I frequently find my best laid plans often go awry. I like to think this is just part and parcel of being human (and apparently, mouse) but I have this inner Hermione Granger shaking her head in disappointment and disapproval every time I fail to follow through on a plan, such as the one I had made for this website at the beginning of this year and then suddenly abandoned before February even had time to get going. That sense of guilt is rather absent in this case or at least easily ignored since neglecting this website has sort of been the MO since I first obtained this domain name and, frankly, trees falling in forests.
My revised 2019 plans included a serious decrease in the amount of time I spent online (and particularly on Instagram) in order to reclaim some of my headspace. Maybe not coincidentally, my knitting and sewing plans shifted without deliberate intent to become, well, intentionally deliberate. I had already been choosing my projects carefully and now I really wanted to level-up my skill-set by making my projects with intent to learn new skills and to improve the ones I thought I already had. In some ways, I went right back to the beginning. I was (and still am) in the midst of re-examining some of my long-held beliefs and my views on what it means to be a good person (I thought I had this all figured out ages ago, but it turns out that if you aren’t careful, these things either get dated or they get warped over time in such small increments, you don’t even see it happening) and I couldn’t help but notice how much room for improvement there was in many aspects of my life, even my knitting.
Maybe this explains why for the first time ever, I knit a plain garter stitch scarf. Most people begin their knitting journey with that wonky garter stitch scarf, but I waited some twenty-odd years after my first intro to knitting to make one. Granted, this wasn’t the type of project I would assign a beginner knitter since I knit it using fine laceweight on size 0 needles and it was technically an infinity scarf worked in the round, but it was worked in garter stitch and it was an item to be worn around the neck, so by definition, a garter stitch scarf.
This wasn’t something I had in my knitting queue but it seemed like a good idea at the time because a.) this nearly decade-old yarn kept making its way to the top of every stash re-organisation spree I went on in the last few years even though I could not think of anything to make with it, and b.) I wanted a simple project with a good amount of yardage to practice my Continental knitting. I switched from English to Continental a few years ago but I still don’t feel like I have fully gotten the hang of it. I haven’t given up on it though because I’m absolutely convinced that if I ever master it, I will be able to knit twice as fast as I do now. (Twice as fast as a snail is probably just a turtle, but nonetheless, it would be a vast improvement.)
The commonly held belief is that garter stitch is a great practice stitch for beginners because it’s just knit stitch repeated over and over (and over) again. (Yes, good spot, garter stitch in the round is actually one round of knitting, followed by one round of purling, but also repeated over and over and over again.) Wherein lies the problem for a lot of knitters. I may love how garter stitch looks, especially in really fine or really bulky yarn, but how often do you hear a knitter say something like, “I love knitting garter stitch!”? I was none too fond of knitting it myself. Endless knit stitch and demoralizingly slow progress? Yikes. I knit a baby sweater once in garter stitch and I was ready to throw myself onto upturned knitting needles about halfway through. Yet somehow, this time around, I enjoyed knitting some 1,350 yards of laceweight into a garter stitch scarf, so much so that I could hardly tear myself away from it.
How? The answer is, in a word, gamification.
Because I was trying to increase my knitting speed, I was timing my rounds with a stopwatch. I realise that for some people, this would be the exact opposite of enjoyable, but when your goal is to score a better lap time, well, this exercise can become rather addictive and dare I say, fun. I had trouble putting my knitting down to do other things because maybe I could beat my time on the next round! or because I had just beat my fastest time! and let’s see how I do on the next round! Yeah, it was not very different from my obsession with Train of Thought or, back in the 90s, my addiction to Minesweeper. All these things had one thing in common and that is variable rewards. I, too, am a rat in a cage with a lever, no matter how much I want to believe I am not.
So now, I’m trying to harness that psychological quirk to train myself to knit better (and faster). I’m going to pretend the whole knitting speed thing is about improving the quality of my knitting because conventional wisdom says that if you knit fast, your stitches will be more even and so your projects will not only take less time, they will look better. That is a very attractive proposition. Plus, this stash isn’t going to knit itself and neither am I if I don’t find a way to do more actual knitting during my knitting time.
Although, I suspect there might be a component of my (mostly well-repressed) competitive nature at play. Was it after watching some videos of speed knitters or was it a consequence of reading Peak by Eric Anderson that suddenly got me fixated on my knitting speed? Does it matter? Could I, in fact, learn to speed knit with deliberate practice?? I haven’t found out yet (apparently I’m going to need to put in more years of intense deliberate practice before I can declare this experiment a success or a failure) but as I have seen an increase in my knitting speed this past year, I’m thinking it might not be impossible. (That is effectively the closest I ever get to optimism.)
Anderson’s theories are the subject of debate but I’m choosing to believe at least one basic tenet of the book and that is: there are different types of practice and plain old repetition is not going to cut it if you want to really excel. He distinguishes between naïve practice (repeating the same thing forever more), purposeful practice (setting specific goals and pushing yourself past your comfort level), and deliberate practice (everything that purposeful practice is but with direct feedback and guidance from an expert, oh, and a whole lot of time). (This is obviously an oversimplification, but you get the gist). So while a garter stitch scarf is nothing but repetition, I tried to employ the principles of purposeful practice and some of the principles of deliberate practice for this project.
My specific goals were determined as I went along because if I already knew specifically what was holding me back, I would have fixed it already. I observed myself knitting as objectively as I could, I experimented, and when I saw no real improvement, I observed and experimented some more. The closest I could get to expert advice was studying those grainy videos of people who could speed knit to see what they were doing that I was not (aside from knitting four times faster than me), and by extension, what I was doing that they were not.
The first and easiest step was determining my baseline speed to have a basis for comparison. I used a stopwatch to measure the time it took me to complete one round and since the rounds were all the same number of stitches (a little more than 500), I could compare my time for each round without the hassle of calculating speed every time. I also used a metronome to compare my time between stitches. Let’s say by the end of the infinity scarf experiment I could keep time with a metronome set to 72 BPM, i.e., beats per minute, (I’ll call this my “needle speed”), but my fastest round time came out to just over 40 stitches per minute (i.e., my actual knitting speed). That sounds like a blatant contradiction because I have yet to clarify that I could keep pace with the metronome, but only for short stretches at a time. I imagine no one has 100% knitting efficiency, as in, if Miriam Tegels is knitting 118 stitches in 60 seconds (!!!) her needles are probably moving faster than 118 beats per minute because time, no matter how efficient you are, is being used to move stitches along the needles, to turn your work, to re-tension your working yarn, to reel yarn off the ball, and the list goes on the less efficient you are.
I started paying very close attention to the myriad ways I was losing time to my knitting inefficiencies. I used to think that this was “just the way I knit” but I eventually realised that these were mostly just bad habits that got incorporated into my muscle memory. For instance, I was throwing in completely redundant movements, I wasn’t being very precise with my working needle and would have to make multiple passes at the same stitch pretty frequently or, I wouldn’t throw my yarn around the working needle accurately enough to catch it every single stitch. I was also constantly re-tensioning my yarn on my fingers, especially after shuffling sections of the work along the needles. These were just some of the ways my knitting efficiency was suffering.
(I feel this might be a good time to address your questions/concerns about my soundness of mind. My pursuit of machine-like efficiency may not appeal to people whose notion of fun does not include critical analysis and systematic revision of said fun. If all this sounds perfectly nuts to you, you may be right. I’m clearly in no position to judge.
Back to the madness at hand.)
So, if I made the effort to correct my bad form, I could easily increase my knitting speed even without increasing my actual needle speed. (Recall that less inefficiency means more stitches being made in the same amount of time.) Of course, the next step after maximising my knitting efficiency will be to increase my needle speed, but I have some ways to go yet.
Also, an interesting thing about needle speed, I discovered, is that it has a lot to do with an internal, subconscious sense of one’s own knitting pace. I presume most knitters have some sense of what their “normal” or comfortable pace is and we usually know when we’re going slower than normal and we don’t try to go any faster than that (unless Christmas or someone’s birthday or a baby shower is in the next few days). I think this pace, which differs greatly from one knitter to the next, is the speed above which you’re dropping or splitting or completely missing stitches so frequently you’re actually making slower progress. This means it makes little sense to knit faster than that speed. What I realised at some point was that if I could tweak my knitting technique so that I was able to decrease the likelihood of those “misknits” (as I like to call them), well, then I’d be knitting faster, wouldn’t I? It seems so obvious, but let me tell you, that belief in “this is just how I knit” is strong, maybe even stronger than muscle memory.
The metronome proved itself an indispensable tool for pushing past this mental barrier. I used it to determine what I felt was my comfortable knitting pace. When I got into that rhythm, I would increase the metronome by 2 BPM--a hardly perceptible difference. I kept doing this and wouldn’t you know, I kept pace and I wasn’t making more misknits than I was at my slower pace. (I was actually making fewer misknits by this point because I was also experimenting with the way I was holding my knitting and wrapping my working yarn in order to minimise the chance that there would be a misfire on any given stitch.) Of course, it wasn’t long before I would hit the limit of the BPM I could keep pace with but the goal was to keep raising my internal pace setter, which was stubbornly persistent. Without the metronome, I would slip back into my old pace when I wasn’t concentrating. It took time, but I have been able to bump up that internal pace-setter.
Progress isn’t happening nearly as quickly as I would like but the interesting thing about deliberate practice is that it requires you keep assessing your methods of practice and make adjustments when you hit a wall instead of just repeating the same thing ad infinitum. This is when a trainer would really come in handy, but speed knitting coaches don’t seem to be a thing yet and I’m a die-hard DIYer anyway.
Believe it or not, I’ve got a few more garter stitch scarf projects on deck because I haven’t tired of this game just yet.
And if you’re wondering why not just knit a garter stitch sweater or shawl or literally anything else for the love of Om?? Two reasons: first, I discovered I totally love wearing garter stitch infinity scarves (they are squishy, they’re warm, and they stay put), and second, all the time I spent knitting them this year gave me ample opportunity to ponder the mysteries of garter stitch in the round. You read that right. I even have a whole post coming up dedicated to this topic.
Yep, completely nuts.
 I chose the name of Amusing Yarns for reasons that would have been more apparent had I executed any of my real plans for this little enterprise. Hint, it had nothing to do with the telling of funny stories (as you have perhaps noticed) or my stellar sense of humour, which is obscure even at the best of times. I stuck with the name partly because I haven’t completely given up on the possibility of seeing some of those ideas come to fruition and partly because it is hard to find a domain name, good or otherwise, that isn’t claimed already. Plus, I got overly attached to my logo, possibly because I made it myself
 One of the most well-known of B.F. Skinner’s discoveries: if you train a rat to push a lever that delivers a snack into its cage, the rat will push the lever more frequently and persistently if the snacks are not guaranteed with every push (i.e., it receives variable rewards) compared with the rats given a reliably predictable lever-push-to-snack ratio. Slot machines, social media, and pretty much every game on your phone exploit this behaviour, which is present in rats and other animals, including humans, to keep us glued to our seats or screens
 I suppose I could have found some way to upload data from my stopwatch app to a spreadsheet that spit out statistical data automatically, but that seemed a step too far. Or I just hadn’t thought of it at the time
 I was also reading Endure by Alex Hutchinson and his anecdote about his experiences with pace-setting while training as a distance runner seemed particularly relevant to me. I’m going to guess he wasn’t thinking of knitters when he wrote the book but maybe he was. Belief in unlocking potential is, logically, a cornerstone of every yarn stash in existence
 In case you haven’t read the rest of this blog, I have opinions about gift knitting, mainly that selfish knitting is a gift to your loved ones and yourself. Let’s call it my version of self-care