Knitting the EZ WAY
My love affair with knitting began long before I met Elizabeth Zimmermann. But Elizabeth’s knowledge, humorous wit and approach to knitting gave me the solid foundation that still influences my approach to knitting and designing today.
My road to the EZ way of knitting was paved with a few bumps, false starts and even some tears! Of course, I can look back and laugh about it now.
My knitting career began early, at the age of 8, when I informed my mother that I wanted to learn to knit like Mrs. White. Mrs. White was a neighbor lady who clothed her four rambunctious boys and husband in bulky cardigans that had big deer heads and other hunting-related designs on the back. Although my mother did not knit, creativity was encouraged in our home, with crayons, paints, paper, fabric snips and yarn bits readily available. Mom arranged knitting lessons, and I began to dream of all the wonderful projects I would make.
Mrs. White was a good teacher, but she assumed my knowledge of knitting was more advanced than garter stitch squares. I clearly remember knitting one square in a nice burgundy wool, and then it was on to mittens on doublepointed needles! I still have memories of that poor pathetic start of a mitten with its uneven cuff and thumb gusset stitches on a safety pin. I never got any further and certainly did not understand what I was doing, so the mitten ended up in the bottom of a dresser drawer as I pined away, longing to knit the incredible things I imagined.
Between knitting attempts, my French/German grandmother taught me to crochet during a week’s stay at her home. I had never seen her crochet, but she produced a carved-bone hook and some white wool. She taught me how to make a chain and single crochet, and then I was sent on my way to practice and stay out of trouble.
Little did I know that my grandmother’s abrupt teaching style would force me to rely on my own inventiveness, giving me the confidence and freedom to explore, untethered to instructions or expectations. I spent my teenage years crocheting my own designs, blissfully unaware that patterns even existed! This time of exploration influenced my approach to knitting once I got over a weak moment of being a “blind follower”!
In my 20s when I was newly married, I decided to try knitting again. Ladies Home Journal Needle & Craft magazine was in its heyday, and one particular cotton sweater caught my eye. Knit on size 8 needles with three strands of KnitCro-Sheen cotton thread held together, it was a lesson in frustration and ultimately tears! I sat with a new knitting friend and started crying over my knitting mess while she tried to help me. As a joke, she bought me a copy of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitting Without Tears! Even though I was initially humiliated by the gift, that book changed my life and turned me into a lifelong knitter. (To this day I still contend the tears were due more to hormones than my knitting, as I found out the following month that I was pregnant!)
Armed with Elizabeth’s book, I faithfully began applying her principles to my knitting. I learned to be a “seeing knitter,” not a blind follower of patterns. I applied the percentage system to my first garment, a pullover sweater for my newborn son out of my own handspun yarn.
I spent many happy years knitting sweaters for my family and never felt the need to use a pattern. I was thrilled to be a knitter, but in the back of my mind I always wondered whether my mentor and hero, Elizabeth, was still out there somewhere, knitting and encouraging other knitters like me.
Then one day while on vacation in Maine, I discovered some of Elizabeth’s outdated newsletters in a quaint seaside-village knitting shop. I was
excited to find them and bought several old issues of Wool Gathering. I discovered a postal address on the newsletter and wrote to Elizabeth, hoping she was still writing and publishing her newsletter.
The day I received a letter back from Elizabeth Zimmermann was a special day indeed! Not only was I awed to hear from a famous big name in knitting, but I discovered a whole world of books, wool yarn and supplies that were available through her mail-order business.
I was fortunate to attend her Knitting Camp twice, where I met Elizabeth, her husband (also known as “the Gaffer”), her daughter, Meg, and other members of the family. Attending Knitting Camp is like showing up for the who’s who in knitting, and I had the chance to meet many designers and authors. Knitting Camp is beyond words, but is best summed up as heaven on earth for knitters!
So much of what Elizabeth taught at Knitting Camp and what I learned through her books has become part of my knitting DNA as a teacher and designer. I can hear Elizabeth saying, “Learn to look at your knitting and figure out what you are doing,” and “Don’t rely on the pattern—unvent something!”“Unvent” was a word she had coined, and it referred to those occasions when a knitter discovers something that is new to her or him (though there is nothing really new in the knitting world). Although Elizabeth passed away in 1999, her indelible mark on the knitting world will be felt by many future generations. Her knitting wisdom has inspired many knitters around the world to take up wool and needles, and to find their own way.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for teaching me to knit the EZ way!
Always gracious, Elizabeth receives a crown of daisies, an impromptu gift from a Knitting Camp attendee.
Knitting and “talking knitting” for a whole week? Attending Knitting Camp had been on my bucket list for years! I was fortunate enough to attend twice and enjoyed every minute of it!
Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Nordic Mittens were published in the October 1982 issue of Knitting World.
Tradition Meets Modern Slouch Hat & Mitts were inspired by Elizabeth’s Nordic Mitts at left.