Purls of Wisdom: The Transformative Powers of Two Sticks and Some Yarn
words DESTA CULLEN photos KELLEY SHEENAN
Inside the pages of Issue 54, you may have spotted a free knitting pattern – the beautiful and beginner-friendly dipped-sleeve Priya Cardi from the knit-kit gurus at Cardigang!
To help kickstart our knitting obsession, Cardigang was kind enough to send us some of their dreamy premium Australian merino wool so we could try it for ourselves. Through tangles and tears, beloved former Peppermint editor and knitting newbie Desta Cullen took to the task…
I’m a terrible beginner. It’s an odd admission for a creative project obsessive to make, seeing as I’m quite often at the beginning of something, but I just want to be better – like yesterday. I’m impatient and a sucker for the illusory truth that pervades social media: creativity equals instant gratification. It starts innocently enough with the intoxicating whiff of creative fun, the tantalising lure of learning new skills and the dangling carrot of a finished project. It’s the, “Oh, I could do that,” attitude that has led to my sewing room’s current state: jumbled chaos, half-finished makes and a litany of unloved crafting tools.
Turns out, this may have been a good epiphany to have before embarking on my beginner knitting journey. But you knit and you learn, and the very fun, cute and colour-poppy Priya Knit Kit from Cardigang was just too tempting. These knit-and-go DIYs hold the alluring promise of a one-stop project with the bonus of fashionable styles. “Sure, I can do that,” I say in our content meeting, with confidence that hides my trepidation. I’d wanted to try my hand at it after a previous failed knitting attempt and I’d been curious to road-test the design after editing the pattern for Peppermint’s winter issue. Ah, the best-laid plans of an overambitious maker…
It’s the, “Oh, I could do that,” attitude that has led to my sewing room’s current state: jumbled chaos, half-finished makes and a litany of unloved crafting tools.
First step: select a size, which determines how many skeins of wool are needed. There are three to choose from – small (6–8), medium (10–12) and large (14–16) – and since it’s an oversized style already, I decide on the small. Then, I need to choose from a dopamine-inducing palette of Australian merino wool, which Melbourne-based knitting queens, and owners of Cardigang, Cat Bloxsom and Morgan Collins assure me is one of the hardest steps. I settle on the juicy Peachy Keen with a berry-bright magenta (Poppin’ Pink) for the dipped part of the sleeve.
The package arrives with all the necessary accoutrements for a successful make: luscious yarn, two sizes of knitting needles, a darning needle and a cute little label for when I’m done – plus plenty of punny and encouraging slogans on the instruction card to help with motivation. With all the chutzpah of a naive knitter, I dive right in. I take a cursory look at the printed instructions before viewing the helpful videos that cover the skills needed for the rib and stockinette design of this cardi: casting on, knitting and purling, decreasing stitches, testing tension and casting off.
First up, seven rows of rib knit, which is alternating a knit stitch with a purl stitch for each row (seven times). Easy, right?! Expectation versus reality hits quickly: it’s slow going. My click-clacking is not so much click-clack as it is CLICK, check stitches, was that a purl or a knit stitch, is it tight enough, will I have enough yarn, CLACK… I was emboldened by my familiarity with the single stick of crochet but this is different. Not only the double-hand dexterity but the counting and the tension and the purling and the pulling.
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Somehow, I make it to row 41 – only six to go and I’ll be finished the back. Just the two front panels and then the two sleeves and neckline ribbing to go. It’s feeling a little insurmountable but I try to stay positive. Oh, what’s this? A gaping hole in the previous row and these new stitches seem weird and too stiff? I count my stitches and discover that I’ve somehow (haste and impatience, no doubt) picked up six extra stitches…
After a fairly despondent and self-deprecating hiatus, I decide I need to start over with my yarn overs. I tug on the yarn, gently at first and then with increasing intensity, I watch in horror as my knitting unravels. All that time, the dream of my finished, cosy cardi, coming apart in a fraction of the time it took to create. It’s underpinned by relief though. At least now I can make good on my early errors (the ones I’d tried to fudge my way through). Starting again is a power move, I tell myself.
The part of my brain that loves a cliche can’t help but assign a deeper meaning to this mess, a life lesson. Knit, purl, knit purl knit purl, knitpurlknitpurl. I’m knitting in every spare waking moment. Or I’m thinking about when I can knit again. Cast on, cast off – Mr Miyagi would approve – just keep going, don’t stop, you’ll get there in time. There’s a mindfulness to be found in the merino strands weaving back and forth. Repetition and a reminder to be here now. Is each row an allegory for learning to love the process? In letting go and accepting what is and where you are?
I’m not the first to see the philosophy of this practice. There’s much that’s been written on the power of knitting and there are plenty of devout worshippers at the altar of the skein that will attest to the transformative powers of two sticks and some yarn.
There’s a mindfulness to be found in the merino strands weaving back and forth. Repetition and a reminder to be here now.
And although finding one’s zen nestled in the stockinette stitch may sound fanciful, the flow state that’s required for a craft like knitting – treading the fine line between a deep and precise focus and almost being out of your mind completely – is meditation itself. Aware but unattached. As my muscle memory and skill progress, I find that it’s worse if I’m paying too much attention. It’s like a mirage: if you look too hard, poof, into thin air! Overthinking is no help in the search for these purls of wisdom…
Some studies have linked the repetition of knitting with serotonin production, a hormone that can help with mental wellbeing. The practice has even been said to help lower blood pressure and can distract from both the social and physical impacts of chronic pain, anxiety and depression as well as slow the onset of dementia.
Maybe it explains why it’s moved from the sole purview of violet-rinsed nannas to such a “cool girl” creative pursuit – we’re discovering what our grandmas have known all along: knitting is life, and life is knitting. As writer, author and knitter Alice Seidel writes in an essay on the tao of knitting, it helps us “understand life as a series of changes and challenges. For life is transformation. It is always evolving into something else, something more, not less; yet, we have to see that for ourselves…
“When we knit, oftentimes there are challenges to patterns, stitch work which may be initially foreign to anything that we’ve tried before, even words and phrases new to us, which make the going slow, indeed. Perseverance prevails, and when we stick to our resolve, we come away with knitted creations that are sublime.”
We’re discovering what our grandmas have known all along: knitting is life, and life is knitting.
As I approach the end of my second sleeve, I begin to wonder why the first, mistake-ridden stage seemed so laborious (this is easy!) and I realise how far I’ve come. The kit has delivered me far more than a cute-as cardi – and it must be said, the finished cardi is very, very cute. Look at the colour, look at the sleeves!
In the process of having to undo and redo and undo and redo – and just do (a deadline always helps) – I’ve discovered a self-confidence that has implications for other creative projects that I’ve procrastinated over. I didn’t need to knit this cardigan. I didn’t need to learn to knit at all. But I needed to learn to temper my ambitions; that patience and trusting the process will get me much further than the opposite. I’ll wear that, along with my cardi, with pride.