Yarn Along: Progress Not Perfection

Well, it’s a start.

So I went ahead and picked up my knitting needles again. They’d been gathering dust, along with colorful skeins of yarn, in a basket in the corner of my closet for months and months.

I used to knit fairly often but never very well.

When I was pregnant with my first and working as a full-time journalist, I was assigned to write an article on the knitting trend and how a renaissance was underway for handiwork. In the community my husband and I were living in at the time, casting on was all the rage for the younger generation. I interviewed the owner of a local yarn shop to figure out why an “old-fashioned” hobby like knitting was becoming so popular. She said something about how women of all ages were longing to slow down. Life was busy; they wanted something that would make them pause but still allow them to have something to show for their time – like a scarf or a dish towel.

I remember her also telling me there was no knitting stereotype. It’s true. Women who knit are soccer moms, career executives, college students, and bohemian wanderers. What all these women have in common is the desire to create. The repetitive movement of knitting is soothing, and the yarns are beautiful. I remember standing in my interviewee’s knitting shop, which was stacked wall-to-wall with balls of yarn that came in myriad textures – from silky, eggplant purple or lime green threads to varicolored fabrics recycled from Nepalese saris. The yarns appealed to my senses. And the idea that my two hands coupled with a pair of needles could turn these yarns into something beautiful and maybe even useful lured me in.

I’d always wanted to sew, but I’d been a complete failure at it. My mom, who is a quite talented seamstress, tried to teach me several times, but she finally said I might not have the patience for it. I wanted to skip the learning and get straight to the making of stylish garments with perfect seams.

I wondered if knitting might be a better fit for me. No machine was required. Just my hands and a couple of needles, a skein of colorful yarn, and a little creativity. Plus, my mother-in-law knits and crochets, so she was able to to help me along the way. I also took a few lessons from the owner at the local yarn store.

I had all these plans to knit beautiful baby blankets and rainbow scarves for friends. I did knit quite a few basic scarves and even finished one beautiful corner of the baby blanket I had planned on giving to my firstborn. (It remains tucked away in my closet and would make a nice hankie.)

After Madeline – the baby who never slept and was happy nursing constantly – was born, my time was in short supply, and I chose to fill my limited free hours minutes with writing, reading, or exercising, and knitting fell by the wayside. At least that’s what I used as my excuse. Who had time to knit when faced with the all-consuming nature of caring for an alert, little one?

I did briefly return to knitting when my husband’s hours during residency were particularly bad and when most of my evenings were spent alone after I’d gotten all of the girls to sleep. Then I gave up on it again.

I can’t completely blame the busyness of my life with littles for my decisions to keep hiding my knitting gear away.  The truth is, I never really excelled at knitting. My hands were not all that nimble. It took a lot of concentration for me to do anything other than a basic knit stitch, and I’d sometimes mess up my rows and couldn’t bear the thought of having to unravel all that work to fix my mistakes. Yet, I didn’t like the glaring imperfections in my handiwork either.  I couldn’t win, so I gave up knitting and assumed it just wasn’t for me (like sewing, like anything I’ve ever attempted that I wasn’t a natural at).

Lately, I’ve been seeing all the Yarn Along posts inspired by Ginny. I saw that Elizabeth decided to put her own hands to work and to create. She seemed to so quickly pick up on the skill. She’s making shawls and sweaters; I never could get past the most basic scarf. But every time I walked into my closet and  caught a glimpse of my old knitting supplies, I wondered why I was so afraid of failure or even just plain mediocrity. I don’t need to knit Fair Isle sweaters to find enjoyment in the rhythmic repetition of my smooth Bamboo needles sliding against each other as I performed the most basic knit stitch. All those interlocking loops were making something whole, if not perfect.

So often in life my desire to excel and to produce only flawless results has had a way of pushing me to quit a new endeavor unless I’m a standout superstar at it right away. Since becoming a mom, I’ve been working hard on overcoming this trait of mine because I don’t want my children to sit on the sidelines of any activity in life just because they’re not the best at it or because they have to work harder at it. And also because motherhood has a way of humbling you. I work so hard to create, to gestate, to mold children and love them well, but just like their mother, they are not flawless. I have to accept them and myself with all of our faults and quirks and loose stitches.

Mediocrity used to terrify me; now it humbles me. This has been a year of focusing on progress instead of perfection, and what better way to embrace that than to give knitting a try again?

So I did. I was surprised that my mind knew what to tell my hands and that I hadn’t forgotten how to cast on. I decided to just stick with the basic knit stitch.

Now every day, at least for a few minutes, my hands create as I quiet myself so a baby can be more carefully knit inside of me.  It’s nothing spectacular – yet another simple scarf I’ll add to my collection or maybe share with one of my daughters. But the progress, the growing rows, the repetitiveness, the recognition that just because a knitting project is uncomplicated and imperfect doesn’t mean it’s going to unravel – these have been soothing and satisfying.

I hope this time I won’t cast off too soon and that I’ll stick with it celebrating my effort and my progress.

Please stop by Ginny’s place and see the yarns others are spinning. Her weekly Yarn Along posts share not only knitting projects and books we’re reading, but also the wisdom we glean from the acts of slowing down, pacing ourselves, and giving ourselves the time to create and/or savor the words of others.

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15 Responses to “Yarn Along: Progress Not Perfection”
  1. Nancy in Indiana says:

    Looks great! Overcoming perfectionism is always a work in progress, isn’t it? :) It is for me, too. When I was a first year teacher at a Catholic high school, my mentor teacher, a Benedictine sister, would periodically remind me to “be gentle with myself.” I thought that was a lovely way of putting it, and it’s something I try to remind myself of frequently in mothering.

    Out of curiosity, have you ever considered crochet? You may not want to learn a new craft with a new baby on the way :), but maybe it would be a fun thing to do during bed rest. I learned to knit as a child but was never very good. I picked it up again when I was expecting my first but got about as far as you did – a nice little hankie! But about 2 years ago I was very sick with a sinus infection and had to rest a lot. I was really bored, so I tried a Teach Yourself Crochet book. I wasn’t good at first, but I got better quickly and found I like it much better. There are lots of small projects you can do, which is quite satisfying when you don’t have a lot of time. Here’s one of my early projects: http://images4.ravelrycache.com/uploads/IndianaNancy/21381181/Crochet_Apple_medium2.JPG

    Take care and keep resting hard!

  2. Allie says:

    I learned to knit in college from a dormmate, and it’s been something I’ve done in spurts ever sense. I have trouble finding the patience for it during the summer months, but during the long winters, I enjoy pulling out an array of yarn and going to town.

  3. Kelly says:

    Wow. I think this is the best, most inspiring Yarn Along post I have read. Truly. Thank you for your thoughts.
    “Mediocrity used to terrify me; now it humbles me. This has been a year of focusing on progress instead of perfection”…I *really* needed to read that.
    God bless you Kate. I’m looking forward to reading your new book. I have a funny feeling that I *really* need to read that as well.

  4. MJ says:

    A few months ago, I was inspired by what I was reading on blogs and decided to give knitting a try. So far, mostly what I’ve knit are dishcloths. And I am very satisfied with knitting dishcloths. I have hesitated to try much else, largely because I get such satisfaction from the sweet squares of cotton I can create. It takes so little time to knit them and then I can give them away!
    As I read your essay, I recognized that I have not ventured too far in my knitting in part because I am afraid that I won’t be good (perfect) at more complex projects. As I ponder that, I am being grateful for a happy new hobby.

  5. Kate says:

    Great reflection! Part of what I love about knitting is how it can become almost zen – after a while muscle memory of the stitches and pattern take over and you can relax into it :) Very peaceful. Plus it keeps my hands busy so I don’t snack all evening while watching tv after the boys are in bed 😉

  6. Erica S. says:

    I love this! It is so true. This morning at bible study we discussed how the need for perfection can hold us back from growing into the women that God wants us to be. One mom said that a favorite quote in her home is, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I struggled with wanting things perfect when I was a new wife and a young mom. Now that I am a bit older I am have been able to let go and be happy with good and sometimes the not so good. Even a mediocre accomplishment is something to smile about. I am so happy you picked your knitting back up. I just taught myself how to knit in February and I find it is so relaxing and makes me happy – even the mistakes! I am praying for you and your little one. God Bless!

  7. Melanie B says:

    Beautiful. I’ve been pondering my own tendency towards perfectionism this week and it’s lovely to see how your thoughts are treading similar ground. Such a comfort. Isn’t that funny? But it is, knowing I’m not alone in this strange war with myself. I love what you say about mediocrity humbling you.

    This afternoon I had a conversation with Isabella who was lamenting that so often her photos are blurry. I tried to commiserate with her, letting her know that all of us take blurry photos. And telling her that some of her photos are blurry but that some of them are beautiful, transporting.

    Now I’m pondering how I can nurture in her the courage to accept her own failures, to take the blurry along with the clear. I have a box of yarn waiting for the opportunity. I think before too much longer we are both going to learn how to knit. Together. So that I can show her my own willingness to embrace a hard task, to embrace mediocrity, to persevere in the face of difficulty.

    Also, I got your book today! So excited for you. And for me too. It is a great treasure.

  8. Here’s something else to add — sometimes one wants to race along to the super complex, bedazzling projects before one is ready. That is part of our perfectionism too. So we have to slow ourselves down. Instead I would say, dwell for a good long time in the simplicity of stockinette or garter stitch, the two most basic stitch patters there are. Just choose really lovely yarns that allow the beauty of the basic stitches to shine through and enhance the beauty of the yarn itself. Do truly BASIC patterns until you can understand what it is your are creating. (Scarves and simple shawls are what I think of for basic stuff.) I remember the day I looked at a stitch I had messed up and knew how to fix it; it was amazing.

    When your hands have relaxed into that simple beauty, then you can start playing with the more complex stuff. And your hands will be as ready for it as your mind is.

  9. Kate Wicker says:

    Speaking of perfectionism, I have to add something ironic. Yesterday a copy my book finally arrived. (I knew several people who had it in their hands before I did, and I was so anxious and excited to see it.) As I perused it along with my husband, we noticed a typo we know we caught in the proofing process. There were a few more changes that appeared to have slipped through the cracks during the proofing process. They’re deeply apologetic and looking into it, but I realized last night as I started to agonize over things that this is yet another lesson in letting go and letting God. The irony is part of the book deals with overcoming this need to be perfect or to fit into some sort of ideal. I have to believe as hard as it is to see that this creation of mine that I poured so many words and prayers and efforts into not turning out exactly like I thought it would after my husband and I had worked hard to proof it and ensure I was putting my best work forward (or the fact that I don’t have complete control over it or anything) is just another way that God is teaching me to find contentment in a messy, imperfect, and unpredictable life.

    Thank you to everyone for their own reflections, encouragement, and knitting/crocheting tips! Blessings.

  10. Melanie B says:

    More thoughts on the topic of perfectionism… Lately I’ve been trying to see the positive side of perfectionism. After all, God made us this way, didn’t he? If we care inordinately about getting things right, about making them perfect, then that is how God made us. That drive must have been somehow a part of his plan. So why did God make me a perfectionist? How does this drive for not just good enough but for perfection serve him?

    I’m not sure I’ve found the answer. I think I need to spend more time asking him and listening to his answers. But I wonder if the yearning for perfection isn’t a part of our yearning for God himself? He is the only perfect being and the only true source of order. So maybe the real purpose of this drive we have is to point us to him. And perhaps all our frustration with the imperfections in ourselves and in the world is really an awareness of the fallen nature of this world, an awareness of how all have sinned and fallen short, of how all creation groans as it awaits its redemption.

    Perhaps if I can turn my drive for the perfect into a drive to listen and learn God’s perfect will then I won’t have to be at war with my own perfectionism but can use it as it was meant to be used, to love and to serve God and my brothers and sisters in Christ.

    • Kate Wicker says:

      Great point. I’ve thought a lot about this as well and what I seem to always end up reflecting upon is that God is calling us to perfection through Him. Surely, God wants us to be the best we can be. Yet, I so often muddle things up and try to be “perfect” in the wrong areas, “perfect” in a way that makes me think I ought to be more like so-and-so instead of working with my desing, or “perfect” all my own instead of recognizing that I should channel my perfecionism into a more perfect union union with God. I’m not sure that makes sense, but it’s all I’ve come up with at this point.

      Let me know if you have any epiphanies! :-)

  11. Colleen says:

    Kate, you are a treasure! I really enjoy reading your posts. I can sooo relate to this perfectionism issue. I, too, tend to not do activities I’m not instantly good at, and have really had to work at it, realizing that not only am I missing out, but my kids and husband are missing having me participate with them in activities that they really enjoy. And I set a rotten example for them, too.

    Keep up the good work! God bless!

  12. I’m a pretty horrible knitter- but I kept trying because my kids were watching! 😉

  13. JoAnn says:

    Beautiful post! Motherhood is most definitely humbling. :)


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