(Full disclosure: I was invited to read a pre-publication version of this book, and my name and blurb appear on the back cover. I’ve waited to review the published version until I could read it through multiple times, digest it, and put it to use. The result is what follows.)
In the past six months or so, I’ve noted a steep uptick in the number of students arriving at my knitting classes with extra baggage. Stuff like lumbar cushions, foot rests, little tabletop lights, and document holders into which they clip their handouts.
This should be no surprise. It should have been happening for years. Most of the classrooms in which I teach were not meant to be classrooms. They were meant to be at best hotel conference rooms and at worst livestock pens. The light is dismal. The chairs were designed on Mars, by Martians and for Martians. Certainly no human, large or small, is ever the right shape for them.
To take control of one’s own comfort under these circumstances is common sense. And yet knitters, famously, will endure all manner of discomforts in pursuit of their favorite pastime.
We peruse smelly fleeces in freezing barns. We jostle one another in crowded marketplaces to get at hard-to-find yarns. We ignore aching feet and sore shoulders to tote around works-in-progress, and drag home the supplies we’ve bought to make more works-in-progress. We sit for hours and knit until our butts and fingers go numb to make sure the [important knitted thing] is ready for the [major life event].
You may giggle at our obsession. I often do. But it’s not at all funny when ignoring aches, pains, and numbness leads to injuries that mean one has to curtail one’s knitting or—I hate to even type this—give it up.
I cannot, therefore, overstate the value of Knitting Comfortably: The Ergonomics of Handknitting (Ergo I Publishing), the first book produced by passionate knitter and professional physical therapist Carson Demers. In the months since its publication, his audience has taken it to heart—and therefore, I think, the sudden profusion of cushions and foot rests among the needles and yarn.
Ergonomics is not a subject that turns most people on. Including me. I associate it with mandatory sessions through which I suffered as a university employee. They were all the same. While we slumped morosely munching stale mini-bagels, a woman who was improbably excited about her sacroiliac would tell us how our postures and our work stations were slowly killing us. Then we would go back to our work stations, which the university declined to improve in any way, and slump over our computers.
Demers’s book doesn’t look on the cover like a knitter’s hot read. There are no lolling balls of voluptuous luxury yarn. No doe-eyed model in a cloud of cables teasing the camera with slightly parted lips. You’ve got hands, arms, and one seated posterior with muscles and bones and arrows and curves superimposed. It looks like nursing school textbook.
Read it anyway.
I pushed myself to do it out of pure fear. I knit a lot. When I’m on a tight deadline, sometimes I knit for eleven or twelve hours per day for several days in a row.
I am in decent health and not that old—yet—but I was diagnosed with arthritis in both hands when I was twelve. I am frightened, genuinely frightened, of wearing myself out. I knit, crochet, sew, embroider, weave, and draw for a living. I need my body to cooperate for as long as it possibly can. I knew, because of aches and pains that were growing harder to deny, that I was heading for trouble.
So I sat down with Knitting Comfortably and prepared to tough it out. Not all at once—a chapter a day.
Demers begins by laying out the nature of ergonomics—what it is, what it can do for a person—using a clever metaphor in which productivity, efficiency, and safety are the three legs of a stool that can keep you comfortable in any environment. When all three factors are properly addressed, the stool supports you as you knit without wobbling.
How firm, Demers would like to know, is your stool?
To answer that question, he asks and answers more questions—neatly dividing the material into logical, digestible chapters written in easy-to-follow language. Like a true knitter accustomed to communicating with others of the flock, he often draws on the structure of yarns and the process of knitting to clarify scientific and medical points for the layman. (His comparisons of spinning fibers and human fibers like muscles and tendons are wildly helpful if you forgot your high school anatomy. Or flunked it.)
Which parts of the body, asks the author, are especially vulnerable to injuries from knitting? And why? What sorts of injuries are we liable to? And how do we avoid them, minimize them, or recover from them?
This could be the dullest possible reading—on par with those university seminars—but in Knitting Comfortably, it is unexpectedly fascinating. The topics Demers has analyzed in detail include (this is, believe it or not, only a partial list)…
Needle selection. What are the ergonomic differences among straights, double-points, and circulars? How about among wood, bamboo, and metal needles? Square needles versus circular needles? How might the sharpness of the tips impact your gauge and your comfort?
Handling your materials. Is one style of knitting necessarily more efficient or healthy than another? How does the manner in which you tension your yarn affect your hands and arms? What are the optimal hand and arm positions for various knitting styles?
Light. How much is best? Where should it come from?
Chairs and Posture. How do I know if a chair is a good chair for me to knit in? What do I do if the available seating isn’t ideal? How often should I take a break? What positions are healthiest? How often should I change positions? What do I do if I am a real person with a real couch and not an anatomical drawing perched on a hypothetical perfect chair?
Other Knitterly Stuff. How do I block large pieces without messing up my back? How do I wind yarn without undue strain? What sort of knitting bag is most ergonomic, and how should I carry it my bag to spare my shoulders?
And as most knitters are also computer users, healthy ergonomics at the computer (while, for instance, you have your daily romp through Mason-Dixon Knitting) are also covered in a thorough “At Your Computer” chapter.
Because Demers is a knitter, and refined his knowledge with not only professional training and experience as a therapist, but also by coaching scores of real knitters at festivals and retreats, he is sensitive to the limits of various body types and the effects of aging.
His suggestions for strengthening, stretching, and avoiding injury are clear, realistic, and attainable. I find that changes I’ve made over these several months, though often sporadic and always imperfect, have improved not only my knitting sessions, but my overall comfort in my own body—especially at work.
That’s what I hoped for. That’s what I expected.
What I did not expect was that Knitting Comfortably is, simply, a fascinating book about knitting. It has made me look more closely at the interaction of my tools, yarns, and body than ever before. It’s one thing to know from experience that cotton yarn can be tougher on the hands than wool; it’s quite another to learn—after decades of knitting with both—why.