knitting technique as we all worked to make ourselves a chunky cable snood. It took me almost the entire dinner and most of dessert just to get a regular knit stitch right but once I had it, I wanted more. At first, it was just a few (ugly) scarves every now and then, a hat for my mother. The initial relationship with knitting was equal parts love and hate. I loved actually making something and I despised the amount of math that goes into making something. Then came the baby blankets. I somehow fell into a years-long pattern of only making baby blankets or other baby-related materials for the various parents-to-be in my life. Eventually,
like everything else, knitting became a task to be managed. Every project had a self-imposed deadline, even though the babies I was knitting for did not give a single flying fuck about a handmade blanket or a pair of mittens or, my best baby project yet, a cable knit sweater vest in Yankees colors.

Like most anxious people who are into crafting, I fell into the trap of optimizing my hobby, knitting a certain amount of hours a day, and always making sure my latest project was better and more complex than the last all to impress an audience of one. I was my harshest and most vicious critic. Where friends and family saw a nice, functional gift, I saw incorrect stitch counts, uneven rows, and, one stuffed rabbit that looked like Bugs Bunny on crack. During my post-college knitting period, I was met with various professional and personal crises that cemented the anxiety that I was a failure and had wasted four years getting an education that wouldn’t help me in any tangible way. Finishing a knitting project was a tiny boost of success every few weeks—something I could point to and prove I had been productive in some manner.

It turns out all of my personal crises were just small gateway drugs to religion, which I embraced like it was the last lifeboat off the Titanic sometime in 2015. This was the year I attempted my own personal knitting Everest—a cardigan, just for myself. I needed this cardigan because I had committed to wearing hijab, and instead of buying an entirely new wardrobe, I thought spending over $100 on yarn and supplies to make a single thing to cover my arms made the most sense. God loves an overachiever.

This isn’t a pose, it’s me hiding the one sleeve I fucked up real bad. That pocket was perfect though Photo:Shannon Melero

That cardigan has haunted me ever since it came off my needles and I realized that the sleeves were two different sizes and the seams for the shoulders landed in completely different places. I was too stubborn to undo the entire thing and start over but had invested too many hours into this dumb thing to not wear it at least a few times and have it live in my closet until last year. Once I recovered from the shock of making such a horrid thing, I went back to the usual programming of making hats and baby blankets but felt like I had worked out a lot of my shit attempting to knit that cardigan. But the seed of sweater making was planted the day I finished making that monstrosity.

It wasn’t until seeing that sweater in Governor’s Island that I felt the seductive pull of attempting another large-scale product, but not to avoid my problems, but to simply do something nice for myself.

Initially, I just bought the sweater, which is from a company called Yanawara. But every time I wore it, and every time I saw it hanging in my closet in all of its handmade glory, I thought if I just really committed, I could make something almost as nice. It was less about redemption from Ugly Cardigan and more about returning to the uncomplicated joy that knitting brings. Instead, I made two more hats, a pair of socks, and started on my umpteenth baby blanket of the year. But it was during a meditative state of counting stitches to make sure the leaf pattern on one of my hats was correct that clarity slapped me in the face.

Knitting didn’t need to be that deep! I didn’t need a purpose or a holiday to feel like I could reward myself with a trip to the nice yarn store to get some squishy merino blends to make something. I also didn’t need to have proof of productivity. I could simply knit because it feels incredible to zone out and focus on something incredibly low stakes. Knitting for the sake of knitting because it is a wonderful activity is actually much better than knitting to the deadline of someone’s birth. Attempting to knit this sweater—at time of writing this I’m still working on the second sleeve—has been the most pressure-free thing I’ve done in the last two years. I think this time even if the sweater comes out horribly wrong I’ll find a way to wear it to work and announce to anyone within earshot that I made it.

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