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"Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours."
- Malcolm Gladwell, The Outliers

There comes a time in most knitters’ lives when a delicious pattern lures us to venture beyond where we have been before. Challenging us to leave our knitting comfort zone. We may be chastened a bit by ratings like intermediate, advanced, experienced. We may be stunned by the sheer magnitude of stitches. And awed by the directory of symbols signifying unfamiliar techniques. But we journey forth anyway.

Several years ago, a lovely lace shawl caught my knitter’s eye. I had made other shawls before, but never an intricate and delicate lace like this one, with repeats that happened only after 20 rows of skillful knitting. I was convinced that this type of lace knitting wasn’t for me. I was pretty sure I lacked the major personality prerequisites for it. Like mindfulness and patience. But the shawl was inviting. Intriguing. Daring me. So why not just give it a try?

Click here for the Leaves of Grass
directions from the StitchFinder

Very early one Saturday morning, fueled with strong coffee, I determinedly muddled my way through chart instructions that looked liked a code used to communicate highly secret messages, or calibrate esoteric mathematical theorems. It wasn’t easy going. I made mistakes. Lots of them. Surprising myself, I let them stay in, knitting on, remaining steadfastly committed to finishing the first repeat. Even if it was flawed. I knew in order to understand it, I had to experience the whole graph, try out each stitch group. Accepting this, and knowing in advance that I would probably have to take apart the entire first repeat, not once, but many times before my true understanding came, made the experiment less stressful.

Lace has its own magical way of drawing you in, lassoing your concentration. I hadn’t expected that. My highest mind functions stayed on task, attempting to decipher symbols and make the abstract concrete. I persevered past that morning, even when later knitting had to be ripped out. In order to finish the shawl, whenever I could, I left in errors that I knew no one else would ever detect. Months later, it was done. My dream shawl. Complete with its unique and quirky imperfections.

According to Malcom Gladwell's book, The Outliers, there's a 10,00 hour benchmark in every field. Pass over it and you become more proficient, an expert, possibly even a success. I've made many shawls since; still I'm not an expert lace knitter. I think I’ll need at least another 9800 hours, or more. But Gladwell is right, the more you knit, the more able a knitter you become. Your practical understanding of patterns carries over and grows from project to project. The more you challenge yourself as a knitter, the more fluent you are in the complexities of its language. Because of that shawl, I'm no longer a stranger in lace land, I know how to get directions to the market, discuss the weather. This year I aim to sneak a bit of that knowledge into my everyday mittens and socks.

School starts in this week here in Iowa City. August 20th. My youngest daughter will leave the house chewing on a bagel, ruminating over a new clarinet piece. All across America, young minds will be learning new things, practicing what they know and gaining proficiency. This year why not join them? Enroll in the school of lace. Attend the sock academy. Sharpen your pencils. Tackle a pattern that delights and stretches you.

In lace and in life, there are tricks to the trade. Even the most confident and the most gifted at times must be aided. Here are few:

  • Stitch markers can become like an extra brain pathway, located between the repeats, they will signal to the sleepy the distracted to pay attention.
  • The pattern graph becomes infinitely easier to follow when enlarged.
  • Protect your enlarged graph from wear and tear by slipping it inside a plastic sleeve.
  • Lace knitting is about keeping track of stitches, rows and repeats, so you may want a row counter.

Check out these Lace Knitting Patterns:

Authored by

Michelle Edwards is the author/illustrator of A KNITTER'S HOME COMPANION and many award-winning children's books including CHICKEN MAN and STINKY STERN FOREVER. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys talking about books in schools throughout the US and beyond. Her newest book, Room for the Baby, will be available from Random House in Fall 2012. Visit Michelle Edwards at her website or on Facebook.
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