Downtime

Knots Unknown

Why I spend hours collecting knitting patterns that I will never knit.

GIF: Hands caught mid-stitch with knitting needles.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Procrastination should be relaxing, but somehow, I’ve turned it into another job—sort of. Instead of plopping down in front of the TV or napping, like any normal writer would do, I fritter away some of the hours I should be working by daydreaming about doing other work: specifically, about the sweaters, hats, scarves, and socks I might knit someday.

What’s especially sad is that I am not daydreaming about the color or stitch combinations I will craft into stunning works of art: Instead of designing my own patterns, I just look at those other people have come up with. And since I’m neither an especially speedy nor especially skilled knitter, I can make one simple sweater for myself about every six months, meaning that most of those patterns are out of my reach. Yet I am apparently under the delusion that a time in my life is coming, just around the corner (perhaps after I finish the novel I’m procrastinating on…), when I will be able to spend hours a day knitting the kind of complex cabled sweaters you practically have to be a character in a John Millington Synge play to attempt. Would I even like doing this? Probably not. But still, I dream of it.

Perhaps you’re imagining that I’m snuggled up in a comfy armchair by a roaring fire, getting my hygge on while idling flipping through a knitting magazine. If you subtract the fire, the hygge and the idleness, you’d be on the right track. I sit bolt upright to read carefully through magazines like Interweave Knitting and The Knitter with a stack of small Post-It notes and a pen close by. When I come across a pattern I’d like to knit, I label it with a note bearing the name of the person I intend to make it for (inevitably creating a series of signposts marked “ME” that march across the top of every issue). Then the magazine gets filed in my crafts room.

This, which seems like it should be the culmination of the activity, is actually only the beginning. When I’m feeling particularly stressed out, I like to pull out a file of these magazines (I have over 15 years’ worth) and sort through what I intend to make. This marks the first time I might actually read the pattern and compare my actual skills against those required. If a pattern speaks to me again, I might add it to my Ravelry queue. What’s Ravelry? I’m so glad you asked: It’s a giant online site for knitters boasting links to patterns, knitting groups, knitting gossip, and the all-mighty queue, where we knitters keep an online file of what we intend to knit. You can reorder your queue to reflect the order of your plans. Mine is almost always up to date.

And yet, when I actually do start a new project, more often than not, I choose yarn from my stash to begin the pattern for the same simple socks I always make. Or I buy a completely new sweater pattern for a sweater from my local yarn shop. Thus, the obsessive organization of my patterns ends up being pointless. Or to be kinder, the point unto itself.

Clearly, the purpose of my mild obsession with patterns is not actually knitting—which I do most days without much thought, since I find it soothing, having learned when I was in my early 20s. I like basic patterns that allow me to read or watch TV or even sit in class while I knit. I don’t actually want to spend hours hunched over thin yarn and a cable needle, the sort of thing required for more complex feats. Nor is my purpose to while away happy hours doing not much of anything, the kind of genuine free time I’m extremely skeptical of if I am not asleep, or on a beach, or asleep on a beach.

So, what’s up with all this perusing and filing? If I’m feeling grim, I can see this habit of mine as a desperate attempt to exert control over some (any!) part of my life: My writing career may not be skyrocketing, and I can’t control my body’s aging process, but I can organize all of my knitting patterns by sleeve length and style. It’s a small stay against confusion, but it’s something.

There are gentler explanations. It may be that I truly would like to clothe all of my friends and family in hand-knit garments, the softness of the cashmere I’d choose bringing some warmth and lightness into their lives. Winters in Western Pennsylvania, where I live, are cold; I make good use of those socks. It could also be that I love to look at pretty photographs of pretty people wearing pretty clothing and feel that I could, perhaps, be a part of that. Even lacking the face and body of a model, I can—or I could—knit that sweater.

Or it could be that this habit offers me the simplest, cheapest, most accessible form of the pleasures knitting gives me. In my work as a writer, I’m asked to hustle and innovate, to be creative on deadline, and to imagine worlds out of thin air. These are wonderful tasks, of course, and I’ve very glad to do them. But knitting asks less: I’m just supposed to make knots out of string with sticks. Looking through knitting patterns asks the least of all: to daydream of a world in which I have time to knot string enough to cover everyone I know and love.