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Knitting for the soul

Don’t be put off by the word “knitting.” Even if you’re not crafty (and I’m not!), even if you’re a guy who’d rather build a brick wall or try for a perfect grouping with your best rifle than (heaven forbid) knit. This is about that process common to so many things.


You know how you sometimes open a book at random looking for guidance? For some it’s the bible. For somebody else, one of those Chicken Soup things. Could be Ayn Rand or Herman Hesse. But you hope if you just open and read there’ll be a message there, just waiting for you?

I have to laugh. I just picked up Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, not because I had real interest but because it’s one of those must-read books and this is a good time. I opened near the end to a chapter about self care and the art of just being still and listening.

Then I took my old copy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience off the shelf and arbitrarily opened to a page that heralded the value of 16-hour workdays, but with the work so integrated with free time that you can barely distinguish one from the other.

Yup. And of the contradictory two, I must admit the latter appeals to me more than the former. Not, mind you, because I’m some virtuous workaholic. Far from it. I favor the latter because the former is harder.


Knitting — and a host of other creative and constructive activities — offers the best of both worlds. Or perhaps a good transition between worlds.

When you’re knitting (or carefully inlaying pieces of wood or building intricate models), you’re absolutely “in the moment” (that “moment” so beloved of meditation gurus) because you can’t be anywhere else. You don’t have to make an effort to be in that moment because you know if you slip out of the moment you may make a mistake that’ll take you hours to undo.

At the same time, you’re working.


Working productively is another thing. Since beginning this little retreat, I’ve been “knitting for the soul” with no goal in mind. I have one poor abused ball of gray wool that I’ve knitted and unknitted endlessly for the last two weeks, just for the sake of knitting.

At first I was goalless simply because I had to remember how to cast on, knit, and purl. It’s been a couple of years. The muscle memory was still there, so that didn’t take long. Then it was just a matter of doing it well again. That took longer, and many re-dos.

I wanted to be ambitious. I wanted to do cables and fancy knit-purl combos and lace knitting and entrelac. I quickly realized I just needed some time to knit rows and purl rows first. I was never all that good and now I have a lot of catching up to do.

Especially, I want to do cable. When I first learned to knit, just 10 or so years ago, cable knitting was like the holy grail. It was the most beautiful possible knitting to my eyes, and it seemed almost impossibly complicated.


The local art gallery owner who taught me (and several friends) to knit kept assuring me cabling was easy. But then, she’d been knitting since she was nine. Her fingers flew so fast she clearly hadn’t known “difficult” for decades. Cabling. Easy. Ha. It requires three needles, row counters, stitch markers, and about seven fingers on each hand. How could it possibly be easy?

But when she finally persuaded me to try … it was easy. Yes, it does take three needles, row counters, stitch markers, and at least seven fingers on each hand. But that doesn’t stop it from being easy.

That very, very elaborate form of knitting is not hard. Even for fumble-fingered me. What it is is an activity that requires total, extreme consciousness. You must know exactly, at all times, where you are in the pattern and whether it’s time to knit or purl and whether that third needle takes the yarn to the back or to the front of the fabric.

When cabling, you can’t talk, watch TV, update Twitter, tend your cooking, think about tomorrow’s deadline, be mad at your best friend, worry about whether that little lump is cancerous, or fret about how the mortgage is going to get paid.

All you can do is sit, breathe, and cable.

Meditate and work.

(And sit. ๐Ÿ™‚ )



The same is true in many activities. Particularly ones done out of love and ones requiring both precision and repetition. Laying brick upon brick while building a studio. Crocheting an afghan for the new baby. Putting the last little curl on a piece of flameworked glass.

I’ve said before that it also helps if the material you’re working with is earthy: rock, dirt, wool, cotton, wood, vegetable, stone, clay, etc. (I once heard something about these materials and negative ions; that might be BS, but whatever’s going on, it works. Natural materials are more calming than others).



I haven’t gotten back to cabling yet. I’m not ready for that depth of concentration and besides, I don’t know where I hid all those special “third needles.”

I finally found a pattern that’s both mindless enough for the level I’m at now but produces a fabric with a little pleasant variety in it. So that, for now, is what I’m doing that lies between sitting (so very painfully) still and attempting (so fruitlessly) to listen and working away the day.


Final note: It’s funny and sad that guys are usually put off by knitting. Knitting was very likely invented by men and has at times been a male-only occupation.

I’ve watched several people learn to knit, including one who struggled mightily for months until she got it. She had no aptitude and in her shoes I’d have given up in despair in weeks. But she pushed and pushed and eventually became a happily skilled knitter.

I’ve only taught one person to knit and that was a guy. My hermit neighbor Joel, when I was down there in the desert hermitage. And that gave me a look at why knitting was originally such a natural male art. Joel took to knitting as if he was born to it. He learned the four basic things (casting on, knitting, purling, and binding off) in half an hour. Not only did he know them, but he did them flawlessly, with perfect tension in the stitches, without dropped stitches, and with an ability to recognize patterns that it took me months to acquire.

When I left the desert, Joel had a hank of cheap but cool wool from the Navajo res and I hoped he’d do a project. But I guess it wasn’t for him. Too bad.


I once had a boyfriend who did needlepoint — some of it very elaborate and beautiful. he’d needlepoint while watching NFL games (which was kind of appropriate, since Roosevelt Grier, NFL football player, member of the Rams’ Fearsome Foursome, and the man who tore the gun out of Sirhan Sirhan’s fist — was the macho man who told the world that even tough guys could do needlepoint). As to my old boyfriend, it calmed him down. He was otherwise more than a little antsy-crazy. Prone to do some excessively “interesting” drugs. Needlepoint was much better.

Although I don’t expect any male readers to suddenly find their inner “Yarn Harlot” or take up lace tatting, well, it’s out there. And might even serve as a form of meditation.

(P.S. Treat yourself to wooden needles.)


  1. Matt, another
    Matt, another November 14, 2014 2:57 pm

    I do find woodworking is good for the sould. It is best when one can use hand tools that have been around for generations and evokes history as well.

    I took to crocheting a couple of months back as a mental diversion when waiting and stressed. I thought it a useful skill I could pursue while sitting in hospital waiting rooms. I found that hospitals don’t appreciate somewone whittling in the lobby or foraging amongst the landscaping and dumpsters. So, I got a length of 550 cord and a large crochet hook. Started to teach myself. Crochet, rip it out, crochet a little better, rip less out etc. I was asked what I was crocheting. I guess they didn’t expect me to say a rifle sling. Made people leave me alone though.

  2. Claire
    Claire November 14, 2014 3:46 pm

    “I was asked what I was crocheting. I guess they didnโ€™t expect me to say a rifle sling. Made people leave me alone though.”


    I’ll add “perfect hermitting hobby” to my list of the virtues of hook-and-needle work.

    So, did the rifle sling come out well?

  3. jed
    jed November 14, 2014 3:59 pm

    I found that I couldn’t get the “tension” out of my hands when knitting. One day, I just kept at it for a while, until my muscles were too tired to maintain it, and then I got better results. But that isn’t my idea of fun. Maybe I should try crochet. I have a bag of various yarns, so all I’d need is a couple hooks.

    On the other hand, macrame with 550 cord I can do.

    The meditational activity is something that goes way back, of course. Yoga, for example, and then Zen and archery, or Zen and whatever it is.

    Of course it’s hard to achieve a Zen state when you’re distracted by a certain brobdingnagian posterior.

  4. Pat
    Pat November 14, 2014 5:15 pm

    Speaking of needlepoint and sports, I once finished a piece while watching Bobby Riggs play Billie Jean King at tennis. But, alas, Iโ€™m not cloth-inclined. Iโ€™ve tried weaving, felting (not bad, kind of fun) knitting, sewing, crocheting, needlepoint, even tatting (Oh,God, that was awful!), but the best thing Iโ€™ve done is Macrame โ€” tying knots seems to be my forte in soft stuff.

    But paper and wood are my loves โ€” bookbinding, box-covering, and decoupage. These demand concentration while attempting to create. But I donโ€™t sit doing them, I stand. I think better on my feet, and can control what Iโ€™m doing better when standing.

    BTW, listening to music doesnโ€™t interfere with creativity, either; and if I *have* to sit still, music soothes me best of all.

  5. Ellendra
    Ellendra November 14, 2014 9:04 pm

    My left and right don’t coordinate well, so crocheting works better for me than knitting. But, I tend to get “idea overload” and give up on projects becase I can’t pursue all 10,000 of them at once.

    Still, it’s soothing.

  6. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty November 15, 2014 5:32 am

    I’ve learned and used many different forms of meditation over the years, and talked to lots of other people about it. One of the common themes is that it is easy to defeat oneself because we so often try too hard! The best meditation is when we let it happen to us, rather than try to make it happen. Create the opportunity, absolutely, but then let it develop on its own.

    My biggest problem with meditation is the tendency to go to sleep in the middle, but this is a virtue, not a real problem. An old Jesuit retreat master once told me that if I fell asleep while in prayer, it indicated I needed the sleep more than the prayer. ๐Ÿ™‚

    As for knitting, I don’t have to concentrate on it that much and the endless repetition becomes boring fast, so I’ve not done any knitting or crochet for a long time. I do sew, and find it occupies my attention much better. The patterns and various finishing requirements are like putting together a puzzle… and then you can wear it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Mary in Texas
    Mary in Texas November 15, 2014 1:42 pm

    I crochet to give myself something to do other than go crazy while waiting for appointments and for people to arrive. I had trouble with pain in my hands and thought of giving it up. Then I discovered wood crochet hooks. What a relief! No more pain and the stiffness disappeared faster when I would start. I now have a collection of wood hooks in various sizes to deal with different kinds of yarn. At times I even relax enough to enjoy the activity.

  8. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau November 15, 2014 7:02 pm

    Maybe I should try crocheting for my old hands. I’m looking for an excuse to stop reading for my ham license (the most boring book in the world). Knitting and crocheting might be a better fit for me.

    This is probably OT but you might be interested. I was listening to Orff’s Carmina Burana on the car radio, and decided to look it up – I wanted to find the song translations. I ran into what might have been the first libertines, if not quite libertarians! What Orff worked from is a collection of poems and songs from irreverent students in the middle ages:

    A remarkable feature of the intellectual life of the late Middle Ages was the ease and readiness with which scholars and students (and no doubt a good many hangers-on) moved about Europe from one university town to another. There seems to have always been a large number of such people in temporary residence in university towns both in their native countries and in foreign parts. As might be expected, they were not always on good terms with locals who had no connection with, or interest in, intellectual pursuits (such rustici are a frequent butt in the Carmina Burana) and, as their common interests naturally brought them together, they tended to form a class apart, a society to which the terms Wandering Scholars and Ordo Vagorum have been applied. These it was who in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries composed and sung most of the poems of Carmina Burana. Because they were generally without bonds or ties and were not involved in acquiring or maintaining social status, they were not concerned overmuch with the conventions of society, nor were they greatly troubled by the fulminations of religion against worldly pleasures. The Carmina Burana show attitudes not usually associated with the Middle Ages; we see a quite amoral attitude to sex, a fresh appreciation of nature, and a disrespect of the established church which even today’s society would find hard to tolerate. The Wandering Scholars were very much concerned with enjoying themselves, they were frank and uninhibited, and were not afraid of attacking or ridiculing people and institutions they did not like. Their poetry was written for the immediate present, to express an emotion or experience, to complain of some current abuse, but chiefly, one may conjecture, to entertain their fellows as they caroused. At its best it has spontaneity and freshness which compensate for its limited range and technique.

    Anyway I thought this might entertain the folks here. I certainly found it interesting. Hmmm, I might have to learn “O Fortuna”…

  9. Claire
    Claire November 16, 2014 10:16 am

    I love Carmina Burana! Even the parts that aren’t “O Fortuna.” ๐Ÿ™‚

    For edification: “O Fortuna” with both Latin lyrics and English translation:

    For laughs (but I guarantee if you watch this you’ll never be able to hear “O Fortuna” properly again):

  10. R.L. Wurdack
    R.L. Wurdack November 16, 2014 10:19 am

    I find music non-interferring as long as there are no words (singing) involved. Like bicycling on an empty stretch of new asphalt when there are no cars around.

  11. jed
    jed November 16, 2014 11:06 am

    Paul, I got my technician class last year, and I’ve sure enjoyed it. Have met a lot of good people. Not sure how well it’ll help me be prepared for disaster, but getting used to being on the air, with a good radio, can’t hurt. I’ve heard that the ARES folks are getting a lot more DHS-ey these days, so that likely won’t be an avenue for further edification on my part, but there’s plenty more interesting stuff, such as mesh networks. Post-SHTF, being accustomed to things such as norms for message traffic will come in handy too. Then there’s all the digital modes. Well, you’re probably aware of all this stuff. Just trying to be encouraging!

    In re. amateur radio, check out Sparks:

  12. Matt, another
    Matt, another November 16, 2014 7:40 pm

    The rifle sling is okay. Still learning to get the crochet to lay flat.

  13. oldboard
    oldboard November 17, 2014 8:29 am

    One could consider caning old chairs in the same vein as knitting,etc. The chairs are available at second hand-antique stores for little cash, the supplies are inexpensive, almost no tools required, is easy to do[a form of hand weaving] and when done, one has a place to sit and contemplate her navel.

  14. Claire
    Claire November 17, 2014 11:04 am

    “and when done, one has a place to sit and contemplate her navel.”

    ๐Ÿ™‚ And agreed. In fact, there are probably a thousand activities, from tapestry weaving to path building, that can fulfill a similar role for the psyche. But only a few result in places to put one’s backside while contemplating one’s navel.

  15. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty November 17, 2014 11:37 am

    Oldboard, I had to laugh at that suggestion. ๐Ÿ™‚ Many long moons ago, we had a set of those truly terrible “lawn chairs” with aluminum frames and that scratchy, nasty “webbing” that went on them. I hated them, but we could not afford to replace them. So, when the webbing got rotten and started to break, I stripped all of it off and went looking for something else to replace it (can’t even remember what it was made of). Anyway, I came across a big box of military type webbing in OD green (Marine brat/Navy wife) and used that. Had a heck of a time, and they looked pretty ugly, but that stuff was still good when the frames finally fell apart. Much more comfortable too.

  16. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau November 17, 2014 7:07 pm

    Claire, I am ruined as far as O Fortuna is concerned. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Here’s another for you to play with, the whole Carmina, with sand painting. The painting seems to follow the song too. Pretty amazing.

  17. Laird
    Laird November 18, 2014 8:29 am

    I suspect that knitting, like many other things, will become easy and essentially thoughtless once you gain sufficient proficiency. It will then lose its ability to occupy the mind and keep you “in the moment”. My wife knits copiously, and has been doing if for so long that she does it while watching TV. Apparently it takes very little thought these days.

    Several years ago we took up square dancing, and I had much the same experience as you are with knitting. There are roughly 65 different calls at the “Mainstream” (beginner) level, and you have to know them all to dance reasonably well. There are another 40 or so calls to dance at the “Plus” level (which is where most dancers top out). To me, dancing required such focus to hear a call, remember what it meant, and then execute it properly, that it forced me to concentrate on that and nothing else. In other words, it forced me to be “in the moment”, which provided a welcome relief from the cares of the work day. (And it provided a social outlet and some needed exercise!) Of course, after a while I became reasonably proficient, so the need for focus diminished. But it never really goes away, because with a good caller he’s always doing something different and if you’re not paying attention you can break down your square pretty quickly.

    Here’s something which seems really relaxing to me. Makes me want to buy a lathe!

  18. A.G.
    A.G. November 18, 2014 11:01 am

    Not to be morbid, but I found these insights on dying to parallel my experiences both with loved ones and with my patients*:
    *I was a hospital chaplain for a spell.

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