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Fall Knitting Classes and Mastering New Skills

Hello, my knitting friends! My fall knitting classes are right around the corner. How was your summer?

I’m enjoying the last of our summer weather, but I have to confess: I’m starting to think about autumn and all the coziness it brings. My yearly urge to watch You’ve Got Mail (“Don’t you just love New York in the fall? It makes me want to buy school supplies.”) is getting stronger and stronger. I’m holding off until at least Labour Day weekend. Probably.

I’ve already been back-to-school shopping, hunting for uniform pieces for my kids and making lists of who needs how many pencils and shoes. My oldest has graduated high school (!!!!), and my youngest will be starting in junior high. I’m freaking out. Those years when it seemed like they’d be small forever have gone by waaaay more quickly than my own childhood felt. Now I have a house full of tall, muscular man-children and a pre-teen girl. We buy a lot of groceries, but their wittiness and hilarity has only increased with age, so I’m having a great time in general.

In knitting news, I’ve been working on two brioche pieces, a shawl and a scarf, using a swirly pattern that I find really addicting. I’m working on writing up the patterns. I’ve taken such a long hiatus from pattern writing! Right after the stay-at-home orders first started, my computer crashed, and I lost a lot of things, including the patterns I’d been writing at the time. It was just too much for my brain and heart to handle, so I decided not to think about it. And then I took a long break from creative knitting; I kept teaching my classes (over Zoom), but my own knitting projects were of the comfort-knitting variety: plain socks, tiny birds (from Arne & Carlos’ book Field Guide to Knitted Birds), happy mittens.

I turned all my creative energy, at that time, to practicing my painting and drawing skills. I’d been longing for more painting time, and suddenly I had only time on my hands! Since I was lucky enough to have the safety and space, I really focused on developing my paint-handling skills. I decided to systematically experiment with various acrylic painting skills, colour mixing, and anatomy drawing.

You know what? All the things I’d learned from knitting and teaching were enormously helpful. And the books I’ve been reading lately (see below) have amplified and explained a lot of what worked and why. (I love reading about brains and learning; it helps me with my knitting classes, but also with my own life.)

What I Learned About Learning from Knitting

  • Mistakes are part of the process
  • First tries are never perfect, and sometimes they’re even hideous, but they’re necessary projects to make before you can get to the good stuff
  • There are tips and tricks out there for any new skill, and sometimes I struggle with things that I could have found better advice for; so now, I search for the advice
  • Trial and error are great teachers
  • A good teacher can tell you things you didn’t even know you needed to search for
  • When I’m struggling to understand something, that doesn’t mean I’m bad at it and should stop; it means I’m in the process of learning how to be good at it
  • There’s no such thing as failure. A mess is a potential learning experience, a necessary piece of information on the road to mastery. The only way to “fail” is to stop trying in new ways.
  • We all learn and assimilate information and muscle-memory skills in slightly different ways. Being proactive about finding the right-for-you sources of learning makes things a lot easier. (Personally, I like a good diagram, and I need to try something myself before I really understand it.)
  • The more mental models we have in our brains, the easier it is to understand new information. But it takes time to build the mental models.
  • Skills take time to acquire and settle in. I need to give myself time before lamenting that I’m terrible at anything. (Weird example: I don’t kill house plants anymore! I killed an ivy plant once and then called myself a plant killer for years. It turns out that I just needed to look up a few tips, keep the plants in the kitchen where I’d see them every day, and stop drowning them.)

I’d been wanting to paint for years, but two big things were stopping me: I had undiagnosed ADHD, and I had terrible self talk. I thought that if my natural talent couldn’t make a good painting, then maybe I wasn’t that good, after all. And my brain kept changing channels away from painting, so when the negative thoughts started, I had no internal resources to carry me through. I had zero grit. I gave up on things when they got hard. And I didn’t understand how my own brain worked.

Mastery, Deliberate Practice, and Grit

In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth writes about her research into high achievers and what sets them apart. It turns out that the predictive element wasn’t talent or aptitude or intelligence, or any of the things most of us would assume. It was (surprise!) their grittiness. They were dogged in their pursuit of their goals.

“They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase — as much as the capture — that was gratifying.” ~ Angela Duckworth

In the book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, the authors delve into the adaptability of our brains. It turns out — and you’ve probably noticed this already — that our abilities are not fixed, that “the brain — even the adult brain — is far more adaptable than anyone ever imagined and this gives us tremendous control over what our brains are able to to. In particular, the brain responds to the right sorts of triggers by rewiring itself in various ways.” New connections can be made in our brains, and existing pathways can be weakened or strengthened. Our brains physically change as we learn new things and acquire new skills.

“Why are some people so amazingly good at what they do? Over my years of studying experts in various fields, I have found that they all develop their abilities in much the same way… — through dedicated training that drives changes in the brain (and sometimes, depending on the ability, in the body) that make it possible for them to do things that they otherwise could not.” ~ Anders Ericsson

Talent (how quickly we acquire new skills) and genetics play a small part, but effort and perseverance win in the end.

I love this. I love telling my kids that if they can find just one thing that sparks their interest enough to drive and sustain them through a life of effort and deliberate practice, they can become masterful at it. They don’t need to start with special talent or be the best at it in their class. Those things won’t help them in the long run.

As a recovering giver-upper, I’m also relieved to know that grit is another skill that can be built into the brain through deliberate practice. I don’t need to be good at everything (and that’s impossible anyway), and I don’t need to see instant results. All I need to do is keep showing up and practicing, keep making messes and learning to troubleshoot, and keep experimenting.

Mastery isn’t an end point, it’s a lifestyle. Sarah Lewis writes in The Rise, “The pursuit of mastery is an ever onward almost.” “Masters are not experts because they take a subject to its conceptual end. They are masters because they realize that there isn’t one. On utterly smooth ground, the path from aim to attainment is in the permanent future.”

She gives so many examples of high achievers who won awards and gained “success” (recognition, money, fame, etc.) and traced their paths backward in time to find what came first. Their paths toward Nobel prizes or great discoveries or incredible novels were littered with spectacular failures. The difference was, they kept going. Instead of becoming stopping points, those moments were waypoints and learning experiences.

Sometimes the mistakes themselves became literal breakthroughs. You just don’t know until you give yourself the freedom to experiment in ridiculous ways. Until you allow your projects to be risky and imperfect.

Creativity and innovation can only exist in spaces free from judgment. “During improvisation, areas of a musician’s brain involved in self expression lit up and parts that control self-judgment were suppressed, freeing up all generative impulses. Neuroscientists describe this permissive state where the mind allows for failure without self-condemnation as disassociation in the frontal lobe. The rest of us call it the basic tenet of improvisation in jazz — not to negate, but to accept all that comes and add to it, the foibles, the mistakes, the exquisite beauty and joy.” ~ Sarah Lewis

You Can Knit Anything

This is why I really believe that you can knit anything. It might not be literally true today, but with deliberate practice and a lot of fun, there’s no reason why we can’t each build up whatever new skills we choose to put on our lists.

Of course, there are only so many hours in a day, and our unique interests are really what drive us onward in our obsessions (ahem) passions. I will never become a master at auto repair or doing my laundry. I’m happy to be good enough at baking, and I don’t feel the need to become a pastry chef. It’s okay to keep knitting as a fun hobby without turning it into a big thing. We each get to choose our own things.

Anyway, whatever your thing is, I’m here to help you with your knitting.

Fall Classes

Winterlude Socks

And that leads to this announcement: I’ll be continuing to teach knitting this fall (after a break for August), and I’ve listed the September classes in the Shop.

These classes are friendly, welcoming spaces for knitters of all skill levels. The students choose the subject each day with their current projects and questions. I often find myself revitalizing projects that have been stuck in time-out for a long time, matching the knitting to the lost pattern row, interpreting sweater fitting instructions, teaching finishing techniques, explaining how to work special techniques like two-handed colourwork or brioche, fitting socks, starting someone on their knitting journey with their first project… I love to be surprised! And on days when the knitting is going smoothly for everyone, the class becomes a show-and-tell and knitting club.

So grab your knitting friends and bring your yarn and needles, and let’s have some fun!

To my regular students: you’ll notice a few changes. There will be a strict four-person minimum of monthly students for a class to run. Two days before the start of each class, I’ll send an email to confirm that the class is on. I’ll open up the drop-in class option once I know the class will be running.

There will be one class on Sunday afternoons from 2-4 pm, and a class on Tuesday mornings from 10-noon.

And, like everything else lately, the prices have gone up. I feel big feelings about this, but it’s a necessary evil to keep the classes sustainable.

And now, I’m off to daydream about cozy, cabled sweaters and cute fall mittens. I can’t wait to see you and your projects in September!