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September 13, 2010, 03:00 PM ET

String Theory: Reflections on Knitting as a Hobby for Hacker Types

knitting socks[This is a guest post by Amanda Watson, who works as a Research and Instruction Librarian at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. In her spare time, she tries not to let her yarn habit get out of control. You can find her on Twitter (@amndw2) or read her blog. In February, Amanda wrote Hacking Your Home Library with LibraryThing for ProfHacker.]

When I was a nervous, fidgety graduate student trying to quit smoking, a friend said "You should learn to knit. It gives you something to do with your hands so you won't wish you had a cigarette." The idea appealed, so I found a basic knitting book, a pair of needles, and some soft blue yarn, and launched my first project: a scarf. While I didn't manage to quit smoking until several years later, knitting helped me get out of the grad school sensory-deprivation trap I'd fallen into: instead of reading literary theory nonstop, I started spending some of my time thinking about color and texture, about the logic that governs stitch patterns, about designing objects that would exist in the physical world in three dimensions.

Knitting has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years; it's become (or, more accurately, it always has been) an extraordinarily geeky craft. It's not hard to see why, when you try it. As one knitter remarked, in the comments on a post about "geek knitting" at the blog Making Light: "Knitting is, at its fundamentals, a binary code featuring top-down design, standardized submodules, and recursive logic that relies on ratios, mathematical principles, and an intuitive grasp of three-dimensional geometry." There are knitters and crocheters who model DNA molecules or hyperbolic geometry; there are knitters who design shawls based on pi; there are knitters working on a Knitting Markup Language (KML), based on XML, to translate and standardize patterns. At the same time, it's also about making beautiful, functional, and occasionally wonderfully absurd objects. (Like knitted robots. Or Cthulhu balaclavas.)

So what might ProfHacker readers get out of knitting? For one thing, it makes for a mental shift from the kind of work we do every day toward something more hands-on, contemplative, and visually focused. Even though I often work on non-demanding knitting projects while watching DVDs or listening to podcasts, I find that focusing on a project can be like meditation, forcing me to pay attention to what's in front of me and block out everything else for a while. When I knit, I can feel my right brain engaging. (And when I'm done, there's a new knitted thing to wear or give away.) It's also taught me a great many lessons in patience and getting things done, including when to set a project aside and work on something else, when to persevere, when to start over from scratch, and when to ask for expert advice.

For those of us who aren't happy unless we're learning something new, knitting also offers endless opportunities to do just that. The two basic stitches, knit and purl, are very easy to learn; after that, the rest comes incrementally. As a newbie knitter, I remember being amazed to discover that techniques that looked quite difficult and complicated—like cables or lace—were actually surprisingly simple. There's nothing like the satisfaction of figuring out how a previously unknown method actually works: what rules govern it, why a certain action produces a certain result. I was excited to master the basic technique for making socks years ago, but even more excited, last month, to finally learn how to make two socks at the same time. And once you master the basics and learn how to read instructions, there’s the larger challenge of designing your own patterns.

Knitting is also a godsend for introverted people who still want to have a social life. Not only is knitting in a group extremely helpful in terms of learning new techniques, it's also a good way to socialize even if you don't always like groups. If you feel like talking, you've got a ready-made conversation topic; if you don't feel like talking, you can focus on your project. If you've just started a new job, chances are there's already a knitting group in your area, or at your college or university. My own college's knitting group includes both faculty and staff from a variety of departments, along with the occasional student every now and then. (One of our members, my colleague Ruth Grahn, blogs about the connections between knitting and neuroscience at Knit With Your Brain and sometimes includes knitting in her psychology classes.)

If you've never knitted before, there are several ways to learn: you can get an experienced knitter to show you (your local yarn store may offer lessons), or you can use a book with good diagrams. I learned from Barbara Abbey's Complete Book of Knitting; Vogue Knitting: The Ultimate Knitting Book is also a good guide and reference, and there are any number of others in print. Or you can learn from that most patient of teachers, YouTube. Or some combination of all three. has an excellent selection of short, detailed videos explaining a variety of knitting techniques. Anyone who knits should also know about Knitty, an excellent source of free patterns and technique advice, and Ravelry, a website that lets you keep track of your projects, inventory your yarn stash, and search for patterns using one of the best-designed search engines I've ever encountered.

Incidentally, most of what I say about knitting can also be said, with minor variations, about crocheting, weaving, quilting, and any number of other fiber arts. I've focused on knitting here because it's what I know best; but don't let that stop you from exploring other crafts.

Any knitters or other fiber-arts types out there among ProfHacker's readers? What are you working on right now?

[Image by Flickr user amndw2; Creative Commons licensed.]


1. andymeg - September 13, 2010 at 05:19 pm

Well, after reading this I guess I have to finally admit to myself that I am indeed a geek. I'm a knitter (and a quilter) but had never wanted to equate myself with the dorky knitters in my knit group, all the while showing up every week and seeming to fit in. I'd never before really made the connection between knitting and three-dimensional geometry, despite all the warning signs. I preferred to think of it as folk art (I'm a folklorist). The time for denial is over. I'll wear the mantle proudly--in fact, I'll knit it myself.

2. valmae - September 14, 2010 at 12:40 am

Thank you for this! i regularly enjoy engaging my right brain in anything from simple shawls to glorious lace garments, socks of various geometric designs and fibers of wonderful yarns of fine quality as well as fairly traded and environmentally sustainably researched fibers. the only limitation is one's imagination and us social introverts thrive with dignity in enviroments where geeks are the norm!

3. amanda_watson - September 14, 2010 at 08:47 am

Thanks for the responses! And I don't think it has to be either/or -- it's folk art *and* math, geometry, pattern recognition, you name it. The blend of art and logic is part of the appeal.

4. phdeviate - September 14, 2010 at 10:19 am

One of the pieces of advice that I think every new graduate student should have is this: if your field of study has been your hobby up until this point, you're going to need a new hobby.

I'm in English, and many (I daresay most) of those of us who get PhDs in English start out as bookish kids, become bookish adolescents, and and just starting to be bookish adults when we end up in grad school. But it turns out that somewhere around reading for exams, when you spend 8, or 9, or 10 hours reading in a chair in a row, and now you're done with "work" for the day, curling up to relax with a good book just...doesn't sound quite as appealing as it once did.

Mostly in grad school I picked up physical things. I continued and expanded my yoga practice, I took up medium-distance cycling, and Thai kickboxing. However, after graduation, the physical exhaustion from the marathon to finishing took its toll and it became hard to do some of those things. That's when I found needlepoint. It's not knitting, sure, but it shares some important characteristics, like the math elements, and the design elements. It's meditative and I've found that it helps me think out complex scholarly things because I'm *not* thinking about them. The back burner is a great place for simmering.

5. johannabecker - September 16, 2010 at 10:16 am

I have been knitting for 51 years. andymeg (#1) take heart! There are all kinds of non-dorks for whom knitting is a hobby. When I lived in Atlanta, I attended the meetings of the Atlanta Knitting Guild, where a large number of the members had professional careers. My mother, an M.D., knitted avidly in her free time, and Anna Freud (Sigmund's daughter)knitted while she listened to her patients (her needles are on display in the Freud museum in London). I'm a retired academic librarian, and used to see other knitters at the conferences I attended.

One of the biggest appeals for me is that knitting allows me to solve puzzles -- to figure out how to get results I want. That's also the reason I love working with computers.

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