In through the front, and a wrap around the back. That’s the repetitious trajectory of it. The yarn ebbs and flows, weaving in and out of itself, guided by years of trial and error and two methodically twirling needles held by calm hands. And for some Edmonton hobbyists, it’s one of the best parts of their week.
Knitting up a storm with friends
Moving to a big city from a smaller community can be challenging in a number of ways. So to help curate their social life and fill their free time with fulfilling sense of productivity, three women that now call Edmonton home joined with their friends and formed a knitting circle.
Katherine McFatridge, Katia Reid, and Angela Johnston, come together every seven days to talk about their week and coach each other on their latest knitted creations. And They’ve been doing so for almost a decade.
The knitting beginnings
When she first moved to Edmonton 13 years ago, 21-year-old McFatridge lived right next to a knitting supply store.
“I didn’t know anybody, and I needed something to do,” she says. “I figured that it was a solitary activity that wouldn’t take up too much of my money.” Now 32, she’s come a long way from knitting by herself.
Reid, 30, had her first happy experience of knitting a lot earlier in life, when she was 12.
‘My sister and I spent the Christmas break teaching ourselves to knit very badly’ — Katia Reid
“My parents decided to give my sister and I knitting needles and yarn for Christmas, and my sister had also asked for the Savage Garden album,” Reid says. “So my sister and I spent the Christmas break teaching ourselves to knit very badly, and listening to Savage Garden.”
Despite the warm memories she harbours from that holiday, Reid stopped knitting until she was in her 20s and she was invited to join her friends’ knitting circle. Johnston, 29, helped get the ball of yarn rolling.
“We worked together at a local grocery store, and when a few of us were sort of wrapping up our time there, we started the group,” she says.
Why start knitting as a hobby?
When it comes to knitting there are more positives than negatives, McFatridge says. That’s something she noticed right when she decided to give it a shot.
“You get something at the end of it, which is nice,” she says. The ritualistic aspect of the hobby is something that attracts other knitters, too.
“I also knit because it’s something that I can do with my hands that’s like calming,” Reid says. “It’s a meditative activity.”
Knitting isn’t a hobby about working quickly. Although an increased proficiency comes with practice, and a piece of knitted work might only take 10 hours to finish, it’s not about that destination, it’s about the experience of getting there.
“I’m not terribly fast,” McFatridge says. “I tend to get distracted so usually mine will be several weeks, because I’m only knitting when I’m at the knitting circle.”
Even if you choose to knit more often, other hiccups can unravel and slow down your work if you’re not careful. Reid uses rubber stoppers on the ends of her needles so she can move her work around.
“It just means that my stitches don’t slide off as easily,” Reid says. “I’m prone to throwing (it) in bags and then loosing all my stitches and making other people pick them up for me.”
Knitters’ tangled yarn
Arriving at their contemplative knitting pace with tips and tricks to stay on track wasn’t straightforward. Like most first time hobbyists the knitters, caught several snags at the start.
“For the first probably three years, it was just a bunch of hideous scarves,” McFatridge says. “Now I can knit while I’m watching TV, and then a month later I have a pair of socks.”
‘Now I can knit while I’m watching TV, and then a month later I have a pair of socks’ — Katherine McFatridge
Socks get used the most for McFatridge since she walks to work all through Edmonton’s winters. A person’s lifestyle can play a role in knitting considerations in other ways, too. Johnston is a vegan, and after investigating the animal care practices from some internationally-sourced wool, she had to grapple with her findings.
“Using wool was something that I kind of had to mentally dig into for a little while,” she says. “It’s important to try and get ethically sourced wool as much as possible.”
Some sheep farmers use a controversial technique called mulesing which strips away some of the skin on their rump to prevent wool from growing where infestations of flies can be deadly. Today, it’s easier than even a few years ago to find locally sourced materials from ethical suppliers.
Knitting for fit
Smaller doesn’t mean easier when it comes to knitting. A common misconception is that smaller accessories will be easier to knit than larger garments. Not so, McFatridge says.
‘When you do the math, the number of stitches in a sock is not far off from the number of stitches in a sweater’ — Katherine McFatridge
“When you do the math, the number of stitches in a sock is not far off from the number of stitches in a sweater,” she says. “It’s just the yarn is much smaller.”
The size of the needles and the thickness of the yarn you use determines the dimensions of a garment. The tighter stitches required for a sock take just as much work as large-stitch item.
“Larger stitches would be easier for a beginner,” McFatridge says. “Smaller stitches, they tend to be a bit more fiddly. It’s much more difficult to fix mistakes or pickup dropped stitches. Lot’s of people just go with the basic garter stitch scarf so you just have to cast-on, knit forever, and then you have something at the end, but it’s big enough to see what you’re doing.”
Reid was adamant about joining the knitting circle on the condition that she could start with a pair of socks — a decision she regrets.
“My first project was a pair of socks, and it took me a year,” Reid says. “So don’t start with socks. It’s not a good idea.”
Much of the challenge from the hobby comes from dealing with mistakes — something that can be difficult for the perfectionist ideal many first-time knitters aspire towards.
“When I first started out, my big issue was I would just rip the whole thing out and start over again instead of fixing my mistake,” McFatridge says. “So my first scarf took me a really long time, because I probably knit four scarves it the amount of time it took me to finish the one.
“Once you figure out how to fix it, it’s not that hard. It’s just getting over the initial fear of ‘Oh am I going to make it worse before I make it better.’”
Johnston was a little different when she started.
‘(I) refused to rip back anything I would see, no matter how ugly and terrible it was’ — Angela Johnston
“I actually approached knitting the opposite way and refused to rip back anything I would see, no matter how ugly and terrible it was,” she says.
And in perhaps the most common approach for new hobby starters, when Reid hit a wall, she backed right off.
“I would hit a problem and just stop, and completely give up until somebody else could fix it for me,” Reid says. “I would not do like even one stitch past the problem.”
Once you understand that making mistakes is ok, fixing errors becomes much easier, McFatridge says.
“Honestly, the internet is the solution to all the problems. There are just so many spots that have popped up online.”
Like with most creative pastimes, persistence is key, too.
‘Don’t be scared to make mistakes. Don’t be embarrassed’ — Angela Johnston
“Just keep trying,” Johnston says. “Don’t be scared to make mistakes. Don’t be embarrassed, and definitely take out books and look stuff up online.”
Learning to really understand your mistakes is crucial as well, Johnston says she’s come a long way from powering through her slip-ups.
“I definitely don’t go forward past making many many errors unless I feel that they won’t be noticeable,” Johnston says. “Now, I would say that I’m very comfortable fixing my own mistakes… Knitting is very flexible. It’s actually easy to fix things once you learn how.”
Knowing how to differentiate between unnoticeable mistakes and garment-ruiners is a key part of learning to knit. Reid has a new mantra she learned from one of her knitting circle’s founders and most experienced knitters, Rhonda Stovin.
‘That shit will block right out’ — Rhonda Stovin, a knitting circle founder
“Rhonda has this great saying that she’ll say: ‘That shit will block right out,’” Reid says. “So that’s my new approach to knitting. For the most part, things that I get hung up on as a perfectionist are not really noticeable, and that shit will block right out — meaning that when you wash it and then dry it, it looks much nicer than when it’s on your needles right now.”
Once you understand the (usually) beautiful reality of finishing a knitted piece, you get to enjoy one of the most fun parts of the hobby.
“Its very hard to pick a favourite because you do kind of spend a lot of time with everything,” McFatridge says.
While some knitters like Reid gift most of their completed works, others keep their creations for themselves because the time and effort that goes into the clothes makes them more special than your average gift.
‘Knitting for other knitters is the best, because you know that they’ll appreciate it’ — Angela Johnston
“I keep most of mine unless I really really like the person and know they would appreciate the knitting,” McFatridge says. “I would knit for these guys — I would not knit for most of my family at this point.”
Non-knitters don’t always understand what it takes to create clothes from yarn, so the best recipients are often those that could have made it themselves, if they had the time.
“Knitting for other knitters is the best, because you know that they’ll appreciate it,” Johnston says, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any joy in the reaction of a non-knitter.
“The ultimate compliment that people give is like ‘Wow it doesn’t even look like you made it,” she says. It’s even possible to be too kind, Johnston discovered.
“My partner didn’t have the heart to tell me that the hat that I knit him was too short,” she says. “So he just like wore it for a while and then like — stoped wearing it… He hadn’t told me because he didn’t think that I could change it after the fact, so I had to tell him, ‘if you admit this then I can change this hat,’ and then I did and, now he wears it all the time.”
That flexibility in adjusting finished products is why she says everyone should be honest about knitted gifts you receive. Although, some changes just aren’t possible.
‘Once you’ve started, and commit to a needle size, you’re kind of stuck with it’ — Katherine McFatridge
“In terms of adjusting the fit of a knitted item, once you’ve started, and commit to a needle size, you’re kind of stuck with it,” McFatridge says.
But with a little planning, and a lot of love from the people you knit with, you can make incredible pieces worth more than their weight in gold.
“I am really really fond of the shawl I made for my wedding, because it was probably the most complicated thing I’d ever done,” McFatridge says “It turned out actually perfectly according to plan, which I was not expecting, and then I have a nice little heirloom to hang on to.”
For McFatridge wedding, the rest of her circle also knitted a blanket as a gift. “We still have it and love it very much,” she says.
“That was my favourite thing we ever worked on,” Reid says. “We all contributed squares to it, and then we sat down and sewed it all together as a group, so yeah it was really great.”
Why continue knitting as a hobby?
The warm feeling these knitters get from working on and completing projects, both small and large, is what keeps them coming back to be with each other week after week.
“It’s very grounding to be able to knit and like keep your hands busy and be doing something that’s productive still, even if you’re doing something as inane as watching television,” Johnston says. “It kind of blows my mind that it’s been like eight years that our group has been doing it — that our group has continued, and once a week it’s always there.
There’s something really comforting about knowing that if you’re having a rough week, that you will always have Mondays at like 6:30-ish to just be with our friends’— Angela Johnston
“There’s something really comforting about knowing that if you’re having a rough week, that you will always have Mondays at like 6:30-ish to just be with our friends.”
After knitting together for so long, the benefits of knitting are even more apparent to the circle, Johnston says.
“Knitting has taught me a lot of patience that I did not think I would have otherwise, and just like a better ability to approach problem solving, which I did not necessarily have as a younger person,” Johnston says. “It’s a very analytical skill. You look at the construction of something and you deconstruct and take apart how it’s done, and I think it forces you to work on these skills in a way a lot of other things don’t.”
And more than skill-development or a meditative calm, filling your time with knitting is something that changes your perspective on life, Reid says.
“You look at the whole world differently when you’ve started knitting. I was just at a museum and I was looking at some old clothes in the museum, and it was a knitted garment, and instead of looking at it and thinking ‘Wow that’s a neat piece of historical clothing,’ I spent a lot of time wondering what the woman who knitted it was doing, and thinking, and feeling, and who she was talking to.
“Was she having tea like we do while she knitted every single one of those thousands of stitches?”