Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.
For the past several years I’ve been one of the most traveled knitting teachers in the northern hemisphere–with the battered baggage and frequent flyer status to prove it. In a busy month I may be at a shop, guild, retreat, or festival every other weekend. In a very busy month, that may be every weekend. It’s so hard to be me.
(No it isn’t.)
Before this, I was a knitting student. I loved taking classes. I still do, on rare and beautiful occasions when my schedule permits me to sit down and shut up.
In this way I’ve met literally thousands of students–some learning from me, some learning with me. All have gathered into the classroom with a common goal: to have fun, stretch their wings, and expand their horizons.
Most students are lovely, polite, considerate, and prepared. Were they not, I would be writing an entirely different column about information architecture or collectible figurines or the semiotics of Sesame Street. I lack the stamina to teach classroom after classroom full of boors and cretins.
Needlework classes of any variety–knitting, crochet, sewing, embroidery–can be fraught with tension. They are often expensive and crowded. Miniscule rooms tumble perfect strangers together in close proximity. Challenging topics push mental or physical limits to the breaking point. Temperaments clash. Patience is often in short supply.
And everyone present comes supplied with sharp implements.
In such circumstances, being a prepared and polite student is good for everyone.
It is good for your teacher, because it allows him or her to give the entire class the best possible guided tour of the material.
It is good for your fellow students, because it allows them to concentrate on their own work.
It is good for you, because it helps you get the most for your money; and gives your teacher and classmates no cause to gather after class and smack the whoopsie out of you in the parking lot.
Therefore, in the spirit of everyone having a bodacious time, I humbly present this two-part guide to being the best student you can be.
Part One: Before You Sign Up
I once began a full-day class in advanced color work techniques by cheerfully advising the twenty students to “Cast on twenty-five stitches with any method of your choice, then set your work down while I give you a little introduction.” Then I noticed a student holding up her needles and yarn and shrugging.
The class had been described in the brochure as being for intermediate knitters, fully fluent in the basics of knitting. This student had read that, yes; but she did not know how to cast on. Or, as it turned out, purl.
“I figured you’d catch me up on all that,” she said.
Is your skill set appropriate for the class?
If the class is described as being “for intermediate lace knitters,” don’t sign up if your total lace experience is trying (and failing) to complete a washcloth with a simple eyelet pattern. If you can’t or won’t use charts, don’t sign up for a class that assumes you can and you will.
Either seek a lace class that’s closer to your present level; or practice your yarn overs, turn out a shawlette (or at least finish the washcloth), and wait for the class to come around again. It always does. Knitting teachers never retire. We can’t afford to.
Challenging yourself is a wonderful thing. Everyone should do it. Why take a class that only teaches stuff you already know? But if you lack the minimum skills necessary to participate, you’ll end up frustrated.
And if you assume–incorrectly–that the teacher will have time to give you a separate, private tutorial while also teaching the rest of the class, you’ll both end up frustrated.
What must you bring with you to class, and what materials (if any) will the teacher or venue provide?
Please take the materials list seriously. Most teachers agonize over it. It’s generally agreed that writing that list is one of the toughest things about teaching needlework. We do our best to ask for everything that’s necessary, but only what’s necessary, and we try not to cause you undue effort or expense.
For knitting or crochet classes, expect at minimum always to bring your own standard bag of notions: scissors, tapestry needle, tape measure, stitch markers (four to six will generally do, unless otherwise specified), small crochet hook (for fixing dropped stitches in knitting) and a pen or pencil with a notebook. These are all things you ought to have anyway.
And by the way, if you don’t see or receive a materials list of any kind–meaning, neither a list of what to bring, nor a note explicitly saying all materials will be provided–then you have probably missed something. Ask. It’s extremely rare that you will be asked to show up empty-handed.
When it comes to yarn selection, we know (boy, do we know) that not every knitter has ready access to every brand. That’s why we often give you a broad description (for example, “one skein smooth worsted or sport-weight yarn in white or a light solid color”) followed by a few well-known names that meet the requirements. We will usually only ask for a very specific yarn if the technique or project absolutely depends on it.
What you don’t want to do is show up for a class with a really, truly, wildly inappropriate yarn.
These are a few honest-to-goodness examples of student substitutions I have seen, all for classes that specified “one skein smooth worsted or sport-weight yarn in white or a light solid color”:
These are not even distant cousins of one skein of white or solid light-colored worsted or sport weight. They will therefore probably not work well (or at all) for those classes. This is not the teacher’s fault.
Use common sense. If you’re not sure your choice of yarn is appropriate, a polite advance inquiry about substitutions is never amiss. (Note: “Advance” is not four minutes before class begins.)
But what, some of you ask, do I do if I have a yarn emergency? What if I absolutely cannot get the right yarn and there’s no time to do anything about it and what I bring to class is all I can get?
It’s a valid question. It happens.
If it happens to you, make a discreet remark to the teacher, let it go, and do your best. Understand that you may run into steep hills or road blocks. Don’t grumble, don’t blame the teacher, and don’t feel the need to apologize repeatedly. We know you tried. We will do our best to help you work with what you’ve got.
And please never, ever tell me you simply can’t find any white or solid light-colored worsted or sport weight yarn. It is not only the most common yarn there is, it is one of the most common substances in the universe. When the first pictures came back from the Hubble Space Telescope, they revealed entire galaxies composed largely of white or solid light-colored worsted or sport weight yarn.
This is not fourth grade. We do not assign homework just to be mean.
Homework for needlework classes generally serves one of two purposes.
It may be a necessary foundation for learning, as in my steeks-and-zippers class. You cannot learn to slice open your knitting if you have no knitting to slice open.
If may also be a slightly sneaky way of ensuring all students arrive with the proper fundamental skills. If you can’t readily work the four charted lace repeats demanded by the homework assignment, the class is probably over your head. Please know that the teacher who does this isn’t trying to punish anyone; she’s trying to set realistic expectations.
Some classes have homework you can do in an hour. Others, especially at more advanced levels, require a considerable investment of time and materials. Read the assignment through a few times, estimate the hours needed for completion, and get to work. Remember that if you have to wet block swatches, you’ll need time for them to dry.
Do the homework. Do the homework. Do the homework.
I see a hand in the back. Yes?
What if I am a morally upright and well-meaning person who really really really wanted to do the homework but then I tripped over the cat while racing to get to my shift at the food bank and broke my right wrist and while I was recovering a moth infestation in my county devastated the local yarn supply and so I don’t have my four-inch square of garter stitch but I really really really wanna come to class?
Okay. Again, we teachers know that stuff happens. Stuff happens to us, too. (That’s another column, possibly not for mixed audiences.)
If you come to class without your homework, here’s what you do:
Discreetly let the teacher know the situation before class. We don’t need a note from your doctor, or a long and detailed account of what happened. Just let us know, so we don’t wonder why you aren’t fiddling around as directed with your garter stitch square. Otherwise, we will worry there’s something wrong with us. We worry about that a lot.
Listen to the lecture, fondle the samples, take copious notes, ask questions. Your hands will probably itch and ache if they have nothing to do, so feel free to work discreetly on another project of your choice.
Here’s what not to do:
Demand the teacher somehow revise the curriculum on the spot so it can be taught without the homework. She can’t.
And please don’t start talking to your neighbor (who did the homework) about how you really wanted to take this class, but then I tripped over the cat while racing to get to my shift at the food bank and broke my right wrist and while I was recovering a moth infestation in my county devastated the local yarn supply…
Which leads us to Part Two.
Next month, we conclude with a lesson in class etiquette. All materials provided. No homework.
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008–now in its third printing) and proprietor of The Panopticon (the-panopticon.blogspot.com), one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. On an average day, upwards of 2,500 readers worldwide drop in for a mix of essays, cartoons, and the continuing adventures of Dolores the Sheep. Franklin’s other publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and a regular column on historic knitting patterns for Knitty.com.
These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.