Riin's Rants

Knitting & Spinning

Fair Isle

I'm not sure exactly when I learned to knit. Unlike most people, who learn from a relative or friend, or maybe take a class, I taught myself to knit from a book. It took me about two years. Every few months I would get out the yarn, the needles, and the book, and try to follow the words and the pictures in the book.

"Maybe they mean I should do this?" But that didn't look right. I kept trying, but no matter how hard I tried to interpret the written directions, what I held in my hand just didn't look like the picture. So I put it away for a few months. And a few months later, I'd pull it out and repeat the whole process all over again.

Eventually, somehow I managed to interpret the directions correctly! At last, I could knit! Of course, that's all I could do...next I had to figure out how to purl. That also took a while. Eventually I figured that out. So you'd figure I was all set. Well...not quite.

There are some things people who've actually been taught to knit probably take for granted. No one showed me how to do ribbing. So, I knew how to knit, and I knew how to purl, but it wasn't at all clear to me at exactly what point I was supposed to move the yarn from the back to the front or vice versa! It completely baffled me! So that was another thing I had to figure out by trial and error.

I also had no idea that I was "supposed" to make something simple like a garter stitch scarf for my first project. So my first project (at age 19 or 20, I think) was a sweater out of Vogue Knitting. It said "very easy" so I figured I could do it. I did. After that I figured I was ready to start designing my own sweaters. Since I didn't know any other knitters (well, my grandma knit beautifully, and she only lived a few miles away. I could have asked her to teach me to knit, come to think of it, but she was always drunk, so I preferred to avoid her), I didn't know that most knitters were too intimidated to even contemplate knitting without a pattern, even after years of knitting. I mail-ordered a copy of Priscilla Gibson-Roberts' Knitting in the Old Way and read it cover to cover.

Some of my early sweaters didn't really fit right. But I learned what not to do, and the good thing about yarn is you can reuse it. It's not like fabric. I mean, once you sew something and it doesn't fit right at all or you try it on and the style is just hideous on you, well, you're just screwed. You can't start over with the same fabric. But with yarn, you knit something, put it on, look in the mirror and say "Egads, what was I thinking?" Ok, you've wasted umpteen hours, but you've still got the yarn. You just rip apart the sweater, and there's the yarn (I find it's best to wait a while to do this. Then you feel less like you're undoing hours of work and more like you're gaining yarn).

I read more books by Elizabeth Zimmermann (the goddess!) and Maggie Righetti, and eventually I learned how to design sweaters that fit right and looked good the first time around. In time people were stopping me on the street to ask me about the sweater I was wearing. Well, gee...

While it was harder at first learning to knit with no one to teach me, I think it made me a more courageous knitter. I knit with no inhibitions. And knitting has become a fundamental part of who I am.


When I was 25 I took a 10 week course in spinning and natural dyeing, partly because I had a self-sufficiency obsession (I was sewing all my own clothes at the time), but also because I couldn't afford to buy nice yarn. The only yarn I could afford was crap. I didn't want to knit with crap. I wanted nice yarn.

The class was through Ann Arbor Community Rec & Ed, taught by Beth and David Pennington. I think they must have taught hundreds of people how to spin over the years. They've since retired and moved out of Ann Arbor, but their collection of antique spinning wheels was amazing. They had over 200 wheels. It was great because we could try out different wheels each week. One week they had a couple of new wheels on loan from Charles Botero at Forma, a local shop. I spun on one of them. So smooth! So...I want! Wow, does Charles know how to sell a wheel or what? I had a birthday coming up. I managed to get the idea across to everyone that I wanted money to buy a spinning wheel (I guess it was the constant "I want to buy a spinning wheel! I want to buy a spinning wheel! I want to buy a spinning wheel!" that did it), so I got almost enough money, and I put in the rest myself. The next weekend I went to see Charles and paid him for my Reeves castle wheel, a lazy kate and three extra bobbins. He called the Penningtons and told them I was coming to get the wheel. I love my wheel. It spins beautifully, it's attractive, it doesn't take up a lot of floor space...it's cute! But mostly I love that it lets me make beautiful yarn that I could never afford to buy. And the process of making it is so calming, so meditative.

wool/silk blend yarn
I wouldn't be able to afford yarn like this, a wool/silk blend with bright yellows mixed with rich burgundy, rose and copper shades, yielding a heathery caramel.
I also like that I can make the yarn look how I want it to look. I'm not limited to what the yarn industry decides will be available. I use both natural and chemical dyes. Sometimes I rainbow dye roving and then spin it. Sometimes I dye batches of roving different colors and then card it together coarsely (I bought a drum carder a year or two after I got my wheel. What a wonderful tool it is!). Sometimes I dye yarn, either in solid colors or rainbow dye it. Sometimes I work with several colors of roving (like when my spinning guild has a roving exchange), spinning a little bit of one color, then when that one runs out, joining on another color, and when that one runs out joining on another color, and just filling up the whole bobbin with one color after another. This gives a completely different effect depending on whether I Navajo-ply it or make it a two ply yarn (for the two ply yarn, I think it works best if all the dark colors are in one ply, and all the light and/or bright colors are in the other).

angora glove liner
Angora glove liner!
Usually I spin wool. I get Romney-Finn fleeces from my friend Robin. Sometimes I spin angora from my angora rabbit, Frida. Sometimes I spin a blend of the two. Pure angora would be much too warm for a sweater, but perfect for glove liners for bike commuting in the winter! Other fibers I have spun include cotton, linen, silk, llama, alpaca, mohair, dog hair (Newfoundland) and cat hair. Wool is definitely the easiest.

Making Stuff

I think there is a fundamental human need to make things or have some kind of creative outlet. This has been lost for a lot of people in our modern consumer society. People are used to just buying everything. You might think "Why should I knit and spin? I can buy a sweater at the store for 30 bucks." Well, maybe, although it wouldn't be nearly as nice as what you could make for yourself. But there's something else. It isn't so much that the sweater needs to be made as you need to make it. Or you need to make baskets or sculpt or dance or write or do something else creative. This is a fundamental human need. If people don't create, they go insane.

In her article in the Winter 2003 issue of Interweave Knits, "Knitting behind Bars," Betty Christiansen wrote about programs in various prisons around the country where inmates, both men and women, knit or crochet or do other craftwork to make items to donate to charity. They make blankets, hats, mittens, scarves, stuffed animals, lap robes and other items. The items go to orphanages, homeless shelters, children in crisis situations, elderly people in hospices...different prisons have different arrangements. The programs originate as a way for prisoners to give something back to the community. But they do more than that. Christiansen writes, "At Limon Correctional Facility, which houses the toughest male prison population in Colorado, crocheting, machine knitting, and quilting have a home in Therapeutic Community, a court-mandated program designed to help inmates develop patience, anger-management, and other social skills as they create stuffed animals that local police give to children in traumatic situations."

I can believe it. I find both knitting and spinning very calming, very meditative. Occasionally I've had people remark to me "Oh, I would never have the patience to do that." I've always found that puzzling. These aren't things that take patience. These are things that give patience.

She goes on. "Other benefits of the knitting and crocheting programs run deeper, and may be harder to spot if you're not directly involved with the inmates. 'Many women here have never accomplished a lot,' says Sandy Hand of the inmates at [Minnesota Correctional Facility-] Shakopee. 'Now they can experience pride and joy. Imperfection doesn't matter. There's such a sense of accomplishment simply in completing something.'

"'Anytime you create something yourself, it's a wonder, a real ego-builder,' says Ron Holmes, recreation leader at Redgranite Correctional Facility. 'Once these guys start knitting, they can't do enough.' Such testimony gives voice to something that handcrafters have understood for generations; being able to make things gives one a sense of power, of creative accomplishment that, once tapped, can be transformative."

I can't help but wonder. If these people had knitted or crocheted or had other creative outlets earlier in life and continued it as a lifelong pursuit, would they have developed patience, anger-management, and other social skills at a younger age? Would they have developed better self-esteem? Would they have not ended up in prison?

We are a vindictive society. We put far too many of our people in prison. We would rather throw people away than prevent people from getting into trouble in the first place. But I'm glad to see programs like this. While some of the people in the programs will never get out of prison, many of them will. I hope when they get out, they will remember the feeling of peace they had when they were knitting and how they felt good about themselves and realize they should continue doing it for their sanity. I think if they continue to knit they are less likely to return to prison.

Riin in roving exchange sweater
I spun the yarn for this sweater with roving I got after my spinning guild had a roving exchange. It's just one yarn, so the sweater was very easy to knit. Go to my Gallery to see a close-up of the yarn.
I think these are skills everyone would benefit from, not just prisoners. Many people today lack patience and are quick to anger. Many people can't really point to anything they have accomplished. Long ago, making things was a way of life. Everything we owned was handcrafted. If you didn't make it yourself, you knew who had. If you had never made one yourself, you had watched one being made. It's not like that anymore.

Now, people get in their cars and drive to Wal-Mart and buy a bunch of stuff made in sweatshops in third world countries and come home and veg out in front of the TV. They don't have time to make things. Why, they have important things to do with their time! They have to watch TV, and they have to work to earn money to pay for the car so they can go to Wal-Mart...oh, wait...

What I'm saying is one doesn't get a sense of accomplishment from buying things. People who list "shopping" as a hobby are sick. One gets a sense of accomplishment from actually doing something, not just handing over one's money, or more frequently, one's credit card. Some shopping is necessary, but to turn it into a hobby is unhealthy, and doing so too often results in people who have not done anything creative in years and no longer remember how. They have forgotten the good feelings that accompany immersing oneself in a project for hours.

Making things is a fundamental part of being a human being. It's something we need to do for our brains to be healthy.

Resources & Inspiration

My Gallery -- divided into two parts since it does take a while to download. Start on Part 1 or go directly to Part 2 for photos, long-winded descriptions and more rambling on by yours truly.

Revolutionary Knitting Circle -- loosely-knit circle of revolutionaries with the goal of promoting knitting and other handcrafts as an act of constructive revolution. Knitting creates independence, which is a revolution against our corporate society. Includes a pattern for a peace armband and links to articles.

"Teenagers in stitches" by Lucy Broadbent, Times Online, 6/18/05 -- Teenagers in the US and the UK have discovered what many knitters have known for years -- knitting has a calming, meditative effect. What's different from the past is these teenagers realize they need knitting for that reason.

"Strathaven folk knit themselves a room" by Trevor Jackson, ABC Tasmania, 10/7/04 -- A group of elderly Australians with time and imagination showed that one can knit anything! They're knitting as a form of sculpture, and it's given them a sense of purpose and enthusiasm that's contagious.

Freddie Robins -- a showcase of Freddie Robins' art, including knitted models of homes of criminals and crime scenes as well as pieces which are almost clothing, but are instead sculpture.

V&A - Knitting -- This site contains handknitted items in the Victoria & Albert Museum collection, information about traditional knitting in Britain and Ireland, well known contemporary British knitting designers, and more.

My favorite knitting blogs

LynnH -- My friend Lynn is so cool! Do I need to say more?

Dogs Steal Yarn -- a novelist and painter as well as a knitter, Cari Luna's blog is a work of art in itself.

Yarn Harlot -- I often feel like maybe I was separated from Stephanie Pearl-McPhee at birth. Except she's about 857 times as prolific as I am. Maybe she knits in her sleep? Maybe she can knit and type at the same time?

Crazy Aunt Purl -- I can relate to Laurie in a lot of ways. And her cat Roy looks a lot like a cat I used to have. I loved that cat.

Mamacate -- Cate is wicked funny. Sometimes she makes me laugh so loud I wake up the rabbits (sorry...).

The Knitting Curmudgeon -- Fun in a snarky way. Worth it just for the quotes she comes up with.

And She Knits Too! -- Stephannie Roy writes about knitting and feminism, a good combination, I think. First time I've ever seen a dissertation and a skull scarf pattern in the same place. Cool.

Rabbitch -- She's good at ranting. I can relate to that.

The Panopticon -- Franklin is delightful. His roommate Dolores is a hoot.

The list -- Just in case you have way more time than you know what to do with (I don't know where you're from or how this could possibly be... Maybe you could come clean my apartment and cook me dinner?), here's the link to the list of all 827 knitting blogs. You know, I might have done a blog if blogs were more well known when I started this website, but they weren't, and it's a website now. You're stuck with me this way, folks.


Interweave Press -- Publishers of Interweave Knits and Spin-Off, two informative and inspiring magazines, as well as other magazines and books. Some content is available online.

Knitter's Magazine and "The Knitting Universe" -- Knitter's Magazine is a print magazine, and this is its website, but it's more than that. There are also knitting books, free downloads of charts, patterns and techniques, and more.

Handspinners webzine -- a quarterly internet publication for handspinners and fiber producers.

Knitty -- online knitting magazine with lots of patterns. The older issues are archived with each pattern listed in a subject index with a brief description and link.

Spindlicity -- a new online magazine for handspinners focusing on spinning with a drop spindle.

Spun Magazine -- online fiber arts magazine including knitting and crochet patterns, book reviews, interviews and more.

Reference & How To

"CD Spindles" -- Instructions for making a drop spindle from two CD's, a dowel, and some misc. parts from the hardware store. This was an article in Spin-Off, but Interweave Press has it on their website now.

Interweave Press' "Introduction to Spinning: basic ideas, tools, and terms"

Breeds of Livestock - Sheep Breeds -- This Oklahoma State University site provides photographs, information and references for sheep breeds from Acipayam to Zoulay. There are also links to other livestock animals.

KnittingHelp.com -- Amy Finlay's site full of Quicktime videos clearly demonstrating different knitting techniques. I wish there had been something like this when I was trying to learn to knit!

Standard Body Measurements/Sizing -- Trying to figure out how much ease to include in a sweater you're designing to get it to fit the way you want? Reading a pattern and wondering what "loose-fitting" means? This Craft Yarn Council of America page can help.

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