Cast on—whenever I meet those two words, I get a nautical vibe. I can almost smell the salt air and hear the bo’sun piping all hands on deck. Admittedly, my time before the mast has taken place in the pages of Herman Melville and Charles Dana or in front of movie screens, thus giving knitting instructions a romantic and adventurous appeal unsullied by the reality of the sea-going
Reading sea-lore, I find fiber-y images, of course, because sailors do spend a lot of time spinning yarns and tying knots. Charles Dana describes how sailors would pass the long hours aboard ship by knotting lengths of “old junk,” worn lengths of rope, to create “rope-yarns.” He reports that “we had employment, during a great part of the time, for three hands, in drawing and knotting yarns and making spun-yarn.”
As a new knitter, a sentence like “slip seven stitches purl-wise, being careful not to twist” sounded as mysterious and exotic to me as “the foot of the top-gallant-mast was working between the cross and the trussel trees.” The long-tail cast-on sounded like something Captain Ahab might have used to hook the great white whale. I pictured the tubular bind-off worming its way through a dense fog, while turning a gusset for a Dutch heel sounded like something for which twenty strong men might need a winch.
Yet my pleasure in puzzling out knitting instructions in the days before YouTube was as powerful as my pleasure in reading about nineteenth-century whalers. I savored the exotic adverbs and nouns, reluctant to turn to a glossary to find that an exotic and resonant phrase represented a simple maneuver with needle and thumb.
In those early days of my knitting apprenticeship, paging through knitting books in my local yarn store was like perusing a captain’s log from the Age of Discovery—mysterious symbols accompanied by instructions in what I recognized as English but in a lexicon and syntax I could not follow. What did “psso,” mean? What did it mean to “make one,” or “knit as the stitches present themselves,” as older instruction books blithely directed? Knitting began to seem as esoteric as aiming a harpoon from the gunwhales of a whaleboat. Even more forbidding were the charts whose symbols looked as mysterious as celestial navigation.
That’s where more experienced mariners came to my aid. When I joined my local fiber guild fifteen years ago, my knitting skills advanced by leaps and bounds. Sometimes I learned by persistently asking questions of wiser and more experienced knitters, and sometimes I learned by knitting in a group and picking up the lore of lifelines for lace knitting and magic loops for socks. I discovered that charts are a clear, precise language for knitting, and easier to follow than line-by-line instructions.
I watched as astute knitters highlighted each row of a chart so they could not lose their place, and admired the way they could read a chart both backwards and forwards. So too, Charles Dana in his first year before the mast, made his berth in the forecastle where he could hear the sailors’ talking and “pick up a great deal of curious and useful information” from “their long yarns and equally long disputes.”
Indeed, many years later, even though I am equipped with more experience and a handy tablet full of instructional videos, embarking on a new knitting project is still a kind of voyage of discovery and conquest, setting forth on the delicate vessel of the last successful shawl or sock into unknown passages with the hope of finding not only a new garment but an enhanced sense of mastery of the world of knitting.
Beginnings are often uneventful, with peaceful weather across familiar waters, but inevitably I approach the dreaded collar shaping, the instep decreases, the shoulder shaping, and I’m rounding an unknown cape where the winds are fierce and the charts fail to show how to do the purl-two-together that I’ve never tried before.
Weathering that dangerous territory, working through every narrow passage, winding through the Scylla of dropped stitches and the Charybdis of reversed shaping, sailing safely past the Siren song of easier projects beckoning from the shelves of the yarn shop, coming into harbor with a finished project feels glorious. My little craft may be dripping with barnacles, and there may be a dent in the bow from our encounter with the White Whale of Entrelac, but look, there’s the next meeting of my knitting group waving their kerchiefs on the beach to welcome me in from another long, fraught journey on the seas of knitting.