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Franklin Habit's How to Be a Superb Student: A Lesson in Two Parts

franklin_400x400Writer, illustrator, and knitter Franklin Habit joins us for his monthly column featuring humor and insights into a yarncrafter’s life.

For the past several years I’ve been one of the most traveled knitting teachers in the northern hemisphere–with the battered baggage and frequent flyer status to prove it.  In a busy month I may be at a shop, guild, retreat, or festival every other weekend. In a very busy month, that may be every weekend. It’s so hard to be me.

(No it isn’t.)

Before this, I was a knitting student. I loved taking classes. I still do, on rare and beautiful occasions when my schedule permits me to sit down and shut up.

In this way I’ve met literally thousands of students–some learning from me, some learning with me. All have gathered into the classroom with a common goal: to have fun, stretch their wings, and expand their horizons.

Most students are lovely, polite, considerate, and prepared. Were they not, I would be writing an entirely different column about information architecture or collectible figurines or the semiotics of Sesame Street.  I lack the stamina to teach classroom after classroom full of boors and cretins.

However.

Needlework classes of any variety–knitting, crochet, sewing, embroidery–can be fraught with tension. They are often expensive and crowded. Miniscule rooms tumble perfect strangers together in close proximity. Challenging topics push mental or physical limits to the breaking point. Temperaments clash. Patience is often in short supply.

And everyone present comes supplied with sharp implements.

In such circumstances, being a prepared and polite student is good for everyone.

It is good for your teacher, because it allows him or her to give the entire class the best possible guided tour of the material.

It is good for your fellow students, because it allows them to concentrate on their own work.

It is good for you, because it helps you get the most for your money; and gives your teacher and classmates no cause to gather after class and smack the whoopsie out of you in the parking lot.

Therefore, in the spirit of everyone having a bodacious time, I humbly present this two-part guide to being the best student you can be.

Part One: Before You Sign Up

  1. Read the Pre-Requisites.

 I once began a full-day class in advanced color work techniques by cheerfully advising the twenty students to “Cast on twenty-five stitches with any method of your choice, then set your work down while I give you a little introduction.” Then I noticed a student holding up her needles and yarn and shrugging.

The class had been described in the brochure as being for intermediate knitters, fully fluent in the basics of knitting. This student had read that, yes; but she did not know how to cast on. Or, as it turned out, purl.
“I figured you’d catch me up on all that,” she said.

 Is your skill set appropriate for the class?

If the class is described as being “for intermediate lace knitters,” don’t sign up if your total lace experience is trying (and failing) to complete a washcloth with a simple eyelet pattern. If you can’t or won’t use charts, don’t sign up for a class that assumes you can and you will.

Either seek a lace class that’s closer to your present level; or practice your yarn overs, turn out a shawlette (or at least finish the washcloth), and wait for the class to come around again. It always does. Knitting teachers never retire. We can’t afford to.

Challenging yourself is a wonderful thing. Everyone should do it. Why take a class that only teaches stuff you already know? But if you lack the minimum skills necessary to participate, you’ll end up frustrated.

And if you assume–incorrectly–that the teacher will have time to give you a separate, private tutorial while also teaching the rest of the class, you’ll both end up frustrated.

  1. Check the Materials List.

What must you bring with you to class, and what materials (if any) will the teacher or venue provide?

Please take the materials list seriously. Most teachers agonize over it. It’s generally agreed that writing that list is one of the toughest things about teaching needlework. We do our best to ask for everything that’s necessary, but only what’s necessary, and we try not to cause you undue effort or expense.

For knitting or crochet classes, expect at minimum always to bring your own standard bag of notions: scissors, tapestry needle, tape measure, stitch markers (four to six will generally do, unless otherwise specified), small crochet hook (for fixing dropped stitches in knitting) and a pen or pencil with a notebook. These are all things you ought to have anyway.

And by the way, if you don’t see or receive a materials list of any kind–meaning, neither a list of what to bring, nor a note explicitly saying all materials will be provided–then you have probably missed something. Ask. It’s extremely rare that  you will be asked to show up empty-handed.

  1. Bring Appropriate Yarn.

When it comes to yarn selection, we know (boy, do we know) that not every knitter has ready access to every brand. That’s why we often give you a broad description (for example, “one skein smooth worsted or sport-weight yarn in white or a light solid color”) followed by a few well-known names that meet the requirements. We will usually only ask for a very specific yarn if the technique or project absolutely depends on it.

What you don’t want to do is show up for a class with a really, truly, wildly inappropriate yarn.

These are a few honest-to-goodness examples of student substitutions I have seen, all for classes that specified “one skein smooth worsted or sport-weight yarn in white or a light solid color”:

  • pitch-black bulky rayon tube yarn, for an introductory lace class,
  • circus-variegated unicorn barf lace weight yarn for a class on cables,
  • four yards (four, I kid you not) of worsted weight bouclée for a six-hour class on motif design.

These are not even distant cousins of one skein of white or solid light-colored worsted or sport weight. They will therefore probably not work well (or at all) for those classes. This is not the teacher’s fault.

Use common sense. If you’re not sure your choice of yarn is appropriate, a polite advance inquiry about substitutions is never amiss. (Note: “Advance” is not four minutes before class begins.)

But what, some of you ask, do I do if I have a yarn emergency? What if I absolutely cannot get the right yarn and there’s no time to do anything about it and what I bring to class is all I can get?

It’s a valid question. It happens.

If it happens to you, make a discreet remark to the teacher, let it go, and do your best. Understand that you may run into steep hills or road blocks. Don’t grumble, don’t blame the teacher, and don’t feel the need to apologize repeatedly. We know you tried. We will do our best to help you work with what you’ve got.

And please never, ever tell me you simply can’t find any white or solid light-colored worsted or sport weight yarn. It is not only the most common yarn there is, it is one of the most common substances in the universe. When the first pictures came back from the Hubble Space Telescope, they revealed entire galaxies composed largely of white or solid light-colored worsted or sport weight yarn.

  1. Do the Homework.

This is not fourth grade. We do not assign homework just to be mean.

Homework for needlework classes generally serves one of two purposes.

It may be a necessary foundation for learning, as in my steeks-and-zippers class. You cannot learn to slice open your knitting if you have no knitting to slice open.

If may also be a slightly sneaky way of ensuring all students arrive with the proper fundamental skills. If you can’t readily work the four charted lace repeats demanded by the homework assignment, the class is probably over your head. Please know that the teacher who does this isn’t trying to punish anyone; she’s trying to set realistic expectations.

Some classes have homework you can do in an hour. Others, especially at more advanced levels, require a considerable investment of time and materials. Read the assignment through a few times, estimate the hours needed for completion, and get to work. Remember that if you have to wet block swatches, you’ll need time for them to dry.

Do the homework. Do the homework. Do the homework.

I see a hand in the back. Yes?

What if I am a morally upright and well-meaning person who really really really wanted to do the homework but then I tripped over the cat while racing to get to my shift at the food bank and broke my right wrist and while I was recovering a moth infestation in my county devastated the local yarn supply and so I don’t have my four-inch square of garter stitch but I really really really wanna come to class?

Okay. Again, we teachers know that stuff happens. Stuff happens to us, too. (That’s another column, possibly not for mixed audiences.)

If you come to class without your homework, here’s what you do:

Discreetly let the teacher know the situation before class. We don’t need a note from your doctor, or a long and detailed account of what happened. Just let us know, so we don’t wonder why you aren’t fiddling around as directed with your garter stitch square. Otherwise, we will worry there’s something wrong with us. We worry about that a lot.

Listen to the lecture, fondle the samples, take copious notes, ask questions. Your hands will probably itch and ache if they have nothing to do, so feel free to work discreetly on another project of your choice.

Here’s what not to do:

Demand the teacher somehow revise the curriculum on the spot so it can be taught without the homework. She can’t.

And please don’t start talking to your neighbor (who did the homework) about how you really wanted to take this class, but then I tripped over the cat while racing to get to my shift at the food bank and broke my right wrist and while I was recovering a moth infestation in my county devastated the local yarn supply…

Which leads us to Part Two.

Next month, we conclude with a lesson in class etiquette. All materials provided. No homework.

—–
Writer, illustrator, and photographer Franklin Habit is the author of It Itches: A Stash of Knitting Cartoons (Interweave Press, 2008–now in its third printing) and proprietor of The Panopticon (the-panopticon.blogspot.com), one of the most popular knitting blogs on Internet. On an average day, upwards of 2,500 readers worldwide drop in for a mix of essays, cartoons, and the continuing adventures of Dolores the Sheep. Franklin’s other publishing experience in the fiber world includes contributions to Vogue Knitting, Yarn Market News, Interweave Knits, Interweave Crochet, PieceWork, Cast On: A Podcast for Knitters, Twist Collective, and a regular column on historic knitting patterns for Knitty.com.

These days, Franklin knits and spins in Chicago, Illinois, sharing a small city apartment with a Schacht spinning wheel and colony of sock yarn that multiplies alarmingly whenever his back is turned.

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  • Meghan B Jones-Van Eyck

    Fantastic! I agree wholeheartedly, and as a student in your class this weekend I may be heading to my homework.. right now..

  • AdaSSF

    Wow, wow, wow!!!!! As both a teacher and a student, I would love to see this given to everyone who ever signs up for a class at a knitting/crochet conference, or in a LYS! As a teacher, I have certainly had to deal with this, but my experience has been even worse at classes with people who does not meet the requirements. I can't tell you how many times I have been asked by one of these people sitting next to me to help them with the skills they don't have! A few years ago, I got sick of this and just outright refused and told the person (admittedly, a bit loudly) that they were expected to have these skills in order to take this class. I once took a class for argyle socks that had the requirement that you had to be an experienced sock knitter, and my table-mate had never knit a sock in her life! Seriously?! ... and don't even get me started on people who don't do the homework or bring the wrong kind of yarn and needles to the class!!
    Franklin, THANK YOU for writing this!!!

  • MagischeMaschen

    GREAT -and soooooo true :)!

  • Pam

    Agreed. Reading this should be a pre-requisite for attending any needlework class. Bravo, Franklin!

  • mfk

    differing perspective...I have seen all your examples...and those students are a drag to the rest of us in the class too. But I have also experienced the teacher who advertised the class as advanced beginner but it turns out some advanced skill was beginner to her mind. who belittle a student throughout the class for not being able to keep up. who are obviously bored demonstrating the stitch multiple times (so bring a video). who use large facsimiles of needles and yarn made out of pipe tubing and rope in the front of a large room full of disbelieving people who paid a lot of money to learn. who hold class in a hotel's high-ceilinged echoey banquet room and were not willing to speak louder or bring a mic. who do not advertise that the class will be taught using combination knitting....at high speed. whose requested homework was done ahead but she changed her mind and expects everyone to whip up something else during the break. who focus all her remarks and help to the people in the first row. who cut the class short because she wants to shop the vendor booths. The whole thing is a crapshoot isn't it? I wouldn't do it at all if it weren't knitting!

  • Doreen McLaughlin

    Ok, worst class ever: well-known, published, teacher sends out a materials list and the initial directions for a child's sweater we would be knitting using her "no-bobbin intarsia" technique. In class, she gives us a blurry, black and white copy of her published article and tells us to get going. I had the yarn, had already knitted the homework ribbing, and had my own copy of the magazine with the color pictures of the technique to refer to. So, I carried on. The teacher, then proceeded to sit down next to each student and go through her portfolio. When I reached the end of the directions she had sent out, I asked for the next set, for the top of the sweater and the sleeves. "Oh, I do not have those," she said. Ah, ok, then do you have a finished sweater I could look at. "No," she said, "I do not have the patience to knit, I just do swatches." How am I supposed to finish this sweater? "Oh, Doreen, you are such a good knitter, I just know you will figure it out on your own." So, I did. Then I showed the rest of the class. This class was given twice during the conference. On the night of the start of the second class, a woman I knew, showed up at my door in tears. Sobbing she begged me to show her how to knit the sweater because she did not want to have 'wasted' her money taking this class. Later, she told me she has shown the rest of her class what to do the next day.

  • Myriam

    I found out from experience that it's not polite to ask a teacher what's the difference between mohair and cashmere. Probably because they're just not the same animal, and that's that. From there, I guess it's also not polite to ask the difference between yak and musk ox. So, if you want to remain polite. stay away from those questions.

  • Sylvia Sinclair

    Amen! I hope that those who shared experiences with less than stellar instructors filled out feed back forms if they were provided. That said, while most of my class experiences have been wonderful, when they've been less so, it has nearly always been due to ill-behaved fellow students.