Why I knit (and give thanks)


I am Canadian, and living in Sweden, I often get comments suggesting that I’m really American (North American, true but somewhere along the line the United States took over the term ‘American’). So, although I know that I am very similar to my American neighbours in many ways, I always bristle a bit at being called an American (probably the one unifying trait of Canadians!). One small thing I could never wrap my head around was American Thanksgiving. I lived in the US for 5 years, so that was 5 Thanksgivings to get used to the idea. But still it always came as a surprise (4-days off work, now?) and I rarely had plans like everyone else seemed to because the date wasn’t engrained on my mental landscape. And it is not like Canadians are foreign to the idea of Thanksgiving… But as a grad student it was often a time to catch my breath during the semester and I usually didn’t leave town or doing anything big.

It is work as usual today in Sweden but Thanksgiving talk on facebook, twitter and whatnot has got me thinking about taking a moment and catching my breath.

As a scientist, a mother to a young child, partner to an also busy man, it is easy to forget to take moments to reflect. I know I’m happier when I do, but that doesn’t mean I always manage it. I like the tradition of taking time to gather your friends and family and remember what you are thankful for. Whenever I take a moment, I realise how much I am truly thankful for.

So Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends! Hope you have a lovely one this year.

As I was thinking of taking a moment to ground yourself and in my case this fall, just calm the f*ck down (interviews, rejections, and other stressors), I starting thinking about on what helps me actually do that. For me, it isn’t surprising given my ecology leaning that being in nature is a good way to restore balance. With our recently purchased row house, I’m also rediscovering the meditation of gardening (although that is mostly come to an end for the season). Exercise always helps. But I also find cooking/baking calming and I’ve always loved to make things with my hands. I come from a crafty family and I have a whole closet full of supplies for beading, sewing and knitting.

In all of this, I started thinking about knitting more and why I do it.

What does knitting have to do with ecology or academics? On the surface, maybe not so much. I happen to do both, so maybe I see connections that few would. Strangely enough, knitting and science came hand in hand for me. When I started my masters program, there was a knitting group starting up. I went out and got some random wool and needles and showed up. One fun discovery was that my hands remembered the motion of knitting learned and quickly abandoned around age 10. I don’t think I ever even finished a scarf then but I guess I did it enough to learn the skill.

Since my knitting has developed along side my science career, the two are loosely linked for me. Here is my semi-random list of what I have learned from knitting and how it applies (in my mind at least) to ecology/academia.

The big picture. It is pretty easy to get caught up in the details of a project. It is only through keeping the big picture in mind that you can troubleshoot along the way and end up with something useful.

Seeking patterns. Now this might mean different things in ecology and knitting but ultimately in both I find that I spend a lot of time collecting information on patterns. In both it is good to know when it is time to stop seeking (reading the literature, etc) and start doing. Research is good but you’ll never have that scarf if you don’t start it. The same applies with a study, experiment or whatever.

Be willing to tear it all apart. Once you’ve constructed a sweater, it would be nice to say, ok, it is done; the same with a manuscript. In both cases, I have had times where things just didn’t fit or weren’t working as I wanted. Whether that means unraveling a sweater or completely reworking an introduction, you need to be able to both accept when it isn’t working and be willing to take it apart to make it better.

Creativity is important. Sure you can always follow someone else’s pattern but some of the best projects are often those that modify an existing pattern. Build on what others have learned but do something new with it. This philosophy works for my knitting and my research.

There is beauty everywhere. Even the most simple, functional items can have a beauty to them. The world around us is a beautiful place. If I pay attention to that beauty, of a well-constructed garment or a weed in a crack in the sidewalk, I tend to be happier and more grounded. In all the hard work (and sometimes frustration) that goes into a project, sometimes it is easy to forget the beauty of it. There is beauty in understanding the world, even the small piece of it that I study. As much as knitting reminds me to keep the big picture/end product in mind, it also helps me appreciate the small things.

Mistakes are common and ok. It’s life. Some mistakes require big fixes but others you need to just let go. Sure it is a lofty goal to make something without mistakes (slipped stitches, typos, …), it is important to remember that we all make them and learn from them. Learning to let go of perfection is important, otherwise the expectation of perfection can be crippling. Although I do admit to cringing at the typos I have missed in a publication.

Everything gets easier with practice. I can now knit simple patterns without constantly looking at the work and there are so many skills that I’ve picked up along the way in my career. Skills all start out slow and awkwardly but with practise can become automatic. It is good to remember that when facing down that new challenge. Maybe someday I’ll try a more complicated colour work pattern (such as Fair Isle) and then there is that spectrophotometer I’ve just order for the lab…

Ultimately, I find knitting calming. It helps clear my mind and lets me feel productive when I just want to shut down my brain. There is something very soothing about being able to directly observe my progress as well. Unlike science, when I learn a knitting technique or stitch or whatever, I can see the results right away. The progress of a project is visible rather than abstract. Sometimes it is nice to have that to contrast the ephemeral accomplishments in science.

What are the things you do to calm down and remind yourself of what you are thankful for?