Why I Knit

2manyhobbies's picture

Have you ever made a mistake while knitting, and then you just go on knitting happily away until you finally “wake up” and go to put the knitting down, or worse yet when you’ve already taken a break and just come back to knitting, and suddenly you see this obvious mistake, and you even feel a little bit foolish about how content you were knitting those rows that now have to be ripped out? I had that happen today, and then when back in “the zone” knitting again, I started to think about what had happened. Part of the enjoyment of knitting is when one part of me, a subconscious part, takes over the knitting, and my conscious mind then starts to range all over the place, thinking about future projects or about completely unrelated things. But the part of me that takes over, and loves the repetitive comfort of the act of knitting, doesn’t follow patterns well, and that’s very often when the mistakes occur (well, for me).

Then I started to think about why I enjoy knitting at all, and a number of things came together for me… I think my enjoyment of knitting, and of crochet before that, is a reflection of what I believe to be my now mild but once severe Asperger’s syndrome. Like other people with Asperger’s, social interaction has always been a bit of a challenge for me… I am very easily over-stimulated, and as that escalates conversations for me seem to break down into individual impressions and details. It’s like taking the old-fashioned animation toys, where the cartoons are drawn on a deck of cards that animate when you flip them, and then slowing it down until the illusion is broken and you just see the individual still frames in succession. That’s how a conversation, particularly in a group, can be for me. By the time I’ve integrated what’s happening into a coherent narrative and can come up with how I might contribute to it, it’s all moved on.

I can remember when I was a teenager (yes, a very long time ago), nerdy and loving science fiction, going to movies with my friends, and having to really concentrate to put together the plot lines. Especially with visually impressive movies like Start Wars, even though the plot was incredibly simple, there was just so much going on that I was left with this series of impressions, brightly and distinctly captured snapshots throughout the movie, that I had trouble piecing back together into a continuous plot.

As a result, I have always been attracted to things that are concrete, that I can understand in a very decomposed way. I think that’s why I majored in computer science and ended up as a programmer. With computer programming, at least as programming was when I was learning it, you could learn a very finite and exactly reproducible set of elements (the basic language and syntax), and from that you could build anything. For a person with Asperger’s this is heaven. There’s no sub-context to try to relate the discrete understanding of programming to it’s holistic results … if you understand the basic building blocks completely, that’s all you need. There’s no magic involved. No mysterious social context to figure out. It is what it is.

Well, much the same can be said about knitting and crochet. There’s a few basic stitches that you need to learn, and then (at least on some level), you can combine those in concrete, reproducible, and discrete ways to make almost anything. I have always been comfortable working on building things … especially working on something with discrete, standardized, and easily recognizable parts like yarn and needles. Something where the goal to be reached is well defined, and there’s little question about if it has been accomplished or not.

Knitting also provides an alternative to social situations that Asperger’s people can find excruciating. For example, a social gathering or (cringe), a party. Even today, when I go to a family gathering, I’m most content if I can be where everyone else is, but with my knitting. I can still be a part of everything, and I can participate while doing something I enjoy too, but it takes the heat off of trying to come up with something free-form to do or talk about with everyone. It’s a little bit of structure in what can otherwise for me be a chaotic and confusing environment.

I have less difficulty with conversation now, but when I was a teenager it was horrible. When I listen to other people talk, even if I like the people a lot and find them very interesting, I still have a very difficult time keeping interest in the narrative of the conversation. I can easily get overwhelmed by the words and just the whole set of things that, as I see it, come naturally to other people in a conversation - like body language, facial expressions, background noise. I have trouble integrating all of that in a way that portrays my interest in the person. I always want to just sit down and quietly do something together with them, but at the same time I feel compelled to talk because that seems to be the key to getting to know a person.

But, this makes me a horrid conversationalist. First, there the whole issue of determining when it’s your turn to speak. I wish we would just pass tokens or something. Alternately, I employ a too-conservative strategy, and end up seeming like a door mouse, or I employ a too aggressive one, and end up monopolizing the conversation. And it seems like this just occurs naturally for other people, while I’m mentally running through an algorithm, trying variations. But, at least that’s something. It was a god-send for me when I ran across a book on Transactional Analysis in high school … this way my key to understanding conversations and people. Before that, I was entirely clueless, and routinely went to lengths to avoid conversations. But, with TA, I had a way of giving some structure to this type of interaction and a way to understand it in more mechanical terms.

A lot of times in conversation, when I’m asked to talk about something I’m passionate about - like knitting, wine making, cooking, computer programming, or spinning - suddenly I find that although I have passion about doing these things, I just have no passion talking about them. Writing about them is totally different, but carrying on a conversation about them just suddenly seems disheartening. I end up talking quickly in a monotone, and giving the impression that I’m not really very enthusiastic about the things that I love. Or I end up describing something in too much detail, like I’m giving a lecture or something.

I think this is one of the reasons I enjoyed the knitting retreat so much. Even though it was a social situation that otherwise might have had me stressing and breaking out the TA again to try to make conversation work, at the end of the day it was always totally ok to just sit down next to someone and knit or spin, and to slow the conversation down that way too. Conversation while knitting or spinning or doing something else with my hands is the best. It slows everything down, and gives me the time to process what’s going on around me. It gives a topic of conversation about something you’re holding in your hands - something that’s concrete, visual, and follows a structure that you can know there’s a common understanding about.

As I’ve gotten older, really my (self-diagnosed) Asperger’s has gotten a lot better. In many ways, I’ve exaggerated the effect it has on me here just to make it more clear, and to highlight how I think knitting has really be a coping mechanism for me.


Pinecone's picture

What a wonderful post.

What a wonderful post. Since beginning to knit in earnest almost 2 years ago I've become aware of many different levels on which knitting engages me. At times meditative, soothing and calming. At other times energizing and stimulating. I enjoy watching the rows of stitches develop, the patterns and textures possible from a relatively small number of stitches and techniques. And the puzzle of figuring out a pattern (when I'm not pulling out my hair) is similar to working a puzzle. You've pointed out yet another aspect of knitting that I value. I too have always liked "structure" and find myself often uncomfortable when an activity is free form or without enough guidelines. I guess that's why I liked piano lessons as a child, learning ballet as a young adult, and later studying computer science. And now your post has helped me see that knitting has in common a rich blend of outright structure and fluid creativity. Thanks very much for your blog. I found it very meaningful. Best, John

TheKnittingMill's picture

Thanks for sharing those

Thanks for sharing those thoughts Jon! My nephew was diagnosed a couple of years ago with Asperger's Syndrome and it's been a very interesting and eye-opening ride. He's 11 which makes it difficult to gain insight. It's so helpful to hear adults speak of their experiences and validates all of the reading my sister, BIL and I have done. He is, as many Aspe kids, very much drawn to computers and video games. The older he gets, the more "different" he seems socially with his adolescent peers which is challenging. I taught his younger sister to knit, and I've offered to teach him. Right now, at least, he doesn't want any part of it. I'm sure you know this already, but Ravelry has an Asperger's Group. I've learned a lot from hanging out there periodically. It's also a place for people living with Asperger's to gain support and trade notes as it were.

2manyhobbies's picture

I think there's a certain

I think there's a certain phase that Asperger's kids go through when they finally come to realize they're different and start to turn the analytical tools they normally use to understand the world on themselves. I'm not sure it's it's necessarily good to accelerate that too much - it was kind of nice when I was young and just naturally assumed that I was the normal one and everyone else was doing things weird :).

Really great that your nephew has you to be supportive... if your nephew's like me, he may take much more to figuring things out for himself than being explicitly taught. If you knit when he's around, and leave yarn and needles where he can get at them, and make it clear those are ok for him to experiment with....

Iacobvs's picture

Thanks for that reflective

Thanks for that reflective and insightful post. I can relate to so much of what you write. I know how much my knitting has contributed to my mental health, and helps at times to restore me to balance. As someone who has been battling depression for the past 40+ years, I know first hand how important it is for me to connect with "concrete" things that can get done--the things that do indeed inflame my passions.

Hope to read more of your posts in the future.

2manyhobbies's picture

Thank you! I have some

Thank you! I have some depression also, but it's is more seasonal, and since that roughly correlates with prime knitting weather, I know exactly what you mean. It's always helpful to think "this too shall pass, and in the meantime I shall knit"! :)

Iacobvs's picture

Thanks for that reflective

Thanks for that reflective and insightful post. I can relate to so much of what you write. I know how much my knitting has contributed to my mental health, and helps at times to restore me to balance. As someone who has been battling depression for the past 40+ years, I know first hand how important it is for me to connect with "concrete" things that can get done--the things that do indeed inflame my passions.

Hope to read more of your posts in the future.

Wow! Can I totally relate

Wow! Can I totally relate to that! Including the TA and your general interests (of which knitting and crochet are a part) your interests and mine are virtually parallel. I too have, now a much milder case of, aspergers. Like you, it is self diagnosed and opened a world of discovery and understanding that enabled me to know how I had improved and bettered myself socially over the years. I will have to recommend "How to win friends and influence people" by Dale Carnege as one of the best books on social interaction I've ever found. Although the internal dialog and fragmenting still occur under extreme situations, I've gotten the techniques down to where I'm pretty good at maintaining relationships (if not necessarily converstaions) that survive and/or succeed. I too love the knitting groups where everyone knitting seems to have to slow down the rate of conversation making it easier to follow. I'm horrid at remembering the important stuff like the person's wife's name, their kids, what they do for a living although I want to; it's just that by the time I realize that something I need to remember has gone by it's too late to retrieve it and so I move on, missing the details. Reading Emily Post's book on etiquitte has taught me that if not too much time has gone by, it's acceptable to re-request the names of their loved one's again, or get them to re-iterate (lol a computer term which of course you know) the information. I am a programmer, computer IT with my own (mediocre) business.. etc.
I've also used a technique of slowing down videos and watching frame by frame to learn how to recognize facial features for knowing the emotions. This works especially well with "good" or "great" actors/actresses. I've become quite the thesbian myself now and gotten over my fears of public speaking (for the most part). I love knitting and crochet for the same reasons you give; however I've learned to accept having the rip out lines by saying, well "I do love to knit almost as much as I like completing the project" and so get over quickly the need to repeat. Most people I know who have Aspergers don't know, and when I do tell them about it; I can see the light bulb going off. I've discovered that I make instant friends with most people who have it; and so embrace the diagnosis for the benifit of myself and those around me.
Well, I too can write (it's well structured, time to think, rewrite, etc.) long messages... so, lol, for the sake of brevity... nice to meet you, hope to talk again soon. BTW, you have to read this far to see this; but, because you have Aspergers... I forced myself to finish your post, in spite of getting well distracted after the 2nd paragraph... it was worth it and I'm glad I did... But, I know you won't take it personally, knowing what I mean by that.

2manyhobbies's picture

Sometimes I wonder if I'm

Sometimes I wonder if I'm just one of what was supposedly a rush of IT people who were seeing bits of asperger's in their personalities, but personally I don't think so. Given the strategies I consciously employed to try to deal with the difficulties I was having, it doesn't seem like just shyness or normal geekiness. I'm not actually shy, although I come across that way a lot. I can end up being brutally honest when I don't intend to be, but I'm so aware of that anymore that unless I'm tired (like with the mental exhausting of trying to keep up a group conversation too long), I usually over-compensate for that.

I've come to believe that people like us are no less genuine for having to consciously employ these ways of coping with social situations than people for whom that just comes naturally, but I think sometimes people perceive us that way. I usually try to cope with that by trying hard to shut up, listen, ask questions, and slowing down to try to integrate what I'm being told. But I still find it very difficult to talk about myself, and sometimes I feel like i'm interviewing people instead of carrying on a conversation.

I read a lot in your response that reminds me of myself :). Especially the efforts to turn our attention to detail and mechanical understanding of things to solving social and communication problems. I guess when all you have is a hammer, we have to find nails.

Tom Hart's picture

What a thoroughly amazing

What a thoroughly amazing post! Thank you so much for that! Really. Thank you for coming out to us about being on the spectrum. That is huge! Although I’m neurotypical, I work with many people who are on the autism spectrum. Everything you said rings so true. I was thinking about starting a knitting group at work. Your post has come at the perfect time. You’ve given me the push I needed. I had no idea that knitting would be so amenable to people on the spectrum but it makes absolutely perfect sense. I would like to show your post to my boss if that’s OK.

I generally find it difficult to talk when I’m knitting. Right now I’m double knitting a two-color Fair Isle thing. Having to tink back to correct a mistake with two-color double knitting is a drag. A real big drag. So at the end of every row I count and re-count, check and double check. I bring this project to my weekly knitting group and I find that I do a lot more listening than talking. When I do talk, I have to stop knitting, say whatever I’m going to say and then go back to knitting. Some projects, of course, are better suited to social knitting than others.

You make wine, you cook and you knit. If I was 20 years younger and lived on the East Coast I’d be all over you. Non-verbally, of course :)

PS That bit about, “...but at the same time I feel compelled to talk because that seems to be the key to getting to know a person...” made me wonder. Is talking (running one’s mouth) really the best way to get to know someone? I’m not at all sure about that. There’s a lot to be said for quiet.

PPS Thanks again for your post, Jon. It was a revelation and an inspiration.

2manyhobbies's picture

Thank you so much for your

Thank you so much for your warm words ... it really helps finding people who understand and care. And you're more than welcome to show my post to your boss.

I guess it is a coming-out to admit that I believe I'm on the autism spectrum. But it just seems to explain a lot about me to myself.

Wow, two-color double knitting? A while back, I was playing with double-knitting, and sampled a two-color chevron pattern that I was contemplating for a cardigan... it was a bit frustrating. And I have a lot of difficulty carrying two colors at the same time. Do you carry the two strands in different hands and knit one color eastern and the other western? Someday I will make a serious attempt at learning how to do that.

I appreciate a

I appreciate a "neurotypical" person talking about their processes; I'm as interested in that as I am my own. I find that most people in the "normal" spectrum (whatever that is...) don't really feel a need to evaluate every action they do, or their processes, it's refreshing to hear you talk.