I’m a pretty bad knitter. I try really hard and I love wool and love patterns and love sheep. But I’m a pretty horrible knitter. I constantly make mistakes. I’m constantly frogging, changing my mind about patterns, putting down projects, casting on new ones, constantly grappling with my issue of perfection. My husband tells me that hand-knitted items with little mistakes give knitwear “character.” But all I can think about is how bad I messed up.
How can I get over this? I feel like it’s holding me back. It doesn’t seem to affect my need/desire/craving for knitting because I have a stash the size of Texas, and decorate my house with yarn, and have four projects on the needles, and am constantly dreaming of new things to knit. But I feel bad about my errors. I would like to, rather, embrace them.
But I’m not there yet. Any advice?
Seeking Knitting Zen,
The Frog Lady
My dearest Frog Lady,
Oh how I feel your pain. Perfectionism is so tricky. It’s a demanding mistress who has a strange habit of inflicting paralysis when, really, she should be inspiring better and better action.
We read profiles of famous people—athletes, actors, authors, inventors—who credit perfectionism for their success. It drove them to excel, they explain. They set rigorous and demanding standards for themselves, and they held all those around them to those same standards. Steve Jobs comes to mind.
But perfectionism is a deeply flawed concept for one simple reason: It suggests that “perfect” actually exists, and that it is attainable. I’m not so sure it is.
Have you ever noticed that your own definition of “perfect” has a way of changing? When we get a little close to something we thought was perfect, our eyes have a strange habit of picking up flaws we hadn’t noticed before. And so we rework our standards to keep perfection a little ways off, a little beyond our grasp. When was the last time you basked in the glory of knowing you’d done something perfectly? And how long did it last?
I thought so.
Perfectionism means well. It wants to protect us from the embarrassment of failure—like that time in high school when you sang in public for the first and only time, auditioning for a part you didn’t get. Or that time you revealed your most cherished dream to someone who mattered, only to have her laugh?
Whatever the leap was, and wherever or however it was squelched, that hurt has a nasty habit of lingering. But as adults it’s important to remember that each pain includes a moment when we choose to let it in. Nobody can make you feel sad or disappointed or like a failure. Oh sure, people can create miserable circumstances that are hard to feel anything but sad about, but the ultimate gatekeeper is always you. And today, my dear Frog Lady, you’re doing a beautiful job of keeping that gate shut so that you can’t fully enjoy the beauty of a finished project.
Fire the Gatekeeper
Can we begin by changing the way you define yourself? You say, “I am a pretty bad knitter.” You call yourself “horrible.” Without even seeing your work, I must disagree. The fact that you know how to make fabric out of yarn and needles is a beautiful thing. Anything you create is, by my definition, a gorgeous miracle. You love wool, you love sheep, you love patterns. You have every recipe for a happy life as a knitter. So please, be kind to yourself.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are the world’s worst knitter. Yarn spontaneously combusts in your hands. Every stitch has an error. I have some experience with that. Sewing has never been my forte. When I was eight years old, I sewed through my index finger on an ancient treadle sewing machine. As recently as two years ago, I successfully broke three sewing machines in a row trying to make a shirt—one that, I should add, had only two pieces to it. After I fixed the last machine, I successfully sewed my breast darts inside-out on a top two times in a row. The next time I made that shirt, I sewed the breast darts inside-out again. My ability to do things seriously, dreadfully wrong had me worried that I should hand over my car keys and move into a group home.
But I refused to let the mistakes stop me. Like you, I loved fabric and patterns and the mere notion of being able to make my own clothing. (Handknits always look better when worn with handmade clothes, don’t you think?) So I re-did those breast darts again and again until I had them right. I looked up tutorials on the internet to figure out why I was so tempted to do them backwards. The more I learned, the further outside my comfort zone I ventured, and the more mistakes I made. In the undoing and fixing of each rather appalling surprise, I learned a new skill.
What Is a Mistake, Anyway?
My first question to you is this: What kinds of mistakes are you making? Does your knitting go off the rails at the same exact spot again and again, or are the mistakes evolving as your skills and experience evolve? Is this simply a matter of focusing on a problem area until you feel more comfortable with it, or are these mistakes the inevitable slings and arrows of a grand adventure?
Because there will always be mistakes. Follow Ann and Kay’s public travails, or those of Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, or any of us, and you’ll see that even the most seasoned knitters still make mistakes. After all, to err is human. But to forgive? Ah, that’s a little harder, isn’t it?
I know several people whose lives are always teetering on the verge of chaos. For them, knitting is the one area where they can achieve a feeling of order, balance, and beauty. For them, knitting (and frogging) is a way to seek and find a level of perfection that is comforting and therapeutic.
Frogging is one of the great things about knitting. It’s the perfect “erase” button, allowing us to undo our mistakes and redo them as if nothing happened. I know some superb designers who are major froggers, unraveling entire sections of garments until they get it just right. But here’s the thing: they eventually do settle on something that feels right, and then they allow themselves the pleasure of binding off, smiling at their work, and moving on.
Your perfectionism is holding you back now. It’s keeping you stalled in the cycle of frogging and redoing. You’re denying yourself the pleasure and satisfaction of a job well done, even if it has failed to meet your own potentially high and ever-changing standards. I must ask, Is knitting the only creative area of your life in which you are stalled? Do you allow yourself to achieve completion, and perfection, in other parts of your life? What does that look like, and how is this different?
An Experiment to Try
Would you be willing to do a little experiment with me? It’s simple: Pick a project. Something simple and lovely, with a yarn that makes your fingers happy. Work your swatch, make sure your numbers are good. Then, here’s the bold part: knit. Keep on knitting until the project is done. No changing your mind, no frogging and picking a different yarn, or different needles, or a different stitch pattern. No shoving it in a bag under the bed and ignoring it for five years. Your task is to cast on, work, and finish.
I realize this is an expensive and time-consuming experiment. But so is therapy. So let this be your therapy project. Keep a notebook and write down your thoughts with each knitting session. Don’t judge or squelch, don’t draw conclusions or try to control the narrative, just observe and note. Does an odd memory pop into your mind? Write it down. Hit by the urge to frog the whole thing and use a different yarn? Write it down, and write down why.
When you encounter a mistake, greet it like a dear friend. Write it down. What were you doing when you noticed there was a problem? What technique or process was involved? Where did you go wrong, and how can you prevent it from happening again? I will permit frogging only if it involves a stitch-count mismatch that will throw the entire project off. Otherwise, keep going. When you’re done? Write down how you feel about the project. If you’re up for a little extra credit, wear this project in public and track the messages that flash across your mind. Are you being kind and loving to yourself? Are you being critical? If so, how do those thoughts make you feel?
The purpose of this exercise is to push you through as many of those self-imposed roadblocks as possible. In the process, you may gain insight into where they come from, how they can be best moved aside, and what beauty lies ahead. Your knitting is meant to be worn and loved and put into motion. Anything else is a stalled museum piece, the knitted equivalent of that sparsely furnished living room you were never allowed to sit in as a child, you know, the one with the plastic cover on the couch. What fun is that?
It’s time to embrace the beautiful, innately flawed human being that you are, that we all are. And then? After a little divine self-forgiveness, you can knit happily ever after.