The Lesson of the Fair-Isle Cardigan


The second big thing I ever knit was a fair-isle cardigan. The pattern caught my eye in a magazine, but I had no intention of knitting it. After all, I had only ever made one thing before—the disastrous Red Sweater. How could I possibly knit this complicated, multicolored thing? “I can’t possibly knit that”, I said to my cousin, “It looks far too hard”. She then proceeded to teach me the first lesson of the fair-isle cardigan.

Lesson 1: Don’t be afraid to try something new
What my cousin actually said was “You can read can’t you?–If you can read you can knit”. I later learned that she applied this same philosophy to cooking, and that it is not always true. However, the challenge was enough to get me started and, armed with my knowledge of the knit and the purl stitch, and my ability to read an abbreviations key, I embarked on the project that was to take me from a person who knew how to knit, and turn me into a knitter.

Lesson 2: Big projects are easier when divided into smaller tasks (or Things are not always as complicated as they first appear)
How I enjoyed knitting that cardigan! Putting the colors together and doing something different on each row kept the project interesting. And, instead of having to wait until the end of the project, I got a feeling of accomplishment each time I completed a section of the pattern. Did I make mistakes? Absolutely! My stranded knitting was too tight and I had to learn to have no tension in the yarn carried along the back of the work. My first row of pink X shapes on a blue background was disappointingly scattered with the odd Y, and I accidentally did a garter stitch row in the middle of a small stocking stitch section. But I also did lots of things right, and when I was done I had learned a lot. All through the tough parts and the unknitting, I had the beautiful picture of the finished object to inspire me, and the further I got in the plan, the more I could see the same pattern taking form in my hands. It strikes me that this lesson is true of any big project, if you can divide it into smaller, doable tasks, it doesn’t seem so daunting. Occasionally checking the big picture helps you see if you are on track, and if you can apply what you are learning as you go along, the later tasks become clearer and get easier.

Lesson 3: Celebrate your accomplishments, but keep a humble heart
I wore my fair-isle cardigan a lot during my first year of college. When people admired it and asked if I made it myself, I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment. I didn’t explain that it was easier than it looked, I just enjoyed the compliments. But whenever I was tempted to be too pleased with myself, I would spot one of the “Ys” in my row of Xs, or see that glaring error in the button band that I really should have corrected. I loved the finished product, but every time I put it on I was reminded that I was just a beginner.

Lesson 4: Know when to Quit
I finished sewing up my finished cardigan at about 10 o’clock at night. In my euphoria at having actually made something presentable, I committed a beginners’ error–I did not stop. I had wool left over and the night was still young! “I could make a pair of gloves out of that” I thought. Of course this was a fatally flawed plan on many levels. There was the strategic problem that having a pair of gloves that match your sweater is a really dorky idea, and then the more tactical issue that I did not have a glove pattern. Consumed by the adrenaline rush of seeing my finished cardigan before me, I continued on regardless, falling into the trap of over-confidence that awaits us all when we complete a big project successfully. “I’ll just size it up to my hand as I go along” I thought “A glove can’t be that hard”. And so I knitted on, experimentally increasing from the cuff and up the hand, and then guessing how many stitches to make for each finger. By about 2AM, I had a glove. Or I should say I had a thing that fit my hand. Admittedly it looked bad when it was not being worn, but thankfully wool is flexible and on the hand I thought it was OK. I could get all my fingers and my thumb in it. Satisfied, I went to bed, planning to complete the pair the next day.

I awoke to the sound of raucous laughter. “Why have you knitted an udder?” my mother asked, tears streaming down her cheeks. Enough said.

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