Art, Commitment, Knitting, Perfectionism, Sensitivity, Starting Over

Knitting Ain’t for Sissies…or Bullies

The perfectionist sees only flaws, not effort

The perfectionist sees only flaws, not effort.

I just finished a keyhole scarf I started knitting a few months ago.  I’m exhausted, not exhilarated.

After several frustrating beginnings, described here, I hit a groove.  Or so I thought.  More than halfway through the project, I surveyed my work and discovered many glaring mistakes.  Not only that, the design I modified to accommodate my basic skills looked meh.  The original pattern had a cable stitch through the middle, a complicated but critical feature I removed. Yet I wasn’t sure I had the nerve to unravel hours of work or the patience to start over.

A college friend and accomplished knitter flew through Denver in February.  At our airport rendezvous, I showed her the scarf and summarized its belabored biography.

“Without the cable,” she said, “it doesn’t look right.  It sounds as if you’ll be happier if you rip it out.”

My aunt weighed in by e-mail: “Completing the scarf is not as important as correcting your knitting mistakes. Rip it out until you reach the mistake, correct and continue on. Ultimately you will finish and be proud of your accomplishment.”

They inspired me to unravel the whole shebang, all 16 inches of it.  As I ripped row after row, the red yarn coiled into confetti as it continued to hold the stitches’ squiggly shapes.  In the zeal of this catharsis, I tore the strand, separating the ball into two.  Not a big deal but, at a “yarn tasting” at Denver’s Fancy Tiger Crafts, where we sampled different types and needle sizes, I inadvertently yanked on that fiber, too.  It shredded.

“You need to be gentle with it,” said Jaime, one of the store’s co-creators.


The word reverberated inside my head.  Wool, unlike the glass and ceramic I’ve used in mosaics, is forgiving.  It stretches, bends, adjusts. It can hold the curl of a purl or allow itself to be straightened.  It responds better to coaxing than coercion.  Just like humans.

I’ve been on the spiritual path long enough to know that our world mirrors our internal experience.  Yet this knowledge is, sadly, not always enough to bring about an immediate change when we see ourselves repeating old patterns.  Sometimes we break our hearts, or bang our heads against the wall, dozens of times before finding the willingness, and gentleness, to make new choices.  In my case, unrelenting perfectionism, which insists I figure things out on my own and do an amazing job, can leave me mired.

Fancy Tiger offers free knitting help for people who take a class or buy supplies there.  I saw it as an invitation to poke my needles in perfectionism’s eyes by requesting assistance when I started anew.  All three times I showed up, each week confronted by a new conundrum, the staff greeted me with a friendly interest in my project, encouragement and much needed perspective.

It is normal to make mistakes.  Knitting takes practice.

Although I’ve traveled the beginner’s road many times, I’m still susceptible to perfectionism when it seductively insists I am imbued with the capacity to skip the awkward early stages and uneventful plateaus and move quickly to “expert.  But the focus on professional-looking results rather than dedication to process robs one of the delight of exploring, experimenting and taking pride in incremental mastery. Repetition and productivity, not obsessive fixation, is what ultimately leads to improvement, a breakthrough or a conscious decision to do something else entirely.

On Friday evening, with just an inch remaining on my scarf, I removed my knitting from its plastic bag to finish it.  The two strands of yarn I used on either side of the keyhole had morphed from a loose cluster to a tightly tangled thicket.  That the fibers had so thoroughly yet inscrutably scrambled themselves made me consider my own internal state.  The Boston marathon bombings had left me with sorrow and despair, braided with a very rare and surprising strain of homesickness.  Rather than sitting with these feelings, I kept checking for updates on the remaining suspect’s whereabouts.  That made matters worse.

Would taking time to carefully loosen the tangled wool also ease my own tension?

For a few hours, I tried to cajole the yarn from its kinks.  I gently tugged and shook the matted mess.  Slowly, I separated the strands and unraveled a few peripheral knots.  To make it easier, I cut the strand I no longer needed to use.  Eventually, I had unwound all but one persistent snarl.  That unsolvable knot was close to the needle.  Cutting it meant introducing another strand of yarn to finish the scarf.   The perfectionist chided that I should backtrack and unravel several rows to introduce the new yarn further from the edge; with more room to weave in the loose ends, they’d be less obvious.

I thought of my aunt’s comment: “Ultimately you will finish and be proud….”.

But I knew if I kept listening to the perfectionist, ultimately would turn into not in this lifetime.  Perfectionism didn’t want me to finish: it wanted me to scrutinize every inch, analyze each stitch, turn knitting into a test of my worth. It drowned out the gentle voice that cheerfully acknowledged my effort.  With lives in the balance in Boston, did I need to amplify my angst by fixating on flaws?

By that time it was late, but I couldn’t resist the urge to check for news.  The authorities had captured the suspect.  Boston could exhale and move on.  I decided to do the same.  The next morning, rather than allowing unrelenting standards to hold me hostage, I severed the knot, finished the final few rows, and bound it off.  After weaving in the loose ends, I folded the scarf and placed it on a shelf.  Some day I’ll appreciate the uneven edges and wonky stitches as badges of bravery in the battle against perfectionism.


About ilona fried

Writer, Feldenkrais champion, Aikidoka and explorer of internal and external landscapes.


2 thoughts on “Knitting Ain’t for Sissies…or Bullies

  1. Just found this blog. What a great piece of writing. I appreciate your sharing of your discoveries about self and perfectionism and relating it to your spirit.

    Posted by Evie | April 24, 2013, 9:42 am

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