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NOV. 12, 2019

Learning to Knit

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Recently I’ve begun learning how to knit. It came first as an urge of envy, as most of my cabin residents were knitting hats for each other, and heads all across campus were boasting colorful balls of woven yarn. It then became a desire so strong that it was eventually a need—I needed to knit. I wanted to satisfy my brain’s craving to learn a new craft alongside the students. I wanted to busy my hands during long meetings, to have a past-time activity while proctoring study hall, to bond with students I hadn’t connected as strongly with yet. And so I asked one of the students to show me how, and the next day I was knitting left and right.

I bought a mid-sized ball of blue yarn, borrowed a set of needles from Susan, and set off to create my very own wool hat. The students were ecstatic that I had started on a journey in which many of them were already deeply invested. The project was rough at the beginning, as most are, but my fingers soon got the hang of it and I was able to carry out the movements with little to no thought. At every free moment I was digging my hands into the yarn and asking students questions about how to fix a dropped stitch? Or how often to decrease? Or how to swap from the round to the double pointed needles? They made comments on my perseverance, and showed me their own hat creations. The first hat came easier than expected, and is now sitting on my bedside table, smelling slightly of the dirty socks that it was shoved next to for the duration of Leading Trek.

It’s not the first hat that I want to talk about, though. It’s the second. The first hat is allowed to have mistakes—in fact it’s expected. There are spots where the yarn got pulled funny, where I dropped a stitch and created a strange hole, where I made the stitches too loose or too tight. It’s all part of the initial process, and in that hat I can see how far I progressed from my very first stitch.

The second hat, though, has a higher set of expectations to meet. I already learned how to knit. My fingers have stored the movement to muscle memory. I’ve created a tangible, usable article of clothing for the second one to match and exceed. There are ways to mark progress in craft, and this second hat would be one of those markers. 

This time, I asked another student to teach me how to alternate stitches and pearls. He taught me quickly and I began the process once again on a new ball of beautiful burgundy yarn. This time, however, I got three rows in and realized that I had been stitching when I was supposed to pearl and pearling when I was supposed to stitch. “You’ll be happier if you just start over,” the students said, and so I did.

On my second attempt I made the first row too tight, so it was too difficult to work on. I started over.

My third attempt seemed to be going much better. I got five rows in before I made the mistake of knitting with my tail instead of with the ball of yarn. I started over.

My fourth attempt ended when I realized I had not given myself enough stitches to be able to equally match up the knit/knit/pearl/pearl pattern all the way around. I started over.

My fifth attempt was short—I found a knot in the yarn as I was halfway through casting on. I started over.

On my sixth attempt, I started with the scraps of my first hat’s yarn (maybe it was better luck than the burgundy) and began casting on. After 76 stitches, I linked the two ends together and started my two-knit-two-pearl pattern until I completed the first row. It seemed to be working, so I continued to the third row, the fourth row, the fifth row, and I found myself easily knitting two full inches of passable fabric. There were still mistakes (one column had only one knit, while another had three pearls), and there’s only enough yarn left to make an ear warmer, but I reached a point where I could be satisfied with myself during the process, and with the potential final product. That’s not to say I’m finished—I still plan to use this pattern on the burgundy yarn, but I’m one step closer to crafting a piece that I could be proud of.

And now for the heavy-handed metaphor: the students have recently been delving into their quest to knit a second hat. We’ve passed the halfway point of the semester, and everyone has been here long enough to develop their own comfortable routines, strengthen relationships, specify their goals, and find their voices as leaders both on campus and in the backcountry. Everyone has dug themselves a little place within the community, and is busy figuring out how to both build themselves up and help others do the same. We’ve passed the point of orientation. We’re no longer just getting to know each other. Now, the semester is at the point of nitpicking to perfection.

To give a specific example, in a community circle a few weeks ago, the students dedicated about twenty minutes to discussing how to sing the morning and evening songs. Another twenty minutes was set aside to talk about whether or not the snapping (used as a sign of agreement or enthusiasm after folks speak) is too aggressive or overused. The last part of the meeting was used to analyze which types of announcements were acceptable pre- and post meals, and which were not. In other words, we’re trying to get the stitches right so that we can be pleased with our final outcome. What makes for a community that everyone wants to live in? What takes that community and makes it something that everyone could leave here being proud of? How can each student leave a piece of themself within the pattern?

We just arrived back on campus from Learning Trek—the trip on which students are expected to be self sufficient and knowledgeable enough in their skills to lead themselves, with the instructors only there for risk management purposes. Each night, huddling around the fire, the small group of students would discuss what they did earlier that day that they were satisfied with, and what they could work on. They also typically spent about fifteen minutes talking about what time they wanted to wake up, when they would cook breakfast, and when they would leave camp to begin hiking. Each morning after, I watched as the students continuously missed their set wake up times, got frustrated with each other, and finally left camp half an hour to an hour after the desired time.

On our last full day, though, the other instructor and I laid in our sleeping bags and listened to the leaders of the day wake the other students promptly at 6:00. Everyone was out of the sleeping bags and packing their tents as planned by 6:15, and by 6:30 the tents were taken down and they were all standing in a circle holding hands ready to begin the day. They discussed the plan for the rest of the morning amongst themselves as the instructors watched from our tent. Finally, they were silent for a moment before they began singing the morning song.

In this moment, I realized that we were so much closer to where we were supposed to be. In all the frustrations and minor bouts that I’ve watched over the past few weeks, in all the discussions about nitpicky things, and in all the times I’ve seen folks sleep past the set times or pack their bags an hour later than they were supposed to, I’ve also watched the students inch their way forward. It’s difficult to see the success of the whole picture when you’re living within it, but it’s moments such as the one I just described when I realize how beautiful this community that we’re crafting really is; every little mistake or difficult conversation is just part of knitting together a semester that we can all be happy within and ultimately proud of.

By Katie Darrow