Friday, 22 August 2008

Knitting, music, science and sports

Hand knitting is an amazing activity. The same is true for crocheting. For simplicity of writing lets understand it as included when I talk about knitting.

All over the world a tremendous amount of the most diverse objects have been and are created through these crafts by countless knitters and crocheters. Yet their tools are as simple as tools can be: a crochet hook, or between two and five knitting needles is all they need to turn yarn, the knitters’ material, into the greatest variety of beautiful, useful, funny objects, with greatest dexterity.

I can’t think of many more such virtuous actions of our hands, apart from playing a musical instrument, and - come to think of it - knitting indeed has much in common with this.
The difference is that musical instruments in most cases are more sophisticated and more specified tools than knitting needles. And the results of these two activities do differ materially. Knitting creates lasting objects we can touch and see. Music is an event in time that only exists when it is played - lets not take into account music that is recorded here: that is something different.

Both abilities are learned through exercising them, and virtuosity grows on, and together with, curiosity, perseverance and patience. Making mistakes, and overcoming them, is incredibly productive and constructive in this process.

For both activities simple notations have developed that make it possible to share a piece with others, so that it can be “played” by whoever chooses to, reproduced countless times. At the same time both crafts leave endless room for a maker’s or player’s own compositions and interpretations, and in both there is no right or wrong. It makes no sense to argue about knitting, nor music playing, to say for example: “You shouldn’t knit like you do”, or “you should knit this or that way”. He and she, who play a musical instrument or the knitting needles, have the freedom to make what they experience as mistakes, and to improve their technique accordingly if they feel they need to, so that their project accords with the vision they have. In knitting a single project, or in playing a single tune, our hands, hearts and brains work perfectly together. In learning and in improving our technique we develop various methods, and our aim to produce something beautiful, be it for ourselves or for others, is directed by our hearts.

Another characteristic common to these two activities is that they can be done spontaneously and everywhere – lets forget about electrical musical instruments here, they are of a category similar to knitting machines. I’ve done weaving for a considerable time, on a four-shaft floor loom. This is a large device; so working at it is defined to the room where it stands. And weaving requires a lot of pre-planning. When you’ve decided on a warp you can’t just switch to another project you would have in mind. But in knitting and playing a musical instrument changing to another tune, or make variations, is very easy.

Both activities are essentially harmless and peaceful, and can be soothing. Both are not characterised, or even defined by competition, as is the case with most sports. Yet sports are a subject in many schools, whereas even the basics of knitting, or of playing a musical instrument, are mainly learned outside of schools. That is probably a mistake. There is a lot of bemoaning in Ireland for example that only few students are interested in science. I don’t think that sports help this. To learn and develop one’s knitting skills, however, implies a lot what is needed in science. This blog has a lovely little humorous post comparing knitting and science (The blog is not alive anymore, I hope the author doesn’t mind me quoting it here):

"Knitting as Science

You know,Dear Readers, it occurred to me that knitting is like science. Yeah, I know, everyone talks about knitting as being so creative. But coming from someone who is creative on a regular basis, I see the science in knitting. We all know there is a lot of math involved in both science and knitting. But there is more than just math. There are theories and calculations. There is balancing these equations like in chemistry. There is biology involved. Physics, algebra. For example, take the sweater I am knitting for my brother. First I had to come up with a theory. Will this yarn choice with this pattern idea work. And the biology, does my brother wear wool. What other yarn fiber will work with my theory. Maybe cotton is too heavy. Then I had to experiment. To get the ribbing to work, to make the cable design work. The calculations for the decreases and how many cable designs will fit nicely on the sweater. Then I decide if the theory worked or didn't. Do you begin to see the science? How many of our children will become scientists through knitting? Who knows? But it is an interesting theory. Happy knitting dearies! "

Sports, via their competitive character, lend themselves to consumerism, the number of consumers usually much greater than that of the competitors. Recorded music is also consumed a lot, whilst an audience to a musician’s life performance seems as natural to the activity itself as it is to spoken language or bird song. Knitting is not too exciting to be watched, possibly because it is a slow repetitive process. Knitting is most exciting when taken up by oneself. Knitting can also be done alongside with other activities, like listening and talking. Many knitters can consume even sports competitions on TV whilst knitting, or listen to music.

In my school time we used to knit during classes. It helped listening, and it also prevented us from getting bored and acting out stupid ideas to overcome boredom. The knitters in our class, which were nearly all females and one male, made a jumper together for our favourite teacher. Everyone brought in remnants and knitted a piece of the jumper in whatever way he/she decided. The result was a beautiful and colourful piece, presented to the astonished and pleased teacher after leaving cert. That was constructive, wasn’t it?

Back to the comparison to playing a musical instrument: Whilst it is not possible that knitters work simultaneously together at one piece in the same way as musicians do in an orchestra, because of the material differences between the two, it is possible to team knit.

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