“Yes, You Can Knit That” – Tackling even the most formidable knitting patterns

I will never forget my first knitting challenge in 2020. I had only just learned how to knit and purl a month before, and I was determined to knit something “fancy” – a lace-knit scarf from Purl Soho. As I neared the finish line, I made the horrible discovery that I had dropped a stitch a few rows back. A new knitter who didn’t know how to perform “knitting surgery”, the mistake overwhelmed me and I ripped back the entire scarf in tears.

Eventually, the hurt faded and I picked the scarf back up, and while it is by no means perfect (I still sometimes cringe at the wonky tension on that thing), I was so incredibly proud of myself when it was done.

Those of us who have attended a leadership conference before know about the “Learning” or “Growth” zone. It is that happy balance between your comfort zone (think: a garter-stitch scarf) and your panic zone (for me, that is and always will be steeking). But it’s easy to wander too close to the edge. That complicated colorwork pattern you picked up might seem like just enough of a challenge, until you made a mistake that you have no idea how to fix. Enter: panic zone. It’s a good way to discourage yourself from pushing your boundaries as a knitter (or as a knitwear designer). Fortunately, through my continuous flirting with the panic zone (and very expensive education as an engineer) I’ve discovered a few tips to learning and growing as a knitter without feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

1. Break it down

This could mean multiple things. If a pattern has a difficult construction, break it down into components. First, you’ll only think about the ribbing. Then, you’ll allow your mental energy to expand to the body. If you’re knitting a difficult colorwork chart, like the Lillehammer ’94 sweater (my veritable magnum opus of colorwork knitting), place stitch markers between the different colorwork sections so that you can compartmentalize and only worry about one motif at a time.

2. Think about how to damage-control

And no, this isn’t just tinking. Sometimes you realize you made a mistake a number of rows ago (like my infamous lace-knit scarf) and you’re just too far ahead to tink all the way back. Have a game plan in place for what you’ll do if you discover such an error. In colorwork, the easiest thing to do is mark down where you made the mistake and go back afterwards in duplicate stitch. I’ve done the same for cables before too to make them look like they’re curved at a slightly smoother angle when needed. Knowing that you have a way to fix what goes wrong gives you that much more confidence when tackling something difficult.

3. Swatch. And block

I know. It’s boring, a waste of yarn, and when you’re all fired up to cast on, the last thing you want to do is swatch. But it’s so worth it – especially if you’re knitting cables, colorwork, or lace and extra especially if you’re new to these techniques. The fabric changes so much with blocking, and it’s good to have an idea of this before you start knitting so that you aren’t worried about whether or not your garment will fit the entire time you are knitting. Which brings us to…

4. Try your garment on. A lot.

You cannot try your knitting on too much (of course, doesn’t apply for scarves and shawls). Even if your swatching gauge was on-point, some heavier yarns can drag a garment down and you could end up making your sleeves too long or your yoke too deep. Yes, moving your work to those stitch-holders is irritating, but if you have interchangeable needles or a longer circular needle, you could always knit all of your stitches onto there instead before trying to wear it. Not only does this help you make sure that you are getting the fit you want, but it can help motivate you to finish the piece.

5. Embrace the math

I know it sounds odd, and this one isn’t just for knitwear designers. Maybe you fall between sizes on a garment, or you want the sleeves a little narrower or wider. Math is your best friend here. The gauge you are given in the pattern (that you can hopefully match on your swatch) is a blueprint for the entire piece, and if you know how much you want to increase/decrease the width, it’s an easy “constant” that you can use to calculate how many stitches you would need to change. If you want your sleeve decreases to be fewer than what the pattern says, calculate the number of decreases between the underarm and the cuff divided by the sleeve length (in rows), and you’ll get your decrease ratio. Math isn’t just the key to designing a knitting pattern, it’s key to having a garment that fits you well (which, tbh, is the whole point of making our own clothes) and once you start having fun with it, it becomes one of the most exciting parts. And finally….

6. Accept the mistakes

There will always be mistakes in your work. Weird tension, a missed yarn-over (that you had to fudge on the next round), and a slightly uneven cable because you forgot one of the cable stitches. The trick is realizing your threshold for mistakes. Is it something you can live with? If you do a quick cover-up, like a duplicate stitch or a yarn-over on the next round, will it make it acceptable? I consider myself something of a perfectionist and get extremely worked up when there are mistakes in my work. But as I’ve taken on more and more challenging knitting patterns, I’ve started to see some of the imperfections as a “signature”. For example, the panels on my Lillehammer ’94 sweater are mirrored. And I was devastated when I realized it. But no one in the whole world has a sweater like it, and that’s pretty cool. You’re not trying to replicate a mass-produced garment – you’re making it by hand, stitch by stitch. So what if it isn’t perfect? You made that.