January 2, 2014

Knitting by Structure, Part 1: Um...What, Now?

Well that was a break I didn't intend to happen.  I'm behind on a lot of things.  Not my knitting so much, but everything else...yeah.  Happy New Year everyone.

Anyway, here's the start of something helpful for once. I've been meaning to do this post series for a bit, but since I'm lazy I just got around to it.  Might as well actually do something useful after some radio silence.

Knitting by Structure Series: The Part Where I Discuss What I Mean By This, Why You Should Read It, and What It Will Cover
(otherwise known as Part 1 - Introduction)

If you've been around the knitting realm a bit, you've probably noticed how most instructions for knitting are set up.  They usually go something like this: Step 1, do x motion.  Step 2, do y motion, Step 3, Profit.  That is, the instructions focus on the mechanics of the actions you need to complete.  They tell you what direct to put your needle, how exactly you should hold your yarn, and wrap the yarn around the needle, and so on. 

It makes the instructions simple, usually self-contained, and has a huge flaw in that it presumes one way of knitting is correct and makes the average student a slave to the instructions.  Ok, maybe that's a bit harsh, but you get the point.  A lot of people will read the instructions, mechanically follow them, and that's all they know.  If they run into an issue, or need to do something else, they have to go off and find more instructions.

I don't mean to pass judgement on the people that do this.  This is how many things are taught.  It makes it easier to learn as you just have to follow the process, right?  It's also how most of us will explain a new technique to other knitters...me included.  It's normal.

However, I propose a different method of looking at the action of knitting.  I think the focus should be on structure than the mechanics of the knitting process.

What do I mean when I say 'structure'?  Well, I mean the focus should be on the why of knitting, instead of the how.  That we should learn to knit by learning how a stitch works and how different actions influence it.  That the act of knitting should be taught by its generic algorithm, and that style (aka, how one holds the yarn and wraps it around the needle), should not be assumed by the instructions.  Make things modular; teach understanding and build up on that.

I will admit, this is a bit harder way of learning knitting.  The learning curve is steeper in the beginning, and you won't be able to jump straight away to producing results.  But the trade-off is that it levels out sooner.  Instead of just learning a certain set of mechanics, and having to learn to troubleshoot or a different technique after you make a mistake or want to change something, you gain an understanding up-front that makes it much easier to avoid some of the common mistakes one sees when learning to knit.  Or to understand enough to change things on the fly.

I will also admit that this line of thinking is a bias of mine.  I currently code for a living.  Condescending an activity to its essence, modularizing it so each part is semi-separated and re-useable, and building complexity on top of previous structure is good coding practice.  It reduces interdependence, makes things re-usable, can save time, and absolutely saves maintenance and enhancement effort later on. And that's the beauty of this approach.  You may have to put more effort in at first to understand what's going on, but later the whole arsenal of knitting techniques is open to you. To slightly extend another programming-knitting metaphor that someone else really came up with, we want to learn how to be more than compilers, reading instructions and changing them directly into fabric.  We want to be able to program the instructions a bit so that when the compiler reads something that doesn't compute, we don't have to spit out an error and leave it at that.

So with that justification out of the way, the following is the outline of Learning to Knit by Structure:
  1.  Learn the structure of a stitch.  What do we mean when we say 'stitch front' or 'left leg'?  How does each stitch interlock with others to form a knitted fabric?
  2. Become familiar with the knitting styles (this is things like English and Continental as well as Western, Eastern, and Combined).  How does each direct you to hold the yarn and wrap it around the needle (at this point we are not concerned on how to actually knit and purl)? 
  3. Learn and understand how each style effects the stitch orientation.  Why do we get the same fabric using different styles?  How do knitting patterns assume it works? What style do you gravitate to (at this point, you must pick a style to learn first).
  4. How do we knit and purl?  What must we do to read the stitch and know where to put the needle and pull the yarn through?  This will be presented in such a way it doesn't matter what style is being used.
  5. Certain things presume a specific structure and orientation in common knitting parlance.  What are they?  How do things such as directional decreases actually work?  Twisting stitches (that is, what does 'ssk', 'k2tog', and 'tbl' really mean)?
  6. There are other basic techniques that don't rely as much on such presumptions, but should still be learned as a basic: other decreases such as yarn-overs, increasing, picking up stitches, casting on and binding off (these may need to be taught before step 4, at least superficially).
At this point, a knitter that has learned and understood these steps can go off and use the multitude of resources out there to pick up more advanced skills.  Short rows?  Cables?  Lace? Shaping?  All these techniques build on the steps above: how does a stitch work, and how do we make it?  I purposed that anyone who has learned the ideas presented above will be able to pick up these kinds of skills no problem...even if all they can find is mechanical instructions.  As well, knowing the whys of knitting should guide you through any issues or mistakes...or even a shift in preferences.  Even when the fix is a hack.  Especially if the fix is a hack.

Now, of course really learning this comes with practice.  Mistakes will happen, something won't click for a bit, that's all normal.  Learning the basics of each step is enough to go on; once a knitter starts actually knitting, they should be able to learn with action as well as theory.  I know people learn differently, and they will gravitate towards what they find easiest.  Which may mean that a step will be done out of order.  That's ok.

However, if you want to learn this way (even if you already know how to knit), it does take one thing: eagerness to know why what happened happened, and a willingness to learn it...at least at the basic explanation level (after all, what is outlined here is skimming the surface a bit.  But we do have to balance why with how, and I get that most knitters don't have time for an academic-level discussion, me included.  Though if you want to go right ahead).  What I mean is that you can't just want the quick fix, just looking for the detailed instructions that you will follow to produce a result.  These are the people also running to someone when they got a virus again by downloading from a shady source a mistake occurs without even attempting to fix it. I get that you may not know off the top of your head (I don't remember much off the top of my head.  That's what the Internet and books are for), but you must be willing to try and learn at least where to find the answer.

Humans are pretty smart cookies.  Knitting isn't rocket science, or even programming.  You got this.

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