July 30, 2003: Geek Knitting I like to knit while I’m doing things on my computer. Today I think I hit the ultimate geeky knitting. I’ve been working on my Fixation socks while I installed Apache, PHP, MySQL, Perl and PHPMyAdmin on my computer. I now have a fully functional server and I’m almost to the heel on my sock. Yep, I’m a geek.I wouldn’t say there’s any craft that doesn’t have some geek constituency, but there’s a real affinity between geeks and knitting. As mentioned here earlier, knitting just feels good; but it also has all kinds of interestingly technical variations: Aran cables, lace knitting, fairisle, plus purely knitterly jollifications like knitting two socks simultaneously, one inside the other, on a single set of needles, so that when you’re done you pull them apart and there’s your pair. (Why do it that way? Because it’s cool.) It also has an attractive deep structural logic based on geometry and proportion, pattern and shape and iterative processes. I’m not explaining this very well, but the way I understand knitting feels like the way I understand the internal structure of manuscripts, and the morphology and underlying interrelatedness of plants.
When I was eleven or twelve, and liked to sketch trees, trunk and branch and twig, I decided that all trees were somehow the same. It was as though there were a single underlying form to them, and the apparent differences of this or that species were the playing-out of a small set of rules laid upon that form in different combinations and proportions: vertical or horizontal, lax or rigid, rough or smooth, straight or curving or kinked, having greater or lesser distance between instances of new branching. I was delighted years later to hear that some branch of mathematics had decided that all trees were the same tree modified by variations on a small set of rules. And I was nonplussed years later to run into Ginkgo biloba and Metasequoia glyptostroboides, which are not based on that same tree.
The above not entirely a digression. Unless it’s been superseded since I last heard about it, the record holder for the longest-running thread on one of the major knitting mailing lists was a discussion of the Fibonacci sequence and other maths, and their application to textile design (viz., Yehudit Avrahams’ fibonacci Tallitot).
One knitter, in a salute to the Fibonacci rabbit sequence, devised a Fibonacci bunnies border pattern. Priscilla’s Probability Pullover is the only knitting pattern I know of that includes a pair of dice in its materials list. And for topologists, there’s the truly brilliant Mobius Scarf—which can be knit flat, given its half-twist, and have its head seamed or grafted to its tail, or (perhaps more satisfyingly) knit as an endless loop on circular needles—and its inevitable accompaniment, the Klein Bottle Hat. What may or may not be the canonical instructions for both can be found here.June Oshiro, at the time a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology, had her invention featured on the cover of Nature Genetics and in Today’s Chemist: a DNA double-helix cablestitch, which she used on a scarf she made for Professor Thomas Montville:
I designed the knitted representation of a DNA helix while working towards my Ph.D. in molecular biology. As it were, true inspiration occured during a biochemistry class. …Ms. Oshiro kindly provides instructions for making the scarf, and a chart of the DNA cablestitch The ur-geek of knitting is Elizabeth Zimmerman, whose many innovations include EPS, and the primogenitive Pi Shawl. EZ had the Bach-and-Escher turn of mind for structure. She referred to her inventions as “unventions” because to her, they were all just logical extensions of the existing technology, a matter of seeing something that was always there rather than creating something new; so she could never believe that someone else hadn’t done it before:
The scarf has slipped-stitch selvedges to give it a smooth finish. On either side of the main cable are “mini” cables spiraling towards the edge of the scarf (S twist on the left side, Z twist on the right side). The border is seed stitch. It is knit from one end to the other, instead of being knit by the Stahman provisional cast-on method, because the DNA cable is symmetrical. I switched the twist direction of the mini cables when working on the second half, otherwise the cables would be spiraling towards the center of the scarf.This was tremendous fun to design and knit. I am actually very proud of this scarf because it accurately displays the the hydrogen bonds between nucleotides, the major and minor grooves of DNA, and the degree and rate of twist. The scarf is also both stylish and geeky—a true fashion paradox!
Do you mind the word “unvented”? I like it. Invented sounds to me rather pompous and conceited. I picture myself as a knitting inventor, in a clean white coat, sitting in a workshop full of tomes of reference, with charts and graphs on the walls. Not real knitters’ charts, which are usually scribbled on odd and dog-eared pieces of squared paper, or even ordinary paper with homemade squares on it, but charts like sales charts, and graphs like the economy. I have a thoughtful expression behind my rimless glasses and hold a neatly-sharpened pencil. Who knows but that I don’t have a bevy of handknitters in the backroom, tirelessly toiling at the actual knit and purl of my deathless designs?It’s the only point on which I know her to have been thoroughly and completely wrong. Surprisingly enough for something so ancient, knitting is a developing technology. This of course gives it even more geek appeal.
Rubbish.But unvented—ahh! One un-vents something; one unearths it; one digs it up, one runs it down in whatever recesses of the eternal consciousness it has gone to ground. I very much doubt if anything is really new when one works in the prehistoric medium of wool with needles. The products of science and technology may be new, and some of them are quite horrid, but knitting? In knitting there are ancient possibilities; the earth is enriched with the dust of the millions of knitters who have held wool and needles since the beginning of sheep. Seamless sweaters and one-row buttonholes; knitted hems and phony seams—it is unthinkable that these have, in mankind’s history, remained undiscovered and unknitted.
Barbara G. Walker, another knitter with a knack for structure, has also been doing serious R&D. Some years back she compiled four mighty and comprehensive treasuries of stitch patterns, analyzing them, demonstrating how one variation begets another, and showing how they’re all produced by a small number of stitches and rules.
More recently, Horst Schulz has been producing startling multicolored patchwork effects by breaking knitting’s traditional linear rows of stitches. There’s always been some non-linear knitting—but not like this. If you’re interested, here are how-to sequences on his Tumbling Blocks patchwork, bordered patchwork, and that weird fan-shaped tiling he’s so fond of.
But for my money, the maddest of mad geniuses at the moment is Debbie New, author of Unexpected Knitting, and creator of the famous Lace Coracle—as well as the Ouroboros jacket, the Cellular Automaton sweater, the Labyrinth sweater, some knitted teacups, a perennial garden that makes my head swim every time I look at it, and (for all love) a small Wedgewood pot.
(It would be deeply unfair for me to observe that Debbie New is so brilliant and innovative that she’s managed to do with knitting what crochet has been able to do all along. Never mind. It’s not the same technology at all. Or rather it is, but …)
(There’s a very large digression starting to form here, and I’m not going to indulge it. Later. Another time.)