The Right Tool for the Job

Jessie: In New Hampshire, outnumbered by black flies.

Every year I make a list of things I want to accomplish. I’m an avid knitter and this year I have included completing a lace project on my list. For some reason, despite years of intermittently trying, I haven’t managed to conquer lace. I’ve made cabled, Fair Isle and Icelandic sweaters. I churn out socks. I’ve whipped up blankets, shawls and hats. I’ve even produced a toy pug.

But lace knitting has defeated me utterly. For years I’ve had a beautiful skein of midnight blue heathered merino wool in my stash just begging to be made into a light and drapy shawl. About once a year I pull it out and give it another go. I dig out needles, find a simple pattern, take a deep breath and tell myself that this time it will be different.

On the first row, I am hopeful. On the second I am less so. By the twelfth, fifteenth or on the luckiest of years, twentieth, I know I’ll be unraveling the whole mess and putting it away until the memory fades once more.

About a month ago I decided the time had come once more for me to face down the dragon. I pulled out a ball of lace weight yarn, this time a beautiful turquoise alpaca and silk blend. I plucked a couple of pairs of needles from my collection and found a four-row pattern on the knitting website, Ravelry.

As I sat down and cast on I could feel things getting off on the wrong foot. My usually adept hands felt clumsy and rather than the soothing rhythm of stitch after stitch sliding across the slick needles I just felt my shoulders creeping up around my ears.

I stopped and and looked down at what I was doing feeling the familiar sense of frustration  that I just was not going to be able to produce anything that would satisfy me, anything like what I had imagined. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the problem might be that I had chosen the wrong tools. The rounded tips and slick surface of my favorite needles might not be the best choice for beginning lace making. I sorted through a batch of infrequently used needles and found a wooden pair in the right size with pointy tips. Sure enough, that was the problem. It was so easy to solve if I had just looked at it a little differently.

The same thing happens in my writing. I’ll encounter a tangle in my plot, a dropped stitch in my story, a thread in the tale that has gone all wonky and I can’t resolve it by trying and trying to use the same tools the same old way. Sometimes, I have to move from the computer to a stack of index cards to jostle an idea into place. Other times I need to write in the afternoon instead of the morning. Frequently, I need to set the project aside long enough to have forgotten what a mess I had made.

But writing, like knitting draws me back again and again despite the disappointments and frustrations. In the end both crafts just need patience, determination, passion and a willingness to fail until you finally succeed.

Readers, are there things in your life that you are determined to learn? I’d love to hear about them!

21 Thoughts

  1. Loved this post! I had a twice-a-year confrontation with omelets that always ended badly. (No surprise, one of my characters has the same problem.) But this year, in my roomier kitchen, with the right pan (new!), I made a tasty, good looking’ asparagus-and-mushroom omelet! And a month later, I made another! –kate, who lived just over the border in Massachusetts for many years.

    1. Knitting does help with tranquility. I keep a pair of needles and a ball of yarn by my desk in order to reach that state whenever I feel the need. I think of it as meditation in motion.

  2. I’ve recently had the inexplicable urge to learn how to knit since the endless winter. I’ve tried before, only to pull apart whatever I’ve started. I am an “all thumbs” woman when it comes to crafts. But still, I can’t shake the urge. Maybe I need to write through this! Your post definitely has me thinking.

    1. Michele, getting to the point that simple knitting feels effortless can take a while. Everyone is all thumbs at first. But, if you feel the persistent urge to learn I think there must be something of value in it for you.

      I learned to knit because I wanted to knit socks. Anyone who knits knows this is not an ideal beginner project. A friend took me to a sock knitting class at a yarn shop for my birthday not realizing I could barely form a stitch, let alone read a pattern. I sat next to the teacher for three hours one afternoon, driving her crazy and turning out the world’s worst baby sized sock, most of which the teacher made for me.

      At the end of the day I left the store with a sock pattern, double-pointed needles and a ball of softly spun midnight blue wool and silk yarn. I was determined to make a pair of socks for my sister’s birthday.

      Over the next few months I must have partially knit and unraveled the first sock twenty-five times. Every couple of weeks my sister would call and ask how the sock was coming along. A dear friend, who is an accomplished knitter, would take one look and offer to unravel for me. My elderly, sweet neighbor kindly pointed out there were all sorts of nice socks available to purchase at the stores these days.

      The yarn, was so dark I couldn’t see the individual stitches. It was so softly spun it snapped when I tugged it to tighten the gaps between needles. Youtube did not yet exist to help me decipher the pattern or watch how a heel should be turned.

      It took me between February and November to get those darn things done. They weren’t perfect but my sister adored them. And it ended up that I learned about so much more than knitting. I learned a great deal that helped my writing. I discovered my passions fuel my persistence. I learned that other people are delighted to lend a hand when you share a love of an art form. I understood that one word after another gets a daunting project like a novel finished in just the same way one stitch after another makes a sock.

      I hope you will give it a try yourself once more. After all, you can buy nice socks and hats and sweaters at the store, but you can’t buy the sense of accomplishment or the pleasure in the craft once you’ve learned. it.

      1. Thank you, Jesse, for your generous and thoughtful response and encouragement. I will pursue this. I think I’ll reach start by reaching out to friends nearby who knit and may offer a helping hand.

      2. In the Maine Clambake Mystery I am writing now, Julia is knitting a sock, which she describes as a “tiny, gray tornado.” It’s not going well!

  3. I hesitate to mention another – not wicked – author, but Sally Goldenbaum writes knitting cozies and includes patterns. If I remember correctly she included a wedding shawl in one of them.

    1. As Julie always says, Gram, it’s a big tent. We all love to hear about all sorts of mysteries, Wicked or not. Thanks of the tip. Once I’m ready to tackle another lace project I’ll add her book to my list!

  4. I was scared of trying lace too! BUT, my son is getting married and I really wanted to make a wedding shawl for his bride. May 30th in NH I would have made her a heavy shawl, with hardly any lace because it can be 50 degrees that time of year, but that same time now in Charleston, SC I knew I had to make something light and airy. I put a whole bunch of simple looking patterns in my Ravelry library and had her look at them. The one she picked was the easiest of the group it’s even called “Easy as pie!” I picked up some cabled needles and I made a practice one, to make sure I could actually do it, and now I’m almost done the “real” one. I’ve found that I really like making shawls now and keep adding more and more and more to my “library” 🙂

  5. I love knitting too! There’s something about the rhythm and pattern of manipulating the needles and yarn that frees up the subconscious. Large pieces of the plot of Feta Attraction popped into my head while I was knitting a big Icelandic sweater for my nephew. As for the lace, I’ve found that that requires a different level of concentration to keep the rows in order. I save that for when I want more of a challenge. Be sure to post pictures of your progress! And I’d love to see that first sock 🙂

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