Thursday, June 30, 2005

Comments and musings

I belong to several lace-knitting and spinning lists. I also belong to tatting, weaving and crochet lists, which I currently read only sporadically. Like the rest of us, I spend most of my time on the things that interest me most, and right now that’s lace knitting and spinning.

I’ve noticed a common thread among newcomers to all needlework disciplines (more about that word choice later). They tend to ask “What’s the best book to buy to get started?” Luckily, most of them don’t get annoyed when they get a half-dozen or more recommendations for that “best book”. But I always smile a little when I read the question.

The simple truth is that, while decent instructional material is both helpful and necessary, the most essential component for learning a new skill is still practice. (I can hear my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother applauding – they tried to teach me that any number of times, but it didn’t ‘take’ very well on things I didn’t like to do.) I enjoyed reading a response to a variation of that question today on a lace-knitting list. The suggestion was that the new knitter should choose some sport- or fingering-weight yarn and appropriate needles, get a book of charted lace patterns, and simply make swatches for awhile. One included comment was that the new knitter would learn more from that than almost anything else he or she could do. I cheered out loud! Finally, a common-sense approach! I applaud this knitter’s sagacity and courage. Unfortunately, she may not be praised for her advice.

To return to the ‘discipline’ word choice: First, let’s define the word. “Discipline” means several things, and is both a noun and a verb. One meaning of the noun is “a subject or field of activity, for example, an academic subject”. A meaning of the verb form is “to make yourself act or work in a controlled or regular way”. With both of those firmly in mind, take a look at your needlework. I don’t know about you, but I tend to return to something until I feel I’ve mastered it. Some call this persistence, others an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whichever it is, it’s the way I learn things. I read, study, analyze and practice until I have it.

I love lace with a passion that only a short, middle-aged, Rubenesque woman who looks like an ambulatory lace pillow wearing it could feel. I’ll never master lace in all its forms, but I do now feel a comfortable mastery of crocheted, woven and tatted laces. I can analyze and duplicate any piece I see and like in those mediums, and can design, construct and finish a piece that will look the way I envision. I know which materials to choose and which to avoid, how to manage the technical details of a piece, and how to execute the necessary stitches or tie-ups or whatever. I didn’t learn even most of that from books, although they certainly helped and it would have been much harder without them. I learned most of it from crocheting, tatting and weaving a lot of lace over many years – slightly more than two decades, in fact.

I’m getting there with knitting, but have not quite arrived as yet. I’d call myself an advanced intermediate lace-knitter at this point. I can follow a pattern, analyze components to get a stitch pattern repeat, and use that repeat in a different piece. I can shape a knitted piece into a square, rectangle, circle, tube or triangle and plan the needed increases and decreases in the chosen stitch pattern. I’m comfortable enough with knitting to wing it to some degree and feel confident that I can get myself out of almost anything I get into. I can design pieces within the constraints of the desired finished form – a sweater won’t come out looking like a shawl. But I’m not yet comfortable enough to take a piece I see, analyze and duplicate it without a lot of visits to the frog-pond. So I still have a way to go on knitted lace, and am enjoying the journey.

Most of my tatting, crochet and weaving was learned pre-internet. Yes, Virginia, the internet is brand-new. It’s amazing how quickly it has grown to be a mainstream part of life in so much of the world. In 1990 it was a tool for scientists and the military to communicate via telephone wires and satellite. In 2005 it is an everyday part of business and personal life. That’s 15 short years – less than the life-span of any one of my teenage children. By 2010 nobody is quite sure how the internet will have evolved. But it has changed learning and communications forever.

Because of that recent technological innovation, a new tatter in Australia can talk over problems with tatters anywhere in the world, gaining from their experiences in a more immediate way than ever before. Weavers can get on-line tutorials on everything from designing complex weave structures to basic instruction on choosing and warping a loom. Crocheters and knitters have immediate, 24/7 access to instruction and patterns beyond imagining only ten years ago. Ditto any other discipline you want to name. Words and pictures fly around the world limited only by the speed of the typist and the connection.

This is overall a very good thing, since it immediately gives a knowledgeable support group to a beginner. It also gives invaluable advice to anyone trying to complete any given published pattern, since it’s almost certain that somebody on the queried list will have done that same pattern before. And you have a tremendous pool of expertise and experience if designing a piece in either a new or a familiar medium.

But I have noticed a distressing tendency for people to ‘dabble’ more than ever before. I used to teach various crafts in a retail store. I could, and did, teach people how to use anything the store sold – and they sold a lot of different things! Was I an expert in all of those fields? Nope. But I had an advantage in that I was encouraged to practice with the materials and techniques on company time and at company expense. So I knew quite a bit more than somebody who had just picked up a basic set of supplies for one project. However, I never passed myself off as an expert on matters unless I truly was an expert. My advice was just that, and was always given with the caveat that the purchaser’s experience might be different.

I quickly noticed that I saw a lot of the same faces day after day. I called them the dabblers. They’d try quilting, start (and maybe even finish) a small wall hanging, and then go on to crochet. They’d start (and perhaps finish) a simple afghan and go on to a small piece of ribbon embroidery, then to tole painting, and next to stamping or flower arranging or stained glass or beaded jewelry. They never stayed with one thing long enough to get comfortable or learn even a fraction of its possibilities.

This isn’t a bad thing – it’s called exploration, and I encouraged my children and Girl Scout troops to do a lot of it. You can’t choose to study something in depth if you haven’t experienced at least a little of it. The not-so-good part of a certain type of this adult dabbler is their self-assumed ‘expert’ status on everything they’ve ever tried briefly. “Tatting is terribly difficult” or “quilting is so boring” or “knitting is much harder than crochet” are some of their comments. These opinions are offered as jewels of wisdom. The worst thing about them is the harm they do to those enthusiastic folks who are truly interested in learning a new skill, but give up the idea because of this single opinion.

But let’s get back to this hypothetical new lace knitter. How do you know if you’re writing back to a genuine enthusiast or a dabbler? Answer: you don’t. That’s why I was so happy to see the response I talked about above. Reading a single book or even an entire collection of books will not make anyone an expert lace knitter. You become a competent lace knitter by knitting lace. You become an expert lace knitter by knitting LOTS of lace. There are no shortcuts. The only way you will gain mastery of any skill is with plenteous amounts of practice performed over at the very least several years. Again, there are no shortcuts to mastery. Can study help? Absolutely. Is it a substitute for practice? No way!

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