Posts Tagged ‘yarn harlot’

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about Canada recently. I think Canada is cool. Now, obviously, a lot of the time, it is very, very cool, frighteningly cool, actually, but that is not what I mean. In fact, I may have developed a crush on Canada. I’ve never had a crush before, but I think I recognize the symptoms. To begin with, you think that so-and-so is funny, interesting, smart, cool, whatever it might be, then you start to think that you know what they are like, and guess what? That turns out to be just like you. You determine that if only they knew you better/met you/ knew you existed, they would like you back, and want to be your friend too. In the case of the celebrity crush, you dream about this person meeting you and actually! becoming your friend!!*

After I first stumbled upon her (about three days into knitting) I thought my crush might be on the Yarn Harlot (whose blog was the first I think I ever consciously bookmarked or returned to), but soon I realized I was much more far gone than that. Good as the Yarn Harlot is, my crush – if it is a crush – is on Canada. Since I picked up knitting, I have encountered  a number of knitting blogs, and many of them are aesthetic, literate and witty.  In fact, on the record, it astounds me quite how many smart people appear to be out there, busily knitting away and writing about it coherently. But of all the nicely written blogs I come across, those written by people I instantly, intuitively feel I would like to be friends with, are disproportionately (ahem, possibly 100% so far, but  there is a confidence interval to be calculated here) written by Canadians. I am assuming that there may be some genuine correlation between that civilized chunk of north America, with its civilized health service, and civilized education system and its decidedly uncivilized climate which predisposes its citizenry to turn out acres of interesting thoughts about wool.

So, exactly how cool are Canadians? Immensely. Immeasurably. May their brethren over the border take note, not only can they knit, beautifully, in droves, but they do the most perplexing of cool things: for instance, they can use metric (i.e. count in base ten), and I bet they can cope with the 24-hour clock, as well. Hey – sort of like Europeans, only more spread out than us (which I’m sure aids civility). Anyway, amongst all this thinking, I eventually decided that the resourceful, intelligent knitting bloggers who bring such honor to their country should make the following humble representation to their parliament: namely that the flag of the nation be changed to something more representative and appropriate –


It’s only a minor tweak, after all. (They might also consider renaming it Intarsia, while they’re at it: it has a certain romantic ring, don’t you think?)


*Apparently a good few million people had Lady Diana dreams like this; it was key to her mystique that she could induce an “ordinary person just like me!” fantasy. Perhaps by being manifestly as dim and uneducated as ordinary people ? (only a heightened, airbrushed, touched-up expensively turned-out fantastical one). Hence the carefully nurtured myth- or more accurately, technicality, that she was ” a commoner”.

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Last week I started a pattern from the incomparable Ravelry. It was called ‘spring beret’ and stated it was “worked in the round using an easy to memorize lace pattern.” Now, leaving aside the fact that I have never previously worked anything in the round except for the famous Serengeti Socks of the Beloved, and therefore struggled a litttle with that part, I nearly had a heart attack when I saw the instructions for the ‘easy’ lace. There were eight rows, and four of them were simple enough (two were absolutely plain knitting, two were K9, purl 1). Fine. So far, so good. The other four appeared at the first uninitiated glance to be a) very complicated and b) completely different from one another. I thought, ‘how can that be called easy to memorize?’ and then I was struck by something from my psychology degree about human working memory.

It’s now a pretty well-worn cognitive psychology ‘fact’* that we can hold around seven items (“The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two“) in our immediate short-term working memory, as is the idea that the key to memory feats, and to a lot of expertise, is simply what – how much information – constitutes an ‘item’ in working memory terms. working memory: a chunkLet’s take a row of this pattern as an example. The first time I looked I saw:  yarn over, knit three,  slip one, knit two together, pass slipped stitch over, knit  three, yarn over, knit one, and that was, to me, eight items. For the record, I could not actually hold the eight reliably in memory and had to check where I was a couple of times as I was going along the row (Nul points for my working memory). After a while, I realized that ‘slip one, knit two together, pass slipped stitch over’ coalesced very nicely into a single piece of information. I had produced what psychologists call a ‘chunk’: several elements rolled up to make one item. Which in turn made remembering pattern row two easier. After a while I also worked out that the different rows were in fact far less different than they had first appeared. Essentially, what they were doing was just shifting the yarn overs along one towards the center of each pattern repeat. After that realization dawned, I was flying. My chunks grew longer, and by the end of four pattern repeats, each chunk was effectively a full row. So, once I understood the pattern, it was indeed easy to memorize: I’d finally reduced it to the magical – memorable -number of items.

Now, this is where expertise comes into it. One of the things, famously, that distinguishes a good chess player from a poor one is the ability to see much longer segments of the game as a single item: it takes me forever to plot a single move since one move is one item. I have to calculate all the permutations of my opponent’s response, and then my possible response to that… and my working memory very quickly becomes exhausted, as does my opponent’s patience. I do actually understand -and I apologize to anyone who has ever played chess with me: I assure you I have completely given it up- that you shouldn’t be able to whip up a three-course meal while waiting for black to consider the options in response to the traditional queen’s pawn opening (see here for an illustration of how the chess brain does things differently). But I digress. Chess players learn the moves and the counter-moves, and lots and lots of patterns. The better they get, the better able they are to remember the patterns (longer and longer chunks), and the more they can build on that knowledge. In short, they develop expertise.

But expertise can be acquired in any field, not just chess. Expertise experts reckon the number of hours it takes to build an expertise is around 10,000. So that’s, what? An hour a day for nineteen and something years, or two hours a day for ten years. Generally, allow ten years of fairly solid daily commitment to get genuinely good at something. This is why most people aren’t that good at a lot of stuff: we’re a bunch of dilettantes. This is also why people are motivated to get their kids music or dance lessons from a very early age: to have a chance of competing seriously in such an area, you need to get expert pretty young. This is exactly why the former Communist countries enrolled kids for intensive athletic training at the age of four or five (the consequences on their adult bodies be damned) and they walked off with all the gymnastics medals for years. One of the things that really struck me as I knit this beret though, was just how many truly expert knitters are out there, any one of whom would have taken one glance at that pattern and known exactly what it was going to do, and why. They wouldn’t have had to refer to it twice.

I assume she’s not unique, but the Yarn Harlot is one particularly spectacular -or at least well-documented-example of the expert knitter. She certainly fits the profile: she was taught to knit at the age of four, and has put in 36 years since (presumably not at a steady two hours a day throughout that time, but certainly a lot). Have you seen her knit? If not, check out some video on YouTube. It’s extraordinary. Truly.

  • Like everything else in science, including the Descent of Man, not everyone will agree with this statement.

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