Interview with a Knitter: Sarah

Just over ten years ago, my roommate and I snuck an upright grand piano into our dorm room. We had spent our Saturday driving throughout the mountains south of Morgantown looking for the right piano. It had to have a pretty sound, be priced reasonably, and fit into my future brother-in-law’s truck as well as the dorm elevator. Like the music that piano produced at the hands of my skilled roommate, our amity has been harmonious.

I have enjoyed my friendship with Sarah.  Together we have experimented with recipes, exchanged stories, and experienced motherhood.  She has also shared her enthusiasm of fiber art with me as we learned to spin yarn together a couple of years ago.

Sarah is also a fantastic knitter. She is able to create beautiful hats and lacy scarves from wool yarn.  She recently allowed me to ask her some questions about her hobby, and below is that interview.

I know that you have been knitting for many years. How many has it been? Who taught you to knit? Have you always knitted or did you quit only to take it back up again as an adult?

I learned to knit around the start of high school. So maybe almost 20 years. My Nana was an avid knitter but my mother is the one who patiently cast on the start of each project and picked up my dropped stitches for me until I learned to do it myself. I used to get the urge to start a project and I’d walk over to my Nana’s house where she would help me look through our pattern books. She often had some wool in her stash that would be just right. In college my knitting slowed down a lot. There was a pink vest I was always knitting on… the never-ending project. Maybe it was too soon to start a large project like that when I had only knitted one scarf and a few hats. Anyway, there came a time I couldn’t face it anymore and I put away my needles. Later my mom found the half finished vest in a closet and tried to complete it for me but it seems that moths had found it first. Maybe it’s for the best–it might not have fit anyway since I had not yet discovered the importance of gauge. When my life changed again I started my “career” and I had some time on my hands again. I found knitting to be a meditative and pleasant way to spend a winter evening or even to keep my hands occupied while I watched a movie or listened to books on tape.

Is knitting a family tradition? Has any pattern been handed down from your family?

My mom’s mom, Nana, was the first knitter of whom I am aware. She learned in grade school when the children all knit squares for an afghan. Her mom didn’t enjoy any crafts, as far as I know. Nana liked to knit sweaters and vests. It seems like she always had a project going on. During my grade school years, I wore several garments knit by her. We don’t have any family patterns, but I remember that she and my mom and mom’s sister all had Aran sweater-coats knit out of unwashed wool that they wore for years–maybe from my childhood through college. Mom’s sweater has worn out around the shoulders now from hanging in the closet (yes, we all know knitting does not like coat hangers). Nana’s sweater is now with one of my cousins, and I’m not sure about aunt’s. Nana taught my mom, who was encouraged along the crafting path by her college roommate, a skilled knitter. My mom and I prefer to knit hats. We’ve knit so many hats–dozens, scores, maybe…

I know that you have read several knitting books. Do you have a go-to author and/or book? Why do you like him or her?

The first knitting book I read was the Knitter’s Almanac by Elizabeth Zimmerman. I still have my copy and I do pull it out from time to time in search of a technique or pattern–it really is my favorite, so maybe she is my literary knitting mentor. It is written in what I would call a folksy, familiar tone, full of advice, innovative patterns, and anecdotes from the author’s life. Zimmerman showed me that the knitting world was wide and imaginative. The Almanac is really the only book by her that I’ve read but I’m always on the lookout in the library or used book stores for a copy of The Opinionated Knitter or another of her collections (in the unlikely event that someone would let their’s go…)

When you knit, what is the one thing you cannot do without? (Type of needle, fibre, etc.)

I have a little flat piece of aluminum with holes corresponding to different needle sizes that I use to size my dpns and circular needles that do not designate a size. It also has a ruler on one end that I often use to check my gage (now that I am older and wiser). That is probably the most used object in my toolbox. Or maybe it’s just slightly less used than the baby-blue “tapestry needle” used to weave in the ends…
My favorite fiber is wool. The brand I usually buy is Patons although occasionally I allow myself something more artisanal. The strategy is that if most of my stash of leftover pieces is the same brand and weight they will all work together harmoniously when I do that big stash-busting project. Patons is readily available (even at Michaels) in a variety of colors and is pretty inexpensive. I happen to have a lot of metal needles–remember, there are a few knitters in my family and I have inherited… things… Luckily, I prefer metal for my straight needles because it seems the wool slides along faster. I prefer wood for my dpns because they seem less likely to slide out. (Can you tell I’ve never invested in point protectors?). For a while I have wanted to buy some name brand needles that are often featured on podcasts or blogs–like Addi Turbos or Lantern Moons but I can’t decide what size or variety to buy.

Why do you knit?

I think I knit because I am creative, and maybe a little artistic. I have, maybe, some nervous energy that needs a meditative outlet. I like to have my hands busy while my mind is occupied– or unoccupied, for that matter. I am also self reliant and I like the idea of making something by hand. I think everyone should cultivate a craft. It’s good for humans to create–I think it’s one way we enjoy fellowship with our Creator.

Do you knit mostly for others or for yourself?

Historically I have knit almost entirely for others. I’ve made many Christmas gifts. I have always intended to start knitting more for myself, though, and over the last few years I have shelled out a couple times for fiber for myself. After all, I may be the only one who knows the true value of an object I have knit. Other knitters may understand the value but perhaps would prefer a skein of yarn over a finished object.

What kind of projects do you like to knit?

Because I gravitate toward gift knitting, most of my projects are small–like hats. Maybe it’s too much information, but my love language is time-spent. When I thinking of someone I love I want to knit something beautiful for him or her. Maybe it’s one of my few motherly instincts–to keep a loved one warm. For instance, one of my friends told me she’s often cold at work. I soon started thinking about knitting her something wooly. I checked my stash for something in an autumn tone, but all my wool is in spring tones. Guess I need to go to the yarn store soon!

What’s on your needles right now?

I have just finished a pair of Christmas stockings for my sons. Now I am working on a couple hats (of course). I’m thinking about getting back to a sock that I stopped working on in 2004. The mate is finished but needs ripped back and shortened to fit my foot. I just came across them in a closet at my mom’s last week. Technically the sock is still on the needle…

Have you ever tried to reproduce anything you have seen completed?

To my shame I have not. I admire designers but I am not there yet. Unless it’s a very simple project I prefer to work from a pattern. Ironically, modification is the closest I have come to duplication. I say it’s close because it also involves some of the same types of predictions: How do I achieve a certain result? What will be the end result of this decision? I often look at a pattern illustration and say “I’d like it better with a rolled brim.” Or “I think it would look better with a different M1 technique.” I’ve turned garter to seed stitch, ribbing to cables, etc. I think my best modification is the Christmas stocking that I just finished. I needed a stocking pattern but I couldn’t find one I liked. So I took one I almost liked and changed everything. I turned the ribbed top into an I-cord cast-on. I worked certain elements in the fair-isle technique instead of duplicate stitch. I changed the argyle motif into two-color knit snow men and snow flakes. I changed the number of stitches to accommodate the snow man design. I kept the same heel and toe construction but revised it a bit because I had more stitches than the pattern had specified. By the end it was a different stocking entirely and I liked it better. Would anyone have bought the book with my pattern? Don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter, does it?

What’s your most favourite item that you ever knit?

I knit a scarf for my sis that had a honeycomb cable down the center and (I think) antler cables down each side. It was many hours of knitting for just a scarf. All that twisting really took some time. I think each repeat of the pattern took almost 30 minutes–I was listening to a great series of murder mysteries solved by a newspaper man and his psychic cat by Lillian Jackson Braun. Anyway, it turned out beautifully–kind of a heathery blue in the turquoise family, about 5.5 feet long, very, very dense. So dense that it could almost balance on it’s side. The only “problem” is that I prefer reversible scarf patterns, but since it didn’t tend to fold or curl it could be arranged so that the cable side was “up” and the back was not visible. I was so proud of that scarf–still am. I Hope she hasn’t misplaced it.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Most of my inspiration comes from someone else’s pattern. Often I find a yarn in my stash and I start looking for a pattern that would make the best use of it. Sometimes I am inspired to make something for someone in particular–someone I love that I want to keep warm– and I look for something that would suit them.

Would you ever want to publish any of your patterns? Which one?

I have had some success working with my husband to design graphics for fair-isle type hats. One with trees turned out really well. I would publish that one if there weren’t such long stretches of the main color. You’re supposed to limit those stretches to five stitches or less and we didn’t need that many snow flakes between the trees… I ended up doing some long yarn carries. I love how it looks but I am a bit embarrassed at what looks like poor planning in the color changes. My husband thinks someone would purchase the pattern for a hat I made him with polar bears on it– but again: Large bears=long yarn carries.

Do you ever find yourself daydreaming about patterns?

Maybe you could say that. I don’t really come up with design ideas in my head, but I often look at a knitted object and try to figure out how it was made. Not that I would want to recreate it, but…”Did a machine or human make this? Could a human make this?” “Which is the cast on edge?” “How was the shaping accomplished?” “Which modifications might make it fit the wearer better?” “Fit me?” “I hope she doesn’t think I’m staring…”

Check out Sarah’s blog, Long Tall Yarn, to see more of her writing about knitting.

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