Knitting patterns & open source things

This came up again this morning talking about Grunt: how do you pick a plugin? (See also JQuery, WordPress, Drupal modules, and so on.)

I realized a while ago that how I make those decisions is a lot like how I decide what knitting pattern to use.

Does it do what you want?

Obviously this is the most basic question, whether you’re looking for a CSS auto-prefixer, a carousel, or a pair of socks. But the thing is, if you’re trying to do something that lots of people want to do, probably a few have tried their hands at it. (There are more than 21,000 sock patterns on Ravelry, more than 6,600 of them being free. There are more than 600,000 search results for “jquery carousel”.)

But you’re probably looking for something a bit more specific than that. And if you already know your problem pretty well, you can judge the nuances between Bundle Copy, Features, and Configuration Management. If you know that you have 400 yards of fingering-weight yarn, then you can narrow down your options.

So for me it’s first knowing what I want, including what my restriction are.

Does it do it the way that works for you?

Everybody has preferences in their craft. You want the code that comes out of that plugin to be a certain way. You want a certain workflow in your Grunt tasks or your data imports. You hate data attributes or lace.

Once I have a rough list of things that do what I’m looking for, I look into them to see if they do it the way I like. Sometimes (especially with Drupal or WordPress) it means actually trying them out. For knitting, usually just reading the pattern tells me enough, thankfully.

Do other people use it and what do they say about it?

Great thing about, the official WordPress plugin site, and Ravely: you can see how many people are using things! You can also see a variety of kinds of feedback, like ratings, comments, bug reports. So it’s good to read through those, with an eye to your own preference, and see if it’s worked for others. I may end up choosing things despite others’ experience, but at least I know what I’m getting into!

Related: I do try to participate, especially with knitting patterns. On my Ravelry account, I try to make my final notes on projects as useful as I can, and I always rate both in stars and difficulty.

How engaged is the creator?

Related to the previous point, if there are complains or bug reports, you can see how the creators (developers or pattern designers) respond to them. And that means both quality and speed. For software-related projects, that also means how often they update, and for plugins, how often they update to match new versions of the core software.

Knitters and users of open source tools: how do you pick things?

On Doing Things Badly

I recently read this essay in The Atlantic on procrastination, fixed vs growth mindset, imposter syndrome, etc. (Via a tweet from Kristina Halvorson.) Some of it was very good, but towards the end it veered off into complaining about millenials. Even without the unnecessary youth-bashing, it felt like an unsatisfactory ending, maybe because it didn’t speak at all to what actually makes any of that better. There’s this other Atlantic article, but it’s more about getting oneself to Do A Thing right now. I’m more interested in the bigger picture mindset issues: “Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.”

It’s possible I’ve written about being a kid who was in gifted & talented programs. I’ve definitely written about my life with math, and about Imposter Syndrome (although in the particular context of introversion and conferences). Put simply, I’m very much that person she was writing about.

Something that I think has helped me a great deal is doing things that I’m terrible at, or have convinced myself that I’m terrible at. These things fall into two general categories.

Some activities I’m pretty bad at and enjoy anyway, and I don’t worry too much about getting better: billiards, bowling, street fighter-type video games. All of which, I notice, are social activities, somewhat physical but not too physical, and very dependent on eye-hand coordination. (I’ve had issues with eye-hand coordination all my life.) So if I just relax and have a good time, then I have a good time, even if I’m NEVER going to win. Yeah, it sounds tautological, but for someone who’s care about doing Well and being Right, just Doing and Being is a nice change of pace.

On the other hand, in the last couple of years I’ve taken up two activities, explicitly telling myself that I was going to suck and that it was OK to suck as long as I kept trying. Turns out, both of them are things I’ve come to really enjoy: knitting and drawing. I even enjoy the process of learning and being kinda crappy sometimes. Drawing’s been a particular surprise, since as long as I can remember, I’ve been a person who Doesn’t Draw. I’m still not “good” but some of my drawings I’m happy with, and looking back even over the last few months I can see that I’m getting better.

So if I were to say anything to my fellow “gifted children,” those of us who’ve spent too much of our lives fretting and procrastinating, it’s this: do things you’re bad at. Expect to be bad at them. Enjoy your stick figures or awkward sentences, your crooked coffeetables or clunky code. Be in that moment of terribleness, then find the little bit that isn’t a total disaster, see what worked about it, and keep on going. Because doing even when it’s awful is where it’s at.

Postscript: so Mom knew this about me way way way before I did. I don’t know if it was intuition or something she read, but she insisted that I keep trying with music, which definitely didn’t come easily. And at one point, maybe when I was in college, she said that it was because it was something more challenging, and she thought that was important. Go Mom.


[I’m trying to write a thing for this cool new project in which people ask about interesting nerdy topics and other people talk about the nerdy things they love. “We’ve got one goal, you and I: we’re here because we want to love great things, and there are too many great things in the world. This is a place where we find the people who love those things, and we ask them to share that love.”]

Why is knitting awesome?

I can haz knitting!
The awesome Shannon Fisher after finishing her first sweater. Need I say more?

Because you’re making cool stuff. You start with a big ball of string, essentially, and a couple of sticks, and then after time and practice you have cool things like scarves and hats and socks and sweaters!

It’s a hobby that can be done almost anywhere, as long as you’re not working on a blanket. It can be solitary, since ultimately it’s just you and your hands; or it can be social, because knitting in groups of friends is fun.

Yarn itself is pretty cool. There are so many different kinds, weights, textures, materials, colors. It’s very sensory, even sensual. I have a lot of fun just wandering around in yarn stores (even the big chain craft stores) looking and touching, deciding what will feel good to work with.

Really, knitting is surprisingly forgiving. When you’re up close in it, every little weird thing is SUPER OBVIOUS, but after it’s done and washed and being used, most of the time no one can tell that weird spot where things went kinda goofy. Even the total failures can be fun in progress and interesting as a learning experience.

When I knit in public, which I do quite often, I sometimes hear (usually from women) “oh, I’ve knit a little bit, but I never got past scarves.” You know what? THAT’S OK. You don’t ever have to knit anything other than long pretty rectangles if you don’t want to. There’s no grades in knitting. There’s just the fun of it.

On the other hand…most of the “scary” things are often less scary than they look. Knitting is a great opportunity to just try things, to not think too far ahead, to plunge into something maybe you don’t feel quite ready for, or to just push yourself a tiny bit. (You can make a scarf? Then you can make simple fingerless mitts.) It’s a chance to understand how you learn things. And with the internet, there are SO MANY ways to learn knitting techniques. Videos, photos, drawings, text.

Less than four years ago, I didn’t know how to knit at all. Now, I’ve even made socks (which are WAY less scary than they look) and I’m working on my first sweater vest. Knitting has become such an important part of my life that it’s hard to remember before knitting.

How can you get started?

1) Library. There are literally thousands of books on knitting. Some of them are amazing, others are terrible, and what works for one doesn’t work for everyone. I found The Chicks with Sticks Guide to Knitting and Stitch ‘N Bitch very useful early on.

2) Internets. I am particularly partial to the tutorials on Knitting Daily. The Lion Brand Yarns Learn to Knit ebook was also quite good.

2b) Ravelry: HUGE social network for knitters and crocheters. Great for tracking your stuff, finding patterns, and connecting with other knitters. (My Ravelry profile.)

3) Local knitters. You may have a nice local yarn shop; see if they have any knitting groups. If you see people knitting in public, maybe ask them what they’re making. If they’re chatty, find out if they know of any local groups. I found my knitting group because C noticed a gal with a cool knitting bag at our favorite coffee shop, and now I get together with an awesome weird creative bunch a few times a month to knit and chit-chat.

Give it a shot. Expect to be terrible at first. Enjoy it being weird and terrible. With practice, you can get better and enjoy it even more!

PS: I’ve written other things about knitting….

Knitting and coding, part 1

purple socks
Socks I made for myself

This summer I learned how to knit socks. And not just socks, but two-at-a-time magic loop socks. Which if you’d asked me two years ago, when I’d made a couple of scarves (and as it turned out, was actually doing the knit stitch wrong), whether I could’ve done such a thing…I’d’ve been exceptionally skeptical.

When I started that project, I didn’t know anything about sock construction, and I’d never used the “magic loop” technique. And even with a group of fellow knitters working together, I just got too frustrated (there was a LOT of cursing, and not just from me). So I used one of my favorite debugging techniques: picked out the smallest possible piece of the project, and figure out what’s going on with that. I made a coffee cup cozy, so I could understand the magic loop part. (Magic loop involves doing some weird stuff with a reeeeeally long circular needle instead of several double-pointed needles (DPNs). It’s actually easier in the long run than using DPNs in some ways, but it’s a different way of thinking about the creation process.) That got me to the point where I understood enough to try two at a time, and socks start out as just plain old tubes, so that gave me enough time to get really comfortable with all of those parts before I tackled the weirdness of sock heel construction.

The first time I made a sock heel (which in this particular style has three components: a flap, a turn, and a gusset), I was basically just following along by rote, as I’ve done many times particularly with JavaScript. “Cargo cult coding” — just copy this thing and if it works, it works, if not…who knows? The sock heels were the same way, reading the instructions very meticulously and just doing exactly what they said.

I’m on my sixth pair of socks now (although that includes two pairs of baby socks for my nephew), and now I understand the process and the technique enough to even second-guess a pattern or make up for a mistake I may have made earlier. (Or most importantly: how to adjust a pattern designed for DPNs to magic loop.) There’s parts I can’t always keep straight in my head, not unlike knowing that a function exists but not being 100% sure how it’s spelled or whether there’s a underscore. (Damn you, PHP.) Which side of the sock gusset should be SSK and which side should be K2tog? Sometimes I just have to do one and see if it looks right. Sometimes knitting could really use code hinting…perhaps the material itself is the code hinting.

With every new technique (language, stitch, etc) I’m full of frustration and self-doubt: nothing makes sense, I can’t believe this could possibly work, I’m not smart enough, dextrous enough, etc., etc. I cuss at the materials/tools, myself. And then it just CLICKS. I don’t know how that happens, really, although a lot of it is getting the right help.

I’ve learned over time what kind of help works for me. I had the worst time learning JavaScript. THE WORST. I was a full-time webmaster, writing quasi-applications in PHP, and I still couldn’t make heads or tails of JavaScript. It was the saddest cargo-cult coding when I even tried. Then I read DOM Scripting (mostly on a looong bus ride from Lakewood to Auburn, IIRC) and it made the critical connection I’d been missing, which was to tie it to something I understood really well (HTML) AND to use it in contexts that I actually needed.

Similarly, the whole Ajax thing seemed sort of strange and magical and confusing — and then I was a tech reviewer for Adding Ajax, and that connected what I already knew about writing little PHP things to the JavaScripty bits, and I realized it actually wasn’t that big a deal. I mean, yes a big deal that it can be done, but not as huge as I’d made it out to be.

I mentioned earlier that I spent the first few months knitting wrong. For the knitters in the audience, I was knitting into the back of the loop; which is a subtle enough mistake that it doesn’t look totally wrong, especially when you’re just learning it at all. But it throws off the gauge and the feel of the knitting, so things don’t fit quite right. And it also meant I had a hard time understanding how to increase stitches, which is what I was trying to learn when I discovered my problem. And what I discovered, in addition to the solution to my problem, was the kind of learning materials work best for me with knitting.

Surprisingly enough: not video at all or photos generally, but the right sort of drawing, ones that show the three-dimensionality of both the yarn and the needles (and fingers, to be honest). Along with text that uses the things I already know, written clearly. Not unlike what I need from coding help.

I’ve been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks, so I’m just going to leave it here. There are some other connections in my experience of both knitting and coding, that I’d like to write about later:

  • Picking patterns is a lot like picking modules, plugins, and other open-source tools.
  • Craftsmanship in general, knowing your tools and materials.

meeting knitting addendum 2

One more feature of a good pattern for meetings: short rows* or circular knitting. I’m working on a hat right now that’s mostly knit flat, and the rows are fairly long. That means I have to judge at the end of each row whether I think the meeting will continue all the way through the next one. (Or if it’ll change in such a way that I’ll be writing or whatever.) And that can get a bit annoying.

* not “short rows” in the technical knitting term, just small number of stitches per row.

meeting knitting addendum

Another thing about patterns for knitting in meetings: they shouldn’t look too complicated to other people.  So the piece I’m working on now — a pair of fingerless mitts worked in the round — is really simple, but DPNs (double-pointed needles) look freaky complicated. And that distracts other people, even if I’m just fine.

(I finished my last meeting-friendly project; a Fibonacci scarf for C. I need to start something new before next week! I have a hat/bonnet in mind that is mostly a pretty straightforward rib.)

Conversely, the nice thing about taking knitting to a meeting — and being early — is that it makes something of a conversation piece, a good topic for friendly chit-chat.

meeting knitting

So I’ve found that I can focus in meetings where I’m not participating much if I have something to knit. It keeps the fidgety part of my brain out of the way, keeps me from doodling about things not related to the meeting or futzing about on the internet. So I actually listen better. But there are a few key points.

Some particularly formal meetings or groups just aren’t a great fit. It helps to show up a little early and already be knitting when the meeting starts, especially if one’s habit isn’t widely known in the group. And I think it’s helpful to occasionally stop to make a note or whatever when there is something that’s specific to why I’m there.

As for the knitting itself, it should be relatively small (no afghans!) and simple; scarves, shawls, and the bodies of hats (not the crowns) seem particularly well-suited. Patterns shouldn’t require any noticeable counting, either of stitches or rows. Basically, it should look like you’re not really looking at the knitting, just doing it.

Probably my favorite pattern for meeting knitting so far has been something called the Fibonacci Scarf. It’s a ribbed scarf, but with a bit of variation, the ribs being in Fibonacci sequence: Slip knitwise, knit, purl x2, knit x3, purl x5, knit x8, purl x5, knit x3, purl x2, knit, knit; then the other way around for the even-numbered rows. It turns out really pretty, and has a bit more variation than the usual ribbed whatnot. Plus math!

Theories of Fidgeting

Reposted from Twitter, with edits:

  1. Bracelets are a superior form of jewelry: less noticeable and make it less likely that earrings will be fidgeted.
  2. In lower status meetings, knitting is the best form of fidgeting. (In higher status meetings, a pen is an acceptable alternative.)
  3. Having a single focus object (example) is good for desk work, but can cause emotional trauma if misplaced.

In a reply to a question — is tweeting about fidgeting a form of metafidgeting? Well, possibly; more that I’m attempting to bring a semi-conscious process into the forefront. A longer rumination follows….

I have been fidgety for as long as I can remember: I fuss with jewelry, pens, zippers, anything handy. And I don’t always realize it, and it’s totally obvious to others.

When I was in high school I was in Academic Decathlon, which has a speech component and an interview component. After my (favorite!) teacher watched me progressively fidget with every single piece of jewelry I was wearing (and I wore a lot more jewelry then) over the course of my practice speeches, she insisted that I remove all of it before the actual competition. She would stand outside the room with her hands out, and I’d take off everything for her to hold until I was done. According to at least one of my sisters, she used that as an example; I’m guessing while talking about ums and ahs, knowing your own weaknesses, and how to be more composed while speaking. Which sounds embarrassing, but since I remember the experience with fondness, it isn’t really.

I’ve only recently discovered the three rules listed at the beginning of this post. Rule #1 came from the MetaFilter Craft Exchange: one of the items I received was a lovely bracelet that I started wearing initially as a reminder of the goodness of humanity. (Or something.) But then I discovered that if I was wearing it, I tended to fiddle with it instead of with my earrings (especially if my hair was down), and that that fidgeting was significantly less noticeable, because it keeps my hands down away from my face.

I think I may have already written some about knitting as an advanced form of fidgeting; what I’ve discovered is that if I knit while I’m in a meeting or listening to a webinar, it keeps the distractible part of my brain occupied, so I actually listen instead of zoning out making (unrelated) notes. (I totally would’ve retained way more in college if I’d been knitting then.) FWIW, this also works with expository sequences in D&D games. The trick, of course, is not being seen as rude. First aspect of that is to be knitting something that doesn’t itself require much if any concentration, so you can maintain eye contact when necessary. I’m currently working on a tablet cover that’s 99% seed stitch; it’s been great for that. Long stretches of stockinette or garter work too. The second aspect is to feel out the social status signals and meeting function. So far I’ve been trying to err on the side of not knitting.

And finally, I’ve had that fidget object linked earlier for quite a while, and it’s in my left hand pretty much any time I’m at my desk and not actively typing or writing on paper. I will say that a few times I’ve misplaced it in odd spots in my cubicle and freaked myself out. Security blanket? Mind focuser? I don’t know. I just accept that it’s an important part of my work environment.

At this point, I’ve also accepted that this behavior is part of who I am, and what I can do is be conscious enough to stop when it’s a problem (LEAVE YOUR JACKET ZIPPERS ALONE) and to redirect those tendencies into things that are either less noticeable or more useful.

Knitting in the fall

[ed: am finally posting this thing that’s been on my tablet’s “local drafts” for I’m not sure how long — am guessing approx mid-November 2011.]

It’s been about six weeks now since I found the (horrible) Idiot’s Guide to Knitting in the back of a closet and decided to take up the hobby. So far I’ve made two scarves, two and a half pairs of fingerless gloves (wrist warmers? wristers?), and a french press cozy, and I’m in the middle of a third scarf. Suffice it to say that I’m enjoying the process.

I’ve basically ruined one partially-used skein of yarn, which seems to be irreparably tangled. Happily, it was a teal acrylic that I didn’t like very much anyway; less happily, I only did one half of a pair of wristers and was looking forward to doing the second one. I’ve discovered that I’m really picky about texture. I bought a skein of a wool/acrylic blend that I might just give away, because I hate the way it feels when I try to knit with it. And my new favorite scarf is a wool-acrylic blend that was so soft and easy to knit that I was almost sad to finish. Right now I’ve got several weights of the least expensive blend from the yarn/fabric store downtown that I really like; the scarf-in-progress is a chunky weight knit on fairly small needles, so it’s really plush.

I signed up for Ravelry (epersonae, as everywhere else); it’s a clever site, good to be able to track projects and yarns. I get more enthusiastic about taking pictures, so I can post them, even though I don’t know that anybody is seeing them! More dangerously, I’m in love with the pattern browser. It’s astonishing how many free patterns are out there, and it’s delightful to be able to narrow by skill level, yarn type, project type, even methodology. (I have yet to learn knitting in the round.) My two wish list items: a decent mobile experience and a way to say “not” — ie, “not infant”, “not knit-in-the-round”, etc. Of the three wrister patterns I’ve tried, I found two on Ravelry, and they both came out quite nice. Actually, one of them is now my go-to for when it’s cold at the office, which is most of the time.

The scarf patterns (such as they are) have been from books; I’ve sampled a variety of books from the library, mostly to pick up techniques. Chicks With Sticks was good; Stitch ‘N Bitch was as well. I also bought an inexpensive book that looks promising; I don’t have it at hand, can’t remember the title. It’s mostly a catalog of basic techniques with really big color photos, which is just the thing for me. I’m thinking about using what I can untangle of the teal acrylic to try out increases and decreases.

I have gotten some help in person — I went to a knitting group at Skep & Skein (mead & cider place on the west side) with a woman I know from Twitter, and she helped me get a better cast-on technique. That was one of those things that I just could not figure out from any of the half-dozen books (websites, etc) that I looked at, and she walked me through it a few times until I got the feel of it. Curiously, I think I was making it more complicated than it actually was; my basic reaction was: oh, that’s it? And it was fun to sit and knit with other people, although they all knew each other more than I knew anybody.

Knitting on the bus is strangely relaxing, and a combination of weather and health has put me on the bus quite a bit in the last couple of weeks, so I’ve been enjoying that. I’m also guessing that T-Mobile upgraded a tower someplace, because now I can get streaming audio on my phone all the way to the office, instead of it cutting off somewhere around 40th SE in Lacey. So yeah, I’m that lady sitting on the bus, knitting and listening to NPR. I think I’m okay with that.

It’s a little late in the year to be able to make much for giving away for Christmas, but beware: there will almost certainly be knitted gifts next year!

On Knitting

A few weeks ago, while I was cleaning I found a knitting book that I bought some years back in a burst of optimism,  thinking I was going to be all crafty and stuff. But who has time for that sort of thing? This time, though, I figured I might as well give it a whirl. I went to Fred Meyer, bought a skein of yarn (in fern, I think – a color very similar to a sweater I had as a child) and a pair of needles, and started in on the book. Which sucked, at least for me; but all of that is in my knitting book reviews, including my notes about other books I’ve tried, am reading now, and am thinking about reading later. That’s not what I wanted to write about.

The process of knitting is interesting for me, and I’m glad I started it up. For one thing, it’s a good experience in learning something totally unfamiliar, and being bad at it for a while, and experimenting with techniques to get better. In some ways, I’m practicing failure in a safe environment. If I totally muff binding off a test piece, and end up tossing the whole thing, or have a few backwards rows or WTF happened to those stitches, it’s all okay, as long as I keep trying.

I imagine I’m building my spatial skills in particular – the part that’s been most difficult is translating text and drawings into fingers, needles, and yarn. Each book has slightly different descriptions of each technique, so I find myself jumping back and forth until I find one that makes sense in my head. Alas, the only casting on technique that I can make sense of doesn’t seem to make for a particularly nice edge. I may need to get help in person.

I’m trying to stick with inexpensive yarn, but I’m also discovering how cheap is too cheap. The first yarn I tried worked fairly well, but the second one (teal), not so much. I got a piece done, but it felt like fighting the whole time, and the same with that borked test piece I mentioned earlier. (I should get a picture of that. The basketweave look was pretty cool.) Yesterday I bought yarn from an actual yarn shop: Cascade Pacific in Ginger. It’s so soft! And easier to work, as far as I can tell, either that or I’m getting better at maintaining appropriate tension.

All my life I’ve been a fidget. Notoriously, when I did the speech competition for Academic Decathlon in high school, I was required to remove all my jewelry (and I wore a lot more then) because otherwise I’d just work my way through playing with Every Single Piece. To this day, I have to consciously stop myself from worrying at buttons, zippers, earrings, etc; at my desk, I have a fidget toy made of safety pins that I worry at basically all day long.

Turns out knitting is like fidgeting, only you end up with a scarf (or whatever) at the end of it; perfect for watching TV or for being a passenger on a long drive. And I find it both relaxing and oddly compulsive.

What this hobby doesn’t help with: my poor overworked hands. It’s more of the same small finger movements as working on the computer, which is probably why it’s a good match with fidgeting. But I definitely should be pacing myself!