Knitting epiphany

Via frizzyLogic: Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s theory of geek knitting makes complete and utter sense to me. Not because I’m a math geek — I’m not, though I love the idea that people have designed Möbius scarves, or perhaps that’s my inner Lacanian talking — but because I’m a poetry geek. Knitting has a formal logic that appeals to the same parts of my brain that get fascinated by recurring patterns of all kinds: rhyme schemes and assonances, the oxbow and delta patterns made by rivers as they appear from overhead in a plane, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the shapes of leaves, the way words in dissimilar languages can turn out unexpectedly to be cognates. As Teresa puts it in her knitting post, drawing a botanical analogy:

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.

Coincidentally or not, that’s very much like how I often think about poetry: as a kind of interaction between predetermined elements and deliberate choice, with outcrops of randomness.

Lately, despite my lack of a math background, I’ve been growing more aware of how knitting patterns work; I’ll be knitting a swatch of some complicated lace thing and I’ll start to recognize how there’s a mathematical sequence going on, how it’s all built around a principle like "keep moving the eyelet holes one stitch over in one direction, then the other." This feels very much like what happens in my head when, for instance, I’m reading a sestina and at the back of my mind I’m following the shifting returns of the end-words: 123456, 615243, 364125…

This doesn’t exclude free verse, either. The poet Alice Fulton has a couple of essays about "fractal verse," a concept analogous to fractal geometry*; she writes about how mathematical concepts from chaos theory can help us think about poetry that isn’t strictly "formal." In a very similar vein, Paul Lake has written about science and the shape of poems in nontraditional forms (here and here).

I’ve also been noticing that people keep coming to this blog via Google searches for "knitting poetry" (hi, people who want to know about knitting and poetry; this one’s for you), often enough to make me think that other knitters are thinking about the intellectual side of the craft. At the same time, knitting appeals to me because it’s tactile and physical in ways that many other kinds of intellectual activity aren’t. Maybe that’s why I know so many graduate students who knit. I got into it because I wanted texture and color; now I’m discovering the theoretical side. I’ve got to find me a bunch of geeky fellow knitters to start a stitch’n'bitch.

*Some knitter more skilled than I am ought to design some fractal knitting patterns. A nice Mandelbrot set shawl, maybe? A Sierpinski triangle sweater? The latter actually looks quite feasible, though of course one couldn’t have an infinite number of iterations.)

2 Responses to “Knitting epiphany”

  1. Rana says:

    I’d come!
    My knitting has always had an intellectual component, due to the fact that I’m self-taught; there’s nothing like staring at a picture trying to figure out just how those strange directions result in a particular stitch. (This was how I learned that all my knit stitches were twisted when I first began knitting.) Undoing mistakes several lines back (crochet hooks are my friend!) also gives one a good sense of how the fabric is constructed.
    A fractal pattern would be very cool.

  2. frizzyLogic says:

    Knitting, poetry and genital inferiority

    w00t! the thread of Theresa’s knitting is wound round several needles, and a delightful and complex cable is emerging (click the picture for the instructions, both found on a delightful Korean knitting site). Amanda is the latest appreciative spreader …