On not being a beginner anymore

Every so often I have occasion or just the random presence of mind to consider the whole idea of “skill levels” in knitting. I have actually started to sort of actively resist using categories like that when talking about patterns or designs; I prefer instead to refer to the specific techniques involved in executing the pattern, so that a knitter can relate the pattern to what they do and do not know already, and consider what they may or may not need to learn before or during the execution of the knitted item itself. Because really, the only way to learn cables is to knit something with cables – even if it’s just a swatch that you later turn into a coffee cup cozy or something like that. (But I accept that these categories exist and are not going anywhere, and that if a pattern uses more than knit, purl, and basic decreases, we are probably in the intermediate category. Or is it advanced beginner? Lalalaa I digress.)

And then there are weeks when I arrive at such thoughts when, for example, I am watching a bunch of brand spanking non-knitters try furiously to knit a few rows of garter stitch under the pressure of a competition clock, or ripping out one of my own designs in progress to start on it a 3rd time, or drinking a cocktail while pondering colour theory (me on Sunday evening), and realize that there are a whole lot of different things that make a person not-a-beginner anymore. It’s a pretty vague category and one that sort of exists on a continuum more than anything else. (I mean, really, have you ever heard anyone say, “I just learned the last knitting thing I didn’t know. Now I know how to do everything in knitting and I am totally 100% done now since there will never be anything new in knitting. I’ll go try this scrapbooking thing instead.” Absolutes are hard to come by, is all I’m saying.)

June26-PaletteThoughts

If you should happen to be one of these people in that vague category of new-ness, or just plain like thinking about knitting skills, I humbly offer this list of 5 ways you too can consider some steps towards no longer being a beginner.

On not being a beginner anymore: 5 ways

1. Make peace with ripping back, or ripping out and starting over.
We are incredibly fortunate as knitters to have embraced a craft that allows us, if we so choose, to completely eliminate any evidence of our mistakes and still be able to re-use the materials that produced the mistakes in the first place. Being able to rip back and re-knit – or at least to decide for ourselves whether we would prefer the re-do option or whether the errors are something we can live with – is a sign of exercising your own decision-making and control over your knitting, and it means you’re not going in blind. You recognize that getting the final product you want is the real goal, not whether or not you’re avoiding the momentary pain of having to rip out hours (sometimes days) of hard work.

2. Become savvy about yarn substitution.
This is a big huge enormous knitting world that we live in. It’s bigger than when I started knitting 7 years ago (that was before Ravelry, when blogs were new, and when nobody had ever even heard of things like Wollmeise), it’s certainly bigger than when my mother started knitting, and we here in North America in particular enjoy a wide range of yarn shops in both bricks-and-mortar and online forms. There is a lot of yarn out there. Of course knitting designers and publishers choose yarn for particular reasons. Of course they would like you to knit with the yarn they used in their patterns. And with the combined power of yarn shops and the internets and a bit of cash, there’s not a lot that’s impossible to acquire.

But sometimes it’s not as feasible to do that, for any number of reasons. And when you can look at a pattern and know things like “oh, that’s a multi-ply worsted-weight wool/alpaca blend yarn that they probably used because it’s warm and also has really nice drape,” then your options open up wide. HUGE, in fact. It’s better to know why that yarn was chosen than to find that specific yarn in the first place. This comes with time, and practice, and asking questions, and appropriate levels of knitting geekery.

3. Ditch the whole concept of “sizes.”
Sizes matter a great deal when you go into a store. You have to know your shoe size if you want to buy shoes and socks. You have to know your dress size at a particular store if you want to buy garments there that will fit you. But in knitting world, you’re not buying your hand-knitted clothing from a store. All of this information is actually almost entirely useless when you are knitting something for yourself. When you’re knitting a sock for yourself, for example, the only reason you might want to know what your shoe size is, is to estimate the quantity of yarn you might need. That’s all. (I’ve learned, for example, that as a person who wears Size 11 ladies shoes, I need at least 360 yards of sock yarn to knit a pair of socks – 375 or 400 is even better.)

What matters more is that you know the measurements of your own body. If your foot has a circumference of 9 inches, and the sock you’re about to knit has a finished circumference of 8 inches, then that gives you about an inch of negative ease (which is about what you want in a regular sock, so they don’t fall down), and that means you can knit that sock without adjusting it. If on the other hand, you’re knitting that same sock and have a foot circumference of 7 inches, then, well, you need to either look for a smaller size in the pattern, or adjust your gauge or yarn or both to make that sock fit, or else anticipate that you will be knitting a pair of loose and slouchy socks. The same goes for sweaters: pay attention more to the finished bust measurements and cross-shoulder measurements than the size listings. This is the information that will actually help you make things that will fit you.

Because, you know, I have a 36-inch bust and really broad shoulders that add up to me being between sizes anyway. At least with knitting I can modify the sweater so that it fits me, rather than hanging my head miserably in the middle of Old Navy because the XL tee hangs like a potato sack but the M that fits my waist makes me look like a football player, so I buy the L instead as a middle ground that still doesn’t quite look right but at least lets me go out in public looking somewhat like an adult. (Just saying.)

June16-PeacockFeathers

4. Try new stuff.
You know what the difference is between the knitter who makes things with cables on them and the knitter who knits things with no cables on them? That first knitter is the one who took 30 minutes out of her life to learn/get someone to show her/watched a YouTube video about/figured out on her own/took a class at a yarn shop about cables, decided she liked it, and now she knits all kinds of stuff with cables on them.

(It’s also possible that that second knitter DID try cables, decided she hated them, and knits lace instead. Which, go ahead with your bad self, Lace-Instead-of-Cables Knitter.)

5. Just knit. Knit a LOT.
That thing that Malcolm Gladwell is on about in ‘Outliers’, about success being a combination of opportunity and putting in 10,000 hours worth of time? Well, I’m pretty sure he’s right about that. Anyone who keeps knitting, regularly, will get better. You can bet on it. You will figure out new ways to hold the yarn so that you can throw or pick a bit faster or easier, you will learn new stuff, you will find new patterns, you will eventually get lonely and that will throw you into the path of new knitter friends who will show you new stuff and patterns and other ways of doing things…and you will get better.

Just keep knitting. Keep knitting a LOT. And you will no longer be able to say that you are probably a beginner knitter. Probably, by that point, you will be creating new beginner knitters yourself.

What else would you add to this list?

Until next time, knitting friends!

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34 Comments

Filed under fearless knitting

34 responses to “On not being a beginner anymore

  1. Amy

    This is a fabulous post! Right on! I’ve forwarded it to my “hardcore” knitting group and plan to show new and not-so-new knitters when they struggle with “it’s too hard” pattern decisions.

  2. I agree with number four the most. Besides knitting and purling, everything I do, I learned from an online resource. With all the videos that exist, there is no reason why anyone can’t at least learn something to try it and decide that it’s not for them.

  3. dclulu

    Hmm, not sure I agree with all of these. I’ve been knitting for 20 years and consider myself fairly adventuresome. I’ve done just about every technique out there, including teaching myself to knit continental (long before youtube), knitting with beads, making a bohus pattern, etc. But I definitely do not satisfy some of your five requirements! Does that mean that in your eyes, I’m still a beginner? I sure hope not.

  4. Glenna, I hear you — especially on the “just keep knitting” part! I agree with all of your points and have found each of them to be thrilling and empowering.

    I learned to knit just over a year ago and have been knitting for sanity, creativity, and practicality ever since. I seem to have an insatiable appetite for learning and practising new knitting skills. It sometimes occurs to me that I’m not a beginner anymore; I suppose I’m an “intermediate” knitter now. I’m not afraid of “advanced” patterns (related to your #4 above), so if nothing else, that’s some shade past beginner, I reckon!

    I think once you’re to the point of teaching others how to knit, answering questions about how to do something with confidence that you know what you’re doing, you’re not a beginner anymore. I’m pleased to have started a lunchtime knitting group at work for knitters, new knitters, and born-again knitters alike. I think the day I started the group a few months ago, I took another step toward owning my knitting power. :)

  5. Would I think you were a beginner if you didn’t exactly match absolutely all of the things I list here? Of course not! As I say, I think skill level is much more of a continuum than an absolute state. One of the fabulous things about knitting is that there will always be more to learn, and yet also that there are so many techniques that we all strive for in common.

    I do think that knitters who are comfortable with any one or more of these things are knitters are folks who are beyond ‘beginner’ status, because what these things have in common is a willingness to learn, and use your own thought process while knitting.

  6. Julia

    This really gave me a lot to think about–really enjoyed the posting.

    Here’s another possible sign or step to put into the mix: You can see when things are going wrong and adjust accordingly. This might be something like spotting an error several rows back and figuring out how to drop back and reknit it without frogging, or it might be discovering that a pattern isn’t fitting right and figuring out how to work the decreases at a different rate: basically, seeing what you’re knitting with expert eyes. I remember when I started knitting, I was always seeing my knitting one stitch at a time, rather than as a big interconnected system. Now I can understand and control how the structure of a sweater or a sock comes into being: it’s like seeing it as a whole model that I can adjust and work with.

  7. Great post. I’m very keen on listing techniques required as opposed to an arbitrary skill level in my own patterns.

    I think your thoughts are right on. Becoming a master in a craft is more than just being able to execute a technique — knowing when to apply a certain technique, or why you’re choosing the one you are, is just as important as being able to work a particular technique.

  8. Knit, knit, knit! No labels for me; there are things I know how to do, and things I don’t know how to do…yet. But I will if I want to!

    I think I’d add one more thing to the list: LOOK at your knitting. Learn how to read your knitting. If you know what it’s supposed to look like, and it doesn’t look like that, why not and how can you get it there? Don’t just say, “It says to do this, so I did this.” You are the boss of your knitting, per Elizabeth Zimmermann!

  9. Oh my! What a thought-provoking post! It dawned on me that even though I do not consider myself a beginner knitter, I consider myself a beginner at fair isle. So I’m thinking that the skill level is relative: to those around you, to a particular technique, to a particular “genre” of knitting. Your idea of a continuum may be right on target.

    The challenge and much of the joy of knitting for me is to myself along the continuum by trying new things. My current push is to improve my sock knitting in technique, in fit, in using different yarns. (And to try to get back to posting in my blog!)

  10. Cathy – I think you’re very right about that! There are even different levels of skill within a single technique! I’m experienced when it comes to fair isle, but definitely still a beginner when it comes to intarsia. You can always find new things to try out in this crazy knitting world!

  11. SusanS

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I don’t like trying to assign a skill level to a pattern and I don’t consider the listed skill level of a pattern before I start it. Listing the required skills is much more helpful. If I want the item and love the yarn, that will carry me through any rough spots as I learn a new technique. The scope of the knitting universe excites me!

    I would add to your list monitoring one’s vocabulary. Eliminate disempowering thoughts & words such as: “I can’t do ” or ” is too hard.” Replace with something empowering such as: “I haven’t learned yet. Attitude is everything!

  12. dclulu

    Thanks for your response to my comment, Glenna! I just get irritated when knitters assert that there is something wrong with my (and others’) dislike of ripping back. I have so little time to knit (job, two small kids, etc) that it aggravates me to have to re-do something I’ve already done.

    Plus, I have no clue about yarn substitutions. I’ll happily substitute stitches and make modifications to patterns, but I don’t know much about yarn. Perhaps that’s something I’ll learn one day, but I haven’t yet after 20 years of knitting.

    Oh, and I totally agree that listing techniques required for a pattern is far better than saying what (arbitrary) level it is!

  13. pbiljana

    I think one stop being a beginner at the very moment when gains self confidence in knitting. That person at that moment may be able just to CO, knit, purl, inc, dec, bind off, but that’s not what counts, because he/she crossed a line and is able to learn anything just because beleves that he/she is able. In my perfectionist moments I think that the look of Fos determine on what level a knitter is, but then again, if someone is happy with uneven stitches, who am I to say it’s not good enough (it would drive me crazy if my work would look uneven, but it’s me and my criteria in my little knitting word).
    And that first photo of all those beautiful yarns and a yammy drink made me say :oh, I wish thats all mine! :-)
    You are one lucky girl!

  14. Love this post, too. We’ve had quite a bit of conversation at Knitcircus about how to classify skill level and agree with you that just straight-up listing the skills needed for each pattern is the best way to go. The idea that any colorwork at all means the patterns is difficult, for instance, simply isn’t true for some knitters; it’s all about what each person is motivated to try or has happened to do before.

  15. Anastasia

    Glenna, what colour theory book is that in the picture?

  16. Whoops! That’s the Art of Fair Isle Knitting by Ann Feitelson. It’s a great book.

  17. This post is awesome.

    I would add that reading your knitting and learning how to fix mistakes so you *don’t* have to rip back rows of work when it’s possible to ladder down. Being able to spot my mistakes and fix them with just a few minutes’ work means I’m not ripping out rows and rows of knitting over, for example, a missed YO. It’s a little thing, but it makes a huge difference.

  18. Amy J

    Oh, I love this. And I’m completely with you at Old Navy (and every other store) in #3. “Power” to the shoulders ;)

  19. THANK YOU!!! I am a beginner, and proud of it. Think of all the things you guys have created in the last 5, 10, or more years. I still have all of those to create, exciting. I like your site so much. Right now I can’t do a lot, but it’s my inspiration. I use online resources all the time. I can watch a video of someone doing a stitch I don’t know how to do, read someone that has been there, done that give me a few tips to make a stitch or pattern easier, and so on. Your site is one of those.

  20. I’m so glad you said that about making peace with ripping back! I had to rip so many things when I first started knitting, especially when I tried lace, that I thought I’d never become more than a beginner. Now I knit cables, lace, bobbles, nubbles, clothes, toys. I still have to rip things back at least once per item (or live with the mistakes–I call them my signatures), but I never would have thought when I first started that I would be doing half the things I’ve learned. If I see something intriguing, I google it, then try it! It’s been so much fun learning new things. And what’s even more fun is that for every new thing I learn, I discover 10 things that I don’t know and have to google or youtube! And to think, not 10 months ago I had to look up what a ssk was!!

  21. What an awesome post!! I love how you approached this- it’s not a laundry list if specific ‘skills’ like i cord cast on/off, etc.; more like a list of mindsets or attitudes that help people approach their knitting with confidence. P.S- that purple yarn is ungodly beautiful.

  22. Wonderful post! When I learned to knit I dove right in, trying new things, knitting all the time, substituting yarns, changing sizes… My first cable project was Rogue – and I added extra cables, adjusted the size to fit me (it was also my first sweater) and knit it out of a different yarn. I’m always encouraging the knitters around me to go out on a limb and try something new, I think the adventure is part of the fun!

  23. Ariel

    I think one of the major things that I’ve learnt from knitting is to actually trust your instincts. If that jumper you’re knitting looks too big or small, knitting more probably wont fix it, it’s most likely your gauge is off.This is my own advice to myself. I once frogged an entire cardigan that I’d spent months knitting because i had been lazy and didnt do a gauge swatch, it was way too big, but after frogging it I felt really happy with myself and couldn’t wait to knit up the wool into something else. It actually made me less afraid to rip back if I’ve made a mistake.

    Also, I love that there are always new things to learn, it makes me feel accomplished. I learnt how to do a longtail cast on the other day from a youtube vid and it was great. Kinda makes me always want to cast onthat way!

    Thanks Glenna, this is such a great post.

  24. Mrs Peachtree

    Awesome post Glenna! It took me a long time to think of myself as anything other than a “beginner”. In fact, I was pretty shocked when I had the revelation one day that I am indeed an “experienced” knitter, even though there are plenty of techniques I’ve never learned and plenty of improvements I could potentially make to the skills I already have.
    I agree with you about listing “skills required” on a pattern instead of a “difficulty level” because the latter is such a subjective thing. Different folks think different things are difficult and really, when it comes right down to it, there are so many different techniques and skills in knitting that it is rare that anyone is totally comfortable with every single one of them. I like it when a pattern lists the skills required because it means that I can quickly see whether the pattern will be easy (for me, not necessarily for the next person!) or whether it contains a technique I’ve never done before. Even if it does contain that unknown technique, it may still end up being an easy pattern for me if I end up effortlessly picking up the technique!

  25. phyllis

    Thank you so much for this post. It was just what my daughter (and me too) needed! She is learning to knit while working full-time and raising a precious 2 year old daughter (who loves yarn, of course!) and it is easy to feel discouraged. Your post helped her move past that. Thanks again.

  26. I just found your blog! Wonderful post. I might be moving beyond “beginner.” lol

  27. Katy

    I just wanted to tell you that I love your blog. I have been reading it for a while now and there is just so much useful information, everyday life, tips and tricks and encouragement. I loved this post and it made me feel like I actually do know something about knitting and Im not a newbie anymore. I love to knit, though I dont have much time bc Im in graduate school, but it is something Ill do for the rest of my life. I just wish there were more knitting blogs like yours. I love it and you rock! :D

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  29. Totally agree with the difficulty level thing. My sis and I have been knitting roughly the same amount of time- same as you, about 7 years… but she’s still stuck on hats and scarves. This summer, we are knitting a sweater together, and it took a lot of convincing (from me) that she already had almost all of the skills to knit a sweater. casting on, check. increasing and decreasing, check. A whole lotta stockinette, check. picking up stitches, check. casting off, check. It’s just a matter of confidence (or hand holding in this case), patience, and learning a new thing or two. You have to be game to do something new, and I hope I never run out of knitting skills to learn!! If I added something to the list, I’d add- “knit for the right reasons.” I’ve gotten caught up before in too much gift knitting, which isn’t always my thing- I have to be knitting something because I really want to wear and make it, or I know it’ll be fun and someone will love love love it. Knitting drudgery (whatever that is to you) will burn me out in no time.

    I don’t know when I stopped considering myself a beginner. I think it was when other knitters started bringing me knitting problems to solve. We are all on a continuum, and I hope I am always a beginner at some technique. I love that I can go online and find so much “expert” advice!

  30. natasha

    Thank you so much for this post! I taught myself to knit a year or two back (combination of books and Youtube videos) and I still knit very verrryy slowly. It does get kind of depressing to see my lone project on my Ravelry page, but reading this gave me a spurt of new confidence! :)

    Well, not enough to knit a sweater in fingering-weight yarn, but perhaps I’ll finally finish that Anemone Beret I’ve been working on for months.

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  32. I really love this post. I felt like only this summer did I start to pass the threshold from beginner to non-beginner, and couldn’t explain it. It’s these five things. Mostly trying everything new, every project and (this spring) finally being at peace with ripping out instead of getting a sinking in the gut feeling. Thanks for posting this :) I’m now following your blog!

  33. Pingback: On not being a beginner anymore | Stitches and Reveries

  34. Very well said! I have been knitting 50+ years now, and have recently learned a few “new” things from Elizabeth Zimmerman patterns. I’m thrilled! I began my blog yesterday, and will be eagerly following yours. Thank you!